Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review - Monsieur Vincent

February 2, 2018

Monsieur Vincent – France, 1947

There are films that I feel somewhat wrong for disliking, ones which are about important periods of time or fascinating characters, or ones which contain the kinds of performances that are normally praised by critics and honored at end-of-the-year award ceremonies. Often these films are given marginally good reviews, ones frequently littered with comments that extol the performances and lament the weaknesses of the script. I get this. Sometimes we like the parts more than the whole and recommend a film for doing just enough right. I imagine that many of these critics – and I have been one of them at times - would therefore give a film like Maurice Cloche’s 1947 drama Monsieur Vincent a pass, awarding it a rating of 3 stars and highlighting the power of a few scenes and the consistently powerful work of its lead, Pierre Fresnay. To do so in this case, however, would be disingenuous.

Monsieur Vincent is about Vincent de Paul, a priest who arrives in Chatillon, a small suburb of Paris, France, in 1617, just six years after a recurrence of the Black Plague and just eleven years before one of its particularly devastating outbreaks killed just under a million people in France. This is significant in the film, as de Paul finds empty streets, shuttered windows, and a church is utter disrepair upon his arrival. Eventually, he learns from the local aristocracy – who are partying behind barricaded doors – that a woman has fallen ill and been forcibly quarantined. Father de Paul immediately pays the woman a visit, evading rocks that are hurled at him and tearing down boards intended to keep the woman inside. He is too late – but not for the deceased’s daughter. In a moving scene, we see him shame the town’s residents for their callousness and paranoia, and plead for assistance from the ruling class. Two people answer his call, one of them Louise de Marillac, (Yvonne Gaudeau) a widow and wealthy relative of the town leader.

It’s a masterful beginning. I especially admired the way Cloche alternates the perspective of the camera. In an early scene, we see de Paul arrive from afar, and we immediately note just how alone he is. He is a man marching toward uncertainly, while everyone else seems to have run from it. Then Cloche uses the camera to show us de Paul’s perspective. This is particularly revealing during a scene in which he is astonished by the condition of the town church. As de Paul walks, we see the cluttered floor and the unwashed walls of the church and understand his shock. The film further reinforces the moral authority of this outsider through the portrayal of his most ardent supporter, a visiting priest whose chance encounter with de Paul is a life-altering event. De Paul’s advice to him: Go to your poor.

With a set-up as impressive as this, I felt I was in the presence of a masterpiece, yet almost immediately the film began to lose me. Instead of exploring what happens immediately after the events described above, the film starts jumping ahead in time. In mere minutes, the priest has quit his post, begun moving about so erratically that no one seems to know his exact whereabouts, and de Marillac is acting as if her interest in the priest is not entirely innocent. It’s an unwise jump, for it strips the film of any continuity and adds elements that are ultimately unexplored. Yet approximately ten minutes later, the film astonishes again with a dramatic scene in which poor men are whipped to make them row faster in a boat race between members of the upper class. De Paul is horrified, and it makes him re-evaluate the way he is conducting himself and the company he is keeping.

The film continues jumping in time and quality, and for every moving scene, there’s one that disappoints. Characters meet for the first time, and in the next scene appear to be life-long companions. In one scene, money is hindering the priest’s efforts to administer to the poor, and in the next, they’ve moved into bigger and better digs. Apparently, the financial difficulties are long gone. Toward the end of the film, it jumps ahead fifteen years with a montage of utter brutality – war, sexual assault, anarchy – and when it stops, all is well. The church is strong, the priest is respected, the poor are being administered to. It’s a monumental change, yet the film doesn’t care to explain how it came about.

And then there’s the most troubling aspect of the film – its treatment of the poor. This is a film that seems to be of two minds about them. In some scenes, they are presented as sympathetic characters, decent people trying to deal with daily hunger and economic uncertainty; in others, the film appears to be horrified by their uncouth manners, selfishness, and lack of empathy for fellow sufferers of poverty. At one point, the priest comments to himself that before he can save their soul, he must help them acquire consciences. It’s a loathsome comment said in a supposed spirit of kindness. Now, it is true that the film is also critical of the upper class for its indifference to the poor, especially of the Ladies of Charity, a group of wealthy women who see helping the poor as more of a fun hobby than a moral necessity. However, the affluent were presented as morally bankrupt, not classless and immoral, and there’s a difference. The former can make you angry; the other can make you uncomfortable, and that’s rarely a good feeling to give an audience.

Throughout all of this, Fresnay’s performance never wavers. He plays de Paul as a man of unwavering conviction and steadfast belief in his cause, yet he also displays uncertainty and frustration at both his own failings and society’s inability to look past class and wealth. There are speeches of such stunning power that jaws will find themselves on the floor. The rest of the cast is less memorable, mostly because the script doesn’t allow their characters to be fully fleshed out.

As I said at the start of this review, I wanted Monsieur Vincent to succeed. I generally like movies based on the lives of historic figures, and de Paul’s story is certainly a fascinating one, one that grew increasingly interesting the more I read about it. However, the movie left me frustrated more than moved, and I admired what it could have been much more than what it actually is. I suppose I could recommend it for Fresnay’s performance, and for its frank depiction of a morally troubling time in French history, but that would be incredibly disingenuous. After all, when I think of the film, the first thing I remember is not his performance or the disturbing views of a class-based society. Rather, what I recall are my own frustrations and the fact that I grew increasingly distant from the film as it went on, as well as somewhat hostile whenever it hit a strong note. I wanted more of them, and I knew I wasn’t going to get them. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*Monsieur Vincent is in French with English subtitles.
*The film won an Honorary Award for Best Foreign Film in 1948.   

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