Friday, December 21, 2018

The Baker's Wife (1938) at Film Forum

Film Forum has a holiday present for New Yorkers starting today: A week-long run of Marcel Pagnol’s magical La Femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife), from 1938. The Siren has seen the restoration that Film Forum is showing, and it is beautiful. The film probably hasn’t looked this good in decades. It definitely hasn’t been seen (legally—ahem) in this country for many a long year; rumor has it that there were disputes with the estate of Jean Giono, who wrote the story, "Blue Boy," that the movie is based on. Whatever was keeping The Baker’s Wife from screens, rejoice that it’s back with us.

The film stars Raimu, and your regard for it will undoubtedly stand or fall on your opinion of Raimu’s all-dominating performance. Arletty, Marlene Dietrich, and Orson Welles all said at one time or another that they considered Raimu the greatest actor in the world; the Siren adores him too. Here, Raimu plays the baker of the title, a man appropriately named Aimable, who has just set up shop in a tiny Provençal village, bringing them good bread at last after years of putting up with a man who couldn’t control the temperature of the oven. Aimable has a vastly younger and eye-poppingly sexy wife, Aurélie, played by Ginette Leclerc, and as my grandmother would have said, Aimable thinks Aurélie hung the moon. (Pagnol offered the part to Joan Crawford, which newly learned fact is the Siren’s “What If” of the year.) But the marriage is clearly sexless, and Aurélie is vulnerable to the he-man charms of a local shepherd (a smouldering Charles Moulin). She runs off with the shepherd, and the heartbroken Aimable takes to downing pastis instead of baking. The villagers, from the local marquis (Fernand Charpin) to the priest (Robert Vattier) to the schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) band together to bring back the baker’s wife.

It is an uncomplicated plot that unfolds at a leisurely 133 minutes; most Pagnol films take their time, as the filmmaker loved to give his characters as much time as needed for their full natures to be revealed. The villagers are flawed, selfish, at times bone-headed and even cruel, but our affection for these people grows as their regard for their grieving baker increases. The mission to bring back Aurélie starts as a necessary mission to get decent baguettes back on the table, but it ends as a gesture of pure devotion.

As for Raimu, his Aimable may be an even greater achievement than his César in the Marseilles trilogy. The actor brought a head-to-toe physicality to film, aided by Pagnol, who always knows exactly how much of Raimu to keep in frame. At times Aimable’s innocence verges on stupidity, such as when the shepherd comes to serenade Aurelie and the baker sees it as a charming local custom instead of appalling insolence. The baker’s drunk scene takes him from immobile self-pity to perilous lunging about the cafe, until the villagers steer him home like an ocean liner with a broken rudder. Yet throughout the movie, Raimu switches from funny to heartbreaking and back again to funny, as easily as one gets water from a tap.

The Siren has many readers who live far from New York, but they should take heart. Not only is the film likely to play a number of other repertory houses in big cities, but in the past Janus Films has opened restorations in preparation for a later Criterion release. Let us cross our fingers. In the meantime, the Siren wishes a very merry Christmas to all who celebrate. And may we all find films to give us a break from daily cares as 2018 winds to a close.

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