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Who was Sacha Guitry? Far from an existential question, it’s one I’ve heard posed in the most basic sense more than once: “Who the hell was Sacha Guitry?” Even sixty-plus years after his death, the filmmaker has endured as a relative unknown in the United States. When Criterion released a DVD box set dedicated to the director in 2010, Guitry’s standing remained obscure enough that the company was quite justified in having titled it Presenting Sacha Guitry. Among a majority of cinephiles, he persists as a name, a legend, best known by his invocation in the volume of Truffaut’s criticism The Films in My Life and in the photograph that recurs throughout Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma and other of his later works, depicting Guitry at the very end of his life, emaciated, ferociously bearded, perched bedside editing his final film by hand.
With an aim to dispel some of the mystery, Spectacle Theater this April hosts “Guitry Gang,” a mini-retrospective dedicated to the director — and a cause for celebration. Across three of Guitry’s most exemplary films dating from the annus mirabilis of 1936, the moviegoing public will be able to discover this most urbane of directors, something of a French analog to Ernst Lubitsch. (As the two creators are nonetheless wholly unique in their own respective ways, this comparison goes only so far, akin in its inadequacy to terming Pialat and Cassavetes two sides of the same temperamental coin.) A boulevard sensation, and the prodigious heir to the renowned stage actor Lucien Guitry, Sacha eclipsed his father’s achievements as a playwright, filmmaker, and author with over a hundred works total to his signature.
He only began to make films as a means of transmitting his written works to a wider audience and of preserving the performances of his troupe and himself. (Guitry was no slouch in the ego department, and rightfully so, as consistently the most interesting actor on his screen, the lead performer in nearly every Guitry work, is Guitry himself.) Before the camera, he resembles no one else in cinema. His was a wildly idiosyncratic presence, a dandy thrusting forth with rapier wit, underscored by exclamatory gestures, in mass consecutive dialogues that turn upon the battle of the sexes: an intellectual conflict, above all, that fit him like a glove. A Guitry film is a Guitry film, as unique in its signature as an Ozu. Love minus zero, give or take a couple of misgivings: all things perfect, and occasionally distraught.
The earliest of the three on view is The New Testament, which provides in its title alone a perfect example of Guitry’s taste for perversity. It’s at once a pun on the biblical chunk, and a reference to the MacGuffin that will set the plot into motion: a last will and testament that Guitry doesn’t really introduce until around the halfway mark, opting instead to illustrate the household marital dynamic — wife cheats; husband reserves the right to — through a variety of cutting maxims. (Examples: “One doesn’t watch one’s secretary, but one sees her,” and “The spectacle of youth is as necessary to us as vitamins.”) Once the testament does enter into play, it both underscores and undermines said spectacle: The document unites the fates of Guitry’s wife, her lover, Guitry’s own ex-mistress, and the secret daughter portrayed by his own real-life wife of the era, the magnificent Jacqueline Delubac (some twenty years his younger).
Guitry reconfigures his chamber structure (of front rooms, patios, writing rooms, and salles de bain) in the next two pictures. My Father Was Right, despite its name, ultimately connotes nothing in the way of sentimental misty-eyed look-back Andy Hardy crap. A drop-by to Guitry’s place on the part of his worldly father (the fabulous Gaston Dubosc), and their ensuing frank back-and-forth on aging and loving, sets the scene for the flash-forward, a dozen years on, that occupies the rest of the film. Here Guitry contrives to arrange a vacation for his too-doting son so he can both initiate him into the sexual life (and, by way of that, get him off his back) and manage some alone time with the son’s girlfriend’s best friend Henrietta.
At last there’s Let’s Make a Dream…, in whose brilliant prologue the camera tracks throughout a soiree, picking up contained conversations that culminate with pithy punch lines, the whole sequence like a precursor to, say, the pool party in Altman’s The Player, but even better. (Punch line examples here: “[The audience] always wants the same thing: They’re only happy with a marriage,” and “Ah yes, a marriage — they call that a well-ended comedy.”) Pay attention to the key piece of information dropped midway through: a setup to two assignations, one involving the host, the other involving a guest. (The host is none other than the remarkable Raimu, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his role of César in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy.) The following day, Raimu’s wife (Delubac again) suspects he’s heading out for a tryst; she attempts to keep him as long as possible at an appointment in a plush office space, just to see him sweat. The ulterior motive to her dawdling: Raimu will be forced to leave at the last moment to make his own appointment on time — thereby leaving her alone and providing her an alibi so that she can see her lover. This turns out to be none other than Guitry, the owner of the office, who, unbeknownst to Delubac, has been hiding in the bathroom all along, biding his time until Raimu’s departure. The next evening, she too will be hiding in that bathroom — pride of place for these lovers whose whirling machinations, in the end, make for a very satisfactory dream indeed.
With its proliferation of parlors and ripostes, Guitry’s cinema represents a crossing of foils with what old-timers referred to as “filmed theater.” But in 2018, this supposedly archaic sensibility looks more revolutionary than ever: at once progressive and regressive, and an explosion of any truly safe space in those corridors where men and women pass one another by, even as their hearts collide.
Through April 30