directed by Julien Duvivier
France 1930

Au bonheur des dames, an adaptation of the novel by Émile Zola, was Julien Duvivier's last silent film, and one of the last great productions of the silent era in France. It tells the story of an orphan (Dita Parlo) whose uncle's small shop is being overwhelmed by a giant department store across the road. Complications arise when she takes a job in the store and falls in love with the boss.

Visually and technically, this may be the most virtuosic of all Duvivier's films. From the opening shots of Dita Parlo's arrival in Paris we are plunged into seething crowd scenes, some filmed with hidden cameras in the street, others inside the palatial Galeries Lafayette. The camera swoops and thrusts, evoking through movement and editing the headlong pursuit of pleasure that the department store offers to satisfy. Only when we enter "Au Vieil Elbeuf", the musty little shop of Parlo's uncle, does the pace settle and the camera become more sedate. Until, that is, the two worlds collide in a stunning montage sequence...

Other technical points of interest include the first use of matte shots in a French film (for the external views of the store), and a slow motion diving sequence that foreshadows the famous shots in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938). As a drama, the film is less successful: Dita Parlo makes a winsome heroine but the love story is unconvincing, and the melodramatic elements of the plot, transposed from Zola's 19th century novel to the modern age, look stiff and heavy-handed.

Au bonheur des dames was released in 1930 in a crudely "sonorised" version with music and sound effects. One critic of the time complained about the German marching band music and the crowd scenes that sounded like cats in heat and baying dogs. The film flopped. The Jazz Singer had come out in 1927, and the public wanted talkies from now on. Much like the little shop in Duvivier's film, silent movies were about to be swept aside by the unstoppable march of progress, commercialism and modernity.

Michael St Aubyn


Theatrical Release: 3 July 1930

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DVD Review: Arte - Region 0 - NTSC

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Region 0 - NTSC

Runtime 1:28:57

1.33 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Audio Silent with French intertitles and music (Dolby 2.0)
Subtitles English, German, none
Features Release Information:
Studio: Arte

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33

Edition Details:
• Introduction by Serge Bromberg (5:38)
• Feaurette about the music (9:20)
• Le Ventre d'un magasin (10:48)
• Trailers for other Arte silents (12:44)

DVD Release Date: March 5th, 2008

Chapters 12



Arte have based their edition of Au bonheur des dames on a restoration by the Cinémathèque Française and Lobster Films. The 1930 soundtrack is lost, and has been replaced here with a sparkling new score by Gabriel Thibaudeau, full of jazz themes and Gershwin references. Part of the score is sung, and even, in one magical moment, spoken.

The image quality is consistently good. There are minor scratches and other blemishes throughout, but no serious flaws to speak of. Contrast levels are very pleasing and there is a moderate amount of grain. Overall, a lovely transfer. The disc is NTSC, region-free and dual-layered.

This release is completely English-friendly. You can choose French, English or German menu screens when you insert the disc, and the film has optional English or German subtitles on the intertitles and other on-screen text. The subtitles are yellow. The main extras, all of which have English subtitles, are: an introduction by Serge Bromberg; a report on the composition of the new score; and a French documentary short from the same year as Duvivier's film, Le Ventre d'un magasin, that gives us a glimpse of life in a real Paris department store.

Arte have released Au bonheur des dames simultaneously with another Duvivier silent, the 1925 Poil de carotte, which also comes with English subtitles. Both discs are strongly recommended.

 - Michael St Aubyn

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