directed by Julien Duvivier
France 1925

 

"A family is a group of people living under the same roof who cannot stand each other." So writes young François Lepic, nicknamed Poil de carotte (Carrot-top), in his school essay - and he gets soundly rapped on the knuckles by his teacher for it. But the poor boy is used to such abuse: at home his mother takes a vicious delight in maltreating him, his brother and sister torment him, and his father simply ignores him. Only the maid understands him and foresees the possible tragedy lying ahead.

Jules Renard's story was adapted twice for cinema by Julien Duvivier, once as a talkie in 1932 with the great Harry Baur as the father, and this version, made seven years earlier as a silent. Duvivier is sometimes referred to as the pessimist of French cinema, and it's easy to see why he was so attracted to this material, offering as it does the opportunity to explore the various facets of human pettiness and cruelty and the manner in which they can crush an innocent child. Duvivier even added his own melodramatic subplot, about a money-grubbing seductress (a common figure in many of his films), to twist the knife still further.

If this all sounds a bit grim, it's surprising to find that the film is shot through with no small amount of humour. The mother is an ogre, yes, but a comedy ogre - with a moustache! Even Poil de carotte's sufferings have an occasional air of comic absurdity - as when the unfortunate boy is caught short in his bedroom without a chamber pot. There is also some highly inventive playfulness in Duvivier's direction: he uses superimposition to fill the screen with multiple images of the mother's nagging head; in other shots, Duvivier uses a mirror close to the lens to rapidly bring into shot a representation of a character's thoughts. There is a real sense of a creative filmmaker's delight in his craft.

The film was Duvivier's own favourite among his silents. It is surpassed artistically, I think, by his 1932 remake, in which the mother is less of a caricature, and in which the final scenes between Harry Baur and Robert Lynen (as the boy) are among the most heart-rending in all French cinema. This 1925 silent remains, however, a powerful and important film in its own right.

Michael St Aubyn

Theatrical Release: 26 February 1926

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DVD Review: Arte - Region 0 - NTSC

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Distribution

Arte

Region 0 - NTSC

Runtime 1:48:13
Video

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

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

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Introduction by Serge Bromberg (3:33)
• Feaurette about the music (7:31)
• Extract from Feyder's Visages d'enfants (6:02)
• Trailers for other Arte silents (12:45)

DVD Release Date: March 5th, 2008
Digipak

Chapters 4

 

 

Comments:

The Arte edition of Poil de carotte has been assembled from three elements: a safety copy made by the Cinémathèque Française in 1985 from a decomposing negative, and two nitrate prints, one of which had the original tints. A new score has been written by Gabriel Thibaudeau and is performed by l'Octuor de France.

As you might expect, there is some variation in the picture quality. Speckles, scratches and occasional larger marks of age and wear are evident throughout. These rarely become troublesome, however, and the overall impression is of a sharp, vivid image - damaged, certainly, but remarkably good for a film of this vintage. Roughly one third of the film consists of tinted shots: amber for the nightclub where we meet the gold-digging chanteuse, the same hue for the loveless family home, blue for a couple of nighttime scenes (filmed day-for-night), and a lavender tint for the final twilight shots. All the outdoor daytime scenes, shot on location in the Hautes-Alpes, are in gleaming black-and-white. It would be hard to imagine a better transfer to DVD given the state of the surviving elements. The disc is NTSC, region-free and dual-layered.

Another very attractive feature of this edition is the lively new soundtrack by Gabriel Thibaudeau. As he explains in the short feature on the disc, each of the three main characters is given a signature instrument: a clarinet for young Poil de carotte, a violin for his appalling mother, and a double bass for the father. From this premise Thibaudeau constructs an inventive score that beautifully complements the mood and drama of the film.

The disc is completely English-friendly: even the synopsis on the back cover is translated. 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 extras are subtitled in English only (no German option). The subtitles are yellow, which may annoy some, though I think this colour was chosen deliberately to stand out from the white text of the original French intertitles.

The three main extras are a brief introduction by Serge Bromberg; an excerpt from Jacques Feyder's 1923 film Visages d'enfants (the scene in which young Jean is punished for cutting up his mother's dress); and a short feature about the composition and recording of the new score.

Poil de carotte is a little-known gem from the early days of French cinema, and a film that will be of enormous interest to admirers of Julien Duvivier (La Belle Équipe, Pépé le Moko), one of the greatest (and most underrated) of all French directors. To see this film made available at last on DVD is cause for celebration. Arte have produced a splendid edition, which I highly recommend.

 - Michael St Aubyn



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Distribution

Arte

Region 0 - NTSC




 

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