MADAME DUBARRY (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919, Germany, 85m, BW)
Cast: Elsa Berna, Karl Platen, Bernhard Goetzke, Magnus Stifter, Emil Jannings, Reinhold Schünzel, Harry Liedtke, Eduard von Winterstein, Pola Negri
Director: Christian-jaque Null, Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Christian-jaque Null
Running Time: 85 min.
Jeanne Vaubernier (Pola Negri) is a poor girl, sewing for a living and barely making it in 18th-century France. But eventually she catches the attention of King Louis XV (Emil Jannings), and over time becomes the powerful man's mistress, known as Madame du Barry. She remains secretly committed to her first lover, though, a man named Armand de Foix (Harry Liedtke), and pushes for his advancement in the royal military. But true love may not be able to survive in the cruel royal court.
Pola Negri’s Madame Dubarry has it. You know exactly what I am talking about. Dubarry is living and loving in the heat of pre-revolutionary Paris, but she’s more than enough trouble for the aristos all by herself. “The woman who will ruin France” is first introduced as a breath of fresh air, whispering saucy jokes to the other girls in the seamstresses’ workroom – a ripple of fun in the stuffy atmosphere of the atelier. When she leaves the shop, Dubarry collects admirers with every step, like Clara Bow in a crinoline. Before long, of course, she’s the mistress of Louis XV, creating disarray in the court, just as she did in the shop.
Ernst Lubitsch is brilliant at capturing this, the sizzle of appeal so hot that it can turn a king’s head, transform a society ball into an orgy, or raise an angry mob at the palace gates. Madame Dubarry has the angst of a drama, but the vigour of a comedy, and Negri has exactly the attitude that the part demands. Dubarry isn’t a calculating seductress, just a natural-born pleasure-seeker: a minx who decides which lover to visit by pouting as she pulls at the bows on her bodice. And Negri commits fully to the role of a beautiful woman in ugly circumstances – those enormous eyes are flirting one moment and filled with anguish the next. Some people are allergic to Negri’s grand emoting, the head flung back, the flailing arms. But there’s plenty there’s naturalistic and light here: watch her face as Jannings trims her fingernails, revelling in pleasure and pain. And yes, there’s also an opportunity for Negri to rehearse her most notorious scene – hysterically throwing herself across her lover’s coffin.
This Ufa production was an important film for Lubitsch and Negri both; retitled Passion to sound less alarmingly foreign, Dubarry was released in the US and captivated the critics (Mordaunt Hall acclaimed it: “one of the pre-eminent pictures of the day”). So much so that Hollywood beckoned for both director and star within a year. Negri’s co-star, Emil Jannings, who plays the dim-but-determined king, followed them soon after. Madame Dubarry may not be the best-remembered work of the Lubitsch-Negri-Jannings trio but the more I watch it, the further it seeps under my skin. These three have real chemistry.
Lubitsch once said that he gave up on acting himself when he saw Negri and Jannings perform together. Arguably his direction was part of what made them gel, but for a chance to see Lubitsch act, this dual-format release contains an archive gem. Als Ich Tot War, from 1916, is Lubitsch’s earliest surviving work, in which a henpecked hubby fakes his own death (in spite at his mother-in-law, of course) and then sneaks back into the household as a butler. It’s ragged, and a little static, but wickedly jovial. Lubitsch plays against his own preference, as a rather straight middle-class nobody rather than the broad Jewish “types” he commonly portrayed. It’s a wisp of thing compared with Dubarry, but worth it for a bizarre potato-peeling scene alone. Lubitsch was a great director, but a middling actor, and on this evidence, a rotten sous-chef. But back to the main event – this film is not all about its star turns. Lubitsch’s crowd scenes are always a marvel, and the ones in Madame Dubarry are especially strong. Whether he is filling the frame with bewigged courtiers or raging peasants, Lubitsch understands the power that a mass of people can command: his crowds have character, and they bring the film to life.
It is in building this story of prerevolutionary France, reaching its peak in the revolution, that Mr. Lubitch has done something notable. The affairs of Mme. du Barry, Louis and Armand by themselves are simply sordid, with Armand's part in them dignified somewhat by a touch of tragedy, and any director who let them stand out from their background would have had merely a sordid tale to tell. But Mr. Lubitch has had the skill to weave them into their setting, make them a part of all that is going on, and, while keeping them in the centre as objects of focused interest, he has never permitted them to hold the interest exclusively. So his picture has dramatic sweep as well as localized intensity; it lives as a human document; and it satisfies historic curiosity. How far it departs from actual history is immaterial. So far as the present writer is able to judge it has caught the atmosphere and meaning of its time, and historical fiction has accomplished its object when it does this. It is also as a cinematician that Mr. Lubitch and whoever may have been responsible with him have won distinction. The settings seem truly of the Paris of the latter eighteenth century, and the costuming and habits of the people portrayed are harmonious with them.
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