Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Notes for a Conference Presentation
40Th Annual European Studies Conference, 9-10 October 2015 
University of Nebraska-Omaha 
John C. Tibbetts, University of Kansas

Hector Berlioz was the most incendiary of composers. A contemporary drawing depicts him conducting before the mouth of a cannon, his hair bristling like a flame above his brow. He was indeed a volatile character with real and imagined enemies at every hand. He vented with pen and music a steady stream of hates, protests, and depressions with as much aggressive energy as he proclaimed his loves and his triumphs. All of which makes him an apt subject for the movies. As Berlioz biographer Hugh Macdonald writes, “[He] wove his own experiences densely into the fabric of his music; neither is intelligible without reference to the other.”

Notes on Christian-Jacques’s LA SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, France, 1942

Christian Maudet had intended to become an architect when he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at roughly the same time [Claude] Autant-Lara studied there. He and a fellow architecture student moonlighted first as film poster artists, then as set and costume designers, signing their work with an amalgam of their first names. When his friend [Jacques somebody, probably unknown] quit working in films, Maudet continued to use their joint pseudonym... (291)
Christian-Jacque’s La Symphonie Fantastique was made for Continental-Films, a German company in France during the Occupation, in 1941. After the Liberation he had no difficulty being “purified,” unlike most others who had worked directly for the enemy, probably because he, like Autant-Lara, had excellent Left connections. In 1946, in fact, the Communist-dominated L’Ecran Français named him one of the top five French directors of the day, a judgment which most modern commentators must find rather strange. But this was before the days of auteur criticism, and few writers at the journal or elsewhere felt that great directors had to leave their personalities indelibly imprinted on their works. 

Jean-Louis Barrault as Berlioz
He is perhaps the ultimate French non-auteur director, the continental equivalent of a Michael Curtiz in the American cinema. Like Curtiz, Christian-Jacque had a recognizable cinematic style and was enormously proficient technically. He could give a bracing, kinetic feel to the historical swashbuckler, most notably Gérard Philipe’s La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1947) and Fanfan-La-Tulipe (1951). (from Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: a History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992, 291-2).

From Tibbetts, John C. Composers in the Movies. Yale University Press, 2005.

Regarding La Symphonie Fantastique. “Shot in Paris in 1942 but not released in America until 1947, it presents the life and music of Berlioz very much in the sentimentalized and reverential formulas of the standard Hollywood-style biopics of the day. Despite the saving grace of the legendary Jean-Louis Barrault in his youth (who bears a remarkable resemblance to the composer), and the staging of several striking early scenes of the composer’s youth as a medical student and his involvement with other rising artists of the day, notably Delacroix, Hugo, and Merimee, the film reduces the composer’s life to a predictable series of clichéd events—his studies as a medical student, his meeting with Harriet Smithson, the composing of the Symphonie Fantastique and The Damnation of Faust, his suicidal tendencies (in the opening scenes), the break with Smithson, his work as a music critic, and the reunion with his estranged son. Far too much screen time is devoted to a fictitious and sentimentalized romance with a singer named “Marie” (Renee St. Cyr), who appears to be a combination of two women in Berlioz’s life—singer Pauline Viardot, for whom Berlioz had a lasting affection, and Marie Recio Berlioz’s mistress of many years, whom he married in 1854. Of Berlioz’s outspoken personal and political agitations, there is little evidence. The film concludes with a spectacularly staged church performance of the “Kyrie” from the Requiem. In the gallery sits an approving Victor Hugo, who declaims: “When we were young, we wondered who among us would attain glory. Hector has found it!”

Here is what Goebbels had to say about La Symphonie Fantastique:
“The film is of excellent quality and amounts to a first-class national fanfare. I shall unfortunately not be able to release it for public showing [in Germany].” (quoted in Williams, 257)

It remains to be said that although Barrault’s (1910-1994) greatest love was for the theater, he graced some of the finest French films of the era, including Abel Gance’s Beethoven in 1936, and two by Marcel Carne, Drole de Drome in 1942, and the classic Les Enfants du paradis in 1944. His performance in the latter film as the legendary French mime, Baptiste Debureau (pictured here), ranks among the greatest in film history.

Notes on Tony Palmer’s I, Berlioz, UK, 1992. By contrast to the Christian-Jacque film, Palmer’s cinematic portrait is punctuated with the shot and shell of Berlioz’s (and Palmer’s) personal and political agitations. I am even tempted to regard the film as a fragment of Palmer’s own autobiography. Both director and composer in their respective oeuvres celebrate war and slaughter. Both envision vast artistic projects against impossible odds (notably, Palmer’s own films Wagner and Testimony, in 1983-1987). Both are habitually assailed by critics. Both have contempt for the “baseless folly of mankind.” Both are obsessed death. And both, above all, believe in the affective properties of music. Berlioz biographer David Cairns’s eulogy for the composer fits Palmer just as well: “sadness, suffering, mark many of his most characteristic utterances... the suffering of a nature in love with unattainable beauty, capable of infinite tenderness but estranged from the universe, proud and exalted yet naked to the whips and scorns of time.”

John C. Tibbetts

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