Falbalas is the earliest film in the new Studio Canal Blu-ray boxset of Jacques Becker classics. It’s a wonderful film and possibly the best ‘new to me’ film I’ve seen for several years. I know very little about fashion, or rather haute couture, but I was completely engaged all the way through. This is in some ways an ‘haute couture procedural’, a film structured around the preparation and presentation of a show of the new designs for a season. The film was shot in the last few weeks of the German Occupation of Paris in 1944, but they are never seen or mentioned. There are, however, indications of the impact of Occupation on this most Parisian of events. There are fewer young men on the streets but many women of all ages, often on bicycles or even in improvised pony traps as petrol is scarce. The most flamboyant aspect of womenswear is the focus on hats made from whatever materials are not rationed.
The film begins with the final moments of the narrative but then immediately enters into the flashback that tells the story of what happened in the fashion house of Philippe Clarence (Raymond Rouleau). We immediately realise that M. Clarence is one of those impossible men – a genius at designing clothes, but a hopeless ‘womaniser’ who treats women very badly and a man who can switch from charm to tantrum to rage in a flash. And in his fashion house he is surrounded by women, all his employees. The house operations are controlled by the formidable Solange (Gabrielle Dorziat) and its equivalent of modern public relations goes through Mme Anne-Marie (Françoise Lugagne), who emerges as the long-suffering partner of M. Clarence (she was also Rouleau’s wife in ‘real life’). The two other major characters provide the narrative disruption which will drive the drama. Daniel Rousseau (Jean Chevrier) is a textile merchant who supplies material to the house, but he is about to marry 19 year-old Micheline Lafaurie (Micheline Presle) who has arrived in Paris to stay with her cousins before the wedding. When Clarence hears of the wedding plans and meets Micheline he of course offers to make the wedding dress as a gift. The dress will also form the centre-piece of his new collection. There are just three weeks to complete the collection. Designing the dress will also allow Philippe to meet Micheline for consultations and fittings. The scene is set for a romance thriller to meld with the fashion house procedural. This will become a story of obsessive love and a romance melodrama in the way it affects everybody. There is also an element of fantasy surrounding the astoundingly life-like mannequin in Clarence’s work room.
On several occasions as I watched the film, I thought that I had seen references to other films, but then I realised that they were all references to films that came later. For instance, there are several elements of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1958) and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (UK 1948). Both these films feature driven, obsessive men who attempt to ‘create’ an image of a woman. Several commentators have also noted that Falbalas is a similar narrative in many ways to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (US 2017). The big difference is that Falbalas is not a colour film, but it is, despite its relatively small budget and the privations suffered under Occupation, a very stylish film marked by great performances, camerawork and lighting, editing and music. Becker was a supreme stylist without using extravagant visual flourishes. The key to the visual style here is to deal with the contrast between interior scenes in the fashion house, in some of which there are crowds of people, both seamstresses and models but also the guests for the final show, and the exterior scenes of the street and the parks. Nicolas Hayer’s camera has to capture both, mainly in long shot, but also cope with emotional scenes shot in close-ups rapidly cut by Marguerite Renoir. The interiors were shot at night in the studio as there was no electricity for the studio during the day. Some of the studio shots do display a form of noir photography which observers suggest enhances the sense that Micheline is a femme fatale and Philippe a doomed man. All the the different scenes are beautifully edited and integrated by Becker.
The presentation of the couture house has been seen as Becker’s tribute to his mother who had been a model and had later run her own couture house before the war. The dress designs are by Marcel Rochas and the hats by Gabrielle. Max Douy is responsible for ‘décor’ and Jean-Jacques Grünenwald provides the score which seems to me very well suited to the narrative. All in all a good example of what the ‘quality cinema’ of France could offer at this time. Becker handles his cast well and it is interesting to see Micheline Presle who was at this point becoming a leading female star in France. Later she would marry an American and take a stab at Hollywood. Unable to make an impression she returned to France, never to reach the peak again but to have a long career in both films and TV. She turned 100 in 2022. I mention Presle because she is picked out by Carrie Tarr in a paper titled ‘From stardom to eclipse: Micheline Presle’ in the collection Heroines Without Heroes (ed. Ulrike Sieglohr), Cassell 2000. Presle’s star persona in her early years represented the ‘new woman’ who appeared during the war years and carried on in the immediate post-war period and who had vitality, assertiveness and positivity. She was equipped for the challenges of the post-war period. Unfortunately, French cinema tended during the late 1940s to turn away from contemporary reality, ignoring the questions about the Occupation and downplaying the possibilities for women. As Tarr points out, Falbalas, as one of the last films produced during the Occupation, presents us with a heroine who makes her own decisions and won’t be pushed around. The narrative also shows us her story set against the work of a community of women – some of the most entertaining scenes feature the seamstresses. I was reminded of women at work in wartime factories in British films of the period such as Millions Like Us (UK 1943).
It’s also worth mentioning re the gender issues that some commentators have suggested that this film has perhaps been neglected somewhat because it has been seen historically as a film about women or women’s issues and it hasn’t achieved the same status as later Becker films such as Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) – which is film about men with some more dubious representations of different female roles. Certainly the reviews of this restoration in the last few years have been much more positive than some of those at the time of the film’s release. The film was actually certificated in the UK as Falbalas in 1945 but I can’t find a review or a release date. In Sight and Sound, Summer 1946, Hazel Hachett discusses Falbalas as one of the films released since the Liberation. I presume that she saw the film in Paris. Her review is very positive in terms of its technical brilliance but she suggests that “the leading characters seem empty and their destinies don’t merit their ingenious presentation”. She does not have the advantage of distance afforded to Tarr and other contemporary commentators but it does mean she picks out an admittedly impressive sequence featuring a table-tennis game as a high point rather than scenes featuring Presle and Rouleau together. Finally though, she notes the possible reading that Becker makes certain characters ’empty’ deliberately because he is satirising haute couture. I don’t think this is the case, but I can see from the moral standpoint of film criticism at the time, the film would seem more acceptable if it was read as a satire or a mockery of Philippe Clarence. I note that ‘falbalas’ does actually translate as ‘frills’, but not knowing this I may well have baulked at the thought of a film titled ‘Paris Thrills’ as it was known in the US.
The restoration of the film is excellent and the DVD I watched has several ‘extras’ including a short documentary in which Jean Paul Gaultier explains that watching the film as a young boy led him to choose a career in couture. This has been widely recommended for fashionistas. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray and on various streamers including Apple and Amazon in SD, HD and even 4K. I recommend it highly as one of Becker’s best.