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Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960

Saturday, September 29, 2012
6:30 p.m. Le bonheur
Marcel L’Herbier (France, 1934)

Anarchist attempts to assassinate queen, queen protects anarchist, queen loves anarchist, anarchist loves queen. Or does she . . . and does he? The skeleton of Jean Cocteau’s adult fairy tale L’aigle à deux têtes is also that of Marcel L’Herbier’s very different Le bonheur—made a decade earlier and set several centuries later in 1930s Paris, where the palace is a film studio, the royalty are movie stars, and the fairy tale survives even L’Herbier’s ironic analysis. Charles Boyer is the passionate politico turned lover—a role entirely suited to his seething recalcitrance that erupts into moments of startling verbal eloquence. Gaby Morlay, as a movie star courted by a vast and fawning public and a small, mostly male, entourage, is the modern-day queen (upstaged, or dethroned, from time to time by Michel Simon). Their story is told by L’Herbier utilizing all the tricks of the trade that he was instrumental in developing back in the silent era; photographed by American cinematographer Harry Stradling, Le bonheur revels in its visuals, from the “high moderne” decor of its sets to the freedom of its traveling camera. This is a brilliant piece of reflexive cinema, a film that, as you weep at it, weeps right back at you.

—Judy Bloch

• Written by Marcel Duran, L’Herbier, based on a play by Henry Bernstein. Photographed by Harry Stradling. With Charles Boyer, Gaby Morlay, Michel Simon, Jaque Catelain. (105 mins, In French with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, From Institut Français, permission Pathé)