Art house: Dance Programme
The wistful charm of 1930s French cinema is exemplified by Dance Programme (1937), director-writer Julien Duvivier's exploration of one woman's search for her past in order to find a path to the future.
The current English title is much too prosaic to capture the romantic spirit alluded to in its French name, Un Carnet de Bal (a dance card listing the names of a lady's successive partners at a ball). The English title of its 1938 release in the US ( Life Dances On) was also more evocative. It was renamed Christine for its British release.
Christine (Marie Bell) is indeed the central figure, a beautiful widow who, devastated by the recent loss of her husband, decides to fill her time and perhaps fulfil her dreams by tracking down the men with whom she danced nearly 20 years earlier as a 16-year-old attending her first ball.
An episodic tale which illuminates the foibles of human character and the inescapable nature of time marching on unfolds. The story also serves as a showcase for some of the greatest French actors working before the second world war.
Like Christine, her seven former beaux have changed greatly in the interim. Their stories range from tragic to comic, pitiful to triumphant, the mood of the chapters reflected in the diversity of settings and director Duvivier's fluidity of technique.
The comical tone of the sequences devoted to hairdresser Fabien (Fernandel) and mayor Francois (Raimu) contrast with the darkness surrounding nightclub boss Pierre (Louis Jouvet), the Alpine splendour of mountaineer Eric (Pierre Richard-Willm) and the cloistered cathedral of Father Dominique (Harry Baur).
Most stylised of all is Duvivier's depiction of Christine's visit to Thierry (Pierre Blanchar), a drug-addicted abortionist whose nightmare existence is more than figuratively off-kilter.
The allusions to feticide and narcotics, as well as the narrative's sexual innuendo, are evidence of France's relative openness compared to the US' restrictive censorship code which came into in effect in 1934.
Dance Programme, which won the Best Foreign Film prize at the 1937 Venice Film Festival, was dismissed by American film trade paper Variety as "worthwhile entertainment, especially in arty cinemas. It suffers, of course, when stacked up against a reasonably strong "B" American feature."
Hollywood was then in the process of toning down Duvivier's other 1937 drama, Pepe le Moko, for the American remake Algiers (1938). Duvivier himself would go to Los Angeles for his next picture, The Great Waltz (1938).
Displaying none of Dance Programme's nuance or complexity, this musical tribute to Johann Strauss went on to receive great popular acclaim.
Duvivier loosely remade Dance Programme in California as Lydia (1941) and utilised the same portmanteau structure for Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943).
But despite the considerable merit of these all-star productions, enhanced by the lavish technical resources at Duvivier's disposal in Hollywood, they fall short of the ethereal web the auteur so delicately spun in a simple provincial ballroom on his native turf.
Dance Programme, June 8, 2pm and June 22, 2.30pm, Hong Kong Film Archive. Part of the Critics' Choice 2013 - Film Narrative in Perspective programme