Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1931 film, MARIUS, directed by Alexander Korda.
There is a moment in MARIUS where, anticipating a covert exit from Marseilles and the roof of the bar-home provided by his father, the title character (Pierre Fresnay) tells father César (Raimu), “I like you a lot.” Up to this point, we’ve seen the two bicker constantly. In a brilliant display of vulnerability, César says “I like you a lot too.” This moment encapsulates the beauty of MARIUS: its skillful investment in its fully realized and three-dimensional characters by leading the viewer from comedic and high-strung arguments into touching emotional beats.
MARIUS, the first installment in playwright, screenwriter, and future film director Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseilles Trilogy,” was followed by FANNY (1932) and CÉSAR (1936). These three movies collectively represent immense commercial and critical success in French cinema history. Today, they reveal something of the contemporary French stage and offer the somewhat voyeuristic experience of viewing the lives of what appear to be real people. This isn’t to say that MARIUS, and its sequels, are some kind of gritty commitment to realism, but they are forerunners in the poetic realism movement that would take hold later in the 1930s. Indeed, “poetic realism” is a term that could sum up the best that cinema has to offer, and MARIUS is one of its greatest exponents.
Often described as a phenomenal love story, MARIUS follows not just its title character. In fact, it almost plays in ensemble, although it focuses on Marius’ “will-they-won’t-they” relationship with Fanny (Orane Demazis), the fishmonger’s daughter who sells oysters at a stall right outside César’s bar where Marius also works. But there’s also a love story of a kind between the father and son as they navigate the angst of Marius’ love for the sea and his desire to be “elsewhere” (unknown to César). Marius’ mother has been dead for some time, and in fact, the whole of the film is rife with missing spouses; Fanny’s father is gone, bourgeois shopkeeper Panisse’s (Fernand Charpin) wife has passed away. These absences lead to quiet moments of grief, but they also serve to demonstrate the strength of these people, these Marseillais. Pagnol contributed heavily to a romanticized vision of this remote region, a retrospective nostalgia for which was often attributed to him in later years.
Anyways, the relationship between Marius and César is most compelling to me. Maybe it’s because Raimu, an actor who had worked on the stage for some time and was propelled to stardom by MARIUS, is clearly the MVP performer in the film. Maybe it’s because the relationship between Marius and Fanny doesn’t reach its deeper emotional crescendo (or nadir) in the sequel, or even in CÉSAR. Or maybe it’s because my own daddy issues make me sympathetic to the portrayal of fatherhood that MARIUS offers.
That portrayal is rooted in César’s alternate crabby-tender approach to his son. He often criticizes Marius for his shoddy bartending skills, and chides him for suspected misconduct with a married woman. When Fanny’s mother, Honorine (Alida Rouffe) brings Marius’ belt to César as proof of their children’s illicit affair, César has a conversation with his son after she leaves. He seems light of spirit, dropping hints here and there that he knew Marius snuck out last night. But when he stands (the frame only allows us the sight of his legs and hands), and pulls the belt out of his pocket to throw at Marius as a sign that he won’t stand for his son’s abandonment of the woman he apparently loves, it’s chilling. These are the moments that make others’ sentimental qualities, like the aforementioned “I like you” scene, all the more potent. The characters of MARIUS squabble and nearly start fights before sinking into familiar friendship and familial love. It’s a tremendous whiplash.
A bit more on that framing mentioned earlier: although Pagnol is considered the auteur of his filmic trilogy, he only directed the concluding film. Hungarian Alexander Korda directed MARIUS, and he was already known for his significant work in America during the silent era, before his even bigger impression in the British film industry to come. MARIUS is the most stage-y of all of the Marseilles Trilogy films, and I think that is due to not only Pagnol’s influence, but also Korda’s intent to honor the source material. But Korda also subverts the expectation that the early talkies had to be static, and in fact subverts stage rules as well. For example, in one scene, César mostly speaks with his back to the camera (or the audience), a no-no in my understanding of theatrical traditions. The few outdoor, on-location scenes are rendered with a brightness and expansiveness that could never be achieved on the stage, of course, and medium shots and near-close-ups put the lie to the notion that MARIUS is not “cinematic,” as some French critics saw it at the time. So indeed, the movie blends the dialogue possibilities of the stage in a way that the talkies had often not seen realized while giving concessions to and leveraging the inherent elements of film. The Marseilles Trilogy would become more “cinematic” as it went on, but that doesn’t discount MARIUS’ exciting endorsement of the then-new sound film paradigm.
There are many other aspects of MARIUS worth analyzing, not the least of which is its central, ultimately traumatic romance. After a close call of Fanny marrying Panisse and Marius heading off to sea, they begin covertly “hooking up,” before they are discovered by Honorine. Finally, though, Marius gives in to the call of the sea when Fanny realizes she could never pull him away from it. She ultimately sacrifices his love for her by lying, saying that she has continued to talk to Panisse about potentially marrying throughout Marius’ courtship of her. The movie’s final moments, as Fanny pretends nothing is wrong while César shows off his room and explains how they can fix it up so Marius and his soon-to-be-daughter-in-law can live with him, are heartbreaking. And while Demazis’ faux-cheer is compelling in its own way, as in any other part of the trilogy, Raimu commands the scene. Now that we’ve seen the true love that César has for Marius, what living under his roof looks like, it’s painful to see Fanny’s loss of both the love of her life and a father-in-law. César is a father-in-law who would love her for her contribution to his beloved son’s happiness and do everything in his power to see them contented, and it makes his card-cheating, grousing, and extremely loud ways (he yells a lot) all the funnier and more heartwarming.
I said that watching MARIUS feels voyeuristic, but it’s not because Korda and Pagnol make you feel like you’re watching something sordid. It feels voyeuristic because of the realism part of that “poetic realism,” an attention to the rhythm of speech and the virtues and faults of every single character in the film, in keeping with the rich stage origins of the story. The poetic part distills those aspects into their most romantic forms through the visual magic of the movies, not the stage. Live under César’s roof for just a bit and a beautiful aspect of your own, potentially tempestuous familial and romantic ties may be revealed.