René Clément's "Gervaise" is an adaptation of Emile Zola's "L'assommoir," (1877), and part of the long series of novels, "Les Rougon Macquart," the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. Gervaise-Macquart is the heroine in one of these novels, "L'Assommoir," which examines the milieu of the working class and the plague which is alcoholism. However, Clément did not simply condense this monumental novel into a one and one-half hour film, which in the process would have only betrayed Zola's masterpiece. Clément, while scrupulously respecting the work of Emile Zola, makes a film centered on one character, Gervaise, a poignant and incredible picture of that period. Clément's choice resulted in "L'Assommoir," the novel, becoming "Gervaise," the film. In this film, he follows Zola's naturalistic approach, which at the limit becomes a stylized realism, a vision whose blackness takes on epic proportions. Clément represents very real emotions until they are reduced almost to abstractions. The result of such representation would seem to be the very opposite of realism and of naturalism. But his cruelty, which carries him until the end of a particular situation, sometimes even too far, merges with Zola's exacerbation of the situation (although Zola's clinical details are mixed with a resonant lyricism). With Clément, we do not end up with caricatures but with an authentic naturalism, which although refined is not less cruel. A first-class group of actors was assembled to breathe life into Zola's words. Maria Schell (1926 - 2005), Francois Périer (1919 - 2002), both received prizes for their interpretations. Armand Mestral (1917 - 2000) and Susy Delair are outstanding in their respective roles. René Clément shows his virtuosity in the cutting and editing of his work. The linkages give his film its extraordinary wholeness of form and its fluidity. The dissolves, when not passing directly from one scene to the next, are almost seamless, and most often they are accompanied by voice over comments. Clément exploits the lighting changes to reinforce the story. Many sequences open with a clear, pale luminosity, ending in a night-time. This, in fact, gives a kind of symbolic lighting to the film. The camera motions are primarily tracking-pan shots, with the camera constantly following the actors in occasionally long, or sometimes infinitely short, motions, but always moving. In opposition, long motionless shots reinforce the main dramatic scenes. There are numerous series of close-ups, which serve either to emphasizing the psychology of the characters, or because the overall composition of a shot has a precise psychological significance. Much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Zola's novel. Discrete commentaries in voice over by Gervaise link certain scenes and remind us that "L'Assommoir" has become the history of this woman. Little by little, Gervaise's commentaries diminish in frequency with the film progression, as she becomes more and more tired and despondent, eventually disappearing completely, replaced by the sound effects. The music is by the renowned classical composer George Auric, a member of "le Groupe des Six." Clément's choice of Auric to write the music for this film was not arbitrary. The credo of the "Six" was a music based in everyday life, on vulgar spectacles (circuses, fairs. music halls, street songs), to confront us with the "real life." Auric's music is discreet and used sparingly. At the time Zola wrote the novel, he was strongly criticized for using such powerful material, as well as for presenting opinions of the lower classes. "Gervaise" is above all an historical document of the life in the middle 1850s, in the working class milieu in Paris. The daily, unbearable workers' conditions are remarkably well-portrayed in this film, without editorial comments. In those days, a work-day for a man, woman, and child was 15-18 hours; strikes were practically unknown and when one happened, it was violently repressed and their leaders severely punished. There were no social security or retirement plans, and aging without children to help in old age was literally an early death sentence. The salaries were extremely low, and an accident or a sickness would irremediably throw a family into dire, abject poverty. There was no escaping from this reality. The only form of entertainment other than an occasional visit to a "Caf'conc" ("Café Concert"), a kind of musical show, was "l'assommoir" (a bludgeon), the term for a low-class tavern, where men and women were easy prey to alcoholism. Clément shows us the irremediable descent of Coupeau into the alcoholic hell, and all the consequences to his loved-ones. Soon after, Gervaise will follow. René Clément tells us the story of Gervaise, a woman subjugated by the men she loved, captive of society, her social background, and social condition, who tries to escape her proletariat status. But external and internal conditions frame our lives, against which our will has no control, and Gervaise's revolt against her condition, her desire to possess her own shop, rising above her station, may have also brought her downfall. A Hindu person would say the she violated her "Dharma." But who knows? Maybe she would have ended up in the same place, but at least she got the satisfaction of having chosen her own instrument of torture. One of the three important men in Gervaise's life is Goujet, and with him Clément introduces a sub-theme-- a political one. The 1850s saw the democratic ideals of the first French revolution of 1789 logically progressing toward a budding Socialism, coming in as a reaction against the new slavery of the industrial revolution, Capitalism. Goujet, the blacksmith, represents the ideal socialist revolutionary, a hard-working, honest laborer, just asking for justice and his deserved place "at the table." He is ready to sacrifice himself for the benefit of a better life not only for himself, but also for his fellow workers. René Clément's adaptation of Emile Zola's novel "L'Assommoir" is widely regarded as one of his best films and it is unquestionably one of his most poignant and intense works.
Gervaise Macquart, a young lame laundress, is left by her lover Auguste Lantier with two boys... She manages to make it, and a few years later she marries Coupeau, a roofer. After working ...
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October 15, 2019