Monday 10 September 2007

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Robert Wise

Legendary producer Val Lewton made a huge impact on the horror genre, and he did so with only fourteen films to his credit. Nine of them are well known and reasonably easy to find horror films, from Cat People to Bedlam via The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie. The other five are more obscure and it's taken a while to track some of them down. I haven't found the final three yet, but I wasn't impressed in the slightest by the teen exploitation drama Youth Runs Wild. Fortunately this one is far better and fits much more appropriately within the body of work of Val Lewton, Robert Wise and Simone Simon.

In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, a coach travels across the snow from French territory to Prussian, carrying a collection of important people: a count and countess, a priest, manufacturers and so on. Most of them are rather embarrassed to be sharing their trip with a mere laundress. As the trip progresses, it becomes apparent that she is not just the only one with forethought enough to pack food for the journey but the only real patriot among them. While the rest of the passengers merely complain about the bad manners of the Germans, it turns out that the laundress has consistently refused to have anything to do with them.

Unfortunately the Mademoiselle Fifi of the title, hardly a fluffy young girl but a sadistic Prussian officer, holds them up at an inn on the road, for that very reason. He requests that she dine with him but she refuses, and so in turn he refuses to let the horses be harnessed to the coach. They're all therefore stuck partway unless she caves, and while they initially back her refusal soon find that inconvenience trumps any honour they might have between them.

Classic French writer Guy de Maupassant had a point to make, and if this adaptation is even close to the original pair of short stories, he wasn't particularly subtle about it. The Germans may be the bad guys, but there are levels of decency among Frenchmen, the most decent among this particular group being the one the rest would think the least. There's an obvious comparison and given that this was made in 1944, Stagecoach was only five years old. Apparently the comparison is even more fair as the two films were based on the same story, and while Simone Simon's laundress is even lower down the social scale in aristocratic France than Claire Trevor's prostitute in Stagecoach, she was apparently a prostitute in the original story. Whatever she was, she has more decency, honour and self-sacrifice, let alone manners, than anyone else.

Simone Simon is charming here and she dominates quietly through sheer force of personality. The other standouts are John Emery as the political radical Jean Cornudet, trying desperately to be John Barrymore; and Kurt Kreuger, harsh, haughty and manipulative as the title character. Each of the actors makes their presence felt though, making this a highly consistent piece. As with many of Val Lewton's films, its biggest failing is that it is so short.

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