Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Neglected Gem: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

Pierre Fresnay in Monsieur Vincent (1947).

Movies about men and women of faith are usually tepid and sentimental, but a few are extraordinary: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Fred Zinnemann’s A Nun’s Story (1959) and more recently Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010) come to mind. Lesser known is Maurice Cloche’s 1947 Monsieur Vincent, which chronicles the religious vocation of Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay) in seventeenth-century France, beginning with his leaving Paris, where he completed his education as a priest, to take over as curé in a small town in the countryside during the plague. His early life, when he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery, isn’t included in the film; Cloche and the screenwriters, Jean-Bernard Luc and the playwright Jean Anouilh, aren’t interested in the parts of Vincent’s life that qualify it as an adventure story; the entire focus of the picture is on his devotion to the poor, which culminated in his founding the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. (He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737.) Cloche is a filmmaker from the cinéma de papa era in France – that often-derided period between the golden age of French cinema (the 1930s) and the French New Wave (beginning in 1959-1960) – with whose body of work I am otherwise unfamiliar, but Monsieur Vincent is a fine piece of work: intelligent, sensitive, understated, with a purity of narrative style that lends it a kind of poetry.

The protagonist is gentle but tough-minded – tough on the wealthy, who take insufficient notice of the misery in the streets, far tougher on himself. In the opening section, he arrives at the manor of the local lord, who has locked his doors against the plague (one thinks inevitably of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”), and shocks his host by insisting on seeking out the villagers who may have survived. He finds one, a little girl who is sitting by the bed of her dead mother. Vincent can’t find a carpenter to build a coffin for the mother – who, it turns out, died of other causes – but he persuades a crusty veteran holed up in the presbytery to help him. The plague has subsided; the locals appear in the churchyard and he finds a woman to take in the child, adding her to her brood of five.  Her willingness illustrates the lesson he wants to teach to his new congregation: ask the most besieged of the community to take on even more.

Monsieur Vincent is episodic and dotted with memorable episodes. The most powerful one appears late in the film, after the Daughters of Charity, which engages both the well-off and the poor in the service of the destitute, has been well established. Vincent follows a young mother through the streets with a swaddling baby in her arms to the steps of a church, where she plans to abandon the fatherless child.  He can’t persuade her to change her mind; she runs away. A homeless cripple informs the priest that women who leave their babies outside the church are kinder than many others – hoping for some salvation for their children, at least they don’t toss them in the river. Vincent brings the child to the Daughters of Charity, but not one among them will even touch the baby, so repelled are they by the sin that generated her birth. That’s one line that their compassion won’t cross.

Pierre Fresnay’s nearly sixty-year movie career began in the silent era, but he’s most famous for playing the aristocrat de Boeldieu in Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion; he’s Marius in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy, and he’s the spy whose murder in Hitchcock’s first (British) version of The Man Who Knew Too Much incites the intrigue. The stars who came to the forefront during the golden age of French cinema represented a fascinating cross-section of styles; Fresnay’s is subtle and deeply entrenched in the characters – he’s as close as any French film star of the thirties and forties came to embodying the principles of Stanislavskian acting. It took me nearly half an hour to start recognizing elements in this performance that overlap with the one he gives in Grand Illusion. And the Jean Anouilh who collaborated on the screenplay hardly seems to be the same writer whose curlicued, self-conscious plays (Antigone, Ring Round the Moon, Tiger at the Gates and many others) were still required reading for theatre students when I went to college in the late sixties and early seventies. The black-and-white cinematography is by the great Claude Renoir. Monsieur Vincent is hard to locate but it’s worth looking for.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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