I’d known about Poil de Carotte for many years, my father having spoken very highly of it, but despite his regard (and the general regard of the critics), the film has drifted into moderate obscurity in recent years, possibly in part due to the decline in writer-director Julien Duvivier’s reputation.
However, it’s now available through Criterion’s Eclipse series (in a set with other Duvivier films of the era), and I was finally able to see it…and I’m damned glad I did.
François Lepic (Robert Lynen), nicknamed “Poil de Carotte” (“Carrot Top”) for his red hair, is having a hard time of it; his mother (Catherine Fonteney) is cruel and loveless, his older siblings (whom his mother dotes on) barely acknowledge his existence, and his father (Harry Baur) has given up trying to influence things at home, focusing instead on becoming mayor of their provincial town.
François copes with his misfortunes through his sardonic wit, and finds a sympathetic ear in the family’s new maid Annette (Christiane Dor), but as time wears on, even these consolations wear thin, and François contemplates dealing with his troubles in a more drastic – and permanent – way…
This kind of subject matter – the suffering of children due to the callousness of adults – stirs a righteous anger in me, and there are scenes in this film which are fairly painful to watch. But they’re painful precisely because the artistry on display is so great, because the writing and direction are so vivid, and because the acting is so good.
Duvivier, remaking his 1925 silent film, makes use of a marvelously fluid camera, sharp editing, and virtuosic early sound to make a film which, for the most part, still feels fresh and vital 85 years later. Take the scene where François, torn from his idyllic afternoon with his godfather and playmate, drives himself and Annette home in a horse-cart, his mounting rage stoked by the happy families he sees, the cart’s furious pace captured by a camera that was clearly mounted on one – no rear-projection or under-cranking here.
And note the excellent use of double exposure to depict François’ inner voice, feeding his miseries and urging him to ever more drastic action.
Duvivier’s script, from a novel by Jules Renard, likewise remains impressive. François’ boldness and sarcasm make him an unusually dynamic child protagonist, and arguably make his mounting despair even more affecting. And his mother, whose cruelty is almost unbearable to watch, avoids being a two-dimensional baddie by the suggestion (expounded upon a bit at the very end) that François’ father has hardly been the best husband he could be.
As good as the writing and directing are, it’s the acting which makes the film indisputably great. Lynen gives one of the great child performances, his frustration and anger being conveyed as believably as his humor and capacity for love. Baur, first seen as a mute, emotionless presence, cunningly reveals the depths of warmth and compassion which M. Lepic has buried for too long. And Fonteney is almost overwhelmingly repellent, never betraying the purity of Mme. Lepic’s emotional brutality.
If there’s a fault to be found here, it’s that the denouement is a bit pat, spelling some elements out too much and resolving others too little. It’s a relatively minor point, though, because the emotions depicted by Lynen and Baur in the final moments are so beautifully poignant. Highly recommended.