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French playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, known for his low-key comedy-dramas set among the working-class denizens of Marseilles, explores his love/hate relationship with the film industry in Le Schpountz (1938).
The title is a slang term for a person with an inflated sense of self-importance, so explains a Parisian director (Enrico Glori) to his crew while shooting a film on location in Marseilles. A barman at a cafe (Marcel Maupi), for instance, asserts his humility in one breath, while in the next insists that he has the voice of Raimu (an inside joke, as Raimu was the star of Pagnol's "Fanny Trilogy": Marius , Fanny , and Csar ).
Soon thereafter, the crew encounters le schpountz extraordinaire, a grocer's assistant named Irne Fabre (Marseilles-born comedian Fernandel), who has an ego of Hollywood epic proportions. One night, he explains to his brother that God has endowed him with extraordinary talents, and it is his duty to share these gifts with the world. "Does God toil away for nothing? Would He have given me this calling, this memory, this voice, this gait, this quivering sensitivity, to leave me serving gorgonzola? No, Casimir, God isn't mad! Despite His games of famine, war, floods, and plague, God is basically someone with good common sense!"
When Irne approaches the film crew, they entertain his delusions, staging a screen test in which the would-be Boyer recites a line from the Civil Code in a wide range of emotions ("Those sentenced to death will lose their heads"). To cap off their mockery, the crew offers him a fake contract with outrageous terms. Irne, of course, doesn't get the joke, but packs his bags and heads for Paris where immortality awaits.
At the studio, Le Schpountz becomes a satire of a different sort, taking wry jabs at conniving, egotistical show people. In one scene, a particularly ambitious actress asks the studio head, Meyerbaum (a thinly-veiled Louis B. Mayer), "Who else must I sleep with to see my name on a poster?" "You could try the printer!" he replies. Suddenly, Irne seems less an arrogant yokel and more of a twentieth-century Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of a motion picture studio. We come to admire his unwavering self-confidence, even when he is subjected to a series of humiliations. After one particularly cruel prank, Iren's boundless enthusiasm begins to crumble, and he delivers a profoundly dark and soulful monologue condemning the "heartless idiots" who have been using him as their plaything.
Moved by Irne's speech, one of the filmmakers, Francoise (Orane Demazis [Pagnol's lover and the mother of his son Jean-Pierre]) takes pity on the schpountz and arranges a menial job for him at the studio. Their relationship flowers and Irne reveals a flair for comedy. Under her tutelage, it looks as though he may achieve stardom after all, but the third-act question remains: what effect will his first taste of fame and fortune have upon the provincial schpountz?
Pagnol always had a combative relationship with film studios. At the beginning of his screen career, he butted heads with Paramount producer Robert Kane, over the conditions under which Pagnol's play Marius might be adapted to film. Pagnol responded by forming his own production company in 1932, and learning the art of filmmaking from experienced directors, such as Alexander Korda (Marius) and Marc Allegret (Fanny).
A playwright, screenwriter, producer and director, Pagnol had a juggler's gift for filmmaking. Le Schpountz was shot simultaneously with another Pagnol picture: Regain (Harvest ), which also stars Fernandel and Demazis. According to one source, Pagnol was writing (and rewriting) Le Schpountz as they filmed, which occasionally called for reshoots. In one case, an actor who appeared in one portion of the film (Pierre Brasseur) was not available for the retakes, so his role is truncated in the finished film.
The premise of Le Schpountz arose from Pagnol's own experiences in filmmaking. According to writer James Travers, "During the making of Pagnol's earlier film, Angle (1934), the production team were hassled by a member of the public who believed he was destined to become a great film actor. To get rid of him, the production team gave him a false contract in which he would take over the role of Charles Boyer in a film."
For Pagnol, the intricacies of the plot were of lesser consequence than the chemistry among the actors. Frequently in his films, the narrative stands still while the characters engage in prolonged, witty, argumentative banter about some topic of minor importance. In Le Schpountz one of the best such scenes is when Irne and Francoise debate the merits of slapstick comedy and the artistry of Charlie Chaplin.
Upon the film's 1989 theatrical re-release, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, "the dialogue rolls on nonstop. Pagnol made movies with a radio producer's abhorrence of dead air time. There is, however, a kind of exuberant intimacy about the Pagnol dialogue, whether he is dramatizing the spiky relationships among the members of a single family or among movie people."
Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight ), a longtime admirer of Pagnol, describes the director's gift for dialogue -- and dialect: "The dialogue appears simple but is, in fact, remarkably nuanced. By delicately preserving the language of the working class -- from the regional dialect to the inherent social codes and rituals embedded within it -- Pagnol creates a richly textured portrait of a delightfully obscure world, a corner of France that the theater had previously ignored... Pagnol did not merely borrow the slang of the waterfront working class. Of course Pagnol, like all great stylists, certainly savored the colorful, picturesque dialect. But he takes the language of Marseilles and shapes it in such a way that it develops its own dramatic impact -- often veering towards the epic."
Some argue that Pagnol's dialogue-centric cinema is visually unadventurous, but Tavernier argues otherwise, "This man who pretended to hate technique...knew how to invent magnificent shots, wide traveling, exterior shots, that really allow one to breathe: long shots in which Pagnol takes his time with his characters, lets them express themselves at ease, argue, divert to the most diverse subjects, scratch each other's eyes out or discuss what is closest to their hearts...Warmly affectionate, he savors these confrontations between chatterboxes and poets. His humanism is contagious, and the pleasure that one derives from these scenes is often proportionate to their length."
Variety favorably reviewed Le Schpountz upon its initial American release: "Although Marcel Pagnol has taken an old story, he has selected an excellent cast, written some first-class script and turned out a thoroughly amusing film. Pagnol's ability to write dialogue is well known here, and his pic is further proof of it. Without the amusing patter the film would fall to pieces in many spots. In spite of the great length, the story moves well and dull moments are rare."
In 1999, Le Schpountz was remade by Grard Oury, with Smain in the title role. By most accounts, the updated film does not compare favorably with Pagnol's original.
Director: Marcel PagnolProducer: Marcel PagnolScreenplay: Marcel PagnolCinematography: Willy FaktorovitchMusic: Casimir OberfeldCast: Fernandel (Irne Fabre), Orane Demazis (Francoise), Fernand Charpin (Oncle Baptiste Fabre), Lon Belires (Meyerbaum), Jean Castan (Casimir Fabre), Robert Vattier (Astruc), Enrico Glori (Glazunoff, the director), Odette Roger (Aunt Clarisse Fabre), Roger Forster (Lucien), Marcel Maupi (barman).
by Bret Wood
* NOTE: Modern sources refer to the lead character as Irene... but that is the spelling of a woman's name. We see his name spelled Irne in the original French credits as well as a poster within the film.... so Irne is correct.