It is beyond belief that the beautiful, exotic, vulnerable, utterly alluring Dany Carrel will turn ninety in September. For most of her career, she was simply too sexy to be taken seriously; she remained eye candy even when she was allowed to reveal her skills as an actor.
She has survived a traumatic childhood and a tumultuous life both on and off screen; in 1991, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, and still uncertain that she would vanquish it, she wrote a bracing memoir, L’ANNAMITE, which, among many other things, reminded us that her exotic looks (a French father and a Vietnamese mother) had been more of a drawback than a “door-opener” in her life and career.
At our THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT festivals, we’ve seen Dany Carrel in several guises. We’ve seen her as a sweet young thing being led astray by Henri Vidal in René Clair’s GATES OF PARIS (1957); more crucially, we’ve discovered her true range as a first-rate actress in André Cayatte’s complex, unsettling thriller TRAP FOR CINDERELLA (1965), a film that unjustly languished in limbo for more than a half-century. I’m confident that the arc of cinema history will bend toward justice and eventually canonize her for her fearless performance in a mind-bending triple role.
We’ll soon see her in an excellent early role as part of our GABIN 118 series (playing at the Roxie Theater May 15/16). In Henri Verneuil’s sublime PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE, Carrel (23 at the time) plays the rebellious 18-year-old daughter of Jean Gabin. Her character is a key agent of discord in her family’s life, and her actions hasten the breakup of her parents’ troubled marriage. (To say more is to give away too much, of course: you must see her play this part with great passion and realism.)
In her autobiography, Carrel memorably describes the process by which her performance in PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE was subtly guided by Jean Gabin. It reveals much about Gabin’s character and his steadfast commitment to the cinematic projects he undertook. Carrel’s recollections are riveting, and show the nuances involved in taking a story that might seem overly familiar and imbuing it with the type of details that turn it into a work of art. (We thank our great friend Phoebe Green, French film expert and translator extraordinaire, for preparing these passages for us.)
And now, Dany Carrel takes us onto the set, where she will open her eyes (and ours) to the real-time world of filmmaking—and to the dedication of Jean Gabin…
…the assistant director introduced me to Gabin:
“Here is Dany Carrel, who’ll be playing your daughter.”
“Yes! Hello!” he growled, cold-eyed and grudging. And left.
Never had any actor, even the most difficult, treated me like that. I was furious. How unlike Gérard Philipe, so ready to help me! Really, what an ogre! And I began to hate him: Unbelievable! He knows I’m a beginner. He must realize a girl of my age can’t help being overwhelmed to work with a man like him! He knows I have an important, challenging scene to play with him!... My rage increased. I wondered whether he’d seen my tests and didn’t like my acting… In short, I went through all the drama a young actress can when she feels the slightest hitch. I reviewed all the motives that might justify such an attitude. But I couldn’t calm myself: What a swine he is! I’d never have imagined he could be such a boor!
Then I tried to be reasonable: Who cares! If Henri Verneuil chose me, he likes me, too bad for Gabin!... But the very mention of Gabin raised my fury again: Really, I hate the man!
It was in that mood that I prepared to play the scene. My truckdriver “father,” Gabin, and I, Jacqueline, were sitting at the kitchen table. And as I ate fried eggs, I spoke insolently to him, because I’d realized that he was cheating on my “mother,” Yvette Etiévant, with a young woman, Françoise Arnoul.
The scene being almost entirely a closeup of me, the assistant thought we’d handle it the usual way: as I was being filmed, someone would hold his hand across from me and I would look at it as though it were Gabin’s face. But Gabin had told the assistant, before he left the set:
“Say, for the kid’s lines, come and get me, all right?”
“But, Mr. Gabin, relax in your dressing room, we’ll use the hand.”
“No, not the hand! My eye! Come and get me! And be sure you do!”
Action. Jean Gabin is sitting there, across from me. I’ve built up so much hate since the morning that my eyes must be shooting sparks. He, lips tight, looks at me with his blue eyes, cold and hard as steel. Exactly as though the camera were on him. I am so furious, so completely absorbed by my rage, that I pay no attention to the egg yolk running down my chin, and I hurl my words in my “father”’s face with terrifying insolence.
“Cut, the egg yolk’s running down her face!”
“No, let’s keep going! Egg yolk on her face? So? That’s the truth!”
And we continue the scene. And Jean Gabin, cold-eyed, still looks unblinkingly at me. And I haven’t lost a bit of my fury. I’m angry at Gabin, I’m angry at this father who’s cheating on my mother.
Once the scene is over, Gabin says nothing. We get up. I mean to stalk off. But Gabin comes over to me, puts his fist against my stomach, and says to me:
“Say, kid, you’ve got stuff there!”
What a compliment! I am silenced. At that moment, I know Gabin will be a friend to me.
We have another scene to shoot. I am so insolent with my father that he can’t restrain himself, he gives me a slap to shut me up, calling me “Miss Camembert.” That’s the nickname that my father and mother give me sometimes in the film: to earn a little money, I pose for advertisements, including a brand of cheese.
As we prepare the scene, Gabin explains:
“Hold your cheek out for me, kid, eh! Don’t worry, you won’t be hit, we’ll dub it afterwards with a steak. I’ll fake it, so don’t be scared, eh!”
“All right, Mr. Gabin.”
“So I open the door, you insult me, I bop you, but don’t worry!”
I play my scene: I find a letter from my father’s mistress and I read it. My father opens the door and catches me. But, out of the blue, Gabin really slaps me. I didn’t feel anything but a tear runs down my cheek, without my even trying.
The scene over, Gabin says:
“No retakes! It couldn’t be better!”
A little later I learned that in my absence Gabin had arranged everything to the slightest detail. He had asked: “Sound? Camera? Everything perfect? We’ll only shoot this scene once! I want to slap the kid, but only once!”
Filming with actors like that, what an education! I always wondered about Gabin’s attitude when we first met. Was it to help my performance? Did he say to himself: “The kid will never dare yell at me. If she hates me, expressing her violence will come naturally”? I never dared ask him. He never said anything about it to me, perhaps out of generosity, wanting to give me the satisfaction of believing: I stood up to Jean Gabin! But, deep down, I thought he wanted to help me. For Gabin, whom I knew much better later on, was like that: what mattered above all was the film and for him the quality of a film lay in all its roles, without exception. Everything that could contribute to a character must be tried. He, on whom the film was centered, said, when he thought it best for the film:
“That closeup isn’t for me! Closeup on the kid!”
“But, Mr. Gabin, you’re the one speaking!”
“So? Her way of listening says more than my face!”
Full disclosure: PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE screened last October 24 as what we called “the prequel” to our November FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT series. Unfortunately, the weather in San Francisco turned apocalyptically foul that day, dropping more than five inches of rain over a 24-hour period. Only a fraction of our usual audience braved the terrible weather conditions to join us that day.
Those that did registered such an amazing response to this film, however, that we knew it needed to be screened again so that it could reach the audience it so richly deserves—a true work of art, fashioned with great care by director Henri Verneuil and his vigilant, 100% committed star, Jean Gabin. Together they guided superb performances from Françoise Arnoul, Yvette Etiévant, Pierre Mondy, Paul Frankeur, and—yes—from Dany Carrel in her very pivotal role.
You owe it to yourself to come see PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE to rediscover how some films just completely envelop you, allowing you to live their truth in real time. Mick LaSalle at the Chronicle quoted me about how this film and its companion (STORMY WATERS) on Sunday evening (May 15) make for one of the very finest double bills we’ve shown over the past nine years of programming at the Roxie Theater—and I stand behind that quote. Please join us for a truly extraordinary film experience…