The French Revolution Bicentennial series, running at UCLA's Melnitz Hall, has a truly strange and enjoyable triple feature today.
To begin at the bottom: Richard Pottier's 1951 "Caroline Cherie" is a naughty travesty, but an interesting one. Based on the Cecil St. Laurent best seller, and scripted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, it's another of those heavy-breathing tales where a loose heroine in a tight bodice sleeps or flirts her way all through a historical epoch, until true love rears its unlikely head. As aristocrat teen-ager Caroline, Martine Carol--whose reign as France's premier blonde sex kitten preceded Brigitte Bardot's--pouts and slithers, strips to a chemise and rolls provocatively under the sheets, while dastardly rebels and fat cads keep trying to seduce or guillotine her.
The 1949 "The Black Book" sounds formidable. Anthony Mann--master of the moody '40's gangster film before he turned to Westerns in the '50's--reconceived the Terror as a gangland war, and shot it as a period film noir. Aiding him were the nonpariel noir cinematographer John Alton ("T-Men," "Raw Deal"), scenarist Phillip Yordan ("Johnny Guitar") and, in an amazing casting coup, Richard Basehart as Robespierre ("Don't call me Max," he threatens, memorably.)
In his day, Sacha Guitry's work was damned by cinema purists as stagy and static. No film is more susceptible to that complaint than the 165-minute 1954 "Si Versailles m'etait Conte" ("Royal Affairs at Versailles"), shot almost entirely at Versailles, with a huge all-star French cast as most of the luminaries who, for several centuries, trod its halls: Jean Marais (Louis XV), Jean-Louis Barrault (Francois Fenelon), Orson Welles (Benjamin Franklin), Gerard Philippe (D'Artagnan), and Guitry himself, constantly seated or in a wheelchair, as the older Louis XIV. (Even Bardot shows up, as a lady-in-waiting.)
Later Guitry admirers, such as Alain Resnais, tend to dislike the historical films; this version of "Versailles" is indeed constructed oddly. The Louis XV and Louis XIV scenes are taken out of sequence and placed at the end, for no sensible-looking reason. But there's still some fascination here. Guitry was a legendary actor-playwright of the French stage, and a fantastically prolific film maker as well. Even here, at 69, he retains his easy elegance. And, for its views of Versailles, for the astonishing cast members (with their carefully modulated, theatrically crisp readings), even for such weird moments as Edith Piaf, as the Woman of the People, storming the Bastille with song, the movie becomes a charming museum piece.