Rosemary A. Peters-Hill
Louisiana State University
The preface to La Fortune des Rougon, the 1870 incipit of Émile Zola’s series of novels Les Rougon-Macquart, states, “L’hérédité a ses lois, comme la pesanteur” (‘Heredity, like gravity, has its laws’). Following this statement, revolutionary at its time, Zola adds:
The Rougon-Macquart group, the family I propose to study, displays a characteristic excess of appetites, the great upheaval of our times that plunges us headlong toward pleasure. Physiologically, these appetites are the result of a slow succession of neurological and sanguine accidents that manifest themselves in a stock of people in the aftermath of an initial organic lesion, and will determine in these individuals, depending on the milieu in which they will find themselves, their feelings, desires, and passions, all the instinctive and natural human responses whose manifestations are commonly described as vices and virtues. 
By the time he published L’Assommoir seven years later, Zola must have grown accustomed to his readership’s reluctance to accept his more cruel indictments of French society under the Second Empire. In a foreword to L’Assommoir itself, the novelist complained that his work had been “attacked with unheard-of brutality, denounced, charged with every possible crime.” Given the novel’s subject matter – adultery, alcoholism, domestic violence, child neglect, and a general privileging of sensual pleasures over civic responsibilities – this reaction might not seem so surprising. Still, Zola insisted, “I wanted to depict the fatal decline of a working-class family in the foul conditions of our faubourgs. Beyond drunkenness and idleness, we witness the slackening of familial ties, the filth of promiscuity, the progressive disappearance of honest sentiments, ending with the inevitable shame and death. It is, quite simply, morality in action.”
Like many good nineteenth-century novels, the kind the reading public could sink its teeth into, the great moral story in L’Assommoir revolves around a woman. The novel offers a bleak and brutal study of the damages sensuality and alcoholism inflict on individual, family, children, and community. Zola’s book is explicitly a working-class novel. The author himself called it “le premier roman sur le peuple, qui ne mente pas et qui ait l’odeur du peuple.” Zola gives us Gervaise Macquart-Coupeau, a young Provençale who comes to Paris with her lover Lantier. Gervaise exists for sensual pleasures: from the clear running water of the Plassans river where she once did her washing, to the goose at her name-day feast. She notes “the brides dressed in white of the bourgeois weddings” that precede her own to Coupeau at the hôtel de ville. She observes across the street from her window, the man in a frock coat and his “cute tools.” Through her eyes Zola shows us a lush texture of minute details that make up the interior life of this resilient gourmande. Her story spins dizzyingly from the depths of despair to an always-teetering plateau of contentment, and back down, and down, and down. We mourn her downfall even as we cluck (like Madame Boche) in satisfaction or Schadenfreude at each new inevitable setback: the “I knew it” of every moment of weakness, every bad decision.
René Clément adapted L’Assommoir in his eighth film, Gervaise. Like Zola, Clément focuses on Gervaise Macquart whose misfortunes put the gris into grisette. Her feckless lover Lantier abandons her and their children after draining her inheritance; she works to exhaustion in a laundry, but loses this job after fighting with the acid-tongued Virginie; her brief happiness with husband Coupeau literally comes crashing down when he becomes an invalid after a roofing accident. In his misery, Coupeau turns to drink. Gervaise ultimately follows him down the long sad spiral of addiction, destroying her home, her family, and her dreams. Clément’s 1956 film spares no detail of the challenges facing the artisan class in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, nor the way these challenges are manifested within neighborhoods. In this social setting, everyone knows everyone else’s business: financial loss, cuckoldry, lavish dinners a family can scarcely afford, a woman’s bruises, the uncompromising silence of children. The community ends up perpetuating infidelity, abuse, ruin, and neglect, because speaking out against them takes power, and the stories Clément’s camera (like Zola’s pen) captures are stories of the powerless.
Clément’s lens recreates a Paris lush with cinematic believability, and grim with unsparing realism. The actors look like people one might have encountered on the streets of Paris in the 1950s. There are no soft-focus filters: the aged are aged, grime is grimy, the drunk are stone-drunk. Clément does not idealize the working class here, nor glorify poverty, sex, or heartbreak. Zola wrote proudly of his commitment to the ouvriers; Clément’s approach fits this narrative nearly perfectly, with its semi-documentary cinematography and the sharp focus that keeps each detail grainy, pregnant with humidity, dirt, grease, and steam. It is as if we were with the characters in a flat in the 19th arrondissement. The film brings us so viscerally into the story that we can even forgive its occasional sentimentality.
The central character, Gervaise Macquart Coupeau, played by Maria Schell, gives us the portrait of a woman whose circumstances do everything to beat her down, but whose resilience and generous heart buoy her up time and again … until there is simply nothing left to get back up for. Schell’s Gervaise is a work of art in itself: as one Amazon reviewer comments, we forget that Maria Schell is “playing” Gervaise, she becomes Gervaise, and the viewer cannot help joining her in every thrilling display of pathos. We share Gervaise’s humiliation when Virginie shames her at the laundry and her fleeting glee at inflicting pain. We share her pride in a beautifully roasted goose for her feast day, through Schell’s trademark smile that spreads across her face until we don’t think it can go any farther – then grows wider still. We share her horror when she realizes Coupeau (played by François Périer) has been stealing the économies (her savings) intended to pay back the blacksmith Goujet, whose loan allowed her to open her own laundry. We suffer with her as she rebukes her drunk husband: “Ah yes, I did want my shop. My God, how I wanted it. And I had it. And now, where has my shop gone? You’ve eaten it.” And when Schell loses her gaze in an empty glass, which we know is neither the first nor the last, as her grubby daughter Nana murmurs her name and backs away, we feel something bright and beautiful slip from our grasp. This is despair drenched in rotgut numbness, Janis-Joplin-level freedom: nothin’ left to lose.
Clément shows us everything the camera can capture of this Paris: the tentative glee of homeless Père Bru when he is invited to dinner; the scratch of the quill in the marriage-registry book as Gervaise signs her name; the dull clink of coins in the beggar’s bowl outside the church before he sprints away to escape the rain and turns his “AVEUGLE” (‘BLIND’) sign around to read “SOURD ET MUET” (‘DEAFMUTE’); the metallic rustle of rain on cobblestones, punctuated by the ring of Goujet’s hammer; even Virginie’s pale buttocks straining to escape the spanking she receives at Gervaise’s hands. Clément’s Gervaise, like films by contemporaries Visconti, Rossellini, and Fellini, stays as close to reality as possible, turning a lens on the lower class(es), shooting outdoors and in natural light, calling attention to the world around its 1956 audience. If French viewers in 1956 went to the cinema to escape the memories of devastation wrought on children and communities, and to see something besides their own post-war poverty, Gervaise stood as a brilliantly executed, brutal reminder of all they could not turn away from.
Clément makes visual the social questions Zola set down on paper. A working man is first and foremost a body: a sometimes ridiculous, impotent body, fallible rather than noble. Men toil and sweat and swear and drink and cheat. They build their bodies into vehicles of strength in the artisanal world they still inhabit. Women occupy a separate economy, a stratified system in which success depends on their ability to seduce, serve, and gratify men. They labor and sweat and wait and weep. As both Zola and Clément acknowledge, marriages in this milieu tend toward the practical, not the féérique. Coupeau and Gervaise’s wedding, the exception to this rule, gets rained out, and the wedding party takes a trip to the past: they go to the Louvre. The past offers extravagance, the museum an archive of exotic and glorious human experience, both French and Other.
The wedding (and post-wedding) scene offers a fine example of Clément’s vision for this story. The wedding itself takes place during an interstice, sandwiched between a touching scene in which Coupeau and Gervaise show each other their wedding clothes, and the scene immediately after the vows. We watch Gervaise add her ornate signature to the marriage registry and then Coupeau draw a simple “X.” He looks abashed, but asks the judge “C’est bon quand même, hein?” (‘It’s still valid, right?’) Does he need reassurance for his illiteracy or for his marriage? The visit to the Louvre brings out Clément’s genius for minutiae. As the characters examine one painting after another, their faces mere centimeters from the canvas, we see every reaction, every raised eyebrow, every intake of breath. The camera pans down to their muddy shoes tapping and shuffling on the Louvre’s tiled floor as they rush to another room, close enough to sweep us up in the rush of movement. They do not know the names of artists or aesthetic schools; they dash through the rooms in search of nude pictures. After their delightfully disorganized romp through the museum halls, we see them resting on a bench outside, rubbing their feet, gathering the energy to walk back home. Artistic pursuits and amusements lie outside the workers’ usual frame of reference that they sit in the rain afterward to recover. They leave the past and limp unsteadily off toward the future as Clément’s camera fades to black.
And what of the future, in this film? L’Assommoir hints at novels to come, in the characters of Étienne (Germinal) and Claude (L’Œuvre – The Masterpiece) Lantier, Gervaise’s sons. And at the future of the workers’ movement, through Jacques Harden’s Goujet, Gervaise’s not-so-secret admirer, who takes Étienne under his wing, and is sent to jail for union activism. There is even a hint, toward the end, of Jacques, a third son hastily concocted for La bête humaine, when Goujet explains to Etienne how a steam locomotive works. And of course in the character of little Anna Coupeau, nicknamed Nana, who will become the “mouche d’or” of the 1880 novel named for her. Children in Zola are not innocent: they work, they roam the streets or stay alone at home, tending to domestic needs and younger children; they become occasional casualties to turmoil in the adult world. Some, like Nana, will refuse the path of indigent ignominy their mothers walked. Part of the ache of Clément’s film lies precisely in the knowledge of what comes next for this sober-eyed, tousle-haired child, stirring a pot of potatoes: to wit, years of a different kind of dinginess and poverty in the demi-monde, life as a courtesan, the “golden fly” epithet, death through contagious illness as she hears people beneath her window shouting “To Berlin!” And with the figure of Nana, the reminder that no matter what an individual may suffer, the world around moves inexorably forward.
We can, and especially in 2017 should, talk about the power dynamics portrayed in the film. While men (as Clément portrays them, and indeed as Zola wrote them) fight for dominance in their neighborhoods as in their own homes, they nonetheless forge networks of solidarity that provide them with camaraderie. Lantier and Coupeau might beat each other up, but in the long run, they have each other’s backs: they share in Gervaise’s income, her home, and indeed her affections; they also share in beating the dream out of her. Women and children bear the brunt of all political fallout, economic misery, and social exclusion. Women find no solidarity, even in shared poverty. They undercut each other, sell each other out, and converse with poisoned arrows. Gervaise and her longtime “cow-eyed” rival Virginie square off early in the film; their malingering sexual competition dominates the end of the story as well, as Virginie takes over Gervaise’s failed shop, her former home, her former lover, and even, in a final dramatic gesture, her daughter. Nana goes to Virginie for sweets while Gervaise slumps immobile before her drink. Then, too, Gervaise’s sister-in-law, the miserly gold-worker Mme Lorieux, repeatedly insults her with insinuations about her physical condition (her limp), her loose morals, and the damage she and her children will inflict on Coupeau. She even, later, blames Gervaise for Coupeau’s alcoholism.
Alcoholism for Zola is, baldly, nakedly, the raison d’être of his novel. He sought to show the dangers of drink, not only the deleterious champagne sparkling in flutes at Imperial soirées, but also, and more importantly perhaps, the slow degradation of social structures due to overconsumption, the willful and knowing erasure of inhibitions, that “slackening” he wrote about in his preface. When the Emperor drinks, the people suffer. When the people drink, though, the nation as a whole risks collapse. Social foundations crumble if workers slide into drunkenness and apathy, leaving their work unfinished, their children neglected. Drink has the capacity to turn a person against his better interests, to reduce people to their basest natures at the expense of every finer instinct and responsibility. The initial slight indulgence leads to excess, to an alteration in character, even to abjection.
The novel follows Coupeau’s fall into alcoholism and madness, with meticulous attention paid to the terrifying visions and physical decrepitude that accompany delirium tremens to his death in a hospital ward. In the film, as in the novel, our first glimpse of this danger comes through the increasingly incapacitated Coupeau who, after several days of alcoholic benders, is returned home by the police “dans un drôle d’état” (‘in a heck of a state’), who subsequently regurgitated everything in his guts all over the house he and Gervaise share with Lantier: “‘Oh what a pig! What a pig!’ an exasperated and indignant Gervaise repeated… ‘He has soiled everything … No dog would have done this, even a dead dog would be cleaner.’” Gervaise, who that same evening had consumed a verre or two herself at the café-concert with Lantier, confronts her past and present sensuality and the role of drink in her and Coupeau’s lives. Zola states: “The first few times, she had felt quite guilty, quite dirty, and quite disgusted with herself.” She justifies her adulterous liaison with Lantier – for which, like drink, she builds up a tolerance, letting herself go. “She slowly got used to it. It was too tiring to wash her face each time.” Little by little, the novel catches Gervaise’s resolve slip from her grasp, as she makes one compromise after another, as her life turns unrecognizable.
Alcoholism, although present in the film, was not Clément’s major concern. What interested him and scriptwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost was working-class life during the Second Empire, its ambitions, struggles, and limitations. The workplace is at the heart of the film. As a consequence, they do not follow Zola’s novel with complete fidelity; in fact, at times the film becomes heavy-handed in its moralizing message. In Zola’s novel Nana, for example, leaves home an unruly adolescent to begin her life as a courtesan; the downward trajectory of her parents has occupied her entire childhood and she has reached enough of an age of reason to make her own way. Clément, however, keeps the story tauter. The film has a two-hour running time, and within those 120 minutes Clément compresses years of character development (and degeneration). In Clément’s Nana, we can see echoes of his earlier film Jeux interdits (‘Forbidden Games’ – 1952), the story of a little girl orphaned by war. If the war in Jeux interdits is explicitly foregrounded, the war in Gervaise is no less consuming for being on a metaphorical plane. Clément shows his characters’ daily clashes, and the ways in which children – Étienne and Claude in the opening scenes, Nana in the closing ones – serve as collateral damage to their embattled elders.
Gervaise additionally changes the narrative approach: Clément gives the title character a voice in which to tell her story. Sort of. Her voice fades in and out sporadically, disappearing definitively as her world crumbles and fractures around her. After Coupeau, in a drunken fit, tears the shop apart and has to be removed in a hospital van, Gervaise sits alone in the ruins of her dining room, staring listlessly at the table before her. Something – at first we wonder if it is part of Georges Auric’s score – tinkles and clinks in the near distance. When she rouses herself to stand and step forward to investigate, she is already too late: the partial beam, which had remained half-suspended from the ceiling, just enough to swing back and forth on its slowly weakening tether, snaps off and tumbles to the floor. Gervaise stands in the doorway, Coupeau’s unfinished glass in her hand. The scene fades out; the next scene fades in on a hand pouring wine into a glass. The hand belongs to Lantier, the glass to Virginie, who has taken over the shop and turned it into a confectionary. Virginie directs Lantier’s hand to the best sweets to snack on, and turns back to the small caged bird she is tending. From the birdcage, she turns her head to look out of the (repaired) shop window, through which Coupeau had thrown a table. By the end of the film, we no longer need Gervaise’s narrative voice to hear her story. We find it in the sad squeaks of shoes and birds, in the silences that follow Coupeau’s explosion and the shattering of her laundry shop, in the fragility of a gilded birdcage. This Gervaise does not beg, or try to earn money with her body; she sinks. Zola tells us, in an often discredited line, “[h]eureusement, on s’accoutume à tout; les mauvaises paroles, les injustices des deux hommes finissaient par glisser sur sa peau fine comme sur une toile cirée.” Clément’s film omits this doubtful assessment, but shows us instead the ways in which desperation and indignity leave Gervaise wordless; silence stands in for apathy. Clément uses audio effects tellingly, with Auric’s score paving the way from the opening credits’ bombastic dirge-fanfare all the way to the last twittering notes as Nana runs off with a group of boys, her flaxen hair streaming behind her. The light-heartedness of this music rings more cruelly even than Gervaise’s ominous silence. Those last notes sound almost playful, underscored by a tenor of disharmony: a reminder of the profound isolation of Gervaise’s tragedy.
Clément’s film, and the story it tells, is not primarily about Nana, or Coupeau, or Lantier – or even, arguably, about Gervaise. This film is Clément’s post-war quasi-documentary portrayal of a city, society, and nation, in the process of evolution: the advent of the railway, Haussmann’s urbanization, the destruction of old neighborhoods and replacement of the artisanal world by the grind of industry. Zola’s novel staunchly allies itself with the working class, le peuple. Clément’s Gervaise transforms herself from peuple to petite bourgeoisie by opening her shop. Her later destitution and humiliation suggest that she has broken a cardinal rule, stepping outside the boundaries of her class to try a different role. “On était mieux quand on était ouvriers” (we were better off as workers) she laments to Coupeau in his cups. And this comment, from both Zola and Clément, reminds the audience that modernity, with its fragmented subjectivity, its push toward change that destroys a traditional infrastructure, came at a price. Paris, growing more strongly modern, moved away from those who – like Gervaise – could not survive the evolution.
When Gervaise had its US premiere, the New York Times called it “a deeply moving flow of human revelation.” Gervaise featured among the 1956 nominees for the Oscars’ Best Foreign-Language Film Award, a prize that went to Federico Fellini’s La Strada. (Clément had in fact already won the Oscar in this category four years earlier for Jeux interdits.) The film did win the BAFTA for best foreign film in 1957 and Maria Schell received the best actress award at the 1956 Venice Film Festival. Ultimately, a Europe still recovering from the war seemed readier to accept an uncompromising vision of poverty and despair than an America wedded to its suburban dreams.
René Clément, Director, Gervaise, 1956, b/w, 116 min, France, Agnes Delahaie Productions, Silver Films, Compagnie Industirelle et Commerciale Cinématographique.
- Zola, Émile. La Fortune des Rougon. (Bruges: Bibliothèque de La Pléïade, Les Rougon-Macquart vol. I, 1961) Préface.
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