THIS CHAPTER focuses on the period 1952–1959, during which Signoret’s status and reputation as an international star were firmly established. It is noteworthy that, although she played fewer roles in the 1950s than in the previous six-year period (for reasons already explained in earlier chapters), the cumulative effect was to bring her the very prize she no longer particularly sought: international fame. The six films from this period—Casque d’Or, Thérèse Raquin, Les diaboliques, La mort en ce jardin, Les sorcières de Salem, and Room at the Top—constitute a key to our analysis of Signoret’s star persona and body-text and fall into three sections. In the first section, I shall do a brief analysis of the way in which the star persona is framed. In the second, I shall examine three of her films with regard to the interface between the star body and literary adaptations. The final section will consider questions of costume and color and the star body as a readable text.
The period 1952–1959 marked Signoret’s full entry into international stardom, with her performance in four of the six films gaining prestigious prizes: the British Academy Award for Best Foreign Actress in Casque d’Or, Thérèse Raquin, and Les sorcières de Salem and three awards for Room at the Top (the British Academy Award, Best Actress Cannes, and the Oscar). These six films represent a pinnacle in her career, during which she averaged an audience, in France, of two million per film. It is worth considering this figure if only because it more or less matches the average for her earlier films. We need to be aware that in the 1950s, film attendance figures in France were not yet on the decline. In 1950, the official figure was 370 million, rising to 395 million in 1955 and reaching a peak of 411 million in 1957. The point is, therefore, that whereas Signoret managed to hold on to her audience numerically speaking, in real terms, the two million figure actually represents a drop in the potential audience rather than an increase. This comes as a surprise, given her international star status at the time. Doubtless the attraction of American movies, which had reflooded the market after the war, taking 50 percent market share, drew away some of the audience. But so too did the attraction of other, more sensationally sexy and febrile stars breaking onto the scene during this period, such as Brigitte Bardot. It is also worth making the point that this figure is one she would never equal again, even in her later, equally successful career. However, by this time the major reason for the decline in attendance for Signoret’s films can be attributed to the overall drop in audiences (to 180 million in the 1970s). Indeed, in the period 1970–1985, she averaged around one million, half her original audience.
Earlier chapters discussed the sociopolitical reasons behind Signoret’s lack of domination within the star arena of the 1950s in France, but we can also see that market forces and the phenomenon of new star bodies were equally significant factors. Nonetheless, she was a star, and a careful examination of how she was shot as a star will reveal intriguing data, which in turn can help us seize what was different about her representation from other female stars of that era, such as Brigitte Bardot, Danielle Darrieux, and Martine Carol. The following tables show the distribution of shots between her roles and those of the male lead (or leads, where appropriate) or other central female characters. I have had to leave out Les sorcières de Salem because there is no video available (and I have managed to view it only once, at the Cinémathèque Française).
Let us begin with an analysis of the solo shots of Signoret and the percentages of close-ups over these five films in relation to the other lead personalities. Crucially, these percentages are worked out based on the number of close-ups (CUs) and medium close-ups (MCUs) in relation to the total number of solo shots of Signoret or the lead characters, and not on the total number of shots in the film (which gives a less clear picture as to the treatment of star personas).
The high percentage of close-ups in the British film Room at the Top points in the first instance to a cultural difference in filming. The French film industry is known for its more economical use of close-ups. French critics, particularly in the 1930s through the 1950s, often commented negatively if a film, to their mind, had too many close-ups—as indeed was the case, according to some of the French reviews, with Room at the Top. As Ginette Vincendeau (2000, 9) points out, French cinema of the classical era (1930–1960) tended to prefer medium and long shots to close-ups. The more distanced shots served either to reveal the stars’ own actorly style (gestures, etc.) or to show them in relation to other actors through ensemble play. Close-ups were used for emphasis and a momentary illusion of intimacy with the star, rather than for the fetishistic value they retain within classical Hollywood cinema. What I have chosen to look at here is the percentages of close-ups based on the total number of solo shots of Signoret and compare these with those of the other lead characters because they allow for a very interesting story to unfold.
With 73 percent of Signoret’s solo shots in close-up in Room at the Top, we would be correct to consider that, in shooting terms, she received the kind of female star treatment that is generally practiced in mainstream classical (Hollywood) narrative cinema. However, when we consider her costar Laurence Harvey, he is very strongly flagged up with a much greater number of close-ups (83 percent) than Signoret. Furthermore, in terms of the percentage of close-ups of Heather Sears (79 percent), she too is more often in close-up than Signoret. This is especially remarkable considering the significance of her role where the narrative is concerned, which is very much secondary to Signoret’s. But to return to the two top-billed stars: because Harvey is present in virtually every shot of the film, we are not surprised at the large number of solo shots that he has. What is striking, though, is the ratio of close-ups to medium and long shots of him (just under 5:1) compared with Signoret (just over 2.5:1). In other words, Harvey, ratio-wise, is held more often in close-up than the central female protagonist, Signoret. Granted, the point of view within this film is Joe Lampton’s, the role embodied by Harvey. Nonetheless, the predominance of close-ups does suggest that the male star is more of an attraction than the female star or, again, that Harvey, whose breakthrough role this was, is in some way being fetishized, even feminized, by the camera, or finally—because this was a British vehicle—that his star persona was necessarily being forefronted. Thus, we could claim that there is a nationalistic motivation to his greater exposure. Yet we could also express surprise given that Signoret was brought in as the foreign presence needed by director Jack Clayton to facilitate greater sexual explicitness.
Table 5.1. Solo Shots of Signoret
Table 5.2. Solo Shots of Male or Other Central Lead(s)
Table 5.3. Percentage of Close-Ups and Medium Close-Ups
Let us continue with this analysis and take two other films, for there are more surprises. Signoret is the lead star, with top billing, in Les diaboliques and La mort en ce jardin, yet we can hardly fail to notice the very low percentage of close-ups of her in either of these films. With regard to Les diaboliques, when we compare her percentage of close-ups (24 percent) with Vera Clouzot’s (50 percent) and take into account that Clouzot has 121 solo shots compared with Signoret’s 72, then we could be excused for thinking that Clouzot is the star of this film, not Signoret. However, even though she is less than half as present in terms of single shots as the other main female protagonist, Signoret, as an actorly presence, dominates the film (in much the same way as she does in Room at the Top). As with Room at the Top, these statistics present a similar set of contradictions: we see less of her, even though she is the dominating force of the film. Moreover, where Signoret’s star persona is concerned, there is an unexpected inversion in Les diaboliques in terms of the ratio of close-ups to medium and long shots (1:3). This is hardly star treatment, and the inversion becomes even more dramatic when Signoret is compared with Clouzot, who has as many solo close-ups as she does medium and long shots. More dramatic still, the male lead (played by Paul Meurisse) is more often in the close-up frame (45 percent) than Signoret; with regard to the ratio of close-ups to medium and long shots, he averages 2.5:3, which brings him close to Clouzot’s ratio. Arguably, in this film, as with Room at the Top, Signoret occupies the least feminized of the positions in relation to the camera.
What about La mort en ce jardin? Again, Signoret had top billing, but as we can see, her close-up percentages are very low, especially when compared with the other main female lead, played by Michèle Girardon (Maria in the film), who, proportionately, has more than twice as many close-ups. However, something of a paradox emerges when we consider Georges Marchal, who plays Chark, the action hero who saves the day at least a couple of times in this film (once by helping the miners beat the army into retreat, by blowing up their ammunition depot, and another when he manages to lead Maria to safety through the rain forest). Throughout the film, he appears in only two solo close-ups, and both of them are of his hands, not his face. The first is an MCU of his hands as he snuffs out the candle before going to bed with Djin (played by Signoret). The second is a very tight CU on his hands as he lights the matches to blow up the ammunition depot. Otherwise he is continuously in medium or long shot. In fact, we see more of him in ensemble shots or two-shots than we do in solo shots. Most of this film is in medium and long shots, so in fact the singling out of the two female leads for close-ups, albeit in a small way, represents an exception, not the rule, in this film. As such, the percentage of close-ups where Signoret is concerned is hardly commensurate with the codes and conventions of classical narrative cinema. But Luis Buñuel is not a mainstream director. Indeed, as an art filmmaker much associated with surrealism and with the Left, his choice of shots have clear ideological resonances. Thus, medium and long shots predominate, particularly for Chark, who is the only one to show any kind of group or class solidarity in this brutal film, where human beings are exposed for their venal nature. Within an ideological reading, the character of Chark stands out as the single embodiment of the class struggle. Djin, as we shall see, is completely the opposite, seeking to advance her status by all means, fair or foul.
But back to the issue of discrepancies, for they continue—this time with Thérèse Raquin. In this instance, although 53 percent of Signoret’s solo shots are in close-up and she has twice as many solo shots as either Raf Vallone or Roland Lesaffre (104 vs. 54), regarding actual time, more importance is given to Lesaffre than to either of the main protagonists. Lesaffre, who plays the blackmailing sailor, is only present in the film for a maximum of 25 minutes out of a 117-minute-long film (in percentage terms, 21 percent of the film time), yet he ends up with as many solo shots as Vallone, the top-billed male lead. In terms of close-ups, the two men both have the same number (twenty-three); similarly, they share the same number of medium and long shots (thirty-one). It is not difficult to place a queer reading on this discrepancy where Lesaffre is concerned, as the following contextualization allows us to make clear. Marcel Carné, who was openly gay within the studio confines, had befriended Lesaffre, who was also gay, after meeting him in 1949, and was very keen to provide him with a role in this film. So he wrote one in for him, which is pure invention on his part and which does not exist in the original text by Emile Zola. Interestingly, at the time of the film’s release, critics remarked favorably on Lesaffre’s performance, thereby vindicating Carné’s decision to cast him. This allowed Carné to offer him a key role in his next film, L’air de Paris (1954). In the latter film, the homoeroticism surrounding Lesaffre is made even more explicit through the way in which his athletic body is put on display (Dyer 2000, 128). But, as Dyer (2000, 130) notes, although in Thérèse Raquin there is “less body-baring,” there is “one telling sequence, much more gay iconographie: a striped sailor top is torn to reveal a nipple and a bicep flexed to hold a hand mirror, imagery that could come straight from . . . 1950s gay pornography.” A great deal of attention and focus is paid to Lesaffre’s movements by the camera from the moment we first meet him in Thérèse Raquin. His body sways and undulates. He moves sensually, as compared with the brutally assertive manner of Laurent (played by Vallone). Indeed, Laurent’s masculinity acts as a perfect foil to Lesaffre’s queer identity. Furthermore, Lesaffre is the agent of fate, the angel figure who spells disaster for Thérèse and Laurent. As Dyer (2000, 134) points out, “There is a long tradition of representing gay desire in the figure of the [male] angel in . . . high gay culture.”
Until Lesaffre put in an appearance at the shooting, Signoret was delighted to be working with Carné (Signoret 1978, 121). But once Lesaffre was on board, relations cooled considerably, and Signoret made it clear that she did not particularly care for Carné’s obvious sexual preferences (Monserrat 1983a, 85). She also disapproved of Carné’s major rewriting of the Zola original. The introduction of this non-Zola character does skew the film, and Signoret intimated as much when she expressed her fear that Lesaffre’s role killed off the psychological tension that should have driven the two main characters (Turk 1989, 381). She clearly perceived that her role and Vallone’s were being diminished by the excessive focus on Lesaffre. To a degree she was right, even though I would not go so far as Edward Baron Turk (1989, 382) who stated that “in the film’s second half . . . erotic interest shifts to the sailor.” It is not so much that it shifts, as Lesaffre’s insertion into the narrative takes it away from the two lovers. Once the blackmail is on the table, the dramatic tension between the lovers shifts from eroticism to a despairing sense of doom, thus completely changing Zola’s intentions. If Lesaffre’s performance threatens, as Turk claimed, to eclipse Signoret’s and Vallone’s, then I would argue that it is less Lesaffre’s actorly skills that makes this threat possible than the sheer volume of shots to which he is privy in such a short period of time. The spectator is more or less obliged to speculate on this actor’s body at the expense of the two star personas. Signoret argued that Carné had turned the film into a thriller (Turk 1989, 381), and she is right. However, what she failed to note is that he achieved a reversal of the traditional trope of the thriller and offered us an homme fatal in the form of Lesaffre’s sailor, thus effectively bringing this film into the realm of the queer and, incidentally, removing any possibility that Signoret might occupy the role of femme fatale.
These queering shifts are intriguing particularly because this is not the only film of this period where this occurs. Let us briefly return to Les diaboliques. The original text on which this film is based had a lesbian narrative. Given the homophobic climate of the times and the fact that director Henri-Georges Clouzot wanted to cast his wife, Vera Clouzot, as Christina (and she was determined to have a central role in this film), it is more than likely that this motivated the decision to straighten the story out. However, as we can determine from the distribution of shots in this film, Signoret occupies the least feminine of all the spaces. Indeed, Paul Meurisse as Michel, the lover and no longer (as in the original) the victim—a crucial shift, which heterosexualizes the narrative—occupies almost as strongly a female position as Christina, the intended victim in this rewritten tale. We see Signoret being extremely active in medium and long shots, moving the murder plot along and essentially occupying the role that traditionally should have been that of Paul Meurisse’s character. Conversely, his character is feminized, and it is Michel’s disappearance, his enigma, that gets investigated. Thus, rather than participating in anything that could be qualified as action-packed masculinity in practice, he takes on the role more traditionally associated with the femme fatale in film noir: namely, the body as an object of fascination and scrutiny. So once again a male occupies or usurps the place that should have been that of the female lead. Michel’s passivity and feminization— which begins by his being the “victim” who is murdered, then continues as he remains the invisible subject—is strongly counterbalanced by the no-nonsense practicalities of Signoret’s character, Nicole. She occupies, not necessarily by default either, given her short-cropped hair and her rather unsexualized clothing, a masculinized space. Her dress barely changes throughout the film, and the cut is consistently the same. She wears a daytime functional tunic that can be belted to give a certain severe elegance or left unbelted, as it is later on in the film, for comfort. The only elements that hint at an iconicity of femme fatale are her painted fingernails and her high heels, which she quickly shelves in favor of carpet-slippers as soon as she can, as if disinclined to inhabit such a prescriptive space.
Signoret’s evacuating of her role as femme fatale causes a disruption within the narrative, and it is as if the strength of her characterization permits the original text to bleed back in. As with Thérèse Raquin, we are permitted a queer reading. But this time it comes about in a completely opposite way, through repression. As an effect of heterosexualizing the relationship, Les diaboliques confronts us with sexualities that fail to run true to type or refuse almost to conform with the film noir generic narrative’s expectation of them. In a “normal” film noir, the femme fatale leads the man to his doom, but we do at least sense his passion for her. As the next section of this chapter goes on to explain, there is a mismatch in this film between sex and gender and ultimately desire that appears to have been completely erased at the heterosexual level, in any event. Thus, we are presented with incoherencies that have the converse effect of the desired outcome, and, as such, it is heterosexuality that in the final analysis is destabilized.
Yet another pattern emerges with Casque d’Or. Overall, Serge Reggiani, who plays Manda, the male lead, has more solo shots—97—than Signoret, who plays Marie, the lead female, with 72, a ratio of 4:3. Signoret has more close-ups than Reggiani (43 to 33), but, compared with her, he has more medium shots (42 to 15) and long shots (22 to 14). However, Signoret is in twice as many ensemble shots (46) as Resgiani (23), and that is surprising. Given that this film is, in part, about nostalgia for a certain working-class solidarity that has now died away, we could have expected to see more of Reggiani/Manda in ensemble shots, particularly because he is the protagonist. Instead, we see him principally in two-shots—98 overall, of which 45 are with Marie and 13 with his old friend Raymond (played by Raymond Bussières). Manda stands for certain values, as is made clear throughout the film, and these are integrity and friendship. But his lack of presence within ensemble shots as opposed to Marie tends to suggest that he is an outsider and she very much part of the community. Certainly he does not belong to this milieu in the way that Marie does. Nor is he part of their treacherous and inconstant ways, as Marie is in the first half of the film and Leca (played by Claude Dauphin) is throughout. In fact, there is no class solidarity—at least not like the mythic class solidarity at the Paris Commune at 1871 to which this film points with its constant reference to the song “Le temps des cerises.” Instead, for Manda, the question of class solidarity becomes reduced to or replaced by one of friendship with fellow ex-convict Raymond and passion for the rather selfish Marie. The class solidarity song of the closing sequences of the film, “Le temps des cerises,” remains an ironic nostalgic throwback to earlier times of the Paris Commune. Paradoxically, in this context, Dauphin, as the manipulative Leca, appears in an identical number of ensemble shots as Reggiani. Yet Leca can hardly be said to represent class solidarity, since he schemes all the time to get the things he wants, among them Marie. Moreover, Dauphin has more solo shots than Signoret (78). Thus, where we might have originally thought that the two men were the foils of Signoret, we are obliged to conclude that Signoret and Dauphin would appear, numerically at least, to be the foils of Reggiani. Certainly, at the very least, we can argue the case that visually this is not so much a female-centered text, as Signoret’s strong performance might lead us to believe, but one that puts masculinity in center frame and, in particular, boosts male friendship as the greatest value of all. Signoret was clearly aware of this dynamic when she remarked that it was indeed a virile film—even though, as she added, it was full of tenderness for women. I would add that it is an interesting unfixed image of masculinity, given both Reggiani’s performance style (he moves and speaks very little) and costume (of soft fabrics).
There are several conclusions we can draw from this analysis. In terms of shots and shooting the star persona, as far as the five films under consideration are concerned, in each one there occurs a triangular formulation, with three main characters occupying different points on the triangle. In every one of these triangulations, Signoret’s character is not where one might expect the female star persona to find herself, namely, at the apex of the triangle, but instead on the base. In Casque d’Or and Room at the Top, the star persona at the apex is the lead male character; in Thérèse Raquin, proportionately speaking, it is the secondary male character, and in Les diaboliques and La mort en ce jardin, it is the secondary female character. Thus, at the peak of her stardom and good looks, Signoret occupied the least typical position for a female star. Indeed, she occupied the place more traditionally associated with the male star. Take, for example, Jean Gabin, the male star to whom she is so frequently compared. He averaged 25 to 36 percent in terms of close-ups to his total number of shots, a figure not dissimilar to Signoret’s own. She occupies, then, like most male leads, a place of action, not passivity. Equally, she does not occupy the position of the fetishized body. The body in focus is not hers, but the one that finds itself at the apex, or even, as with Paul Meurisse in Les diaboliques, very close to the apex. Hers is not the body to be investigated, but Reggiani’s Manda, Lesaffre’s sailor, Vera Clouzot’s Christina, Meurisse’s Michel, and Harvey’s Joe Lampton. Even in La mort en ce jardin this holds true, for the enigma is Maria—how did she lose her voice, we wonder, since, at the end of all the trauma and thanks to Chark’s perseverance, she gets it back? Ultimately, Signoret’s character is far less passive than her male counterparts. Manda has things happen to him, Laurent always wants to act but is constantly blocked (by women, feeble men, and later Lesaffre), Michel has to wait for things to happen, and Joe, who may well engineer his way to the top, does so at the expense of letting things happen to him. Ultimately, all lack agency.
As for Signoret, compared with her earlier period, there is a slight drop in the percentage of close-ups (of 8 percent). Whereas, on average, she is in the close-up frame for 55 percent of her shots in the period 1947–1951, during her true star period (1952–1959) she is only there on average for 47 percent. She does, however, meet the standard criteria used in shooting French female stars because her average is not that dissimilar from her contemporaries (averaging from 33 to 51 percent). What is different, as we have attempted to show, is just how unpassive and unfetishized she is by the camera. This does make her a star, unlike her contemporaries, and suggests that there was more to her performance that the camera was intent on observing and keeping en scène, such as her intelligence, her purpose and drive, which marks her out as a woman with agency; her energy, which cannot be confined to the intimate and constraining frame of the close-up; and her physical and mental wit as well as her sensuality, which need more of a frame in which to express themselves bodily than a close-up can permit. Signoret’s actor’s craft—where the tiniest gesture is of such significance—commands a bigger picture. Minimalism, like miniaturism, is all about detail, yet here with Signoret it necessitates the larger frame. Thus, just to cite one example, consider the medium shot of her in Thérèse Raquin as she dictates the letter to the blackmailer. While her face shows composure, her thumb agitat edly rubs the tablecloth, and it is that little detail that allows us to read her true fury and irritation at this man who so unfairly holds her fate and her lover’s in his hands.
Of the six films made during this period, only one was an adaptation of a literary classic: Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. Les diaboliques was based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus/She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Casque d’Or was loosely based on the life story of a popular icon of the criminal classes in Paris at the turn of the last century, Amélie Hélie. Hélie wrote her own memoirs, which were published in the popular magazine Fin de siècle, entitled Mes jours et mes nuits/My Days and Nights, by Casque d’Or, the Queen of the Apaches. But it is not clear if Jacques Becker accessed them for his film. Les sorcières de Salem was adapted from the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. La mort en ce jardin and Room at the Top have as their sources best-selling novels (by José André Lacour and John Braine, respectively). Arguably, only Thérèse Raquin falls into that dreaded category of “quality cinema” that the Cahiers du cinéma applied to so many French films produced during the 1950s. Thus, we can see that this association of Signoret with a cinema that is passéiste yet again really does not apply. However, I have already discussed this issue in Chapter Two, so this is not the debate I want to have here. What is intriguing at this juncture are the shifts from original text to adaptation and how those shifts get played out by the star vehicle. In this section, I shall investigate three of the six films: those where the most radical shifts occur, namely, Casque d’Or, Thérèse Raquin, and Les diaboliques. Of the three other films, La mort en ce jardin remains true to the original, Les sorcières de Salem has a slight shift in political emphasis, and the changes to the original text in Room at the Top were discussed in Chapter Two in relation to questions of censorship.
The film versions of Casque d’Or and Thérèse Raquin take interesting liberties in so far as they make their protagonists much softer versions than their earlier referents. The original Casque d’Or was Amélie Hélie, renamed Marie in the film version. Unlike Marie, who meets and falls in love with Manda (a love affair that sets in motion the narrative), Amélie was in real life already Manda’s mistress and was two-timing him with Leca. So there is nothing in the original that permits us to see Leca as the ruthless predatory male he becomes in the film who will stop at nothing to get Marie/Casque d’Or for himself. Both Manda and Leca were leaders of rival gangs (termed apaches in the film) and, although it is true that in the original the two of them got into a fight over Amélie, wounding each other, there were no deaths involved. Amélie was a great beauty and used to men fighting over her. Even women attacked her, seeing her as an unbeatable rival once she set her sights on their man. Manda was no more the true love of her life than any of the other men and, when he was denounced and sent to prison for life, she moved on to other lovers. Not, however, without some retribution. A few years later, one of Manda’s gang members attempted to stab her to death, but she survived the attack, despite receiving some severe knife wounds. Thus, we can see that, where Marie in the film is concerned, there is a considerable shift in characterization. Although she may play tough and hard to get in the first part of the film, thus bringing about Manda’s fateful pursuit of her, she softens considerably once she takes stock of the enormous sacrifice he has made to win her love (his freedom). She is not the heartless garce or femme fatale so traditionally associated with this type of film genre, nor, indeed, of the original.
It is worth commenting on the fatal fight in which Manda kills Marie’s pimp, Roland (played by William Sabatier), and her harsh reaction to it. It can be read as her continued ruthlessness (making her consistent with the real Casque d’Or, who is referred to in the film’s press release of the time as “a cruel heroine”), or it can be read as Marie asserting her refusal to be a piece of merchandise fought over by men, thereby bringing the character closer to Signoret’s own star persona (as a woman of agency). We must recall that it is the two men who provoke the fight, not her. Thus, it is Manda’s desire and Roland’s refusal to let her go that causes the head-on clash between them, rather than Marie per se. Indeed, by the time of the fight in the backyard of the Ange-Gabriel café, Marie had every reason to believe that Manda was engaged to another, so she had already given up on him and had agreed, arguably out of frustration, to become Leca’s mistress. And even though Marie sends Leca out of the café to keep an eye on the two rivals, she never intended that Leca interfere in the way he did by providing the fatal weapon (his knife) to be used in the fight. The density of masculine aggression surrounding her person—with all three men trying to gain possession of her (to say nothing of her drive to survive and not be implicated in Roland’s murder)—can explain her icy abandonment of Manda after the fight. She is not an object (“merchandise,” as the gangsters regularly refer to women in this film, including Marie), nor is she for sale to the highest bidder.
In the film, Marie, unlike her original, also enjoys good relationships with her fellow prostitutes. We see her staying with her friend Julie (played by Dominique Davray), for example and sharing her bed. At the beginning of the film, her women friends cheer her on to dance with Roland. These same women, just as much as the men, enjoy watching her as a spectacle and as a spectacular beauty (they beseech her to perform a dance: “Go on, Marie”). They also comment on the unsuitability of Roland as her current lover, thus setting the scene (as a diegetic audience) for us to “understand” why she would find Manda so appealing.
Manda is completely transformed in the film. Unlike his original, he is an exconvict who is trying to go straight. He is good and constant, reacts only when provoked, and speaks very little, believing that actions count more than words. He is faithful not only to Marie but to his friend Raymond, whom he refuses to let take the blame for Roland’s murder. In the film, Marie and Manda are love-struck, and we believe in their love; we feel its intensity through the looks and smiles they exchange. We sense their satisfaction with each other when we see them on the morning following their one and only night of lovemaking. So understated is their passion that it feels authentic.
The transformation of meaning in terms of Marie and Manda not only softens them but brings about an equality between the two of them. A greater fluidity between the sexes occurs, destabilizing their gender construction as fixed entities. What is suggested, instead, is sexuality as flow both within and between bodies rather than something rigid and contained and measurable only against the phallus. Thus, Manda wears soft fabrics (velvet trousers), and he is more often in solo shots than Marie. Softness and desire even enter his deadly fight with Roland when, at the end of the fight sequence, the two men lie on the ground, their bodies entwined, as Roland gradually expires, his hand softly strokes Manda’s face, as if he were a lover caressing the face of his beloved. Similarly, Marie can be strong and assertive (in claiming her right to love Manda and to help him escape); she can also be fully surrendered as a desiring body. In other words, both Manda’s and Marie’s bodies can occupy or flow between many states, such as desiring, aggressive, and surrendered.
Becker was considered a social filmmaker, a label he accepted; he also saw himself as something of an entomologist. This suggests that he delves deeply into both social contexts and the minutiae of people’s lives. With Casque d’Or, he wanted to make a film about pure love, to show the gestures of love rather than the act itself. He also saw his film as coming somewhere between Jean Renoir and Eugène Sue—the joy of love from Renoir and the plotting and intrigue from Sue. Indeed, there is an intense sensuality to the film that is matched by Signoret’s own “challenging sensuality,” to quote Becker, and Reggiani’s quiet, restrained intensity. But the context of this film and its making add further dimensions to its meaning. The chance to make this film had been around since before the war. Had it been made then, it would have coincided either with the time of the Popular Front or with its demise post-1939. In the former case, the narrative would have focused on male working-class solidarity; in the latter, it would have been a deeply pessimistic film and focused on working-class masculinity in crisis (much in the vein of Carné’s poetic realist films of that time). Becker’s film does neither. Instead, it is an elegiac treatise on sexual equality, a theme common to all his films. It is also an appeal against the inhumanity of the death penalty, which makes it a very modern film. It is therefore interesting that he should have chosen to locate his film in an apparently nostalgic evocation of the Belle Epoque rather than in the contemporary and used this particular background to foreground his radical ideas about equal rights (for men and women) and social progress (abolition of the death penalty).
It is also possible to read, in Becker’s softening of his characters, a nostalgia for and commitment to an ideal image of the working classes, both male and female. Thus, his choice of a costume drama as a background for radical statements becomes clearer when we consider that by 1951, when the film was being made, the political climate was dramatically shifting. The emblematic party of the working class (the PCF) was no longer in political office. Besides, the Right was clearly on its way back into power for the first time since the end of the war. Furthermore, among other draconian measures to contain civil peace, censorship was tightening its grip. In this light, the film takes on metaphorical, even mythical, value. In speaking from the past, Becker was in fact making a statement about the present. Becker was a man of the Left, and from his viewpoint there was much to be dismayed about. Since 1947, France had been governed by a coalition of the Left and centrist parties (called the Third Force). But gradually the effects of the cold war and the Marshall Plan created a climate of increasing instability for this coalition, which effectively meant that it, and therefore the Left, could no longer govern. Arguably, the end was in the beginning. The Americans made it clear that aid would be conditional on the PCF having no voice of authority, and so in 1947, the Communist cabinet ministers were relieved of their governmental functions. Even though it was the most popular party with the electorate (with nearly five million votes), the PCF was not in a position to take power on its own. It still garnered only 26 percent of the nation’s electoral vote. Nor could it any longer be part of a coalition with the Left, partly because of the American embargo, but also because the Soviet Union forbade any alliances with the Left. So the PCF withheld its support of the Left coalition, and by 1951 the coalition began to show its cracks and fall apart (the more centrist parties refused to support certain socialist proposals and vice versa). This left the way clear for the Right to take over power, which, by 1952, it did. Former collaborators were now officially allowed back into office, most famously Antoine Pinay, a member of Pétain’s Vichy government during the Occupation, who in 1952 was appointed prime minister. Read in this light, the shooting of Leca, a collaborator with the police and an informer, now takes on stronger political connotations, as does the film as a whole. Thus, although working-class solidarity is revealed in the film’s narrative to be under threat and close to erasure, nonetheless, there are those few individuals who can still carry the torch, or at least the memory. Raymond is dead, Manda is dead, but presently Marie/Casque d’Or lives on. The closing image of the film is precisely of her memory, with, intoned over the image of her dancing in a tight embrace with Manda, the emblematic song of that class and its communard solidarity of 1871, “Le Temps des cerises” (one of Jean-Baptiste Clément’s revolutionary songs published in 1868).
A similar softening of the central characters Thérèse and Laurent occurs in Carné’s film version of Thérèse Raquin, which he updated to the 1950s. Thérèse is represented as the victim of her circumstances, stuck in a marriage out of gratitude to Camille’s mother (played by Sylvie) who took her in as an orphan. She is not the scheming, avaricious Thérèse of the novel, nor is Laurent. Indeed, as he pleads with Thérèse to leave Camille (played by Jacques Duby) and run away without further delay, he embodies almost the existentialist desire for freedom, to live each day as authentically and fully as possible, to not be bound by convention or a false sense of duty, and, even less, by an attachment to a certain bourgeois well-being that is riddled with mauvaise foi. The ill-fated couple never schemed to murder Camille. Thérèse makes every attempt to do the decent thing by him and find a humane way to leave him, starting by telling the truth—as she says to Laurent, “I haven’t yet learned how to lie.” For this reason, she even consents to go to Paris with Camille to see if they can save their marriage. It is only because of Laurent’s impetuousness that Camille ends up dead. Unable to bear the idea of her going to Paris with Camille, Laurent jumps on the train and attempts to take her away with him. In the ensuing struggle, Camille falls to his death from the train. Ultimately, his death in the film is an accident, not a premeditated crime, as in the novel.
Michel Perez (1986, 22) makes an interesting point about the shifts in this film. He believes Carné portrays the passion between Laurent and Thérèse with an energy that has a “moral nobleness” to it that cannot help but be violent if the lovers aspire to be free. Thérèse desires freedom, but not, as it turns out, at any price, nor indeed at the cost of poverty. We are made conscious throughout the film of a certain caution in Thérèse when it comes to matters of economic security. Thus, although there is the expression of mutual desire within the film version of Zola’s novel (unlike the original where it is one-sided), she is also more afraid of it than Laurent. This is partly because it is so unfamiliar to her and partly because, if she were to run away with him, she would lose financial security (one of the prime reasons she agreed to marry Camille in the first place). She also makes the point to Laurent that “gratefulness and pity keep [her] chained” to Camille. Her ambivalence means she cannot, in her passion, aspire to freedom through violence (unlike Laurent, who acts impulsively and often erupts irrationally). She is, therefore, incapable of such acts as premeditated murder, unlike her counterpart in Zola’s novel, whose lust for Laurent leads her to agree to murder Camille. Carné’s Thérèse remains throughout ambivalent, enigmatic even, as if this newly discovered passion is almost beyond her. When we first meet her, she is quite frumpily dressed in a dreary coat, sensible hat, and sturdy shoes, all of which more befit a middle-aged woman of the 1950s than a young woman. We sense her lack of zest for life. At home, she wears somber clothes, almost as if in mourning for her lost self. When she is in the apartment above the shop, most often she is to be found wearing a pinafore and carpet-slippers. Her hair is rigorously kept in place in a half-chignon, heavily clasped with a thick tortoiseshell clip. There is not a stray hair in sight. Only once she has enjoyed sexual passion with Laurent does her hair come down, her clothing give way to a sensual white blouse revealing just a tiny bit of cleavage. This is maintained for just the briefest of times. This “undoneness” lasts from the first sexual encounter, which occurs just under a quarter of the way into the film (twenty-five minutes in), until Thérèse’s departure with Camille to Paris, which takes place two-fifths of the way through the film (forty-two minutes in, some seventeen minutes later). After that time and for the rest of the film she is back to her former attire. As she says to Laurent, “I only know how to do sad things: sewing, looking after people, counting money.” As for him, she adds, all he wants is “everything, like happy people do.”
In a poignant way, the mise-en-scène makes this point for us about Thérèse: how can she aspire to this violence in passion that Perez (1986) speaks of when her whole life is, and has always been, as ordered as the drapery shop she runs with her mother-in-law? The immaculate but bleak and austere tidiness of the shop is matched by the overwhelmingly gloomy atmosphere of the apartment above, created by the ponderous provincial nineteenth-century furniture. If it is airless below, it is even more ferociously stuffy above, where there is too much furniture and where the soft furnishings, from the thick velvet curtains and the embossed tapestry wallpaper to the heavy lace net curtains and oil-cloth tablecloth, literally pinion Thérèse into her place of submission. All passion is surely going to be starved or suffocated in this environment.
In Zola’s novel, the shop, which is a haberdashery and small-wares business, is described as filthy and unkempt. This dirt and slovenliness is directly associated with Thérèse, whose name adorns the sign outside. Everything is neglected; objects in the window are faded by the sun. The quality of the goods is “lamentable” (Zola 1867/1953, 16). We are a far cry from the film version of Thérèse’s establishment, with its neatness and order and tidy bolts of quality cloth, which she constantly smooths and refolds. Zola’s Thérèse is presented to us as physically unattractive. Indeed, Laurent when he first encounters her finds her ugly and only begins the affair with her so he can get sexual gratification for free. Zola’s Thérèse is described to us as completely unappetizing. Her face, for example, is white, dry, thin-nosed, and thin-lipped, her body skinny and wiry— hardly adjectives to qualify her reincarnation in the form of Simone Signoret. Ugliness and dirt typify Zola’s Thérèse, whereas order, cleanliness, and dormant sensual beauty qualify Carné’s version. We must recall that Zola was part of a group of authors known as the naturalists and that he was fascinated by what he termed a “scientific interest” in physiology. Each chapter of his Thérèse Raquin is a case study in abnormal physiology. Zola wanted to investigate, in a scientific way, the temperament of people who are dominated by their blood and nerves—people who are without free will but who are driven by their fateful corporeality (whether the result of generations of alcoholics or inbreeding or “bad blood” through miscegenation, as is the case with Zola’s Thérèse). Zola’s Thérèse and Laurent are without a soul, human brutes; no more, no less. Their physiology is what drives them; there is no pretense at intelligence.
Carné’s characters are far different. Thus, we witness Thérèse’s intelligence shining through as she desperately tries to save the situation. Moreover, we feel sympathy for her, trapped as she is in a marriage that deadens her soul. We also understand Laurent’s frustration as he tries to persuade her that they can lead a better life together. We even sympathize with the two of them when they accidentally kill Camille. Carné’s Laurent loves only Thérèse. He is not driven by economic self-interest to the point of concocting a plan to murder Camille, as he is in the novel. Rather, he is a hard-working truck driver. He is a foreigner, Italian—a stranger, therefore, and not, as in Zola’s novel, an old school friend of Camille’s. Carné’s Laurent is emblematic of the authentic, hard-working immigrant working class (last seen in Renoir’s 1933 film Toni), not the philandering, lazy, would-be artist of Zola’s text. Finally, in this context of shifts in characterization, we sympathize with Thérèse because of the awfulness of her mother-in-law. Here, the mother-in-law is frighteningly possessive of her sickly son, and even before Camille dies, she has very little regard for her niece— Thérèse’s only use in her eyes is that she will act as a guarantee of continued care for her son once she dies. In the novel, conversely, Camille’s mother is a sweet if rather naive woman who loves her niece and wants only the happiness of her son through marriage to this young woman. When Camille is murdered, so duped is she to the nature of the crime and its perpetrators (she believes it is a boating accident) that she warmly encourages Thérèse and Laurent to marry, and even goes to the point of bestowing her entire fortune on her niece as a dowry.
In other words, as opposed to the novel, where all is internally and physiologically predetermined, a plethora of external reasons are provided within the film’s narrative to explain why Thérèse is open to the pull of sexual desire and to show how frustration precipitates the fatal accident. We are very far removed from Zola’s eugenics here. For example, there is no mention in the film of Thérèse’s miscegenated blood, to which Zola refers as “that African blood burning through her veins” (Zola 1953, 59). We are also far removed from his notion of fatalistic corporeality (the idea that people are doomed through “bad blood” to commit terrible crimes). Instead, Carné produces a third person, the blackmailing sailor, as the instrument of fate. He externalizes the inner fatal drive that Zola speaks of and gives human form to it. In so doing, Carné deprives the narrative of its original motivation. Equally, in making his two central characters sympathetic, he changes Zola’s intentionally moral tale—about the gruesome but inevitable psychological tension between two people governed by bad blood and genetic greed—into a melodrama with a thriller twist. Frustration and repressed desire drive these characters, not inner flaws. Thus, Carné’s characters are unlucky not to find happiness, whereas Zola’s merit the terrible end they meet (they commit a double suicide). Carné’s adaptation reverses the dynamics of the original text and makes Camille and his mother the embodiments of nastiness and mean-spiritedness. It is this scheming duo who behave dishonorably in their plot to keep Thérèse prisoner once they are told by the more than honorable Laurent about his love for Thérèse. André Bazin (1953, 23) was right to see this version as a betrayal of Zola’s text. This betrayal is perpetuated by the casting of the central characters. Signoret’s luminous intelligence was never going to allow her to embody the raw bestiality of Zola’s Thérèse. Vallone’s exotic otherness and Italian Communist party credentials place him a long way away from the crude and avaricious Laurent of the novel—it is as if, peculiarly, the exotic of the original Thérèse (due to her miscegenated blood) has been transposed onto Vallone’s Laurent. Indeed, Vallone’s foreignness arguably makes him more “exotic” as a source of spectator pleasure than Signoret. I say “arguably” because the two are wonderfully matched in their first kissing scene, where he first kisses her and then she, so obviously hungry for more, returns the kiss with intense fulsomeness.
The cleanliness and order of Thérèse’s environment, matched as it is by her own neatness, reflect the stifling nature of provincial France in the 1950s. Although set in Lyon, this town is an abstract anonymous one that could be anywhere in the northern half of France. Signoret’s actorly body evokes the effects of this monotonous, claustrophobic, and petty world in a number of ways. First, through the measured, efficient, and crisp manner with which she executes certain gestures (such as first smoothing and then folding the bolts of cloth away and setting the table at mealtimes), she shows how ingrained this conforming behavior is and how routinized her life has become. Second, the spaces through which she has to move almost consistently have her contained or trapped. Thus, for example, she is shot either in medium or long shot as she ascends the spiral wrought-iron staircase that leads up to the apartment. In the medium shot, she is seemingly caged within the spiral; in the long shot, she is trapped within her own loneliness (evoked by the emptiness of the mise-en-scène). When in her room upstairs, she can only look out onto the street below through the small square panes in the windows that keep her prisoner. Later, toward the very end of the film, when all is lost, she peers through slats of the Venetian blinds. The slats are lit in such a way that they form bars across her face, again emprisoning her. Finally, she barely speaks during the film. Her virtual silence is broken just once when she tells her now mute and paralyzed mother-in-law how dreadfully abused she has been by her and her son. This monologue lasts three and a half minutes. This is her longest delivery throughout the entire film, and it is remarkable for a number of reasons. In the first instance, we could reasonably expect such a momentous moment of volubility on her part to be reserved for Laurent (for example, in a declaration of love). In the second instance, it represents Thérèse’s single violent outburst. Her violence, then, is reserved not for her passion, but for a lengthy declamation on the abuse she has felt of her rights as a woman—as she declares vehemently to her mother-in-law, “I am young, I am alive.” Indeed, she is not meant to be buried under all this submission.
Carné’s updating the film to the contemporary scene of the 1950s means we can read Thérèse’s statement within the context of the times. Even though women were by this time able to vote and were therefore officially enfranchised, they were still far from free—and once married they were, as Thérèse so rightly points out, their husband’s chattel. She depends on Camille for financial security. Her job provides her with no income; all of that goes into the family pot. It is also worth making the point that, in terms of the law governing marital status, the wife was not free to find work elsewhere unless her husband gave his permission for her to do so (this law was not rescinded until 1965). So Thérèse, who is tyrannically ruled by both her mother-in-law and her husband, is unlikely to find a route to freedom through work elsewhere (as Camille insists at one point, “you are my wife and you have to do as I say; the law is on my side”). She not only has to run the shop for no remuneration, but also the household upstairs. Again, as Thérèse exclaims, this constitutes an exploitation of her labor. Small wonder she is depressed, feels downtrodden—a state to which her carpet-slippers so admirably attest—of course she is trapped into this marriage; how can she possibly make her escape with a man who has no means to support her? Their difference in class is just one more oppressive nail in the coffin of their love affair. Significantly, then, when she does come to speak, to break her silence and assert her voice (her voix, meaning her voice but also her right to vote, her enfranchisement), she speaks of what matters to her, and she speaks it to one who cannot answer her back but who is obliged to listen—her mother-in-law, who very much upholds patriarchal law. If we return to Perez’s comment about violence and passion and the desire to be free, where Thérèse is concerned we can now read her passion as a desire first and foremost for her own freedom including the assertion of her own rights, without which, as she readily acknowledges, she is not free to pursue love.
It is instructive how much the press releases of the time remain blissfully unaware of the force and true direction of Thérèse’s anger and violence at her entrapment, something that Signoret’s own performance brings so strongly to the fore. They speak of the story being about “a powerful man and an unfulfilled woman.” In part this is true. But she will only fleetingly feel fulfilled sexually. All else is a struggle until she makes her final stand (albeit at a verbal level only) against the masochistic positioning to which patriarchy has consigned her and so many other women of that period. This is something that the American distributors also singularly, but unsurprisingly, failed to notice if their title release for this film, Adulteress, is anything to go by—or indeed the press release advertising it as “the absorbing drama of sin” and the promotional photograph used: the only shot in the entire film where Thérèse’s clothing is in disarray.
With regard to the last film text under consideration in this section, Les dia-boliques, Clouzot also radically changed the narrative and plot line. Clouzot heterosexualized the original lesbian text written by Boileau and Narcejac, where it is the two women who are lovers seeking to eliminate the husband so they can run away together. However, as we shall see, the lesbian text seeps through. In Clouzot’s version, it is the mistress and her male lover who plot to do away with the wife. The wife, Christina, is married to the ruthless and sadistic headmaster, Michel, with whom she runs a private boys’ boarding school just outside Paris. Nicole (Signoret), a science schoolteacher (as opposed to a doctor in the original), is cast as the headmaster’s lover (and not as the wife’s lover, as in the novel). In the original story, the two women plot to kill the husband, who suffers from a weak heart. Clouzot reverses the tale, and it is the husband and Nicole who plot against the wife, who is now the one with a weak heart. In order for the plan to succeed, the mistress has to befriend the wife. This she does by ganging up with her against the husband, who behaves quite brutally toward the two of them, even to the point of giving Nicole a black eye. His sadism includes publicly humiliating his wife, forcing her to eat disgusting food, and raping her. The two women enter into a complicitous relationship against Michel, a complicity that, to the viewer, is utterly convincing, since we do not know, until the very end of the film, that Michel and Nicole were plotting to cause Christina’s eventual heart attack. In other words, we are led to believe that what we are seeing is the truth, the duplicity being revealed only at the end.
During this period of seeing what we believe to be the truth, we witness the close friendship between the two women. Indeed, as one schoolteacher remarks, although they should be rivals, in fact they are close allies. This closeness is clearly signaled by the number of two-shots of the women together (eighty-two in all) as opposed to those of Michel and Nicole, who are almost never in a two-shot (there are only six) or those of Michel with his wife (fifteen). This female relationship, then, has greater visual importance than any of the others. Even the three-shots are few and far between, which is unusual, given that that there is a triangular relationship between these three main characters (there are only eleven three-shots). Thus, the actual framing of the characters lulls us into this belief that the relationship between Nicole and Christina is a close, primary, even intimate one. At one point, the two women are framed in a bedroom window in their nightclothes. In the background, a double bed is untidily unmade as if slept in—indeed, later, when they have enticed Michel to Niort and murdered him, there is a shot of them in bed together. In the earlier shot, Nicole is wearing dark pajamas and Christina white ones. Nicole stands, as if protectively, behind Christina. They stand framed like any couple might. However, this light/dark motif that runs throughout warns us that not all is unambiguous. Nicole wears dark, severe utilitarian-styled dresses with straight skirts firmly belted at the waist, whereas Christina wears light-colored patterns with full skirts (which hint at her Latin American origins). The only reversal in coloring is with the hair: Nicole’s hair is blond and cropped short, whereas Christina’s is long and dark. However, this reversal does nothing to undo the image of Christina’s exotic foreignness and femininity, as opposed to Nicole’s more severe, “masculinized” appearance. Thus, Christina comes across as the exotic fragile female and Nicole as a strong-willed, modern woman. Unlike Christina, who has given over her economic rights to Michel through marriage, Nicole is economically independent. She not only has a paid job, she is also a property owner. She is purposeful and no-nonsense—even hard-nosed and tough. Nicole smokes her cigarette in a “masculine” manner, pulling the butt from her mouth with her thumb and forefingers and stamping it out with considerable force. She is quite “masculinized,” therefore, in relation to Christina. Furthermore, she teaches science and geometry, “hard” male-identified subjects, as opposed to Christina’s, “soft,” language subjects. As the science teacher, it is she who obtains the sleeping potion and knows the right amount to put into the whiskey, which only then will Christina be allowed to pour and serve to Michel. The roles are clearly defined here, and as far as we know, it is Nicole who devised the crime.
Not all is “masculine” in Nicole, however. Her black high heels and deep red fingernails are, of course, markers within the thriller codes and conventions of her femme fatale status. Iconically speaking, then, she represents here the traditional femme fatale of film noir, with her clothing marking her as the safely contained phallic woman. But, this apparent investment in noir iconography stops dead in its tracks at this juncture with regard to Nicole’s clothing. Other things intrude to stop it short. The carpet-slippers she wears while carrying out the murder and at the end of the film, when she is finally apprehended for her crime, do enormous damage to her status as a sexy femme fatale. How can this homebody in any way be associated with the glamour of the phallic woman of the film noir genre? Her gestures lose their extraordinariness, their excess, for when she is at her most ritualistically phallic (killing Michel), her dress code stresses her ordinariness. Her dress is unbelted in this scene so that it hangs, totally unrevealing of any contours, like a shapeless housecoat. That is one way in which the iconographic coding is in conflict, but there are others. Her dark sunglasses and the casually worn cardigan over the shoulders suggest a sporty persona, one not associated with the langorous femme fatale. Even that iconography is destabilized by the fact that Nicole knits (presumably for herself—a new white cardigan perhaps), although her needles do flash with considerable vigor, pointing to her prickly nature. Curiously, as if to give weight to this conflictual or fragmented characterization, it is noteworthy that she is not the object of Michel’s investigatory gaze. She is not, therefore, the enigma that has to be unraveled—which, as a femme fatale, she most assuredly would be. Indeed, this probing of the enigma itself gets fragmented. In the first instance, there is a reversal of this film noir trope, and it is Michel who, once he has been “murdered,” becomes the enigmatically vanished body that is the constant object of the two females’ searching gaze. In the second instance, it is the rather grubby, unkempt, and sleazy-looking retired policeman-turned-private eye, Inspector Fichet (played by Charles Vanel), who probes and investigates Christina, not Nicole, to get at the truth and resolve the mystery. Finally, in this series of role reversals, where the two men are concerned, to Michel’s rather feminized role (as the enigmatic evanescent body) corresponds to Fichet’s own lack of sexualized masculinity: he is not the sexy private eye of noir tradition, even though his persistence finally pays dividends.
To return to Signoret’s role as Nicole: when she walks, with her grand strides, she comes over as sexually powerful, predatory even. But here again there is something incomplete, as if she is lacking a target. There is no hint of passion between her and Michel (in a sense, there cannot be, or else the twist in the narrative would be given away). Thus, this power seemingly has to find another outlet, and this it does in the form of her relationship with Christina. Nicole/Signoret takes charge of and has control over the other woman, much as she does in the original novel. As such, she occupies a masculine space, which, in this instance, transforms their relationship into a simulacrum of the heterosexual couple. This is confirmed in a number of ways. First, on several occasions Nicole holds Christina from behind in a proprietal way that is similar to the way Michel grabs hold of his wife, pinning her arms to her side. Second, she has arguments with Christina that are more like a couple’s tiffs than straightforward disagreements between friends or colleagues. For example, in one sequence the two women are sitting side by side marking the boys’ homework, trying to “behave normally.” But Christina keeps fretting about the crime. Nicole’s silent seething at her partner’s feeble weakness eventually reaches the breaking point, and she begins to make all sorts of brutal gestures, including violently throwing a pencil eraser at her.
In his review of this film, Derek Prowse spoke of Signoret as “big and dominating” and Vera Clouzot as “small and harassed.” Within these sets of contrasts, Nicole looms as the dark shadow to Christina’s virginal transluscence. Theirs is not quite a butch-femme relationship, however, even though it appears to come close. As we shall see, it meets with several twists that challenge this stereotype. Nicole orders Christina about magisterially but also comforts her when she is abused by Michel. But, as with all the other embodiments mentioned above, the dramatic tension stops there, and things start to contradict themselves and fragment as the film tries to reassert its heterosexual bias. In a sense, the fact of heterosexualizing the narrative gets in the way of the plot having conviction, denaturalizes it, and forces it to a series of grinding halts. Several critics of the time made the point that the plot was empty, absurd. That is too harsh, although they do have a point that something does not quite gel (for the reasons I have suggested). The film is full of suspense and minute observations that make it compelling to watch, particularly the moments when the complicity of the two women is forefronted. We get a grip on a narrative line that seems to be taking us somewhere—and that somewhere is into their relationship—but as soon as we move away, things become dislocated, contradictory even. Thus, the lesbian intertext is always present, clashing with the reinscription of the heterosexual one. Interestingly, even within the now straight version of the story, we are not totally without sympathy for these two women. For example, the murder scene where they drug and eventually drown Michel in the bathtub is a masterful piece of horror. Yet we believe we understand their motivation, given how much they have suffered at the sadistic hand of this man, of whom they are now (apparently) disposing themselves.
Just as this film fluctuates uneasily between text and intertext, so too the narrative fluctuates between two contradictory types of relationships. First, there is the intense same-sex relationship between Nicole and Christina. Second, there is the doubly dosed sadomasochistic one between Michel and his wife, on the one hand, and Michel and Nicole, on the other. In the novel, there is no real match to this. We hardly meet up with the lesbian couple. Only at the end, once the twist in the plot is revealed, do we realise what their true relationship was, so nothing is developed there. Nor do we get much sense of the husband and wife relationship. The only point of comparison between the novel and the film, then, is the rather nasty dynamic between the book’s doctor (Lucienne) and her supposed lover (the husband), which is the relationship that dominates the novel’s narrative. Meantime, Clouzot filled the film with an extraordinary set of relational mirrorings and complexities that make his narrative far denser and in excess of the original. I would argue that there are two reasons for this. First, the film adaptation has a political intertext that is not present in the novel (first printed in 1952). I have already pointed out in Chapter Two that there are indirect references to the Algerian war and the use of “clean” torture (the film was released in 1955, a year after the Algerian crisis was in the public domain). This film can also be read as redolent with the immeasurable guilt that is the legacy of the Occupation. Guilt is everywhere, pervasive and paradoxically ungraspable, much like Michel’s disappearing body. This guilt takes the projected form of cruelty through a criss-crossing of sadomasochistic relationships that shift and mirror each other, leaving us unclear as to who, if anyone, is the victim; in fact, all the adults are monstrous. Suspicion is rife, and no one, not even Christina, is a true innocent.
This reading of the film, within the context of the contemporary, certainly holds true and provides some of the clues to this textual density. But the other reason for its greater density comes down to the complexity of Nicole and Christina’s relationship. It can, as I have already explained, be seen as a simulacrum of the heterosexual relationship (a first inverted mirroring of sorts). How-ever, it can equally be seen for what it is—albeit the filmic text tries to hide it away—namely, a lesbian relationship. It can also be seen as a mother-daughter relationship. Nicole takes care of Christina; she speaks to her at times as a mother would to a daughter. She patiently and meticulously explains why the murder must be done and why it must be done in a particular way. She is protective of Christina’s sexual immaturity. She soothes her when Michel is cruel to her, and so on. Already, we are looking at three types of ambiguity here, unfixing the social order of things. Nothing remains in place. Thus, it should not surprise us that there is also a power shift within this same-sex relationship. Christina, who at first seems so submissive to Nicole’s dominant ways, takes the upper hand once Inspector Fichet gets involved in the story. Christina is still full of fear at her “crime” and will finally die, terrorized by the mysterious haunting of Michel’s “ghost.” However, until that moment of her death it is, paradoxically, Christina who takes charge, even dismissing Nicole from her sight, as Fichet becomes increasingly nosy with his questions. In fact, it is she who fields them with intelligence and Nicole who becomes more and more anxious. Of course, at the end of the film we come to understand why Nicole reacts so badly to the detective’s intrusive questions (because he might blow apart the scheme to cause Christina’s death). But until then, it looks as if there is a role reversal and Christina has taken command of the situation. Thus, in this same-sex relationship, power relations shift, sexual positionings and sexuality itself shift.
There is fragmentation and excess, both of which are played through the body and both of which function to challenge constructed orders, social restrictions, established laws, and hierarchies as they relate to sexuality. Yes, Christina does die in the end, and, yes, the two conspirators do get found out (unlike in the novel, incidentally, where we are left to believe that, having gotten away with the crime, Lucienne will now get rid of her rather sickly lover, Mireille). So order of a sort is reestablished in the concluding moments of the film (by a very scruffy patriarch, the detective), but not before a great deal of social disruption has taken place in which gender norms and political censorship are challenged. Sexual and political boundaries within this film have been stretched, transgressed even, beyond the historical and ideological order in which it was produced—the mid-1950s—a time of severe censorship and profound homophobia. Despite the film’s unease as to its nature (as straight or queer), this was Signoret’s highest-ever scoring film in France, with an audience of 3.7 million. People go to see thrillers to be frightened. They also go because it is a chance to see a representation of the unrepresentable. The attraction lies in the challenge to the architectonics of social order—the carnivalesque disruption of knowable boundaries. And it is surely this that makes this film still hold such fascination for audiences today.
In this section, I am taking costume to refer broadly to both costume drama and contemporary film. Signoret made only a handful of costume dramas—six in her entire career, three of which were in the 1950s: a cameo appearance in La ronde and star roles in Casque d’Or and Les sorcières de Salem. Yet, the 1950s, costume dramas, along with comedies and thrillers, were at their peak in popular mainstream French cinema (Vincendeau 2000, 12). I have already discussed costume in general terms in this chapter, most especially in relation to Thérèse Raquin and Les diaboliques. In this section, I want, first, to focus on the interplay between Signoret’s body and her costume, and to this effect will take one costume drama, Casque d’Or, as a case study, although I shall precede it with a short discussion of Les sorcières de Salem. After that, I shall turn my attention to Signoret’s apparel in Room at the Top. The chapter will conclude with a third case study, in this instance Signoret’s first color film, La mort en ce jardin.
In that they offer fashion on a truly spectacular dimension, costume dramas typically target the female audience. Furthermore, costume drama generally sidelines history using it as a backdrop for the romantic involvement of the protagonists (Bruzzi 1997, 35). As we have already seen, where Casque d’Or is concerned, both history and melodrama are at its core. This broadens its appeal to male and female audiences alike. Indeed, on the one hand, it tells a double history: that of a working-class collective and that of a woman’s individual life at the turn of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it relates the doomed love affair between Marie and Manda. The historical and the political come to the fore once more in Signoret’s other major film in this genre, Les sorcières de Salem, which, as a politicized costume drama, is as far away from historical romances as one could imagine. The type of costume dramas Signoret was making, therefore, were quite distinct from the average fare of the time. It is worth remarking that Signoret’s close friend Gérard Philipe was one of the leading male stars of the 1950s associated with the mainstream romantic comedy version of the popular costume drama, for example, his eponymous role in Fanfan la tulipe (Christian-Jaque, 1951). Philipe, therefore, figured as a matinee idol, being consumed by female spectators, whereas Signoret was not. As we shall see, her play with costume will equally go against the tide of the times.
In Les sorcières de Salem, costume serves to shield Elizabeth Proctor/Signoret’s body not just from others but from herself. Her body is completely buttoned in and up. The coarse wool texture of her clothes, the plain stitching, and the wooden buttons all keep her perfectly hidden, but they also make us sense the hair shirt she might be wearing underneath. The proof of her virtue and puritanism is writ large on the fabrics that enclose her. No one can approach such a body, as John Proctor knows only too well when he says, “Sometimes a woman condemns a man because she likes virtue too much.” Her body is as much in crisis through sexual repression as is her husband’s and Abigail Williams’s through sexual frustration. This is clearly symbolized by the way the two opposing sets of bodies wear their clothes. Whereas nothing of Elizabeth’s body can be seen, apart from her face, John’s shirt is undone to the waist, exposing a beautiful torso, and Abigail (played by Mylène Demongeot) wears front-laced blouses that temptingly expose her shoulders and rounded bosom, to which her tight-fitting aprons serve as a match by revealing her waist and suggesting her hips. Elizabeth’s clothes keep her straight-backed and unbending. Her movements are slow and deliberate, and she often appears to be frozen stiff, so encased is she in her moral rectitude. Her rigidity becomes an exercise in power over John, her daughter, Fancy (played by Chantal Gozzi), as well as Abigail. Thus, her clothes become a way of disciplining not just her body but also those of others—they are emblematic of the true path that should be followed. As if to reinforce the rigidity of her disciplined body, she is enormously silent, lacking in a desire to communicate with humankind, preferring her God as an interlocutor. Similarly, her face is shot fully lit—there are no shadows of ambiguity for her. Her soul, like her face, remains two-dimensional, therefore, unable to tolerate the black side that everyone carries. Thus, she remains hard as moral nails, until near the end of the film, when at last her body changes shape and her clothing reveals a woman of flesh and love beneath. Signoret conveys this transformation with great economy. Her face is transformed from the severe, pinched features of before into a round, soft aura, much like her rounded pregnant body (she is carrying John’s child). Indeed, her pregnancy points to her fertility and to the maternal body, to hope. Her voice now breathes emotion: the harshness, heard up until now, gives way to a weeping, choking voice as she speaks her love to John, beseeching him to look at her with the desire he felt for Abigail. Her body surrenders to love, knowing that despite all her efforts, including refusing to denounce him, there is nothing she can do to save him from death— nothing, that is, except to give him the strength, through her change, to face death without fear.
Let us now look at Casque d’Or. In terms of the costumes themselves, we are struck by three dominant types: Marie’s, Manda’s, and those of the gang members, in particular, Leca’s. I have already spoken of the softness of Manda’s attire and want now to focus primarily on Marie’s but without losing sight of Leca and his gang, since their clothing acts as a foil to both Marie’s and Manda’s costumes. Over the duration of the film, we see Marie in four different examples of outward clothing (three of which are day outfits and one evening) and three different ones of inward attire (underwear and/or nightclothes).
Only once are Marie’s clothes commented upon by the diegetic audience in the form of Julie’s discussion with Marie of her evening attire the fatal night they go to the Ange-Gabriel (the night Manda kills Roland). In this scene, Marie appears at first to be dressed in black, in a tightly bodiced dress, with a small amount of white frilly lace effects across the bosom and at the bottom of the sleeves. She enters with considerable flounce, aided by the feather boa she wears around her neck and under which, we soon discover, lies a black onyx choker necklace. The dangling pieces of the necklace look like long, sharp teeth. The fetishistic value of the plumed female body is a common enough stereotype of the devouring femme fatale, as is the notion of the plumed female as dangerous and predatory, which the necklace serves to enhance. However, Marie’s dress is completely at odds with everything else she has worn up to this point. Before, she had no need to signal anything about herself through clothing by excess. Her clothes were quite ordinary, and it was more the seductive effect of her eyes and smile that gave her power over others, including Manda. So why this dress? Why this excess? The first point that needs to be made is that this radical shift in costume attire occurs at the turning point in the drama, when Manda kills Roland. Indeed, a first reading would lead us to interpret Marie’s attire as a typical femme fatale’s masquerade. Her dress marks the entry of the black widow, ready to “witness” the death of her present lover and be the “cause” of Manda’s own eventual demise—death by guillotine.
A second reading of her costume, however, can be made when we measure her costume against that of the high-society women who arrive at the Ange-Gabriel in their startlingly white attire. White furs, feathers, and satins for the aristocratic women abound. This begins to complicate the first reading. So, too, does our perception of Marie’s own dress, which we observe upon closer scrutiny is a composite affair of black striped tafetta over white satin. As far as her outer shell is concerned, Marie is in black, in contrast to the other, rich women’s white. But underneath she wears the white satin that corresponds to their outer shell. She also wears frilly lace bits, which, like the feathers on the aristocrats’ heads, point to spectacular adornment. As Stella Bruzzi (1997, xvii) points out, after the great masculine renunciation of the nineteenth century, whereby men gave up “the desire for exhibitionism in their own attire” and transferred the frills and furbelows to women, the “exhibitionist but passive woman” became “the embodiment of the man’s desire—in short, his fetish.” Only in part does Marie’s dress code suggest that this might be the case for her, for the blackness of her outer shell points to the aristocratic men who surround their companions. They are dressed in the de rigueur black evening dress—top hat, tails, and starched white shirt. The rest of the men and women dancing in the bar or lounging about are in day dress, including Leca’s gang in their showy costumes (striped shirts, checked jackets, light trousers, and fancy waistcoats). In other words, the other men, in particular, Leca’s gang in the bar, have, in one way or another, not colluded with the grand renunciation, suggesting they occupy a more dis/playful, feminized space. Marie’s outer dress color, however, aligns her more readily with male aristocrats—that is, a more masculine space. And Leca’s gang’s attire (in its femininity) serves only to enhance this impression. In the opening sequences Marie occupies such a space: when she rows Roland to the shore and when she invites Manda to dance with her at the guinguette (dance hall). At those moments we have been aware of her defiance of the norms. This begins to suggest that this dress—given its masculine connotations—is more about defiance than it is about sexual display or female predatoriness, as suggested in our first reading (of clothes befitting a femme fatale or vamp).
This leads us to a third reading. Marie’s body has engulfed the dress; clothes and flesh have become one. The dress is neither a shield nor a projection of male desire. The dress tells us exactly where Marie’s truth lies—and it is multiple. Thus, the excess here is about excess of meaning. First, Marie has worn this dress as a sign of mourning—for losing Manda. In the previous sequence, she had declared her love to him, by kissing him passionately, only to be told by his fiancée that he was already engaged. Second, and this is the significance of the frills, she is in mourning because she is selling herself to Leca (she has agreed to become his mistress, in a sense the embodiment of his desire as suggested by the frills on her dress, now that Manda is lost to her). This dress, then, represents the black moment of disempowerment but also a moment of parodic protest. Parodic, because her dress holds an opposite meaning to the first reading we offered the dress, then, becomes not the masquerade of the femme fatale, but both a power statement (it reminds us of the defiant woman of action) and a statement of disempowerment (it displays Marie’s state of mourning, thus ironising her sell-out to Leca). Parodic, but also tragic in this moment, because it signals her own “death” as the free-spirited Marie we have known up until now (by giving herself to Leca). It is at this point that Marie becomes ambiguous and difficult to interpret simply as a manipulative and destructive woman. Just as the satin beneath her taffeta overdress, other meanings seep through.
To further elucidate this point, let us now consider the outer clothing she wears both sides of this central moment in the film. What first strikes is the balance and continuity within the dress code. We have already noted that Marie does not wear a great number of costumes, this is intriguing, because a function of the costume drama genre is the spectacle of clothing. Second, we also note that among the costumes she wears there is a considerable amount of recycling and repetition. The outfit she wears at the beginning of the film reappears in her first meeting with Leca. When she goes to find Manda at his place of work and declare her love for him, she wears a different outfit—a short-waisted flared jacket in light gray over a frilly blouse with a brooch pinned at the cleavage point. Her skirt is in a darker gray. In the second part of the film, except for one new outfit (which she wears to meet Manda on the riverbank), she mixes and matches what she has already worn in the first part. The significance is, of course, the continuity in her dress code (of which more below), a sense that costume is not on display in and of itself. We sense a life that is real and ongoing because clothing reappears and is combined differently, depending on the whim of its wearer.
At the beginning of the first and second parts of the film, Marie appears in a new costume. (Incidentally, these two openings represent in themselves a form of repetition: Marie rows to the guinguette and later rows to the bank to find Manda.) In part one, she wears a low-cut blouse worn on the shoulders with frilly collar and sleeves. The material (possibly satin, since it has a luster) is of white polka dots on a lightish background. It is fully buttoned at the back but has three small buttons at the front. The bodice-style cut means the blouse hugs the upper part of the body and is fully revealing of the shape of the breasts. The full-length skirt Marie wears is strongly pleated but flows easily (as if made of crepe). Along the bottom there are two black broderie lines running in parallel. The outfit is completed by the black leather belt she wears in the middle, which, in terms of shape, looks like a miniature corset. The cut of the blouse makes the cleavage almost perceptible; furthermore, it only just stays on the shoulders, slipping off from time to time to reveal a gloriously tempting Marie. The buttons (back and front) also hint at the delicious (and complicated) parcel to be unwrapped. Finally, the outer corset-like belt hints at what might be underneath in the form of further corseting.
In the second part, Marie appears in very similarly cut clothes, but this time the blouse is of striped cotton and the skirt is of dark satin with black broderie lines along the bottom. The belt is again corset-like. Her clothes mirror, in look but not entirely in fabric those of Manda (his dark velvet trousers and stripe cotton shirt). They also mirror the clothes she wore both in the opening sequence and when she went to visit Leca. These clothes, then, are layered with the same meanings as the earlier ones. But there are further imbrications. The stripes on the collar of Marie’s blouse fall in the same diagonal direction as the stripes on Leca’s shirt (seen in part one). The design of this blouse recalls her earlier polka-dot blouse, and that former blouse was itself a lighter mirroring of Leca’s polka-dot waistcoat. Thus, much as Marie’s clothes (in part two) appear to align her with Manda, they fail to be totally free from connotations with Leca and his own desire for her, even though we know she does not reciprocate his feelings. She may get cornered by him; however, she does not give of herself to him (in part one, she agrees to become his mistress but is saved by Roland’s murder; in part two, she becomes his mistress only in order to save Manda). So it is undoubtedly significant that, when she goes to meet Manda at the river’s edge, this is the only time we actually get to hear the rustle of her petticoats. As she moves toward Manda, we hear the frisson of eroticism expressing her sexual desire as she readies herself to awaken her sleeping lover.
As far as Marie is concerned, the fabrics, the rustle of petticoats, the buttons, the hugging nature of the blouses, and the containing quality of the belts tell us a great deal about her and her sexuality. She is both yielding and unyielding (soft and hard fabrics), contained and uncontained (the buttons, corset belts, and bodiced blouses, on the one hand, and the exposed shoulders, cleavage, and petticoat rustle, on the other). But—and this is what is so fascinating—in the two bedroom scenes (again, a mirroring of sorts) where we get to see Marie in underclothing or nightwear, we perceive that there is no difference between the outer and the inner subject. In other words, what is put on display outwardly with her clothes is merely repeated in her undergarments. In the first bedroom scene, when she has stayed overnight at Julie’s, we see her in her white cotton underclothing. At this point in the film, Marie is in a completely female space (even when the men come to fetch her, they are not allowed into the room). Thus, the question becomes, as with the rustling of petticoats mentioned above, which only we, the audience, get to hear, who is this display for? Not her lover, since he is this time absent (later on, as we saw, he was asleep). So who? Moments of high eroticism are missed out on by the very ones they should concern—and there is surely a reason for this.
Let us investigate this underclothing further. The chemise has a bodice top and flared bottom, which is identical in cut to the blouses Marie wears. The cut also matches the flared jacket she wears later on. The underskirt is similar in design to her skirts, including the two strips running in parallel along the bottom. There is, however, no corset. Bruzzi (1997, 41) explains the fetishitic value of the corset. First, its tight lacing is motivated by the Victorian desire to assert difference. However, there is a “fundamental paradox” that, although the corset supposedly functions to assert “morality and modesty,” in fact it also “arouse[s] desire” (42). In other words, the deep décolletage emphasizes the “impression of something very precious emerging from a complicated wrapping” (42). In principle then, the corset, like the petticoats, show/reveal what they hide and so have enormous erotic value for the perceiver and hearer (the male). They are on “the cusp between display and denial” (38). But we know that for Marie there is no corset and that no one hears her petticoats rustle.
As to Marie and her lack of a corset, in effect that desired object (as far as the male is concerned), that fetishistic object, is not just missing. She has put it elsewhere. It is worn outside in the reduced form of her belt, and not on the inside. Thus, there is no transforming of the body going on because there is no corset—the body is not constrained into another shape, asserting the notion of difference. Where Marie is concerned, the body within and without is the same: the roundness and fullness of her body as well as its firmness (filling the dress and underclothes) is a constant, whether it is clothed or not. There is a reason for this lack of corset, therefore. Let us investigate still further. As Alexandra Warwick and Dani Cavallaro (1998, 86) explain, “Though the body in a corset is the same in physical terms as the body without, it is not the same body.” They then add this intriguing piece of information:
Marie’s dress code becomes complex viewed in this light. The belt becomes an ironic commentary on masculine desire (she first exteriorizes it, then diminishes it). It also signals her refusal to conform and to act passively. Even when, later on, in her desperate attempt to save Manda, she “gives into” Leca, we are made aware that there is nothing consensual about her actions. Indeed, we feel it more as a form of rape than as a succumbing to another man’s will. In other words, he will not get the thrill of undoing her corset.
But back to this earlier scene with Julie and continuing with Warwick and Cavallaro. Underclothes mediate between the body and the outer clothes. It is the space between the flesh and “the encultured image of the body that others will perceive” (Warwick and Cavallaro 1998, 61). It is the slash (/) that connotes the splitting of the subject (between inner and outer), pointing to the fact that we are not unified ideal beings (79). Underclothes also act as a boundary—a layer in between the flesh and the outer countenance. As such, in that they are seen before full nudity, they make the body less threatening and destabilizing. However, what strikes us with Marie’s attire in her friend’s bedroom is its sameness (outer and inner), its hint at continuity. In its repetition of the outer countenance, it actually reassures. In its liminality to the body, it ensures the authentic body and its authenticity beneath. In other words, there is a collapsing of the difference between body and clothing: the more you expose the body, the more it reveals itself to be the same. The purpose of this first bedroom scene now becomes clearer: it prefigures the later single night of lovemaking with Manda and announces that, as with this attire, so too the nightie she wears that night with Manda signifies the same thing. There is no disguising. There are no boundaries. The erotics out there is the erotics in here—an authenticity of erotics (referring back to what I have already termed a “clean erotics”) that is not concerned with such issues as the split subject but is very clearly about a fully desiring body. In essence, Marie/Signoret epitomizes fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s idea that “the underlying rationale for clothing is the discovery of nakedness” (Bruzzi 1997, 33).
Thus, Marie’s clothes and her body make sense together—the costumes do not override the body, nor do they override the narrative. The rustle of the petticoats is her expression of desire. The lack of the corset means she has no need for erotic accoutrements. She is the erotic body. As Bruzzi (1997, 36) says, costume dramas, because they conventionally prioritize the eroticism of the costumes, tend to obscure the “moral, social or political message.” In Marie’s case, we have seen how this does not occur. Indeed, she ironizes the function of dress and, through her parodic play with it, proposes a political edge to the function of costume itself. Thus, insofar as Casque d’Or is a costume drama, the film does a great deal to posit a new way forward for the genre. And it is arguably its modernity that was not perceived by French critics of the time, or not liked, that made the film fail in France when it was released and that now makes it a classic. Signoret (1978, 117–118) precisely pinpoints the importance of the film’s costumes as an aspect of its revitalizing the costume drama genre when she states:
Indeed, Becker’s film had none of the tradition of quality cinema about it. There was intentionally very little dialogue—Becker deliberately went against the trend of the times for script-led films. Monetary constraints meant he had to keep things simple—sets, decor, and costumes, among other things. Thus, the film remains purposefully unostentatious or unspectacular as a costume drama. Dialogue, mise-en-scène, costume, but also editing, all work to offer a renewal of the genre. The film remains deeply authentic because it is grounded in history, however miniature, and in the real lives of a section of society we choose mostly to ignore. The clash of editing styles, sensuous yet brutal (the very last scene of the guillotine best epitomizes this clash of styles within a sequence) says so much about Paris’s underbelly in that period, when life had to be grasped, fought for, as well as enjoyed. In French cinema we would have to await the 1970s and the work of directors like René Allio, Jean-Louis Comolli, Bertrand Tavernier, and André Téchiné before costume drama once again dealt with popular history and gave a politicized reading of it.
Apparel of the ordinary is also what typifies Signoret’s dress code as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top. Indeed, in her plain cardigans and straight knee-length skirts she expresses both her class and her age. Her dress sense is honest in its middle-class classic style (reminiscent of Hardy Amies’ ready-to-wear clothes of the 1950s) and truthful in that it does not seek to mask her age as a woman in her late thirties. And Alice is honest—as is made clear when Joe, in the same breath, expresses a wish that she were not so truthful, but then declares that he loves her for it. Alice is also all woman (so says one of her theater woman friends). We see this in the close-ups of her face and in her expression of desire for Joe. Joe recognizes just how much she is a fully sexual woman in their play with cigarettes—he lights them, then places them in her mouth; she holds on hungrily and fulsomely to them until he withdraws them to kiss her (this occurs three times in the film).
Alice’s total womanhood contrasts with Susan Brown’s teenage lack of sexual knowledge. To the older woman’s depth of feeling based on lived experience contrasts the younger woman’s superficially adult airs and naiveté about love and sex. This is made eminently clear in the contrastive nature of the clothes they wear. Susan (played by Heather Sears) in her ballerina-type skirts and schoolgirlish buttoned up blouses is not much of a match for the cool sophistication of Alice’s classic attire. Nor, of course, do we see Susan in underclothing or nightwear (in her one sex scene with Joe, she remains fully clothed and extremely wooden). But we do see Alice in various states of undress with Joe. There are four love scenes, three of which have some aspect of nudity. In the first, when she seduces Joe on Sparrow Hill, all we see is the foreplay with the cigarette mentioned above. In the second, it is her black slip and naked shoulders we see as she lies in bed with Joe and then lies upon him. In the third, we are led to understand that she is completely naked since Joe comments on her body and how much he would love to have a picture of her like that—we only see the naked shoulders as she gets dressed behind a screen. Finally, on their brief sojourn in Dorset, we know they are naked underneath their raincoats as they walk along the rain-drenched beach. In that same sequence, once in bed, Alice’s nightie—though conventional in style—is low-cut and adorned with bows that are tempting to undo.
In the second and third love scenes, as soon as Alice gets up from their love-making, she quickly covers her body precisely because, as she says, it is no longer a young woman’s body. Yet, as she also says in the third love scene during her first argument with Joe (he cannot bear that she once posed nude for an artist), “I own my own body and I am not ashamed of it. And I am not ashamed of anything I have [ever] done.” Strong, assertive words. What drives Alice to cover up, then, is her own sense of comfort with her body, taking it for what and how it is. Interestingly, there are ways in which her lingerie reveals this. In the second scene, when she gets up, she puts on a black silk dressing gown that matches her black slip underneath and tenderly molds to her body. This conjuncture of soft fabrics and semi-nudity points to the erotic value of her body as a pleasured body (we sense her enjoyment of sex with Joe). At the same time, in covering her body (but not its contours), she modestly asserts her ownership of that body, takes it back to herself.
In the third scene, however, something completely different occurs. At first, Alice is standing naked behind the screen, and Joe exclaims how beautiful she is and how much he likes to see her with nothing on. She then proceeds to tell him something about her past, when she was proud to show her nudity as an artist’s model. In this moment she is truly happy—glowing with the pleasure of sex and sharing her life with the man she loves. Joe cannot understand why she would pose nude, and they begin to argue. To his anger she responds with a cutting comment about his lack of sophistication. Signoret delivers this barb, her face full of irony with a knowing, caustic wink. A class gap opens up, wounding him. He, in vicious return, asks her—almost spitting—what she did forty years ago during World War I. An age gap looms large, wounding her. As this scene of destruction unfolds, Alice puts on a curiously shapeless white, pinstriped, cotton housecoat. We know she is naked underneath, but the clothing works to remove any sense of the erotic thrill that we experienced with the silk gown. Alice and Joe give as good as they get—equal in insults—but the love affair is broken, at least for the moment. Nowhere is this more sharply signified than through Alice’s shift from sexy lingerie to banal housecoat.
Age is an issue for Alice throughout the film because she keeps coming back to it after they have made love. She is found several times in the film to be looking at her face and examining the age lines and the less taut nature of the skin around her chin. The first time Joe meets her she is removing stage makeup (a mask/disguise for age) in front of a mirror. This is their first encounter—behind the scenes at the local amateur repertory theater. It is instructive that Joe is not looking at her, but at Susan, and that Alice is looking at Joe’s reflection in the mirror. The relay of looks does not bode well, even if the removal of the mask points to Alice’s moral integrity about her age. She is realistic about her age and her body; Joe is far more in denial. And, although she wants to believe that he will give everything up to be with her, she is honest enough to realize that the age difference between them (ten years) does matter. It is surely significant that, after Joe has left her for good and before she drives off to her fatal accident, she looks in the mirror in the pub, checking for herself just one last time to see who indeed she is, only to be faced with multiple images of herself (front and back, down an interminable series of reflections). In that simple but complex shot, she begs the question How do I come back from this kind of devastation?
In the end, Alice is the older woman who helps Joe grow in confidence. As she says to him, “I was a good teacher.” So good, in fact, it took several attempts for him to leave her. The fullness of her embraces reveals a woman whose body is unashamedly in tune with her lover’s. One wonders how Joe could ever relinquish her rich voluptuousness for the gangly and prudish awkwardness of Susan’s immature body. There is no prudishness where Alice is concerned—as is exemplified by their first love scene, which begins in the car. She remarks, with bemusement written all over her face, that English cars are rather prudish when it comes to matters of sex. The gear stick is in the way, so she invites him out of the car into the more inviting wide, open spaces of the Yorkshire hillsides. As she puts it, Sparrow Hill is “somewhere cold and clean where there are no dirty people.” There is nothing sordid to her mind, then, about their having sex. In their second love scene, her hands tenderly hold his head as he lays against her breast, the openness of her fingers speaking to the warmth of her sexuality—to say nothing of her serene silence after lovemaking (as opposed to Susan’s irritating chatter and questions after Joe seduces her). Alice, unlike Susan, knows “it was alright.” Each time we sense it gets richer, deeper, more— always more fulfilling, as the Dorset sequence makes clear. Alice is right when, as she boards the train home, she voices her fear to Joe that nothing will ever be the same again.
Alice, however strong her resolve in this love affair, is someone who will break—contrary to what, at an early stage in the film, she, unprophetically, asserts to Joe (she is playing his lover in a play rehearsal, and says, “I’m not fragile, I won’t break”). Ironically, Joe has joined the repertory company hoping to get closer to Susan, not Alice. And this is the crux of the problem: Alice will love him to the point of full vulnerability, even when it is clear that he has set his sights on Susan (the “girl” at “the Top”). The first time Joe leaves her, Alice grieves in silence supported only by her friend Elspeth (played by Hermione Baddeley). When he comes back and declares that he loves her and not Susan, Alice values every moment as if she knows it will be the last. She does finally believe in his commitment (after the Dorset sojourn), even though she is terrified of the fragility of their love out there in the real world. Justifiably so, since her husband and Susan’s father eventually trample all over it. Both men issue Joe an ultimatum (“Leave Alice alone”/“Marry Susan, or else”). Joe is faced with a dilemma: either behave heroically and defy everyone by running off with Alice, or act as a coward and marry Susan. Joe had told Alice the truth about himself in that same love scene when they had argued: when he was a prisoner of war, the last thing he wanted to do was try to escape—why be a hero like the upper-class “toffs” who were conducting the war as if it were run according to some kind of gentleman’s code of honor? Ever a pragmatist, Joe bows out to the cowardly alternative. Alice is right when she says that as soon as he is among the people “at the Top” he becomes timid and conforms to their wishes. In all their meetings she had asked him to be true to himself always, as he was when with her. As she says: “You had it in you to be so much bigger than them.” However, it is something he cannot achieve, and it is she who will suffer for his ultimate lack of authenticity. It is something she could not teach him and that he failed to learn for himself. This time, Alice’s devastation is total and very public. She goes to the pub where he had once unreservedly declared his love for her and gets extremely drunk in front of a rather subdued diegetic audience, only to leave, dignified and distraught, to drive to her death.
It is a deeply moving role that Signoret embodies. There is no trite melodrama in her nuanced shifts in feelings from joy to despair—as, for example, in her last scene with Joe, when her face decomposes in a few minutes from happiness, through shock, restrained pain, and utter devastation as he rejects her (repeatedly saying he is going to marry Susan). There is nothing mannered in her gestures, which are utterly convincing as she seeks out the core of the man she loves and strives to share her being with him—her marvelous wave at him from the back as she walks away from him down the street remains etched in Joe’s mind as the moment he knew he wanted her (its strength can be measured by the fact that this is the image that repeatedly returns to haunt him after her death). Signoret makes us believe that her Alice knows herself intimately even as she struggles with the contradictions between her self-knowledge and the mores and hypocrisies of late-1950s Britain, in which women are still perceived as men’s property. As Alice’s husband (played by Allan Cuthbertson) makes very clear, he will never let her go, not because he loves her, but because she belongs to him. Rather than return to the bleak emptiness of her married life and conform (hence, perhaps, the multiple reflections of her in the pub’s mirror), she chooses nothing (death). Sometimes nothing is better than something.
The popular and the surreal merge in Raymond Queneau and Luis Buñuel’s adaptation of José André Lacour’s novel La mort en ce jardin, which is our last case study. Buñuel’s film was shot in Mexico (where he was in exile), and it was Signoret’s first color film. Significantly, it was shot in Eastmancolor, a new and less expensive system of color cinematography that had come onto the market in the early 1950s. It had two major advantages over Technicolor (the other system available at the time). First, Eastmancolor is a tripack single-strip color film and, based as it is on the three primary color registers for film (red, green, and blue), it has a greater sensitivity to light and allows for faster speeds. As such, it is an accurate color recorder with different speeds for night/interiors and daylight shooting. It also films distant objects more distinctly. Eastmancolor’s tripack system uses filters to add or subtract color and, because of this, is particularly sensitive to the rendition of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Given its rather simplified nature (single strip, three base registers), it can have a tendency to rather gaudy color effects in film, especially in its early years of use (the 1950s). So if green is stressed, thus turning it into a dark green, it can become oppressive and nauseating. It can be used, in coloring the landscape, as an extension of the characters’ psyche or inner disturbance. Red is the most aggressive of the three colors, and blue can become intensely cold. As we shall see, all three of these colors will mark Signoret’s body—singly and to a specific effect—at one point or another in the film’s narrative.
In Buñuel’s film, most of these properties of Eastmancolor come into play. Thus, throughout, the depth provided by the fast tripack system makes the surroundings tactilely omnipresent. The background rocks and river at the gold mine are just as much a reminder of human frailty as is the deeply verdant greenery of the giant rain forest that threatens to engulf the five main protagonists lost in the “garden” (at one point, the branches “eat” Maria’s hair). In terms of color and to give meaning to his mise-en-scène, Buñuel plays with the flexibility of Eastmancolor by either adding or subtracting color (through using different filters). In the first half of the film, the exterior colors are bleached out to the point of pale yellow hues, reflecting the heat of the beating sunlight. Interestingly, at this stage, we only see Signoret in interiors—and here, as opposed to the exteriors, the color has tonality and depth. The overall impression is one of great realism. In the second half of the film, however, when Signoret and the four other fugitives flee into the rain forest (the “garden” of the film’s title), the color— predominantly an oppressive green—takes on a deep, at times, thick and unguent quality, which, coupled with the choice of shots (in particular, the close-ups of the flora and fauna), brings it far closer to a visceral, surrealist painterliness.
Because of the dramatic effect of Eastmancolor on Signoret’s image, in the analysis that follows the primary focus will be on her and her bodily relationship to color. In her character role of Djin she has basically three embodiments. The first embodiment is of Djin the prostitute who successfully runs her business, a very overt bar-cum-brothel in Cachazu, a small mining town on the Amazon. In terms of clothing, she is first seen wearing a bright red silk dressing gown that has slipped off her right shoulder, leaving it temptingly exposed. She is sitting watching over Chark as he lies asleep in her bed. The red of her robe acts as a strong foil to the blondness of her skin and hair. Her blondness becomes a point of contrast against the darkness of all the skins that surround her in her bar and elsewhere, including Maria’s darkness, and points to a European body that is strongly out of context and (if we pay attention to the red robe) one that is being signaled as potentially hazardous to know (at least corporeally). To compound this idea, in this scene, Djin’s mouth is heavily made up, with her lips painted a deep, garish red. The effect is to draw attention to the whiteness of her teeth and in particular to expose her top teeth as if she has an overbite. They effectively speak to her greed and venality—words Djin uses to describe herself to Chark when he wakes up and she negotiates her fee with him. As she does this, she accompanies her words with a broad, cynical smile, fully displaying her fiercesome molars. Overall, the juxtaposition of color and texture works in this scene to suggest an eroticism that is dangerous and unsafe (the Freudian/surrealist image of the vagina dentata springs to mind). Indeed, Chark’s trust in her seduction of him will be misplaced. She steals his gun, denounces him to the police, and takes a share of his money as a bribe. Henceforth, throughout the first half of the film, Djin will always be closely associated with this first of the primary colors—red. Thus, when, in a subsequent sequence, she is fully clothed, her body is segmented into three by this color as our eyes travel from her thick red lips to her thick red belt to her sling-back red high heels (all of the same red, incidentally). Our eyes, impelled by the color red, move down the erotic female form. In order, the red leads us to gaze upon the lips, then the waist and bust (lying in between waist and lips), finally the hips and legs. Intriguingly, the fingernails are not painted red, but the hands are drawn attention to by the heavy fake-pearl bracelet she wears.
In her second embodiment, Djin is a fugitive on the run. She arrives at the getaway boat dressed in a white shirt, slacks, and high-laced boots and sporting a green scarf. At this stage, she is made up as before. But none of this outer cleanliness lasts. Indeed, the nightly downpours of rain in the forest make sure of this, as they mercilessly strip her hard outer shell away. Over the numerous days that the group roams aimlessly around the forest, Djin is progressively divested of her trappings of femininity—in effect, the dangerous body described above disappears. The first accoutrement to go is the painted face. By the second day, all traces of red have gone, and her teeth recede. By day three, her shirt is soiled by the nightly downpours, and her face is starting to look very grubby, her hair knotted. By day four, her shirt is torn on her left shoulder and at the back, revealing unclean, greenish flesh—highlighted by the deep green of the forest (and the tripack color register). Only one button secures her shirt at the front. Thus, not only are her cleavage, shoulder, and back exposed but also her belly. However, this availability of the flesh is not in any way alluring. Her face by now is truly filthy, her lips blistered by the sweltering heat, her hair a mess and held back by her green scarf. Her overall squalidness contrasts with Maria’s general lack of dirtiness. Maria is slightly grubby and her shirt somewhat the worse for wear, but she does not look filthy. Nor for that matter do Chark or the priest Lisardi (played by Michel Piccoli—in fact, his white trousers remain remarkably white, although not pristine, throughout this ordeal). Castin, the last member of the group, already wounded and sullied from the pitched battle with the army earlier on, looks no different from when their escape began. Thus, the one for whom there has been a monumental change in terms of outer appearance is Djin. She is, sartorially speaking, totally without artifice, her entire body encrusted with dirt. And as her appearance gradually disintegrates, so a nicer, more considerate person emerges. The dangerous body disappears, the treacherous female is temporarily undone—it is as if the rain has forced the inner body, the former, venal Djin, out into the open. Metaphorically speaking, all the evil and scheming green pus has seeped through to the outer skin, where it lays for all to see. Thus, we believe her when, at the end of their ordeal, she apologizes to Chark for her previous treachery and tells him she loves him. This time we are convinced by the integrity of her seduction as she leads him off to “bathe” in the lake—to wash herself clean of the cleansing process, as it were.
Sadly, we are as fooled as he is. Once the trappings of fine clothes and jewelry become available, the former Djin begins to reemerge. Miraculously, the fugitives are rescued thanks to Chark’s dogged refusal to give up hope. His intrepid exploration of the forest brings him to a lake shore and more miraculously still to a plane that has crashed, leaving no survivors but plenty of loot—fine food, fine clothing, and very expensive jewels. Maria and Chark quickly dress themselves anew. Maria dons a white dress. It is not dissimilar in color and cut (high neck and ballerina skirt) to the one she wore in the first part of the film, but it is more refined. She comes across some jewels, which she, not unreasonably, wants to keep for herself. But the priest swiftly puts her right and proceeds to bury them under a tree where she cannot find them. In the meantime, Djin, who by now has bathed and made love with Chark, is making herself ready. Using one of the dead person’s raincoats as a dressing gown, she already has her hair in curlers and is about to make up her face (thanks to another dead person’s makeup case). As she quietly reconstructs herself, she observes the priest burying the jewels and subsequently goes to retrieve them. In the next stage of her return to “beauty,” her hair is immaculately done, her nails manicured, her face red-lipped once more and her body encased in a deep blue brocade evening gown that is strapless and sleeveless. The haute couture gown hugs the body like a sheath, and its deep blue color resonates with coldness. The masquerade is nearly complete: Djin looks like “a real lady,” as Chark puts it. She offers the jewels to Chark (to make up for her former betrayal and theft), and he proceeds to attach the necklace and bracelet to her body. She is truly adorned—from top to toe—in the stolen trappings of another class. Chark remarks: “You are now attired for a new life.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as the clothes themselves make clear. She cannot masquerade as what she is not, she has not relinquished her former self, and she pays the ultimate price for not changing from within. There is a suffocating elegance to the gown that gives no space for movement. Djin is completely trapped both by its tubular cut and its stiff, unyielding material. There is literally no way out—and a few seconds later, when she stands fully illuminated by the fire, she is shot dead by Castin (played by Charles Vanel). She falls stiffly backward, all of a piece, as it were. Nothing bends or buckles as she topples over like a statue from its plinth. The phallic, tainted, icy female in all her iconicity is forcibly removed, pushed over to make way for the innocent, virginal and warm-hearted Maria, with whom Chark makes his eventual escape.
Eastmancolor in this film does not flatter Djin/Signoret. The primary color registers, which can so easily be forefronted by this tripack color technology, distort her face by overemphasizing the teeth (through the use of red), reduce the star image to a deeply unattractive green-colored skin, and strap her into a blue dress that makes her body stand out so startlingly she is an unmovable fixed object and therefore an easy target for the male to wipe out as a threat to his masculinity. Two types of women die in that moment: the conforming, constrained, and fetishized exponent of 1950s haute bourgeoisie and the equally fetishized scheming femme fatale of no determined class origin so common to the American film noir of that period. The filthy green woman who emerged between these two types does not meet with salvation in Buñuel’s Garden of Evil (incidentally, the British title is Evil Eden). Djin will lay petrified on the ground and, like the snake earlier on in the film that was killed by Chark, she will be eaten by the carnivorous ants that show no mercy where available flesh is concerned.
 See, for example, Jacqueline Michel in Le Parisien Libéré, 6 June 1959 (BAP).
 It is also the case, as Vincendeau in Gauteur and Vincendeau (1993, 124) points out, that male leads in French cinema, particularly major stars like Jean Gabin, could be more in close-up than their female counterparts.
 See, for example, Cinématographie française (19 September 1953, 14) and Film français (18 September 1953, 8).
 Carné (1979, 327) reports in his autobiography that Signoret apparently refused to make Thérèse Raquin with this radical introduction of Roland Lesaffre as the agent of fate. As we can see, she did eventually agree to the changes. Carné does not paint a particularly generous picture of Signoret’s attitude toward him when working on this film.
 For a more detailed discussion of the homophobic mood of the 1950s, see Dyer (2000, 127–138). It is true that one or two films with lesbian-based narratives did get made, but they were more about schoolgirl crushes than adult same-sex relationships (see Jacqueline Audrey’s Olivia, 1950).
 There is a sketch of the type of dress Signoret wears in Les diaboliques in the French Communist party’s women’s weekly Heures claires des femmes françaises (4 November 1954, 14). Called a sort of passe-partout, its qualities are extolled by the weekly because it is functional, smart, and inexpensive.
 Signoret’s 1972 interview with Nicole Jolivet quoted in Simone Signoret (1982, 9).
 For details, see La femme en 1900: les Années 1900 par carte-postale (Paris: Editions Serge Zeyons/Larousse, 1994, 170–171).
 Amélie Hélie’s husband, André Nardin (who survived her), attempted to prevent the release of the film Casque d’Or because he claimed it was prejudicial to her memory, but the court threw the case out (Cinématographie française, 15 March 1952, 5; and 5 April 1952, 13). Curiously, given how Becker had softened her image from the original, we might be surprised by this show of uxorial devotion.
 See interview with Jacques Becker by Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut in Cahiers du cinéma 6(32) (February 1954): 8.
 See Gilberto Guillermo, “Jacques Becker: Two Films,” Sight and Sound (Summer 1969): 143.
 Becker, quoted in Lindsay Anderson’s review, “The Current Cinema: Casque d’Or (Golden Marie),” Sight and Sound 22 (October/December 1952): 75.
 See Durant (1988, 62–65) for details. Originally, the film was going to be made by Julien Duvivier in 1939, starring Jean Gabin. When Gabin went to the United States during the war, Hollywood thought it might make the film. Those plans came to nothing. Postwar, Henri-Georges Clouzot and then Yves Allégret (Signoret’s then husband) thought about making it. Finally, Becker got the green light.
 For more details on this song and a longer reading of this film against the political climate of its times, see Andrew (2000, 112–125). It is worth noting that this film was read by some critics as an attack on the working class (see Périsset 1988, 46).
 In 1954, the PCF’s women’s weekly Heures Claires des Femmes Françaises (4 November 1954, 14) spoke very favorably of the utilitarian nature of this dress, which was in vogue that year.
 Derek Prowse, review of Les Diaboliques, Sight and Sound 25(3) (Winter 1955/1956): 149.
 See Noël Herpe, “Les films criminels de Clouzot: le mauvais demiurge,” Positif 419 (January 1996): 103–105.
 See his interview in Cahiers du cinéma 32 (February 1954): 13.