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"La foire aux chimères" is a jewel , a sparkling diamond.It would deserve one hundred comments ,and that would not be enough.
Pierre Chenal was a film noir director who made moderately successful movies before the war:"l'alibi" which featured Von Stroheim too and his first version of "the postman always rings twice ","le dernier tournant (1939).But the 1946 work is much superior ,being at once a film noir,a baroque melodrama and a fairy tale.
Frank, a disfigured man (Von Stroheim) meets at a fair a beautiful blind long-haired blonde Jeanne (Madeleine Sologne)who is a knives thrower's partner;this man,Robert, has a lover,Clara.Jeanne marries the ugly man , undergoes an operation and recovers sight.But,as says Marilou,Frank's housekeeper a proverb says "happiness is a misfortune you cannot see".
There are at least ten (and maybe more) memorable sequences;each one is actually a work of art.Even if the movie is close to the realisme poetique dear to Carné ,Chenal transcends it and makes a movie which verges on fantastic:when Jeanne appears for the first time at the fair (la foire aux chimères =the dreams fair),she looks like a fairy ,or an angel,the angel she plays in the small circus where Frank is the only spectator.The baroque house where Von Stroheim hides his beloved wife is a splendor.It's also a trompe l'oeil.
The screenplay combines harshness and elegance,and works wonders:when Jeanne awakes after the operation ,she pretends she cannot see because she has seen her husband's frightening face.It's only when she looks at herself in a mirror and bursts into tears that we get the picture.It might be the dark side of Cocteau's contemporary "Beauty and the Beast".
Stroheim outdoes himself and gives one of his greatest performances which compares more than favorably to that of Max Von Mayerling in "Sunset Boulevard" -who was yet to come in 1946!-.His character will meet the wickedness of the human race (the flies in his mashed potatoes in the canteen,the gibes when he dances with his wife at the ball)He will become a counterfeiter to spoil his Jeanne.But everything is illusion: "everything is illusion in this house,the paintings ,the furniture,your love for me!" he screams when he discovers his wife's secret.
Chenal's camera goes crazy during the stunning last minutes:a distraught Stoheim rushes in the streets to get to his enemy's house ,and it leads to a double ending (both sad and happy) that will haunt you long afterward.Chenal uses slopings with absolute skill
One should also mention the extraordinary use of the Pont Mirabeau où coule la Seine (as poet Appolinaire wrote).
"La foire aux chimères" had remained a sleeper for about forty years when it was praised to the skies during the eighties;but too many people who like French cinema do not even know its existence.Yes,there was a cinema before the nouvelle vague.
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