Decency and Disorder

Nick Pinkerton on “Two by Louis Valray” at MoMA

Louis Valray, La belle de nuit, 1934, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 87 minutes. Claude and Maïthé (Aimé Clariond and Véra Korène).

OUR SUBJECT IS A FIGURE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY, his image faded to near-disappearance by the passing of years. “Not much is known about the director Louis Valray, except that he was born in Toulon in 1896 and made two exceptional feature films in the mid-1930s,” reads the press release from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is featuring both of those films, La belle de nuit (1934) and Thirteen Days of Love (1935), recently restored by Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films, at its virtual cinema through the eighteenth of March. In this case, however, the bare minimum of detail touches on something essential: Valray was a southerner, and as such belongs to a tradition in French cinema of outsider filmmaking from southerners that runs through the work of Marseille’s Marcel Pagnol, of Jean Eustache of Pessac and Narbonne, and of Luc Moullet, who has remained loyal to his ancestral homeland in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, that scrubby, not terribly touristy stretch of the Alps.

Both La belle de nuit and Escale (Thirteen Days of Love) pivot around encounters between northerners and southerners which end with the revelation of irreconcilable differences. The northerner is presented as, if not a portrait of moral rectitude, then at least concerned with the appearance of it; in the hotter climes of the south, however, anything goes. At least some of this view must be attributable to the influence of Valray’s rambunctious hometown: Toulon, a city on the French Riviera with a population in 1930 of some 130,000 souls, is home to a large naval base and bustling harbor, and like most port cities the world over, enjoys a reputation for vice which has persisted somewhat to this day. In 2013, a committee of former sailors succeeded in placing a white marble plaque to one Miquette, la reine de la quéquette, a sex worker who reigned supreme in the quarter of the city nicknamed “Chicago” by visiting party animals of the US Navy, who recognized an affinity between the wide-open Midwestern boomtown back home and this sleazy French entrepôt, whose gambling houses and drug dens were also run by the Sicilian mob.

“You Parisians all have a recognizable accent,” says a lumpy-faced dockside loafer spitting olive pits into the Mediterranean in La belle de nuit—one of the scores of remarkable, bunged-up physiognomies to be found in these films—to a newly arrived playwright (Aimé Clariond) who, on discovering his wife’s infidelity, has lit out to Toulon for a drunken debauch. Later, strolling the squalid streets of the sin city, a seedy studio fabrication of Toulon’s once-infamous “La Visitation” neighborhood that is as memorable in its way as the more lavish Casbah setting of Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), he catches the eye of two life-marred streetwalkers who jeer “Hey, look at that guy. I bet you he’s Parisian.” “I think we’re scaring him.” The message here is clear: The south is another country; they do things differently here.

The disillusioned dramatist, Claude, discovers a prostitute who is the spitting image of his wife in one of the dram houses he slinks into—this quite near to a plot connivance which appears in Jacques Feyder’s Le Grand jeu, released later the same year. Claude concocts a diabolical revenge on the “friend” who made a cuckold of him: He will bring his wife’s doppelgänger to Paris, give her an Eliza Doolittle makeover that gives her the appearance of a smart set society lady, and send her to win the heart of the adulterer, only to humiliate him with the revelation that he has cast his pearls before a woman who is, in the eyes of proper Paris, swine. The false front games continue in Thirteen Days of Love, which Valray cowrote with his wife, Anne. Here, a commercial ship’s captain from the frigid north (Pierre Nay) on a month’s shore leave near Marseilles shacks up with a local demoiselle, Eva (Colette Darfeuil), and brings her to his island getaway, nary suspecting that this demure brunette is the moll of a local smuggler and tough, Dario (Samson Fainsilber, a Romanian Jew playing Italian), who will muscle his way back into her life as soon as the good captain sets sail again. In La belle de nuit, too, best-laid plans fall to pieces, in this case because the gussied-up guttersnipe, Maïthé (Véra Korène, also in the role of the unfaithful wife, Maryse), falls for Claude’s callow literary protégé, Pierre (Paul Bernard), and contemplates a new life with the young man away from all these sordid intrigues.

When Pierre meets Claude, he speaks of a meeting with “Antoine”—the reference is to André Antoine, the theater director regarded as responsible for advancing the cause of naturalism on the French stage. Valray is distinctly not a doctrinaire follower of Antoine, his films mixing documentary aspects—the plein air locations, the raffish, seemingly street-cast background players—with passages of expressionist delirium and cinematic brio. There are long, louche lyric passages in both features, the journey through La Visitation in La belle de nuit the most memorable, a catalog of drink- and drug-mottled faces, with Claude making his way past a clumsy wrestling match between booze-befuddled sailors that is close to modern dance. In that same film, Valray exercises a passion for aural and visual match cuts that has mostly played itself out by the time of Thirteen Days of Love, though here he still employs the occasional punch line edit—Eva’s backslide begins when she is beset by a chirping chippy pal who invites her to a party at her new boyfriend’s place with promise that he’s “so funny,” this followed by a cut to the gent in question, a joyless, stone-faced sugar daddy presiding over a table cluttered with half-empty bottles while his girlfriend livens up the room with a chattering comic song, among several extended chanson digressions, more typically sung in the key of world-weary dejection.

Such musical interludes were not unusual in French popular films of the ’30s—witness Jean Gabin, playing a Toulonese abroad, warbling over the rooftops of Algiers in Pépé le Moko. But if Valray entertained commercial ambitions, his loyalty to lowlife scenes and overall idiosyncrasy may have held him back. Both of Valray’s signature features—I haven’t viewed his 47-minute L'homme à la barbiche of 1933, in which he and the missus star, nor his 1947 short Voyantes et mediums, which round out his filmography—end in exile. Having been introduced to and imposed upon by northern concepts of hierarchy and decorum, Valray’s southern heroines, incapable of fulfilling ideals of respectability or pretending to do so, are left with little choice but to clear the stage for their social “betters.” In La belle de nuit, after hearing her lover express his distaste for “little tarts, paid like maids by the hour or by the job,” Maïthé slinks away from their idyll on the coastal cliffs, filmed with an intoxicating, dreamlike languor, and is last seen embarking on a passenger ship journey for parts unknown. An ashamed Eva will likewise take to the water in Thirteen Days of Love, last glimpsing her fair-haired captain as he flirts with a passenger closer to his coloration, caste, and climate, before succumbing to sickness and sorrow, to be buried anonymously at sea.

To some eyes this may seem like the heavy hand of a moralist mashing these sinners down to earth after they’ve had a glimpse at the stars, but the cruel ultimatums these women face are delivered by an unforgiving civilization, not the filmmaker. His “fallen” women aren’t depicted as dirty; they only come to believe themselves so when confronted with and judged against sterile standards of goodness. Valray is aligned more with his sullied southerners than he is his upright northerners—one has only to scent the charged eroticism in the scenes between Darfeuil and Fainsilber, in contrast to the arid romance between her and her “fancy” captain, to know where the director’s loyalties lie. A connoisseur of the lower depths, he revels in the seductive textures of all things sordid without downplaying the dank desperation of the underworld milieu. He also locates moments of bitter humor amid deprivation: A memorable scene in La belle de nuit depicts a former schoolmistress who by necessity has taken to turning tricks and who, preparing to do the deed with a fresh-faced student client, helps him to prepare for an upcoming exam by quizzing him about French monarchs before proceeding toward his deflowering.

Valray’s people are no royals. Korène and Darfeuil are presented as palpably real women who sweat and nurse their little nagging aches and might smell slightly of garlic, not incorporeal screen goddesses—the director emphasizes the rangy physicality of the former, the indolent sensuality of the latter. His position remains, always, that of the southerner—it’s the Parisian accent and stiff-backed keeping-up-appearances of northern manners that are odd and incongruous and imposing, not the other way around. In Valray’s world the natural man or woman never benefits from contact with civilization, a postulation that plays itself out tragically in Thirteen Days of Love in the case of the captain’s Black manservant, Zama, an outsider among the outsiders, who becomes the instrument of his master’s revenge, their relationship reflecting in miniature the inescapable power imbalances and interiorized moral domineering of colonialism. (The part, which develops from carefree capering to something of significantly greater depth, is played by the gay Senegalese-French actor Féral Benga, the angel of Cocteau’s 1930 Le sang d'un poète and later a muse of the Harlem Renaissance.)

In recent years, something like a minicult has emerged around Valray in France, based in no small part on the fact of his independence from the Parisian studios and his lack of debt to any identifiable school—although Cocteau must have left an impression, and perhaps the early, anti-Antoine films of Jean Renoir as well. Cinephile high priests Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient have gone to bat for Valray; Claude Beylie and Philippe d’Hugues singled him out for attention in their 1999 book Les oubliés du cinéma français (The Forgotten of French Cinema); and Paul Vecchiali, a son of Toulon and a standard-bearer for French independent cinema thanks to his work with his production company Diagonale, trumpeted the praises of Valray in his idiosyncratic 2011 volume L’Encinéclopédie, French Filmmakers of the 1930s and Their Work, telling a Télérama interviewer in 2011 that Valray was nothing less than “the ancestor of the New Wave! He shoots outdoors, produces and edits his films himself.”

Working far from Paris—in Toulon and Marseilles, with interiors for both features shot at the Studios G.F.F.A. in Nice—Valray never got his break in the capital. His “exile” from cinema was nothing so tragically glamorous as those of his heroines: Per Vecchiali, his later years were spent at a Niçois radio station and working in the chemical industry for the company Péchiney. He died in 1972, in Chatou, outside of Paris, having left behind him two films that blew through French cinema of the 1930s like the stiff, stirring mistral wind.

“Two by Louis Valray” streams on the Museum of Modern Art’s Virtual Cinema through March 18.