An unhappy stint in Hollywood directing Greta Garbo under the aegis of MGM in the last days of silent cinema, was to be but the prelude to director Jacques Feyder's golden period back in France in the middle years of the 1930s, during which time he directed and co-wrote with Charles Spaak this revered but rarely seen early French talkie: a forlornly romantic tale of Fate and desire and doomed love in the blistering heat of colonial North Africa. Incidentally, this pre-cursor to the French poetic realist cinema of the period anticipates the languor and tragic longing of Hitchcock's masterpiece "Vertigo", with its central metaphor of the female doppelganger as ultimate symbol of unobtainable desire. Fittingly, the film was remade in 1954 by noir specialist Robert Siodmak.
Playboy businessman Pierre Martel (Pierre Richard-Willm) leads a life of risk and romance in '30s Paris from a swanky apartment in which he wines and dines his exceptionally high maintenance blonde beau, Florence (Marie Bell). However, this flamboyant lifestyle has been secretly bought by embezzling customers' funds from the family's banking business, and to save the honour of the family name, Martel is forced by his uncles to join the Foreign Legion and leave the country. But now that he's disgraced and penniless, the haughty Florence is not exactly keen to up sticks and leave with him -- so Martel (having changed his name to Muller) finds himself rootless and alone, barracked in a hotel-cum-brothel in Morocco, and abandoned to the memory of his lost, obtainable love back in Paris.
As Feyder's leisurely paced story unfolds it gradually fixes the true function of this exotic Moroccan location within the plot: to signify the protagonist's emotional displacement. Physically he is removed from the pain of separation (and acknowledgment that his true love never really felt the same way about him) by hurling himself into the Legion's ceaseless campaigning activities -- incessant marching and road building in the heat of the desert. His name has been mentioned in dispatches and he has become something of an example of patriotic commitment to all. But mentally he cannot shake the romantic longing that leads to listlessness and a sense of hopelessness; even when on leave, the giddy bustling exoticism of Morocco by night cannot provide enough distraction with its smoky clubs and sweltering back street brothels, nor can the card reading of fortune teller, Blanche (the standout performance of the film by Françoise Rosay) -- the knowingly world weary wife of the manager of the flea-bitten hotel he's staying in.
While his best friend and co-lodger, the Russian, Ivanoff (Georges Pitoëff), wishes to escape his former life completely, and will not talk about the events which brought him to this place, Muller/Martel cannot escape the dominating image of the now lost Florence. However, while out one night attempting to drown his sorrows in the fleshpots and rowdy music clubs with Ivanoff, he meets a dark, sultry but dispirited prostitute called Irma (also played by Marie Bell) who looks exactly like his former girl! A scar on her scalp seems to indicate an old gunshot wound, and Irma seems more than a little vague about the events of her former life. The two start a torrid relationship as Muller attempts to help her lead a new life away from the streets. But the soldier is haunted by the possibility that this really might be Florence, somehow transported by strange, unknown events to this new location: she often repeats many telling phrases from his past, and seems to have some kind of intuitive knowledge of Muller's previous life in Paris. The longing and the desire to recreate around this simple woman the Romantic idyll of his imagination, and the dreams in which he is at last reunited with Florence, soon rub up uncomfortably against their insalubrious surroundings, and when the lecherous hotel manger Clément exploits tragic Irma's vulnerability, violence, tragedy and a fateful meeting see the events preordained in Blanche's cards come inevitably to pass.
Leads Pierre Richard-Willm and Marie Bell still have that look of the silent movie era about them: caked in the exaggerated stage make-up of the matinee idol and with a certain melodramatic style of acting which sits uncomfortably in the brave new world of the talking picture. But like Hitchcock in his first talkie "Blackmail", Feyder is actually quite experimental in his use of sound, his main gimmick being that, while both Florence and Irma are played by the same person in different coloured wigs, Irma's voice has been dubbed by a different actress in order to create the necessary sense of displacement and a certain ambiguity as to her true identity
The feeling that we are seeing the world through Pierre's eyes rather than as it really is comes to dominate the film's weary, stoical atmosphere, with Fedyer creating an unusual aesthetic which veers between a sort of pre-cursor to documentary realism (with footage of the real Foreign Legion snatched on loaction under the pretence that the director was filming a documentary) and the elaborate studio sets re-creating the colourful and riotous crowded streets of Morocco, shown in some lengthy tracking shots that must have been hugely complicated to arrange with 1930s camera technology. Despite its undoubted technical accomplishment, this is an un-showy, quiet, subtle and contemplative film, saturated in grandly romantic feelings of pessimism, fate and inevitable doom. The main events of the story are almost incidental (indeed, they're signposted near the beginning when Blanche tells us exactly what Pierre can expect from life by giving him a card reading which foretells all the major plot points); instead, the turbulent emotional life of the characters is what Fedyer is most interested in dramatising through his evocative imagery -- a skill carried over from the silent era when the director was particularly loath to resort to inter-titles.
The DVD from Eureka! is # 68 in the Masters of Cinema series and features a nice print from the Pathe archives that looks as good as any film from the 1930s can be expected to look (i.e., lacking in fine detail but clear, free from print damage, and with good blacks and clean whites). There are no extras on the disc itself but a beautifully produced 28 page booklet is packaged along with it that presents an authoritative analysis by Ginette Vincendeau and a dossier of writings by Jaques Feyder, accompanied by a selection of beautiful stills from the film and a cover that reproduces in colour the original French poster artwork. It's delightful, as is this beguiling film.