Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
Born 1903. Begins career in films in 1919 as art director before making some avant-garde films 1923-35. Works with famous directors René Clair and Jean Renoir. 1930-32 works in Hollywood on French versions of American films. Returns to France in 1933 to direct first feature film. During WW2 begins association with screen writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost and assembles film crew with whom he works until the 1960s. Becomes famous for his post-WW2 films which stressed quality dramas based on good scripting and witty dialogue, often historical dramas critical of social conventions and classes. During 1950s becomes a spokesman for French cinema criticisng the lack of adequate government support and the stultifying influence of American films in France. The French New Wave of cinema made some of his work seem academic, slow-paced and a bit old fashioned. Nevertheless his work retains a sophistication, humanity and critical stance which is still to be appreciated.
Stendahl, The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (1831).
Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide, ed. Ronald Bergan and Robyn Karney (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988).
M.B. White, "Autant-Lara, Claude," in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors/Filmmakers, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 29-31.
"The Red" refers to the colour of a soldier's uniform; "The Black" refers to the colour of the clergy's robes. These ar ethe only two options left to an ambitious joung man in the period of the Bourbon Restoration.
Julien Sorel (played by Gérard Philipe who earlier played Fabricio in another adaptation of a Stendhal novel, The Charterhouse of Parma (1948)) is the son of a lowly-born carpenter who is frustrated by the conservative and repressive society of post-revolutionary Restoration France (1815-1830). He regrets that he had not been born 20 years earlier so he could have distinguished himself in one of Napoleon's armies ("The Red" refers to the colour of a soldier's uniform), where JS is convinced his talent would have been recognised and rewarded. JS idolises Napoleon, his favourite book being Napoleon's memoirs from Saint Hélène, and keeps a picture of the Emperor hidden in his room. The only way to satisfy his ambition in the France of the 1820s is to pursue a career as a priest ("The Black" refers to the colour of the clergy's robes). Although he supports the secular ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, he suppresses his true feelings in order to train as a Jesuit priest in a repressive seminary. He then uses his connections in the church to get a series of appointments in influential families to rise up the social ladder, first as a tutor to the children of Monsieur de la Rênal, a provincial mayor, and then as personal secretary to the distinguished and wealthy noble Marquis de la Mole in Paris. Along the way, as a part of his attempt to climb the social ladder and overcome the disability of his low social class, JS seduces and then falls in love with the wife of M. de la Rênal, Louise (played by Danielle Darrieux), who is striken with guilt at what she has done. Nevertheless she continues to love JS and, out of jealousy and with the conivance of a priest, engineers JS's downfall. While with de la Mole, JS is seduced by his daughter, Mathilde (Antonella Lualdi), a young woman of some intellect and education who has read many of the radical and banned books (i.e. liberal, enlightened and revolutionary) in her father's library. JS uses her to assert his disdain for and desire to better the upper class and achieves his greatest victory when Mathilde grovels at his feet, calling him master and admitting she is his slave, thus reversing their true social relationship. M becomes pregnant and decides to renounce her social status and class by marrying JS. On the eve of their engagement/marriage JS is outfitting himself in a red soldier's uniform, about to celebrate his final victory when he learns that the jealous Louise de la Rênal has written to the Marquis informing him of their affair, thus ruining his chances of marriage. In revenge, though he still professes to love his previous lover, JS shoots Louise de la Rênal during a church service. Although Louise is not fatally injured, JS is arrested, tried and sentenced to death by guillotining at the hands of a court stacked with his social superiors who resent his youth, his education and his audacity to attempt to rise above his social station.
Here begins the last day of my life, thought Julien. Soon he felt himself inflamed by the idea of duty...
'Gentlemen of the Jury,' he said, 'a horror of contempt, which I thought I could defy at the hour of death, obliges me to speak. Gentlemen, I have not the honour to belong to the same class as yourselves, you see in me a peasant urged to revolt against the lowliness of his lot.
'I ask no mercy of you,' Julien went on, his voice growing stronger, 'I am under no illusion; death awaits me; the penalty will be just. I have been guilty of an attempt on the life of a woman most worthy of all respect, of all homage. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have therefore, Gentlemen of the Jury, deserved death. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity my youth may deserve, will wish to punish in my person and forever discourage that body of young men who, born in an inferior station, and in some degree oppressed by poverty, have the good fortune to secure for themselves a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich men calls society.
'That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity in that, in point of fact, I am not being tried by my peers. In the jury-box I see not a single peasant who has grown rich, but simply and solely men of the middle-class enraged against me...'
For twenty minutes Julien went on speaking in this strain; he said everything that was in his heart. (p. 484)