Claudel and film

The Satin Slipper

Bidens, simple and familiar. There was but one eye which formed the objective and above it a kind of lighthouse or electric lantern, which it quenches and lights again at will.

The mouth, what kind of mouth? It has no mouth. It is completely stoppered.

But in the middle of the stomach may be seen a double wheel on which is twined in a figure of 8 an endless thong or belt, on which become imprinted the images captured by the objective.

Alcochete. That’s interesting.

Bidens, cantabile con molto espressione. On being taken up by the second wheel they pass into a species of jawbone or brush duly irrigated, which takes off the images and hands them on to the digestive organs. Nothing more beautiful has been found since the Prapsopteron!

The Satin Slipper, or The Worst is not the Surest, translated by the Reverend Father John O’Connor with the collaboration of Paul Claudel. New York, Sheed & Ward, 1945. Fourth Day, Scene V.

           If there is one playwright whose works lend themselves very little to film, it is certainly Paul Claudel — at least, if we cling to rigid views of what film is and is not. Theater is said to be the realm of speech while film is that of moving images, “moving pictures.” So it is not surprising that few of Claudel’s works have been adapted for cinema. The reasons are understandable, but we should not jump to conclusions. What other twentieth-century playwright, besides Marcel Pagnol, has been as well served by film as Claudel?

           Claudel imagined that film could resolve some of the difficulties inherent in staging his works. In his old age, he also dreamed of Mesa and Prouhèze forever imprinted on gelatin in “a pile of films under the poet’s armchair,” as he explained in the prologue of Proteus, written on the occasion of performances at the Comédie Française, a few days before his death in February 1955. Numerous projects failed. Just after the Second World War, Charles Boyer, who enjoyed considerable prestige in Hollywood, worked hard to arrange for an American version of the Satin Slipper. Later, there was talk of Break of Noon with a prestigious cast. Neither film went beyond the planning stage. That is readily understandable in the context of the great California “dream factory” which, like all factories, is most concerned with profits. In France in the 1940s and 1950s, there was discussion about a screen version of The Hostage with Marie Bell and of The Tidings Brought to Mary  Neither materialized. The project that seemed the most promising was an Italian production of Christopher Columbus in March 1947, given the stature of the producer, Jacques Becker, a disciple of Jean Renoir’s. Becker’s letter of May 5, 1947, announcing that he was not, ultimately, the right filmmaker for this project, is very instructive:  “[…] I am now absolutely sure that the tone you wish to give to this film about Christopher Columbus is as far as possible from the one I can naturally adopt.”  “Naturalness,” which is so prominent in Becker’s Rendezvous in July and Casque d’or, is precisely what Claudel’s plays do not depict, and one must not try to imitate the “natural” when presenting his works.

           Curiously, we owe the first adaptation to Roberto Rossellini, the father of neorealism, director of Rome, Open City. In December 1953 he staged Joan of Arc at the Stake, the opera by Claudel and Honegger, at the San Carlo theater in Naples, with Ingrid Bergman in the role of Joan. The Naples performance was in Italian. In June 1954 the opera was presented in Paris, in French, in the presence of the poet, who later recorded his mixed reactions in his journal. Rossellini filmed this French version, his first color production. It was a significant gesture because it showed that the theatrical aspect of Claudel’s work should not be  hidden when his plays are transposed for cinema. Rossellini’s film disappeared almost entirely from the screen and from memory. There was no trace of the negative and copies were in such bad condition that they could not be viewed until they were restored in the mid 1980s by the Instituto Luce. Ingrid Bergman brought all her prestige and charisma to a production that was otherwise meant to be very modest. Although some scenes reflect a dated conception of theater (especially the peasant scenes, given their costumes), the rest of the film is superbly relevant and modern. According to Claudel, Bergman would also have liked to play Violaine.

           It took another thirty years for another play to be adapted, but Manoel de Oliveira did so with brio in his splendid Satin Slipper (1985).  Filmed in Portugal, but in a studio and in French, the film lasts almost seven hours and keeps all the scenes and characters from the play, although the filmmaker did have to abridge the text. Don Rodrigo is played by the great Portuguese actor Luis Miguel Cintra, and Prouhèze by Patricia Barzyk, a twenty-year-old Miss France. Marie-Christine Barrault is the Moon; Denise Gence is St. James. The film managed the exploit of being both  chosen by the Festival of Cannes (Out of Competition) and the same year winning a Golden Lion in Venice. Conceived as a homage to Méliès, it uses techniques of poetic enchantment from the era before special effects and proclaims (in the one addition to Claudel’s text): “Theater, cinema, cinema, theater: it’s all the same thing.”  As

a man of the screen, Manoel de Oliveira sought not just to adapt the Satin Slipper to the cinema, based on conventional criteria, but to adapt cinema to the Satin Slipper.

           For a film version of The Tidings Brought to  Mary, Alain Cuny, the masterful actor who had performed Claudel on the stage, had a totally different vision, and harbored the project for years. His movie, which came out in 1991, is an austere, enigmatic, intensely personal work. Its awkwardness (since it is the only one he ever directed) gives it an inimitable tone, but regrettably, Claudel’s text is relegated to the background.

           Just as Claudel always transcended “normal” theater, film adaptations of his plays must transcend “normal” cinema. This requires extreme audacity and independence on the part of filmmakers, especially amid today’s ever more formulaic productions. As a purveyor of scenarios, Claudel had enough imagination to enchant all the directors in the world. His theater is a treasure house. But as a poet and man of theater, he could not be reduced to the role of scriptwriter. Without the full texts, Claudel is not Claudel.

                                                                                                         Jacques Parsi

Translated by Carol Rigolot

Michel Lioure, « Christophe Colomb », in Anthologie du cinéma invisible, Jean-Michel Place, 1995.
Emmanuelle Kaës, « Claudel et le cinéma », Cahier de l’Herne Paul Claudel, 1997.

Le Soulier de satin

BIDINCE, simple et familier. — Il n'avait qu'un seul œil formant objectif et au-dessus une espèce de phare ou projecteur électrique qu'il éteint et rallume à volonté.
La bouche ? comment est la bouche ? Il n'a pas de bouche. Il est complètement bouché.
Mais au milieu de l'estomac on remarque un double rouet sur lequel s'enroule en forme de 8 une lanière ou bandelette sans fin,
Sur laquelle viennent s'imprimer les images que capte l'objectif.
ALCOCHETE. — C'est intéressant.
BIDINCE, cantabile con molto espressione. — Aussitôt entraînées par le second rouet elles passent dans une espèce de mâchoire ou de brosse, congrûment irriguée, qui détache les images et les livre à l'appareil digestif.
On n'a rien trouvé de plus beau depuis le peutêtreoptère !
Le Soulier de satin, Quatrième journée, scène V. Théâtre II, Gallimard, La Pléiade, p. 897.