Starring: Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Reinhold Schunzel
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
It’s not often that you watch a silent film and find yourself right at home, but that’s the case with Madame DuBarry (1919). Ernst Lubitsch – a director best remembered for his later Hollywood comedies, but who also had a prolific career in silent era German cinema – presents this tale of the humble milliner’s assistant who became the mistress of Louis XV and the most powerful woman in France as if it was ripped fresh out of the pages of Hello! magazine. Savouring its own scandalous content and amoral characters, it fairly effervesces as it charts her rise from rags to riches (and ruches).
Grinning and clowning around, Pola Negri’s version of the young Jeanne might be a cheeky lass off Geordie Shore. She has a doting fiance, Armand (Harry Liedtke), but that doesn’t stop her dallying with rich men, including one Count Dubarry (Eduard von Winterstein), who encourages her to flaunt her wares at court, then passes her on to the king (a leering Emil Jannings) for a financial consideration. No respecter of royalty and as kittenishly playful with him as she is with everyone else, she soon has Louis trimming her fingernails and putting on her shoes for her. But she can’t quite forget the tiresomely scowling Armand, and that’s her downfall.
What you note about Lubitsch’s direction – aside from the fluidity, the sprightly pace, the eye for the picturesquely absurd – is the absence of moral tone. This milieu of easy money, loose women, shady deals and snobbery is enjoyed for what it is, and the characters who stalk through it are fascinating beasts – the Count, with his Punch-like face and his unpaid bills; the coldly reptilian Minister Choiseul (Reinhold Schunzel), who becomes Jeanne’s arch-enemy at court. But none is more fascinating that Jeanne herself. One of the highlights of the first half of the movie is a brilliantly conceived opera ball scene with Pierrots and ladies in huge wigs, and Jeanne sitting on the edge of a box, her legs dangling over the side. As an image of provocative, empowered female sexuality, it’s up there with Lola Lola strutting her stuff on the stage of the Blue Angel.
Another of the film’s delights is the very modern way it uses striking costume designs and décor to point the drama. Cloiseul’s clothes are covered in silver filigree which glitters like scales, heightening his lizard-like appearance and reminding you that money runs in his veins. The higher up Jeanne ascends on the social scale, the more OTT her outfits become. This culminates in the sequence when she is formally presented at court. Arriving in a parade of sedan chairs, she saunters towards the throne trailing a train that’s at least ten feet long, and sporting a wig that looks like she’s got a poodle on her head. She’s arrived, and it can only be downhill from here.
The film works best in the first half when Jeanne is driving the action and making things happen. It becomes less fun when, having achieved her goal, she turns into a tragic heroine, beset by opponents, an easy target for the revolutionaries who start who throng the streets. Even so, the later scenes of social turmoil are spectacularly mounted and convincingly venomous, and the ending gives you a chill. And even if Pola Negri’s performance gets a little lost in the segue from sex farce to Victor Hugo-esque melodrama, Madame DuBarry remains a dazzling example of Lubitsch’s silent era work.
The HD transfer is excellent. There’s a little print damage at one point, but otherwise the picture is almost crystalline in its clarity, without that crumbly look you get in some silent movies. The deep apartments with their chequered floors, the glint of silver on Choiseul’s clothes, the moiling crowd scenes – all of these come up in near clinical detail. The disc also comes with a nice transfer of the 37-minute When I Was Dead (1916), Lubitsh’s earliest surviving film, in which he also stars. It’s a fanciful comedy about a chess fanatic with a tyrannical mother-in-law, very slight and mainly of interest now for its lavish set-dressing and for the opportunity it affords to get a look at the young Lubitsch. It’s remarkable to think that just three years later he was making a film as flamboyant and sophisticated as Madame DuBarry.