Let’s get the big issue out of the way first: Eureka’s new Blu-Ray release of Manina, the Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter by Willy Rozier boasts the most unexpected and delightful extra feature of the year. It actually pertains not to the title feature, but to another Rozier film included as a bonus, the romantic noir 56 rue Pigalle. Although it was a commercial hit on its release in 1949, 56 rue Pigalle received poor reviews, so poor that Rozier challenged one of the reviewers, François Chalais, to a duel. And that’s what Eureka have included here; five minutes of newsreel footage of the critic and the director fencing with each other. It’s a weirdly charming sight – certainly more gentlemanly than Uwe Boll and Joe Swanberg’s adventures in the field of critic-attacking.
The incident brought Rozier a lot of publicity, enough to ensure that later films like 1952’s Manina were substantial hits. Today, Rozier’s name is little-known in English-language cinephile circles, and the marketing for this reissue focuses instead on the 18-year-old ingenue who plays the titular Manina – one Brigitte Bardot, in her first substantial role. (Not that this angle is new – on its American release the picture was retitled The Girl in the Bikini) What sort of director was Rozier? I’ve read no biographical information on him, but watching his films and his fencing I began to build up a picture of what he must have been like. It’s in this context that 56 rue Pigalle, despite being presented as the B-feature in this set, is most interesting.
Both Manina and 56 rue Pigalle are flawed films, but Manina’s flaws are simply flaws; impediments that stop the movie achieving its potential. 56 rue Pigalle’s flaws are genuinely revealing. Rozier is attempting to make a film noir here, and unlike Malle, Truffaut or Godard he’s making it at the same time as the American noirs. But it’s not just the lack of hindsight that means Rozier gets the genre interestingly wrong. He simply doesn’t share the genre’s worldview, lacking its corrosive social pessimism or its interest in the city. His lead character Jean Vigneron (Jacques Dumesnil) claims to suffer living in Paris in order to earn money to fund the yachting trips that he really cares for. Can you imagine a Michael Mann hero talking like this about Los Angeles?
So 56 rue Pigalle isn’t The Big Sleep, but it might interest fans of Frank Borzage’s Moonrise, or Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment – basically, any of those late-40s noirs made by European romance-movie specialists throwing everything and the kitchen sink at their plot. The central plot nugget – Vigneron becomes a target of suspicion when a man blackmailing him over his affair with a society wife is found dead – might have been inspired by Cecil Day-Lewis’s 1938 novel The Beast Must Die. The more absurd flourishes, like an elderly judge repeatedly falling asleep during an otherwise energetic courtroom montage, are Rozier’s own.
What does Manina offer that 56 rue Pigalle doesn’t? Well, Bardot, obviously, although she’s still a very inexperienced actress in this, some years off earning her serious-actor spurs in Louis Malle’s Private Life. When the plot takes a turn for the grave in Act Three, her anguished outbursts can be slightly embarrassing. She isn’t the lead in Manina, though. The little-known Jean-François Calvé takes the lead role as Gérard Morere, who sets off to discover the lost treasure of the Greek prince Troilus after being the only person to remain awake and attentive at a lecture about the Peloponnesian War.
For the first twenty minutes or so, Manina, the Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter feels like it’s going to be a gentle comedy about a daydreamer in the vein of Harvey or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There are several moments where Rozier seems to be undercutting his hero’s lofty dreams. There’s the comic tedium of the lecture, for a start; the fact that Troilus wasn’t exactly a major heroic figure of the Trojan Wars; the fact that Gérard has to earn the money for his treasure hunt by smuggling cigarettes. Then, when he gets out to see and falls into the orbit of Bardot’s stifled, love-starved young girl and her wicked sisters, we realise he might be a romantic hero after all.
That’s a fair precis of the pleasures and limitations of these two films. Rozier’s cinema is not one that cuts deep, or makes any serious social critiques, or is even interested in obeying the rules of the genre it starts out as. It is, however, a lot of innocent fun, shot through with a warm regard for his characters. You’d never tell, from these two films, that France had just lived through a nightmare of invasion, collaboration and resistance. Rozier is a film-maker of dreams and aspirations, a bon vivant whose playful worldview overpowers the budgetary and technical limitations of his work.