LES DEUX TIMIDES (I due timidi) (Films Albatros, FR 1928)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair, dalla pièce di/based on the play by Eugène Labiche & Marc Michel (1860); f./ph: Robert Batton, Nicolas Roudakoff; scg/des: Lazare Meerson; cast: Pierre Batcheff (Frémissin), Jim Gérald (Garadoux), Maurice de Féraudy (Thibaudier), Véra Flory (Cécile Thibaudier), Françoise Rosay (la zia di Frémissin/Frémissin’s aunt), Yvette Andreyor (Madame Garadoux), Madeleine Guitty (Annette, la cameriera/the maid), Louis Pré fils, Anne Lefeuvrier, Bill Bockett, Léon Larive, Odette Talazac, Paul Franceschi, André Volbert, Paul Ollivier; data uscita/released: 1.3.1929; 35mm, 1739 m., 76’ (20 fps); fonte copia/print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Didascalie in francese / French intertitles
Les Deux timides, Clair’s last silent feature, is probably the most underrated and least known of his great comedies. Though well-received in its time, it has not been rated highly by even his staunchest French champions – Roger Régent, Georges Charensol, Olivier Barrot, Jean Mitry, Pierre Billard – who recognize its charm but globally judge it to be at best a minor effort, at worst something of a failure. Among its defenders, however, Celia McGerr went to the other extreme, dubbing it “one of the most visually ambitious – and successful – films of the silent era”.
In retrospect, Clair himself dismissed it. “I don’t like that film,” he told McGerr. “It was just a game.” Clair’s coolness to one of his most mischievously relaxed comedies may have had something to do with memories of the strained conditions under which it was made. La Proie du vent and Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie had been made under a 12-month, two-picture contract with Kamenka’s Films Albatros, and the success of the latter led to a renewal of that agreement. Clair and Kamenka seemed to be on a roll. It didn’t last. Clair failed to come up with an idea acceptable to Kamenka (one project was Le Million!). With the hourglass running out, Clair, under Kamenka’s inducement, went back to Labiche for inspiration, even though he was loath to repeat himself. He decided on an 1860 comedy called Les Deux timides and quickly produced a screenplay. Then, quite suddenly, Clair warmed to a project that seemed alien to his comic temperament – entitled Une Enquête est ouverte, it was to be a documentary-style recreation of a murder investigation, from crime to punishment: almost a prototype of the later Hollywood police procedural movies of the late 1940s. The film was into pre-production when Kamenka, worried by the reluctance of the government to grant the film official patronage, cancelled it. Clair went back to making Les Deux timides. But he had delivered only one of the two pictures he had promised under contract, and his relations with Kamenka soured. Their differences had to be resolved by arbitration. Though they would later resume cordial relations, their professional ties were definitively severed.
Though it lacked the formal perfection, comic drive, and period charm of Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Les Deux timides again displays Clair’s fertile visual imagination and his command of film technique. Labiche’s single-set, one-act play is a slight psychological comedy about two pathologically shy men: Thibaudier, a provincial landowner, and Frémissin, a bumbling young trial lawyer. Frémissin cannot muster the courage to ask Thibaudier for his daughter’s hand in marriage, unaware that Thibaudier has already been bullied into promising her to a lounge lizard rival, Garadoux. When he realizes that Garadoux is none other than a convicted wife-abuser he had once (ineptly) defended, Frémissin exposes him and wins the daughter’s hand.
Updating the play to the indeterminate present, Clair elaborates and opens up the action, inventing supporting characters (Frémissin’s aunt, a group of mischievous children), new complications, and running gags. Thus, the film opens with a trial scene (merely evoked in the play in a brief monologue) that is both a self-contained masterpiece of screen farce and a parody of bravura film technique: Frémissin’s calamitous defense of Garadoux. Anxiously anticipating the talkies, Clair wittily visualizes the rhetoric of the prosecution (the defendant’s brutality to his wife is evoked in a dark, melodramatic mise-en-scène), then the long-winded hearts and flowers oratory of the defense – insipid images of domestic bliss enhanced by multiple split-screen effects (Take that, Abel Gance!). When a stray mouse disrupts the proceedings, Frémissin loses the thread of his argument. As he stammers and refers to his notes, his evocation breaks down, pauses, skips forward, and even runs backwards – until Frémissin breaks down and demands the conviction of his client.
“The only thing that amused me,” Clair told Charles Samuels in a 1972 interview,” was the opportunity the script offered to render speech through images rather than sound.” Clair in fact had already shown how speech could be pictorialized (and without recourse to intertitles) in a brilliant scene in Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, when Fadinard, the hero, unwittingly tells the cuckolded Beauperthuis how his horse had eaten the straw hat of an adulterous woman in the park. Instead of a conventional flashback, Clair gives us the scene as replayed by the principals... on a theatre stage, complete with painted backdrop and prop horse – the theatrical metaphor suggests the exaggerated, self-important tone of Fadinard’s monologue.
The opening reel of Les Deux timides is a hard act to follow, and understandably some critics have felt that the rest of the film is pleasant but somewhat disjointed and anticlimactic. Mitry is particularly vehement in criticizing what he sees as the film’s poor construction and inconsistency of tone, the mixture of uproarious farce and the psychological comedy of Labiche’s play. But McGeer is certainly closer to the mark when she writes that “the true wonder of Les Deux timides is not its technical brilliance but its ability to transcend its own flair and involve itself with the characters and their emotions”. Indeed, the film is as memorable for its delicate, intimate comedy (Frémissin’s sweetly calamitous courtship and proposal) as for its more technical games and physical comedy (there is a signature Clair chase and a second trial scene that satisfyingly brings the comedy full circle).
Les Deux timides also owes much of its freshness and charm to Pierre Batcheff’s hilariously Keatonesque performance as Frémissin – and he finds a perfect foil in Maurice (“Crainquebille”) de Féraudy’s Thibaudier. A Russian émigré actor who appeared in several early Albatros productions, Batcheff impressed contemporary critics with his acting range and natural elegance – his General Hoche in Gance’s Napoléon remains a superb portrait of compassionate aristocracy. 1928-29 was a peak moment in Batcheff’s career: in addition to Les Deux timides, he was outstanding as Albert de Morcerf in Henri Fescourt’s Monte Cristo and the surreal hero of Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien andalou. His promising sound career was cut short by his drug-related suicide in 1932.