Tuesday, 3 July 2012

La Femme du Boulanger (1938)

Bagerens smukke kone

Comedy is complicated. By comparison tragedy is easy. Tragedy speaks to us in a very fundamental way and we are all human enough to understand it. Comedy however is very tightly routed in culture. Only the simplest comedy is universally understood, physical humor as an example.

When it goes deeper a lot of it is lost if we are not familiar enough with the culture.

For this reason “La Femme du Boulanger” could have been a disaster.

For me at least it is a roaring success.

French comedies tend to rely a lot on dialogue. I do not speak French and the subtitles on the version I found were ridiculously sparse in what was actually translated. Entire minutes of conversation were translated into single line sentences. Yet I caught the gist of it enough that I realized the great humor, because this went way beyond dialogue. The story, the setup, the characters and not least the acting were all high comedy. Not stupid or simple but very intelligent. And I am told that when properly understood the dialogue is spectacular.

This is the story of a village in Southern France who is getting a new baker. Their previous baker was a disaster, but the new one is really good. So everybody agrees. Along with the baker comes his wife. The baker’s wife, Aurelie, is not happy. On her first chance she seduces a dashing shepherd and run away with him. The baker takes this very badly and refuses to bake. So the villagers decide to find the wife so they can get bread again.

The village is a small community where nothing happens. So they create their own small problems that they can go and bicker each other about. Now something happens that bring this dysfunctional extended family together and they reveal themselves as caring and loving… clowns. Man, have I ever seen such a bunch of incompetent morons and have they ever been as lovable! Even the caricature of a priest has a tender heart under his vain mannerism and the flamboyant marquis is no more aloof than he goes in front to organize the search party and helps the drunken baker home to sleep.

This is all very funny and the baker himself (Raimu) is absolutely hilarious. He can do things with facial expressions that would make both Charlie Chaplin and Jim Carrey envious.

But that is only half the story.

The baker loves his wife. He absolutely adores her. But it does not look like he understands her. She needs something else. A more direct, physical love. To get swept away. She hungers for it and does not seem to get it from the baker. In fact it does not even seem like she ever wanted to get it from him. At least he says that in all their time together she did not want his physical attention. She is looking for an escape and the shepherd can provide it, so they run away in the night.

The baker loves his wife so much that he refuses to believe she has run away. She would not do that. He insists on fooling himself way beyond what is reasonable. His life hangs on her. Without her there is just no point to anything. He bakes for her, lives for her. The villagers understand this I think more than they miss their bread. He really gains a lot of friends in the process.

But I am thinking, what are they trying to achieve? The baker’s wife was not happy. Will the baker be happy with an unhappy wife? Will bringing her back solve anything? When she is finally found on an island with the shepherd I was more convinced than ever that going back would not be the right thing for her. 10 minutes before the ending of the movie I was certain that this movie was driving towards the wrong ending for this story. An ending that might work in a different age and environment with a more conservative outlook, but one that would leave them miserable in the end.

Yet it is the right ending. The baker does find a way to show he loves her and she does get it and realize that all she was craving is right here in front of her. It must be one of the most beautiful endings. To top it off it is done by pretending to scold the cat and the indirect form just works so much stronger.

I really love this film.


  1. The ending of this film is almost unbearably sweet. The resolution with the baker and his wife and their adjuncts in the pet cats is really something special. It's tender without getting maudlin. It's another film I'm glad to have seen.

  2. I haven't been able to find this one and your review only makes me want to see it more!

    Raimu is such a wonderful actor. For more excellent films based on Pagnol stories, try the fabulous "Fanny Trilogy" - "Marius", "Fanny" and "Cesar", featuring Raimu as Cesar.

    1. It is difficult to find. I found it as a download, though the subtitles are a bit of a joke.
      It is a wonderful movie and I strongly advise you to make an effort to find it. If you have an email I may be able to point you in the right direction.

  3. This is one of the earliest French farce films that I can recall (though perhaps not in the true sense of Moliere). The dialogue is wickedly funny--especially and and all conversations dealing with the town priest.

  4. Yes, that is what I hear. Unfortunately due to poor subtitling I did not get the full effect of the dialogue, but even with that it was enough for me to love this film. The Priest is certainly a character.