Huis clos (1954)

Comedy / Drama / Fantasy


Huis clos photo
On leaving an elevator, a diverse group of people find themselves in the lobby of what looks like a plush hotel. The receptionist deals with the new arrivals with a cold professionalism and, one by one, they are directed to their rooms. South American reporter Garcin finds himself sharing a spacious, ornately decorated appartment with two women, Inès and Estelle. It soon dawns on each of them that this is Hell and they are intended to spend the rest of eternity in each other's company. On a screen, they see how their deaths have affected those they have left behind. Believing he has betrayed them, Garcin's former political conspirators are quick to forget their association with him. Inès's lesbian lover has recovered from a suicide attempt and is seen returning to her husband. The man whom Estelle believed to be devoted to her begins an affair with another woman within minutes of her being buried!  Each of the three is adamant of having done nothing to justify going to Hell, but as they become better acquainted with each other the truth emerges...
© 2015

Film Review

Film poster
It's quite a leap from the perfumed salons of Colette's Belle Époque Paris to the bleak allegorical fantasy world of Jean-Paul Sartre but director Jacqueline Audry somehow manages to make this unlikely transition via this quirky adaptation of Sartre's famous one act play, Huis clos. Better known to the English speaking world as No Exit, the play was first performed at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris in 1944 and is an essential existential work, the one that gave us the Sartrean phrase "L'enfer, c'est les autres", which is commonly translated as "Hell is other people". Sartre's meaning is not that people are inherently vile, but that it is through the judgement of others that our lives are shaped and given meaning.

The 'hell' experienced by the three protagonists in Sartre's play is as much a psychological one as a physical one. It arises from the discrepancy between the blameless lives they thought they had led and the impression of their lives as perceived by those nearest to them. It is the complete reverse of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), in which a suicide is persuaded of the worth of his life by the intervention of a benevolent angel. In Huis clos, the main characters have to accept that their lives were entirely worthless, that they have had no positive impact on the world and are quick to be forgotten by their living associates. A more terrible vision of Hell it is hard to conceive.

The main fault of Audry's film is that it dispenses with the rigid unity of Sartre's play by including filmed inserts (some needlessly lengthy) showing the events before and after the deaths of the protagonists. The screenwriters obviously thought this was a necessary expediency to prevent the film from appearing too theatrical, but it weakens the dramatic intensity of the piece and makes it a somewhat less coherent and satisfying work. Sartre's subtle black humour is overemphasised in a few scenes, again presumably to make the film more palatable for a cinema audience, but this only has the effect of diluting the bleakness of the original play. After watching a performance of Huis clos as its author intended, Audry's film can only appear slight and whimsical.

Which is not to say the film is not entertaining. The sparky interaction of the three principals makes Huis clos one of Audry's most enjoyable and unpredictable films, and who could resist the prospect of watching Arletty in one of her feistiest performances as a pugnacious, acid spitting lesbian?  The casting of Arletty in this film is bitterly ironic as the actress had herself been the victim of public censure for several years after the end of WWII. Not long after the Liberation, Arletty was arrested and incarcerated for having pursued an amorous liaison with a German officer during the Occupation. The actress was banned for working for three years and it would take a while before she was able to win back the national esteem in which she was once held.

Arletty is so well-suited to the role she plays in Huis clos that you can almost convince yourself Sartre had created it especially for her (in the first production of the play her character was played by the formidable Russian 'method' actress Tania Balachova). Most memorable is the scene in which she attempts to seduce Gaby Sylvia, another highly respected actress, better known for her stage work, under the disapproving gaze of Franck Villard, who also impresses in a part that is far more ambiguous and unsympathetic than he is known for. The stellar supporting cast includes Nicole Courcel, Danielle Delorme and Jean Debucourt, with Yves Deniaud almost stealing the film as the creepiest bellboy you dare imagine, more Pinter than Sartre. Huis clos hardly does justice to Sartre's great play, and it is far from being Jacqueline Audry's best film, but it has considerable appeal and is as fun an introduction to Sartre's idea of existentialism as you're ever likely to come across.
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The director Jacqueline Audry also worked with the actor Franck Villard on the film Minne, l'ingénue libertine (1950).

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