Le Jugement de Dieu (1952)

aka: Judgment of God
History / Drama / Romance


Le Jugement de Dieu photo
In the 15th century, Prince Albert of Bavria must marry the far from attractive Bertha de Wurtemberg for political reasons. En route to his wedding, the prince breaks his journey at Augsbourg and is invited to take part in festivities organised in his honour. In a jousting tournament, he is distracted by a young woman in the crowds, Agnès Bernauer, and sustains an injury. As he is treated by Agnès's father, a barber surgeon, Prince Albert sees more of the young woman and within no time they are passionately in love with each other. There is widespread consternation and disapproval when they are seen dancing together at a ball. The news of the prince's marriage to Agnès pleases only one person, Albert's aunt Josépha, who has long wished for an occasion to get even with her brother, the Duke of Bavaria. The latter is outraged by his son's decision to marry a commoner and insists that he either divorces his wife or renounces his claim to the throne. When the prince refuses to do either, the country erupts into civil war. To end the war, the Duke is advised that Agnès must be executed as a sorceress...
© filmsdefrance.com 2014

Film Review

Film poster
Raymond Bernard's reputation rests mainly on his blockbuster production of Les Misérables (1933), arguably cinema's finest adaptation of Victor Hugo's famous novel, but this is not the only lavish period piece to which he lent his name. Based on a 15th century Rhenish legend, Le Jugement de Dieu is among Bernard's most ambitious films, a medieval melodrama projected onto a canvas of epic proportions. With its grandiose visuals and elaborate set-pieces, it could rival any Hollywood superproduction of this time and there are some sequences that are so visually dramatic that they could easily be mistaken for the work of Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein. There is a confident grandeur and historical realism to this late entry in Bernard's filmography that sets it apart from most other quality French films of this era.

That the film is somewhat overlooked today is partly down to Raymond Bernard's comparative (and unmerited) obscurity, and partly down to the dearth of enduring star power in the cast. The lead actor Jean-Claude Pascal is better remembered as a singer than an actor (he won the Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg in 1961 with Nous les amoureux) and his co-star Andrée Debar was soon forgotten after she gave up acting in the late 70s to set up her own antiques business. The most famous actor in the cast, Louis de Funès, is barely on screen for a few minutes and is easily missed, and the two other familiar faces, Pierre Renoir and Gabrielle Dorziat, are virtually unrecognisable - the one because of his extravagant wearing apparel, the other because of her unlikely role as a fearsome military commander (you should see her sword work...).

With a more distinguished cast, Le Jugement de Dieu might have a higher profile than it presently enjoys but this wouldn't necessarily make it a better film. What impresses most is the sustained artistry of the design (which shows a remarkable attention to period detail) and the intense lyrical power of Roger Hubert's cinematography, particularly in the panoramic location shots. This is a film that really does look as if it might have been shot in the Middle Ages, and glimpses of medieval dentistry, surgery and some pretty vile methods of execution add a cruel edge to its historical veracity. (The film is set in an era when the man who cut your hair was also the man who could amputate a limb!).

The only shortcoming is on the character front. Bernard appears to be more interested in the pageantry and spectacle of the period than in developing the main characters and dwelling on the tragedy of their predicament. He makes up for this paucity of character depth with some highly expressive visuals, such as the final shot, which succinctly implies love's triumph in death. In the crucial ball scene that occurs roughly midway through the film, the Prince and his future wife are seen dancing as if in a strange trance, the camera moving with them to emphasise their shared bliss and detachment from the world around them. It is probably the most haunting passage in Raymond Bernard's entire oeuvre - a weirdly inspired expression of the mystery of love that lingers in the mind long after the film has finished.
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

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The director Raymond Bernard also worked with the actor Gabrielle Dorziat on the film Adieu chérie (1946).

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