Le Père Goriot (1945)

aka: Father Goriot
Comedy / Drama


Le Pere Goriot photo
Eugène de Rastignac, a penniless provincial nobleman, lives at the boarding house of Madame Vauquier in Paris. Armed with a letter of introduction from his mother, he pays a visit to his cousin Madame de Bauseant, who offers him advice on how to make his way in the world. At the boarding house, Eugène meets a strange man named Vautrin, who tries to inculcate in him the cynicism he needs to prosper in Parisian society. Eugène also takes an interest in another boarder, the old man Père Goriot, a once successful businessman who receives frequent visits from two attractive young women. Vautrin explains that these women are Goriot's daughters, the countess Anastasie de Restaud and the Baroness Delphine de Nucingen, who both became rich by marriage. It seems that the two sisters' extravagant tastes cannot be met by the money their husbands give them, so they visit their father to take what is left of his former wealth...
© Willems Henri (Brussels, Belgium)

Film Review

Film poster
Immediately after his epic Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1943) director Robert Vernay brought to the big screen an equally lavish adaptation of another great work of French literature, Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot. With its bleakly comical portrayal of selfish social advancement at the time of the Bourbon restoration, Balzac's novel was particularly resonant with life in France in the early 1940s, as a far from insignificant sector of French society sought to obtain personal advantage from the Nazi Occupation. Whilst being faithful to Balzac's novel, Vernay's film grimly echoes the period in which it was made and it is surprising how pertinent it remains to this day. Sad to say, the acquisition of wealth and status, by any means and at any cost, is as prevalent today as it was in Balzac's time.

With is opulent sets and authentic period costumes Vernay's Le Père Goriot exemplifies the high quality that French cinema consistently achieved throughout the Occupation era. Intricately constructed and atmospherically illuminated sets give a real sense of the oceanic gulf that separated the nouveaux aristicrats from the rest of French society, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrast between Goriot's drab lodgings and the splendid apartments of his daughters. As befits a quality production of this period, the film boasts a superb cast, each portrayal matching precisely the character as Balzac conceived it. The dark humour, cynicism and tragic poignancy of what is arguably Balzac's greatest novel are all present in this superlative adaptation, the result of a sublime screenplay (contributed by Charles Spaak), some inspired direction and performances that are of an exceptional calibre.

Most memorable are the contributions from Pierre Renoir and Pierre Larquey, two rocks of 1940s French cinema (if you'll forgive the pun). Both actors are cast according to type, Renoir as the Mephistophelean villain Vautrin, Larquey as the self-sacrificing father Goriot. Vernay makes the absolute most of Renoir's intensely malevolent screen presence, employing huge, nightmare-inducing close-ups that leave us in no doubt as to the character's diabolical intent as he corrupts the naive but ambitious Eugène de Rastignac (sympathetically played by Georges Rollin). Larquet's Gorot is the complete opposite, a saintly spectre of a man who radiates goodness in every scene but is tragically incapable of achieving anything good - his tragicomic acts of selflessness merely exacerbate the moral decay of those who are most precious to him, his money-obsessed daughters.

Released in France early in the spring of 1945, less than a year after the Liberation, Le Père Goriot has one scene that could hardly have failed to strike a chord with a French audience, the one in which Vautrin, an escaped prisoner, is betrayed to the police by two fellow boarders. Many of those who had denounced their neighbours to the authorities during the Occupation and profited as collaborators had been exposed and punished in the post-Liberation purge, but there were just as many (perhaps many times more) who had so far evaded the humilation of the Épuration. As the camera turns away from the captured Vautrin and tracks across a crowded room, seeking out the ones who betrayed him, the film delivers a cold warning that, wherever they are, whoever they may be, the guilty will be found and exposed. The blood-letting was far from over.
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.


The director Robert Vernay also worked with the actor Pierre Renoir on the film Le Capitan (1946).

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