Le Roman d'un tricheur (1936)
aka: The Cheat
A film directed by Sacha Guitry

Genre: Comedy

Film Review

Le Roman d'un tricheur photo
Le Roman d'un tricheur was the first feature film that Sacha Guitry directed which was not based on one of his earlier stage plays. In fact, it is adapted from the one and only novel that he wrote, Les Mémoires d'un tricheur, first published in 1935. This immediately sets the film apart from Guitry's other film work and it stands out as one of the director's quirkier, more inventive films, and it is not hard to see why it is widely regarded as his masterpiece. Just as he retained the theatrical feel of his adapted stage plays in his other films, Guitry holds onto the narrative form of his novel for his fourth feature, with the bulk of the story told in flashback, recounted by its author, who voices all of his protagonists' dialogue. Apart from a few scenes set in the present, Le Roman d'un tricheur looks like a silent film that has been given a voiceover narration. You'd think this would make the film appear unbearably stuffy and dated, but far from it. This is one of Sacha Guitry's punchiest and most involving films - indeed, it feels more modern and livelier than much of his subsequent work.

Those familiar with Guitry's later films - notably La Poison (1951) and La Vie d'un honnête homme (1953) - will be accustomed to the director's cynical view of life, his habit of seeing the worst in human nature and mantra that only the bad, the deceitful and downright dishonest prevail, whilst virtue goes unrecognised and unrewarded. Guitry had good reason to be pessimistic in his later years (unjustly branded a collaborator after the Liberation he was disowned by many of his supposed friends), but in his glory years of the 1930s it looks as if he was just as scathing of human frailty, as his novel and its film adaptation patently bear out. The hero is a decent sort who wants more than anything to lead a virtuous life, but he is what the French might call a bon homme manqué - every good deed he performs brings grief, whilst every act of criminality enriches him. Not only does honesty not pay, it actually impoverishes him, whereas cunning and deceit bring wealth and self-esteem. Guitry's mocking assessment of his fellow man is cruel but astute, as he would discover for himself in later years.

As in most of his films, Guitry dominates the proceedings in the lead role, although his younger self in the early party of the narrative are played by younger actors (not even a thespian as talented and ego-centric as Guitry could get away with playing a twelve-year-old). His wife of the time, Jacqueline Delubac, appears in the role of the woman the Cheat briefly marries (the couple's real life divorce came just a few years after their fictitious divorce in the film) and Guitry's friend and long-term associate Pauline Carton lent her support both as an actress and contributor to the screenplay. Fréhel, one of the most popular French chansonniers of the era, provides the film with a quaint musical interlude, and Marguerite Moreno unleashes her indomitable personality in two memorable scenes - mercifully she is just about the one person in the film that Guitry doesn't dub with his own voice (as if he would dare). Roger Duchesne, the future lead in Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur (1956), crops up in one flashback with a distinctly noir edge, playing a Russian dishwasher-turned-would be-assassin. As he often did in his films, Guitry pays tribute to his cast and crew by introducing them 'in the flesh' at the start of the film.

The simple narrative approach that Guitry adopts for Le Roman d'un tricheur (a story told in flashback as a series of personal recollections) is one that has been emulated many times since but rarely with Guitry's flair. It is the director's penchant for invention and observation - to say nothing of his unflagging sense of humour - that makes the film so enjoyable. In only one other film would its author employ a similar narrative construction, Le Trésor de Cantenac (1950). It is with a typically Gallic shrug of the shoulders that Guitry comments on the injustices of life, using wit (of the distinctly barbed variety) rather than pathos to make his counsel of despair more palatable. Released at a time of national optimism in France (in September 1936, just four months after the Front Populaire came to power), the film was not well-received. Since, Le Roman d'un tricheur has grown considerably in stature and is now considered not only one of Sacha Guitry's best films, but also one of the landmarks of French cinema.
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A man in his mid-fifties sits alone in a café writing his memoirs which he intends titling The Story of a Cheat...
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Film Credits

Directed by Sacha Guitry
Starring: Sacha Guitry, Marguerite Moreno, Jacqueline Delubac, Roger Duchesne, Rosine Deréan, Elmire Vautier, Serge Grave, Pauline Carton, Fréhel, Pierre Labry
[Read more...]

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