Les Hommes nouveaux (1936)
A film directed by Marcel L'Herbier

Genre: Drama / Romance

Film Review

Les Hommes nouveaux photo
Once one of the shining lights of the French avant-garde, Marcel L'Herbier spent most of the 1930s turning out dreary melodramas that frankly look pretty dismal when compared with his early cinematic achievements. From its bombastic opening, Les Hommes nouveaux looks like another pre-WWII propaganda piece glorifying the French military, similar in tone to L'Herbier's other war films of this era, Veille d'armes (1935) and La Porte du large (1936). Having spent a good thirty minutes convincing us that French imperialism is the best thing that ever happened to Morocco the film gets off its high horse and slumps into a rather bland and formulaic melodrama, competently made but nothing to get excited about.

Les Hommes nouveaux is adapted from a novel of the same title by Claude Farrère and has one claim to fame: it was the last film in which Natalie Paley appeared before she suddenly (and inexplicably) gave up her promising screen career. A member of the Russian aristocracy, Paley settled in France in the 1920s having fled the Bolshevik Revolution and promptly became one of the queens of Café Society. It was Luchino Visconti who persuaded her to make a career as an actress and Jean Cocteau gave her her first screen role in Le Sang d'un poète (1930). This led Marcel L'Herbier to cast her in L'Épervier (1933), and later, after a short spell in Hollywood, she took the lead in L'Herbier's Les Hommes nouveaux, playing a character whose personal history was not too far removed from her own. The film's popularity gave a massive boost to Paley's celebrity but, bizarrely, she chose to turn her back on the cinema.

Natalie Paley was hardly a great actress but she had a mystique and screen presence, which L'Herbier and his cinematographer Robert Lefebvre exploited to the full in this film. Her casting alongside Harry Baur, the most highly regarded French actor of the time, was fortuitous as they make a wonderfully effective combination - she the cool but sensual ice princess, he the cynical but emotionally unstable king of commerce. Baur's scenes with Paley are the only ones in the film that resonate with truth and feeling; everything feels like arid plodding, badly dated by the jingoistic posturing and jarring mismatch between the location and studio sequences. Some artistic lighting and fluid camerawork prevent the film from being as dated as it might have been, but like most of L'Herbier's films from this decade, there's a distinct lack of bravado in the mise-en-scène. Whatever artistic merits the film has are mostly confined to Harry Baur's performance, which provides an exquisite and ironic study in human frailty.
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Film Credits

Directed by Marcel L'Herbier
Starring: Harry Baur, Natalie Paley, Gabriel Signoret, Max Michel, Claude Sainval, Sylvio De Pedrelli, Jean Marais, André Numès Fils, René Bergeron, Marie-Jacqueline Chantal
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