Creator of great and unforgettable characters as well as shrewd capturer of the subtleties and convulsions of his time, it is not surprising that French cinema resorts to Balzac Frequently, the writer to whom the young protagonist of the 400 hits (François Truffaut1959) puts an altar to it.
After lost illusionsby Xavier Giannoliwinner of seven Césars in French cinema last year, is now taking center stage with another of her most famous creations, Eugénie Grandetthe story of a young woman from the provinces (Josephine Japy) subjected to the domination of her greedy and ruthless father, Felix (Oliver Gourmet).
Two hundred years have passed since then but the director Marc Dugainfilmmaker and novelist famous for The officers’ pavilion (adapted to the cinema in 2001 by François Dupeyron), believes that Grandet is fully topical: “What I find interesting precisely when I make a film about a story from the past, both on the cinematographic level, as well as in the direction of the actors as well as the language , which in the case of Balzac is very rich in nuances, is the political dimension. This story transports us to a very specific and fundamental moment in the history of France, when the great birth of capitalism took place. It is the moment in which the aristocracy begins to lose its influence and its privileges and the capitalist bourgeoisie takes the reins that it continues to control until today”.
Greed, capitalist engine
As we already saw in lost illusionsBalzac has a bitter vision of the changes produced after the french revolution. The action takes place in the brief period of the Bourbon restoration after the hecatomb of the storming of the Bastille, the execution of the king and the epic of failed Napoleonic empire.
A restitution of the monarchy that lasted from 1814 to 1830, and that for Felix Grandet is a reason for anguish. Enriched at the time of the revolution, when a cooper like him could become mayor and have all the roads built based on his properties, a feat he boasts about, he suffers because he fears that the change of scenery could harm him.
On the one hand, we see how the “sans coulottes“, the lower classes, have been able to access quotas of power or enrich themselves as in the case of Felix Grandet. On the other hand, the sad part is that those new rich or powerful behave in such a despotic and corrupt way like the aristocrats they seek to replace. In addition, with capitalism, a new instinct such as greed is also given free rein, now available to everyone. Gordon Gecko already said it in wall street (Oliver Stone, 1987): “Greed is good.”
Eugénie is the heroine but her father, the new rich from the provinces, also becomes more than a protagonist, a symbol: “He is a prophetic character”, says Dugain. “The France of today, in which the owners of large companies have a need for power over goods, over people… cannot be understood without knowing that historical moment. The excesses that we pay today, like climate change itself, start there. Greed is the word that defines Grandet and also today’s predatory capitalism.”
The director continues: “One thing that seems very important to me, especially for young people, is to show where we come from. There is a terrifying idea that is the idea of possession. Felix is a man who owns everything: his daughter is his, his wife is his… and obviously the money too. With his attitude, in fact, he kills everyone. There is something extremely sick about this patriarchy represented by a man who wants to have it all. There is no incest because the book doesn’t go that far but he doesn’t want to leave her, he doesn’t want her to get married, he doesn’t want her to fall in love… This man who wants to have it all represents the great capitalists of today.”
And he adds: “I believe that in reality there is only one issue that is power because love is a form of power. Money is an illustration of power. When you have money, you always want more. The human being is organized around power and the way in which this power is organized. That’s the oligarchs. Technology has come a long way, we have gone from horse to internet, but the old archaic spirit of greed is still there. Why do people who have made a lot of money still want to earn more? It’s not that they need another house, it’s that they want more than others. It is a “reptilian spirit”.
The film starts when the family, who lives in a miserable way despite the fortune that the father hides, receives a visit from Charles (Cesar Domboy), a handsome and elegant young man from Paris on the run from a scandalous love life. Charles is Felix’s nephew and therefore Eugénie falls in love with her cousin, also harassed by his father’s debts, a merchant who, after succeeding in Paris, has gone bankrupt which, according to the standards of the time, has “covered with shame” to the family, a concept that will have great importance in this story.
Both Eugénie and her unfortunate mother are victims not only of a psychopath, but also of a social and legal system that grants all power to man and subjects women to a kind of perpetual and degrading minority. “The only luck of women”, Eugénie will say to her father in perhaps the most significant and resounding moment of the film, “is that we are not afraid of dying, on the contrary, while you have reason to suffer for it” .
Says Dugain: “The question of men and women, patriarchy and the family itself in the 19th century, is a central theme. It is quite recent that marriages are not arranged and the patriarchal tradition in many ways is still present. This behavior is in fact typical of big capitalism that also wants to own everything, goods and people. It’s interesting to see how that started, that modern form of appropriation and domination.”
The director continues: “My wife is a French teacher in a high school and when I told her that I wanted to do this adaptation, she told me that she did not understand it because it is an old story. But it is not at all. There is an absolute modernity. I have made changes but respecting the spirit of the text and of Balzac. He considered that men are heavier, more predictable, and that the really interesting characters are women. He is a writer who continues to be very important for understanding France and was a great advance. There are always a sociology in its literature a political dimension, because it captures the time in a magnificent way”.
a film writer
The changes to which Dugain refers refer above all to the end of the novel since the film offers a more “modern” solution to the dilemmas that beset the unfortunate Eugénie, a good-hearted young woman imprisoned by an evil system: ” In music there are variations on a theme by Liszt or Chopin and that is the idea that I like, a variation on a great work in this literary case.If you are too faithful and do it as is, the most likely thing is that the book will always be stronger than the film. If you put your own imagination into it while respecting the work, you can achieve something unique”.
A source of inspiration for many filmmakers, Dugain vindicates the validity of Balzac: “I read again Eugénie Grandet at a time when I was moving. I had all my things packed in boxes and I found the complete works of Balzac that my father gave me. It was a fluke. He is a very cinematographic author, Today I would be an incredible series and movie writer. He has great insight, he would be a movie writing genius. For my generation, the narrative anchor is undoubtedly the great European tradition, our cinema draws from there, I am talking about the great Russian literature but also the Spanish, the Austrian… The 19th century novel is essential, that is my culture. That’s why I also like making period films, it allows me to go back to that 19th century that I love for books.”
In addition to giving a different conclusion to the story, the director has also updated the dialogues: “If we respected Balzac’s language it would be impossible, a person who spoke like in his novels we would think he is crazy. It is about looking for a language that is not completely modern for a matter of respect but not exactly the same either.The language of the 19th century was a very rich, very flowery language that today we would call snob and that we associate with the upper class but it is not true. A worker back then had more words than an intellectual today because language has diminished.”
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