Douce [Love Story] (1943)

The first thing that jumped out about this 1943 French Christmas film was that it's a movie released in France in 1943. History was never my best subject, but even I know France was occupied by Nazi Germany during that time, which raised a substantial number of questions, some of which I've found answers for and some I haven't. The first and most relevant is confirmation that this is, in fact, a French film, as opposed to a Nazi film made in France. The director, Claude Autant-Lara, seems to have hated the occupation, and his work at the time is seen as fairly progressive.

I should pause to highlight the significance of the phrase "at that time," because it doesn't take much time on Wikipedia to find that in later years Autant-Lara's politics mutated into something disturbingly similar to Nazis, complete with right-wing nationalism and antisemitism. He was actually elected to Parliament in the late '80s, though he didn't stick around long - some particularly awful statements he made about a Holocaust survivor resulted in him having to resign. In short, he'd have fit in with the modern Republican Party.

If you're wondering what precipitated his de-evolution into something he once stood against, his grievance is going to sound eerily familiar: apparently, he was pissed off that younger critics and intellectuals were criticizing his movies. So consider him a forerunner of the legion of aging assholes railing against "cancel culture."

I wanted to start with all that to get it out of the way. I think it's important to acknowledge the director's subsequent shift, but I didn't see any real indication those themes intruded on the movie itself. For the most part, Douce feels fairly forward-thinking in its attacks on wealth and class. But let's table that discussion until we've discussed the story.

The film is centered around a rich family and their servants in the days before Christmas in the late 1800s. The title character, Douce, is the sole heir. In fact, there's only one person left per generation - the entire family is Douce, her father, and his mother. Douce has just reached the age she can legally marry, though no one initially thinks of her as being old enough.

At first, she mostly seems to be a side character, notwithstanding an opening scene in which she confides in a priest about a plan to run away with a servant. That scene, incidentally, is incredibly satisfying to watch - she spells out her disdain at the church and priest, outright calling him her enemy to his face and relishing the experience as she does so. While no one in the movie ultimately comes off as blameless, this scene seems to frame her as being in the right in rejecting the priest's judgment. I'm not remotely familiar enough with French cinema from this era to comment on how rare this was there, but compared to the restrained, heavily censored films being released by Hollywood at the time, some of this feels outright revolutionary.

For the first half of the movie, it's her governess, Irène, who appears to be the main protagonist. Irène has a fairly complicated life at the start of the film. She's in a secret affair with Fabien, another servant who arranged for her to be hired and is adamant they must run off together. At the same time, Douce's father, Engelbert, has fallen in love with her and is close to proposing. Irène is conflicted - a marriage to Engelbert would mean a better life, and at times she seems to like him better than Fabien. It doesn't help that Fabien is willing to risk the secrecy of their romance - and in the process their jobs - if doing so will push Irène to run away with him.

There's quite a bit of intrigue around all this, particularly because their secret isn't quite so secret after all - it becomes clear that Douce knows all about it. It likewise becomes obvious that Douce is infatuated with Fabien, though it's a little less clear what she plans to do about this. Despite seemingly having an incentive to hate Irène, Douce goes to extremes to ensure her governess's secrets stay secret.

Around the halfway point, Douce's plan comes to fruition and she takes over as the main character. She convinces Fabien to run away with her, promising to marry him and eventually make him the inheritor of her family's wealth. He takes some persuading, but eventually seems to fall for the younger woman, who sleeps with him after a scene in which Irène attempts to convince her to return to her family.

Only by now, Douce has secretly decided not to remain with Fabien, having decided he'll never entirely be over Irène. She explains as much at a theater performance, telling him she's going to return to her father despite the consequences. She begins to leave, but a fire breaks out. Douce, terrified at the thought of Fabien being trapped, tries to reach him, and ultimately dies in the process. Fabien survives to inform her family at midnight on Christmas. They blame him and Irène, but rather than have them arrested, send them off together under the logic that will be a harsher penalty.

That all probably sounds bleak as hell, and by the end it mostly is. For most of the first half, however, I wasn't sure if I was watching a tragedy or a comedy. The movie has a dark sense of humor in the way it plays with its characters' lives, and the dialogue is clever and fun. A great deal of the runtime is devoted to satire, rather than drama, particularly when it concerns Douce's grandmother, the matriarch of the family. She's regressive, mean-spirited, and oblivious to the fact the world is evolving.

The movie's holiday setting accomplishes a few goals. First, it ties thematically to issues of class struggle by invoking old customs in which the social order is inverted during the holidays. At one point, we follow Douce's grandmother on her annual trip to serve the poor. But of course this is all theater - she brings her own servants with her and assigns them the bulk of the work. And of course, the gifts are carefully selected to avoid spoiling the receivers, a philosophy she explains with pride.

The fact the film culminates with the death of the youngest character on Christmas is itself a dark reflection of the birth of Christ. Then of course the movie plays with the contrast between holiday decorations and the dark subject matter.

There's one other possible interpretation of the holidays in the film, though I'll admit it's a bit of a stretch. The most prevalent decoration in the movie is the family's massive Christmas tree, which could be seen as a symbol of wealth. The practice of having trees indoors is commonly understood to be Germanic in origin, so it may be subtly commenting on the German occupation.

Again, that's a stretch. Regardless of where the Christmas tree originated, France has its own long tradition involving that decoration. In addition, it's worth mentioning that the movie is based on a novel, which I'm assuming was also set during the holidays. That said, if the tree was being weaponized as a symbol connecting the unforgiving class structures with the fascist occupation, it wouldn't be the only aspect of the film taking a swipe at Germany, as this review from James Travers explains.

I'm actually going to let you read that review if you're interested in how the movie plays into politics around France at the time the movie was made, because... well... I certainly had to (this is a Christmas blog, not a French history one, after all).

One character I find particularly difficult to read is Fabien. In one sense, he almost seems like the closest the movie comes to a moral character: he's less interested in joining the upper class than in leaving behind the old world with its divisions. But at the same time, I also found him the least likable character in the film because of his forceful attempts to pressure Irène and later Douce into sexual encounters. He ultimately always takes no for an answer, but he's emotionally and even physically coercive at times. I'm not clear on whether I'm supposed to interpret this as romantic or, well, as the borderline sexual assault it actually is. So take that as a content warning, I guess.

This movie is fascinating, with a number of moments I loved. On top of that, it's gorgeously shot and well-acted. Despite all that, I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who isn't abnormally interested in some aspect of this film (i.e.: French cinema, movies produced during the war, etc.). For typical US audiences - and I'm including myself in that pool - some of the nuance here is difficult to parse due to a combination of translation and the passage of time. On top of that, as interesting as the first half is, the second half plays out as more of a melodrama, which would likely bother modern audiences not used to that style. That said, there's a great deal to appreciate, and the movie's similarities to Bong Joon-ho's Parasite may make it worthwhile to fans of that film, as well.

For what it's worth, the circumstances behind its production, coupled with a very different portrayal of the holidays than I'm used to seeing, made the experience extremely worthwhile for me.