I first heard of Prix de beauté several years ago; I was a burgeoning film snob and watched the Pabst/Brooks films as part of my education. Prix de beauté, the finale to the European Brooks Trilogy, sounded like something I ought to see. No DVD or VHS of the film sat in the library, however, so I decided my education would continue without it.
Soon after that I discovered Rene Clair, and I prodigiously tracked down his films available on home video (and was subsequently delighted by them all). Clair, it turns out, had something to do with Prix de beauté, and so my interest in it suddenly refreshed. But where to find a copy? It was on VHS, I knew, yet there didn't seem to be a public copy available to me nearby. (This, I confess, was before I had become the expert I am today at tracking down copies of obscure films.) I dropped my search, but not my interest.
Years pass until one day, over a month ago, DG tells me how much he enjoyed Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927). He asks me why I don't like Pabst -- "No," I assure him, "I like Pabst well enough. But I really should rewatch some of his films." I hadn't watched one for a while, after all. I begin my Pabst rewatches and come to Pandora's Box (1929). This is the first time I have seen the Criterion release of it. On the DVD set is an interview with Louise Brooks, Lulu in Berlin (1984). And in that interview, right at the beginning of it, is a clip from Prix de beauté.
This clip is from the end of the film, and I describe it here in full: Louise Brooks is sitting in a darkened theater, a handsome fellow at her side, a shadow or two behind her. Over her head streams the light from a rear projector; this is the only light in the room, and her face pulses with the alternating light and darkness. She is smiling, laughing. She is watching a film of herself. On the screen her phantom image, elegantly dressed, poses and sings in an elegant room. Here is a shot from the scene:
But all is not well. Some angry fellow (whom I discovered upon watching the movie is her fiance/husband) interrupts this happy screening with a bullet through her heart. Brooks jolts forward in a moment of shock. In an instant, she has recognized death. She falls; the handsome fellow clutches her, the angry fellow experiences his own shock ... and the phantom image sings merrily over her own corpse. [For more images of the scene, see my last post, the last three screenshots.]
The clip ends and the real Louise Brooks, the aged Louise Brooks, begins her interview. But I am not paying attention. Everything about that clip -- the lighting, the editing, the camera, the juxtaposition of film life over real life -- reverberated through my soul. When I learned this clip was from Prix de beauté, I scolded myself for not properly seeking it out. Why had I not seen it? This I had to change.
The film begins pleasantly: three friends are out for a day on the beach. Brooks is the one to watch here. She, in a tight-fitting bathing suit (which is still a leap in modesty from today's beach-wear), innocently warms-up, stretching and bending and smiling and all sorts of attractive things. A group of beach hunks watches on. "What a figure!" Lucienne's (Brooks) fiance, André, who is lounging on the sand, sees this and calls Lucienne over to lecture her. He is jealous. Ever so confident, Lucienne warms him with a smile and a song (the same song her phantom image happens to sing at the end).
This brief conflict is the base for the rest of the story. Lucienne has whimsically entered a beauty contest, hoping for the prize of 'Miss Europe,' and has not told André that she has done so. André, for reasons not sufficiently explained by jealousy, thinks that all such contests should be abolished (and this viewer totally agrees). Naturally, trouble arises when Lucienne wins the title of 'Miss France' and is sent to Spain for the final competition. She doesn't tell André. She leaves without him (but is promised that everything will be explained to her fiance).
After learning about Lucienne's victory, André moodily boards a train for Spain. And Lucienne wins the 'Miss Europe' title. Fame! Attention! Leering men! Lucienne is quickly picked up by a Prince and a Maharajah, but her heart still belongs André. When André arrives, he gives her a dreadful ultimatum: either leave Miss Europe or leave me. She leaves Miss Europe. One wonders if the love she chooses is worth anything anymore. One also wonders why André is so harassed and desperate. Surely if I had a girlfriend (though considering my hermetic, cold personality, I probably never will) who had won a major beauty contest (though she probably never would) and still wanted to marry me (this definitely could not be so) ... well, my story wouldn't end with murder.
Lucienne comes to regret her choice. At one point she looks longingly at a bird in a cage in a great confusion of symbolism. She contacts the Prince again. You know the rest.
Immediately after finishing the film, I tried to research it on the internet. But researching anything to do with cult stars is a risky endeavor on the internet; while in the library, it is easy to discern the academic gold from the idol-driven glitter, but while on the internet, one is not always sure whether a link will bring solid scholarship or cultish worship. One may browse a website for a good half hour before stumbling across a gossip-laden paragraph or fetishistic image and finally realizing: "Oh, it's one of those sites." At that moment, one is drowned in creepiness and quickly closes the browser and tries to forget everything just seen and read. Such was my experience during my first round of internet research.
I still have puzzles worth solving, however, and have none of the research needed to solve them. First, I would like to know just what roles Rene Clair and G.W. Pabst played in the production. Who wrote what? Who directed what? How did Brooks get into this film exactly? My cautious second research attempt yielded no answers; there is such a variety of accounts that it has only expanded my confusion. Some have Clair directing (or, starting the production before leaving it), others have Pabst directing (especially taking over at the end); some have Clair writing, others have Pabst writing. No one, it seems, is all that interested in the credited director, a certain A. Genina. The directing, though, is impressive at times, in a humble sort of way. (This may just be Maté's camera-work, which often dazzles.) I would greatly appreciate the clearing up of this particular puzzle.
[Update: This puzzle has been solved by DG; see his comment below.]
Another puzzle, which is only clouded by internet research, concerns the film's sound. The film is dubbed. Most of the sounds are simplistic and most of the spoken lines are simple. Brooks is obviously mouthing English most of the film except when she is singing her song, at which point sound and mouth startlingly synchronize. Brooks, so the internet tells me, is dubbed by an Edith Piaf. The film runs at a slightly rushed pace, filmed, I suppose, at a non-standard silent frame rate. (To note: I imagine most of these qualities disturb the average viewer. I find them ineffably charming, as only transitional silent-sound films can be.) The puzzle is this: How was the film planned and executed? Was it conceived as a silent film, sound added under producer pressure to make the film highly marketable? Or was it conceived as a sound film, shot the way it was in order to experiment with the new technology and discover its possibilities? I suspect the latter for two reasons: Louise Brooks synchronizes her singing with the lyrics; and the final scene is dominated by those lyrics, using them to reinforce the life of the phantom image over the death of the real thing. (To clarify: the screen test Lucienne does, which she watches in the end, is of her singing, which means the film-in-the-film must have been a sound film, and consequently Prix de beauté had to have been conceived as a sound film for this effect to work.) If I knew anything about film stock, I could interpret this image as either sound or silent stock:
The horizontal bars on the left look like sound. But what do I know? Although I lean toward the conceived-as-sound theory, the puzzle is far from solved. There are still many choices in the film which could be explained either way, and thus explained in very different ways. I ought to do more research (though won't). There is history missing here.
My final puzzle is not really a puzzle but a moment of amusement. At the end of the film, when André is sneaking up to the screening room to shoot Lucienne, he passes this sign:
I know the French meaning is different from the English. I know I have no reason for grinning and being amused. I know this is total misinterpretation. But the sign, if indeed this is in a film office, is so apt, so honest. I share this puzzle with the hope that no one will solve it for me. Let my amusement live.
So much for puzzles. And so much for Prix de beauté. I've known for years I would enjoy this film; I can finally gloat about enjoying it. Indeed, for those of us with sophisticated taste, this is our greatest secret: we make up our minds about a film before we see it. This lets us craft witty insights and explore subtle details while the vulgar still labor with their thoughts. It is a minor advantage, a worthless skill, and a difficult thing to learn, but one feels good gloating nonetheless.
So much for refinement.
Update: I browsed the library today, looking for clues. I didn't find much. Most people say that the project was begun by Clair and that he left it because of conflict with the producer and/or the very idea of sound in film.
I did, however, discover something about Genina. Concerning the Tenth Venice Biennale International Film Festival of 1942, Marla Stone writes:
Augusto Genina's Bengasi premiered on the film festival's opening night at the San Marco theater in Venice. A full house, according to critics, cheered the film and its director. At the festival's conclusion, the jury awarded it the Mussolini Cup. This 1942 production by Bassoli Films represents an expansion of Genina's war/propaganda films. By 1942, Genina had a reputation as the director of "virile" propaganda films that idealized Fascism at war....I need no longer puzzle over his obscurity.
I also discovered a review of Prix de beauté I lament not writing myself. In the June 1930 issue of "Close Up" Charles E. Stenhouse writes:
A final French talking-film, Prix de Beauté by A. Genina and with Louise Brooks looking very photogenic as Miss France but not acting as well as when directed by Pabst. Never has one of Pabst's discoveries achieved more than when under his inspiring influence. Greta Garbo! Brigitte Helm! And now Louise Brooks! The big trick in Prix de Beauté is its remarkable ending, which redeems the previous passages whose very mediocrity emphasizes the ending's splendour. An exceptional end and for once not a happy one. Louise, who has won a beauty prize, accepts a talking-film engagement against the will of the man with whom she is living. The evening arrives when she is to attend the private viewing of her film. She is seated in the little projection room watching herself on the screen and hearing herself sing a popular melody. The villain-prince seated beside her is caressing her hand. Semi-darkness broken by the flickering beams of the projector. Her lover arrives, is guided to the door by her talky-voice. In jealousy, he shoots, she falls, but her figure on the screen-within-a-screen continues to move and to sing over her dead body the words of the song.Ne sois pas jaloux, tais-toi...A trick -- but really one of beauty and irony, and at last a morsel of true sound-film technique. For the rest, there are a lot of grand-scale portions and the dialogue is childish but Louise has developed a talky-laugh which appeals both visually and orally, although as the film has been post-synchronized credit for the oral part may be due to her unknown French "double." What a state of affairs.
Je n'ai qu'un amour, c'est toi!