Weekend Watch: Une si jolie petite plage

James Oliver

James Oliver says Yves Allégret's 1949 film makes the case for him as a major director

12 October 2018 15:41

Wish you were here? Not bloody likely, not in this weather. The rain has already set in before the first scene has begun and will continue, with minimal respite, until very nearly the end. And even in those rare moments when the skies clear, the rains leave a thousand puddles and islands of mud. Welcome to Une si jolie petite plage (Yves Allégret, 1949).

The title – ‘a charming little beach’ – refers to the setting, a small seaside town in northern France, and of course it’s ironic: the shabby resort would be a poor holiday destination even at the height of summer and it’s even less unwelcoming in the closed season when everything’s closed down and the only entertainment is watching the rain race down the windows,

And yet, the (predictably seedy) guest house is not quite empty. The first guest is a young man called Pierre, played by Gérard Philippe. He has come from Paris for, he claims, a rest cure. It is not hard to deduce that there is more to his story, for he knows the town already and, what’s more, seems to have something weighing heavily on his shoulders. There’s another guest too, Fred (Jean Servais), who hides away and takes his meals in his room, and has an interest in Pierre. Could there be a connection between the two men? And what would bring them to such an unprepossessing place?

This is a portrait of purgatory as pure as any that has ever been put on screen. The plot plays with mystery – what precisely has Pierre done that has left him feeling like this? – but the real interest is in texture and ambiance. This is a mood piece almost without peer. Anyone who’s ever ventured to a holiday resort that’s boarded up for the winter will know how grim they can be, and it’s this that Une si jolie petite plage records so perfectly. This might sound unedifying, but the film also captures the weird attraction of such places, the emptiness of a town in hibernation and the cussed resilience of those people who remain.

Made in 1949, many have drawn connections between Une si jolie petite plage and those films made at the same time which later came to be known as film noir: (mainly) American films that, after the horrors of the Second World War, eschewed escapism in favour of a tougher and darker realism. In fact, it owes more to an earlier style of filmmaking: the Poetic Realism that came out of France’s own film industry in the latter stages of the 1930s.

Une si jolie petite plage (Yves Allégret, 1949)

Those were films that explored the fatalism and despair felt by so many in Europe as they waited for a calamitous war they knew was inevitable. While French cinemas certainly served up their share of entertainment, the most acclaimed movies were tales of loss and melancholy made by the likes of Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier, films whose sharply drawn atmospherics clearly influenced director Yves Allégret as he prepared Une si jolie petite plage.

Not that Allégret was simply making a throwback. While the earlier films were largely studio based, he followed the post-war trend for using real locations, shooting the evocative exteriors at Barneville-Carteret in Normandy (we may presume the local tourist boards didn’t advertise the connection in subsequent brochures: it would not be a good advertisement). And since Jean Gabin – the great star who’d played so many doomed loners in the 1930s – was too old, Allégret sought out a new kind of actor. Gérard Philippe would go on to rival Gabin in popularity in the next decade, but this role is maybe his best, showing a delicacy and sensitivity he wasn’t always allowed to show in his more popular films.

Allégret has slipped into a mild obscurity these days, a fate that has befallen so many filmmakers who went un-championed by the upstarts of the nouvelle vague. This film, though, makes the case for him as a major director, most especially the discretion with which he etches Pierre’s predicament: we don’t need exposition to tell us that the young man is in trouble when we can see it so clearly.

This is not a cheerful vision, but it is the work of someone who is saddened by his pessimism, rather than delighting in it. It is also a masterpiece of physical environment, a film that can make us shiver even in a warm room, and feel the damp in our bones.