URANUS *** (France, 1991). Directed by Claude Berri. Adapted by Berri and Arlette Langmann from the novel by Marcel Ayme. Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Michel Blanc, Gerard Desarthe, Michel Galabru, et al. A Prestige-Miramax release. 100 min. French with subtitles. Not rated (probably PG for language)
The career of hugely talented and prolific writer Marcel Ayme took him from irony to mordant satire to scorn and black-humor sarcasm. During the German Occupation of France, Ayme wrote for some Vichy weeklies, including the notoriously anti-semitic "Je Suis Partout. "
With the liberation of France came the settling of accounts, as some 4, 500 collaborators (real, suspected or imagined) were killed by the Resistance, that is, by genuine or fictitious or eleventh-hour "patriots". Later, in more formal purges some 125, 000 people were tried, 38, 000 received prison sentences and 764 death sentences, as traitors or collaborators.
Although not found guilty of collusion with the enemy, Ayme was under a cloud. But he was also vehemently indignant at the hypocrisies and excesses of the purges which, it is a sad fact, only too often were a means of exacting petty personal revenge or settling scores. Films like HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and THE SORROW AND THE PITY have illustrated those rush-to-judgment tendencies. The prevailing climate pre-echoed at times the American naming of names and guilt by suspicion of the HUAC and McCarthy days.
Ayme was particularly vexed by the ascendance of the Communists, who became most influential as they claimed to have been the pure body, heart and soul of the Resistance. Much of that was true, as were many of the accusations flung at collaborators. But as it often happens in democratic times of retaliation, reinless injustice can also reign -- and that's certainly not an exclusivity in the France of the mid-1940s.
Ayme published his novel URANUS in 1948 as his own settling of scores with the (in his view) false patriots and opportunistic (or misguided) Communists. His setting was a bombed-out town where, as elsewhere, many had guilty pasts yet all protested their purity, claiming to have been Resistants, or denying collaboration. Ayme populated his stage with the spectrum of political pollution from civilians to returning POWs to boot-licking officials.
Claude Berri (JEAN DE FLORETTE, MANON OF THE SPRING) and his sister have adapted as well as they could Ayme's shortish but dense and complex book. Inevitably, cuts, condensations and simplifications had to be performed, but the main characters are present and played by a Who's Who of French stage-and-screen actors : loving, humanist professor Watrin, an Anatole France-like creation (Noiret) ; engineer Archambaud (Marielle) a cynical chameleon who, however, hides at great risk a wanted French Nazi ; the fugitive Loin (Desarthe) who faces death, yet has the odd "nobility" of sticking to his beliefs; still-thriving and still sickening black-market tycoon Monglat (Galabru); decent Communist Gaigneux (Blanc) whose family is billeted in Archambaud's apartment; bar-owner Leopold (Depardieu), a smalltime collaborator and black-marketeer, now a scapegoat for the Communists; and others.
The inevitable loss in the transfer is palliated by the fact that Ayme --also a scenarist and playwright-- wrote striking, easily adaptable dialogue. Both story and dialogue have a kind of furious immediacy that comes from Ayme writing while events were still hot. A scriptwriter originating this in the 1990's couls never sound so authentic. The text's humorous, sarcastic narration (which, oddly, sometimes reminds me of Dave Barry's devices) is gone however. It finds a modicum of equivalence in sounds and images, especially in the original creation of the mountainous, extroverted, alcoholic Leopold, whom Depardieu hams to the hilt. He wears a little Hitler mustache and is, heart and mind, totaly enraptured by his newfound love, the neo-classic, alexandrine verses of Racine's play ANDROMAQUE.
The performers, even when they underplay, are mostly in the old French tradition of larger-than-life, rhetorical speakers --which ought to please those who miss grand screen dialogue. The production values are impressive in their precise reconstruction of a period, with its sights, sounds, artifacts and ruins. And the moral lesson is universal.