After years of absence from the home viewing scene another film from Jacques Becker receives a welcome release. This one is as beautifully shot and constructed, and indeed as strikingly modern, as the other recent releases, but is distinctly different in its approach. Édouard et Caroline is an original – and unexpected – comedy, a precursor to the sort of social comedies reminiscent of such directors as Billy Wilder. Its central couple’s relationship turns from wedded bliss to misunderstandings, provocation and argumentative angst as they get dressed for a dinner party.
Edouard (Daniel Gélin) and Caroline (Anne Vernon) Mortier are apparently happily married but that is all about to change. Edouard is an exceptional pianist but employment in his trade is varied and he is seeking an audience. Caroline’s bourgeois and condescending uncle Claude (Jean Galland) invites the pair to a soiree and requests that Edouard performs for his friends. Caroline needs to dress for the event and chooses a dress that Edouard had bought her some time before. However the populist fashion magazines reveal that frilly shorter dresses are all the rage so she cuts a large part of it to fit the trend, much to the chagrin of Edourad, who is having his own evening-wear issues, largely involving finding a waistcoat. They fight and Caroline refuses to attend the party. As Edouard arrives, the party is in full swing and he apologises for his wife’s absence by declaring her to be ill. Further issues are raised when Caroline’s cousin Alain (Jacques François) decides to persuade her to attend. Can the evening survive intact for the couple and, more importantly, can their marriage, for Caroline has left a note on the piano at home indicating that she wants a divorce. ‘For better or worse’ never seemed more of a reality than a solution.
A comedy of society and characters who all have their own idiosyncrasies and expectations, Edward and Caroline takes a look at the darkest emotional moments of relationships and personal trauma. “The cuckold and the seamstress,” is declared by the decadent French guests at the party, where the ladies, particularly Florence (Elina Labourdette), gaze adoringly at the young pianist, flirting without any sign of candour. Artists may “live by love and water,” but here the artist is really Becker and the water is turned into alcohol fuelled humour by his protagonists. This is a tight comedy which increases its intensity – and absurdity – as the issues the lead characters have with each other become increasingly fraught, culminating in the events of the horrendous party. The film is edited by Becker regular Marguerite Renoir, the lover of his mentor Jean Renoir, and apparently effortlessly views the narrative and character structure in a realist manner reflecting the convincingly normal stupidity of proceedings by their instigators. Laughs and loathing ensue to the bitter or bittersweet end.
Provided as extras on the DVD is another historical and critical analysis of the film by Ginette Vincendeau , an interview with Jacques Becker on Le Jazz et Jeunesse from 1956 where he discusses the jazz within the film – “It’s a subject close to my heart” – and the recollections of Edouard and Caroline themselves (aka Daniel Gélin and Anne Vernon) 25 years after making the film. Welcome additions to a highly distinctive and individualistic comedy.