The Story Behind A Poet of Cinema: Julien Duvivier

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The Story Behind A Poet of Cinema: Julien Duvivier

He emerged as one of the “Big Five” of the French cinema in the 1930s and his unique aesthetics turned him into a legend.

Julien Duvivier was born in Lille in October 1896 but little is known about his childhood and teenage years. His professional career in the Seventh Art started in 1916 as an actor at the Théâtre de l'Odéon under the direction of André Antoine, but soon after found a flair for being behind the scenes.

Three years later, in 1919, Duvivier directed his first film, Haceldama ou Le prix du sang. During the 1920s, his films recurred on religious subjects, a tendency that might be related to his Jesuit education during his college years. Amongst those film are: Credo ou la tragédie de Lourdes and L'abbé Constantin and La Vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin, a movie about the Carmelite saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

For Julien Duvivier, the 1930s were the time of his consolidation as film director. Characterized by a dark poetical style he made popular melodramas, thrillers, religious epics, comedies, wartime propaganda, musicals, and literary adaptations of novels by Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Irène Némirovsky, and Georges Simenon.

It was during this decade that productions like Poil de Carotte (1932), La belle équipe (1936), and Pépé le Moko (1937), were released to worldwide acclaim. It was the latter that propelled Jean Gabin into the category of an international star.

During WWII, Duvivier moved to the United States thanks to a contract with MGM. In America he made five movies: Lydia (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942), Flesh and Fantasy (1943), The Impostor (1944), with his long-time partner Jean Gabin, and Destiny (1944).


After the war, the director returned to France and struggled to start filming again. One of the reasons why Duvivier wasn’t welcomed by French critics was his unwillingness to conform to a specific style where he could be easily branded. This kind of aesthetic arrogance made him an easy target for fickle journalists and academics.

However, with the passing of the years, he ventured into new projects, including a series of humorous films based on the works of Giovanni Guareschi about a character called Don Camillo. The first one, The Little World of Don Camillo (1952) had immediate popular success, followed by The Return of Don Camillo (1953). The series continued with other directors.

Duvivier kept filming about constantly during the 1950s to the 1960s, until his demise. He died of a heart attack in 1967 after a car accident just as the production of his latest film, Diaboliquement vôtre, reached completion.

Of Julien Duvivier many things have been said, but maybe the most memorable came from his compatriot Jean Renoir, who once proclaimed: “If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of (Julien) Duvivier above the entrance... This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.”

Return to A Film and Its Era: The Little World of Don Camillo





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