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Falbalas
(Paris Frills)

Directed by Jacques Becker.
With Raymond Rouleau, Micheline Presle, Jean Chevrier.
France, 1945, DCP, black & white, 111 min.
French with English subtitles.
DCP source: Rialto Pictures

A fascinating exploration of obsessive desire, Becker’s early masterpiece takes place in a privileged sphere he knew all too well from his childhood: the cloistered world of an exclusive Paris fashion house not unlike that directed by his mother, although this haute couture hive of seamstresses and models is ruled over by an obsessive and capricious designer, Philippe Clarence, brilliantly portrayed by Raymond Rouleau, with veteran actress (and close friend to Coco Chanel) Gabrielle Dorziat as his sternly matronly deputy. The film begins with a stunning opening credit sequence, a glittering montage of beautiful models gliding dramatically through swinging doors, dramatically set to lush music that announces Falbalas as a sweeping melodrama about a quenchless thirst for beauty that renders women as fragile and interchangeable vehicles for the garments that briefly adorn them. So all-consuming is Clarence’s passion to give “a soul” to his creations that he treats human interactions as mere folly and takes cruel delight in denigrating his minions and toying with other’s affections. His attraction to a comely new arrival from the provinces, played by a radiant Micheline Presle, thus seems merely an excuse to betray her lover, his trusted fabric supplier and, supposedly, best friend. This time, however, the torturous game turns against Clarence as the young woman’s pure love begins to melt his icy heart. A breakthrough after his first two apprentice films, Falbalas anticipates important later directions in Becker’s career, with a brilliantly structured and kinetic scene of a ping-pong tournament in Presle’s boarding house, for example, announcing the fascination with postwar youth culture that would find full flower in Rendezvous in July. Among Becker’s most daring films, Falbalas is shockingly unknown today and has, indeed, been barely acknowledged as a clear inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s celebrated Phantom Thread. 

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