René Clair’s 1947 feature Man About Town, or Silence est d’or, is pure nostalgia. Perhaps this sense was heightened whilst sitting among the crowd at the Museum of Modern Art, largely comprising people old enough to see this film when it was initially released. Yet the film itself is essentially a salute to silent film, featuring a pristine, romanticized fabrication of pre-war France. The sense of wistfully recollecting bygone days is even stronger when viewed today.
The year is 1906 or so, and Émile (Maurice Chevalier), a charismatic elderly bachelor, is directing a film starring the shy but very endearing Jacques (François Périer). Jacques is drafted into military service; upon returning, he meets Madeline (Marcelle Derrien), his effervescent co-star. Madeline is the daughter of an old friend of Émile, who takes her under his wing and proceeds to fall madly in love with her. Madeline loves Émile as well, but as one loves a doting father figure and not a lover. Jacques comes under Madeline’s spell too, and Émile slowly realizes he must not impede their young romance. He steps back into the role of matchmaker and listens to the advice he’d been doling out to Jacques at every turn—after all, his motto is “there’s always another girl just around the corner.”
Clair’s wistful concoction of young love in a gorgeous city may be textured by his dewy-eyed view of the past, but it is an irresistibly pleasant daydream. In one saccharine and also slightly horrifying scene, an older gentleman tells a young woman, “show me your ankles,” followed by a decisive “bon.” (Clair doesn’t hold back his lascivious sense of humor: the young woman is dressed up, naturally, as an angel.) Upon his inspection, a wry half-smile spreads across the girl’s face, followed by a jarring cut back to the girl adjusting the straps of her dress. (Nor does Clair hide from telling moral symbolism: she’s lost a wing!) A 1940s audience certainly filled in the blanks, as did I. Man About Town is riddled with these visual winks, nudges, and nods, which keep the film light and amusing even as the plot drags.
The majority of the action takes place on the silent-film set, which allows for a continuous stream of adorable, slap-your-knee and straighten-your-bowtie humor. Perhaps fitting to the throwback subject matter, the subtitles are only intermittent, delivering just enough information to understand the major points. As a non-French speaker, I thus wasn’t able to catch many of the jokes, but it was easy to tell which audience members could from the isolated bursts of chuckles. (I heard a few snores as well, but that is to be expected when the mean age of the audience is 70.)
In the preface to the published screenplay of Man About Town, Clair writes that he “thinks, in effect, that making a film consecrated to the cinema is as dangerous as writing a play the heroes of which are comedians or a novel the main character of which is a novelist.” In this sense Clair accomplishes everything he set out to do, modest though his self-imposed limitations may be. Clair wanted to pay tribute to the early days of silent film-making in France without making a reflexive or self-referential work about filmmaking. As it were, Man About Town offers none of the intellectual weightiness of a suffering-artist narrative like Fellini’s 8 1/2 or Godard’s Contempt. It is, instead, a film about people struggling with love and age—people who just so happen to be filmmakers. Yet that struggle is easily resolved, and Clair puts a final ironic stamp on the film with a quip about “happy endings” from Èmile. With the final scene, Clair invites the audience to embrace the simple pleasures of watching a straightforward romantic comedy. The whole movie is wrapped up just like one of the many confectionary Dior frocks donned by Madeline Celestin—a starlet who lives up to her surname.
Man About Town is by no means a masterpiece; it’s a sentimental post-war snack. Clair is, above all, an expert in diversion. His Rube-Goldberg sight gags and archetypal lovers and sidekicks are a treat to behold, but lack substance and constitution—I imagine seeing Love Actually sixty years from now would evoke a similar feeling to that of seeing Man About Town today. Yet nobody eats Pain au chocolat for its nutritional value, nor should they be blamed for savoring its taste once in a while. For its pure intentions and relentless light-hearted humor, Man About Town is a treat worth the indulgence.
Man About Town plays at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday, February 9th, at 4:00PM.