Georges Simenon’s 1940 novel Les Inconnus dans la maison is a brooding study in social breakdown and youth disaffection that contains a powerful critique of western society of the 1940s. The same can equally be said of Henri Decoin’s magnificent film adaptation, one of the earliest and most successful attempts to bring Simenon’s bleak, melancholic world to the big screen. This was the second film that Decoin made for the German-run film company Continental-Films during the Nazi Occupation of France and it could hardly be more different in tone and subject from his first, the American-style romantic comedy Premier rendez-vous (1941).
Henri Decoin is rightly considered to be one of French cinema’s most versatile filmmakers, although for much of his career he was best known for his lightweight comedies. Les Inconnus dans la maison shows us a very different side of Decoin, darker, more pessimistic, more conscious of the grim realities of real life. Arguably Decoin’s best film, it is matched only by his even more gloomy La Vérité sur Bébé Donge (1952), another superb Simenon adaptation. The opening sequence, a slow tracking shot down the darkened, weather-beaten streets of a provincial town, draws us into a darkly oppressive and sinister place that is eerily evocative not only of Simenon’s fictional world but also of France under the Nazi Occupation.
There were two subsequent versions of Simenon’s novel – Pierre Rouve’s A Stranger in the House (1967) and Georges Lautner’s L’Inconnu dans la maison – but neither comes anywhere near the brilliance of Decoin’s film, which excels in two areas: its screenwriting and a remarkable central performance from Raimu. The script was supplied by Henri-Georges Clouzot who, like Decoin, had started his career working on French versions of films in German studios during the 1920s. Clouzot’s official role at Continental was to oversee the scripts, but he had the opportunity to script and, ultimately, direct films, most notably Le Corbeau (1943). Les Inconnus dans la maison has much in common with Le Corbeau – both are chillingly atmospheric pieces that eloquently record the gloom of the Occupation years whilst offering up the most sour critique of contemporary French society. Both films were subsequently judged to be Pétainist and banned immediately after the Liberation. When it was later re-released in France, Les Inconnus dans la maison suffered the further indignity of a clumsy re-dub in which the name Ephraïm was replaced with Amédée to avoid being labelled anti-Semitic.
In a performance that is now judged to be one of his finest, Raimu grabs our attention right from his first scene and he doesn’t let us out of his thrall until the last shot (in which he delivers the only humorous line in the film). With his penchant for moody introspection, Raimu is perfect Simenon material, and it seems bizarre that he was never called upon to play the Belgian writer’s most famous character, Jules Maigret. On paper, the failed lawyer Maître Loursat is a pathetic and contradictory character, but Raimu gives him a dignity and humanity that allows him to stand out as the one moral figure in a world that is mired in decadence, deceit and corruption. In the set-piece courtroom scene (which is incidentally one of the best of its kind), Raimu has his finest hour, as his character breaks into an impassionate tirade of moral indignation against a bourgeois mindset that is too eager to attribute all of society’s ills to the young.
And this is essentially what the film is about: how the young are seen and judged by their elders. Les Inconnus dans la maison has nothing to say about the Occupation but it has a great deal to say about the way in which the older generation reneges on its responsibilities to the young and blames them for all that is wrong in society. (The ‘strangers’ in the film’s title alludes not to the unwelcome Nazis but to the disenfranchised offspring of the self-interested middle-classes.) One of the first films to depict the rift between the generations, it anticipates the upsurge in youth culture in the 1950s and consequently has an unnervingly modern edge to it, dealing as it does with social issues that are as pertinent today as they were when the film was made. In his powerful speech, Maître Loursat attributes the generational schism to the selfishness of the bourgeoisie, a class that is far more preoccupied with appearances and their own material comforts than traditional family values.
Loursat’s speech resonates loudly with Vichyist sentiment but it contains more than a grain of truth, as has been borne out by the ever-expanding divide between the generations over the ensuing decades. The disintegration of the nuclear family and resultant breakdown in societal cohesion are the product of increasing affluence, a creeping moral decay that not even Pétain, with the might of Nazi Germany behind him, could arrest. Whilst it may have an obvious pro-Vichy slant, Les Inconnus dans la maison is nonetheless a perceptive and prescient commentary on the decline of the family in the latter half of the 20th century, and Loursat’s heartfelt plea to society to show greater compassion and understanding towards the young still has a profound resonance. Of the 30 films made by Continental, this is the one which has most relevance to today’s audience – indeed it is hard to think of a 1940s French film that is more relevant.
6.86GB | 1 h 36 min | 1480×1080 | mkv