Director Henri Decoin and actress Danielle Darrieux made many fine films together (Le Domino vert, Abus de confiance, La Vérité sur Bébé Donge), but few are as charming and funny as the romantic comedy Battement de coeur. Thanks to its prestigious cast, witty dialogue and abundance of comic situations, this fifth Decoin-Darrieux offering is a delight. It was also the last film they made together before their divorce the following year, although they remained friends afterwards and worked together on four subsequent films.
Around this time, American film comedies were all the rage in France and this is reflected in their French counterparts, which adopt a similar screwball style of humour, with quickfire dialogue and outlandish situations. On its first release in February 1940, Battement de coeur was a box office hit and came just when France was facing its darkest hour, fighting a losing war against Nazi Germany. The film was honoured with a Hollywood remake entitled Heartbeat (1946), directed by Sam Wood and starring Ginger Rogers and Jean-Pierre Aumont.
It is incredible to think that Danielle Darrieux was just 22 when she made this film – she was already a major star of French cinema, with almost thirty films to her name. At the time, she epitomised the modern young woman more than any other actress in France, hence her immense public appeal. Not only was she eye-catchingly beautiful, she was also spirited, self-confident and independently minded; she brought not only glamour to her films, but also vitality and modernity, and this is probably the reason why many of her early films still hold up well today. Battement de coeur shows Darrieux at her feistiest and most versatile. One minute she is playing the urchin tomboy, whistling and screaming as and when the mood takes her; the next she is turning heads at a society ball, eclipsing all and sundry with her elegance and radiant beauty.
If the film has a fault, it is that it is perhaps a little too Darrieux-centric. Decoin assembles an extraordinary cast, but it is his leading lady he dotes on, like a lovesick teenager. Claude Dauphin, a comparable star, just about manages to hold his own as the debonair embassy attaché who succumbs with predictable ease to the that deadly Darrieux allure. Saturnin Fabre (one of the greatest of French character actors) has the advantage of making his presence felt before Darrieux shows up and manages to be both hilarious and charmingly sinister as the proprietor of a school for pickpockets. André Luguet also shines as the jealous ambassador who recruits Darrieux for his own dubious motives. As for the other distinguished players who fill out the lustrous supporting cast (Junie Astor, Julien Carette, Jean Tissier, Dora Doll…), most have only a fleeting presence and are elbowed into the background as soon as the all-conquering Danielle puts in an appearance.
Does it matter that there is a hint of complacency in the screenwriting? The plot coasts along somewhat lazily and offers no real surprises, whilst virtually all of the characters are all well-worn archetypes who act exactly as we expect them to. The film may be a tad predictable but it has no shortage of flair on the directing and acting fronts. The script’s main virtue is that it abounds with humorous situations, and the dialogue is suitably crisp and witty. There is even a suggestion of social satire, prompting audiences of the time to reflect on how society dealt with its parentless waifs. Darrieux’s character Arlette escapes from one bad institution (a state reform school), to end up in another (a college for pickpockets), after which she is hired by a society figure (an ambassador no less) to purloin a gentleman’s watch. Arlette’s only crime is to have been an orphan, yet within no time she is a fully-fledged society thief. The early scenes in which Darrieux is introduced to the dark art of larceny are the funniest, and under Saturnin Fabre’s skilful tuition, she proves a very apt pupil. Another highpoint is the musical interlude in which Darrieux sings the song Une Charade (music by Paul Misraki, lyrics by André Hornez), which was subsequently released as a hit record.
Battement de coeur is undoubtedly one of the slickest and most enjoyable of Henri Decoin’s popular comedies. Decoin was one of French cinema’s most versatile filmmakers, equally adept at directing comedies, historical dramas, crime thrillers, psychological dramas and melodramas. He may not have been a great auteur but he was an immensely talented technician with a knack for making films that the French cinema-going public would flock to watch in their millions. He belonged to what the directors of the French New Wave contemptuously referred to as the quality tradition, along with such luminaries as Claude Autant-Lara, Julien Duvivier and Jean Delannoy. Although Decoin is all too easily overlooked these days, his films have stood the test of time better than most, partly because they are well made and feature some of the most talented performers of the day, but also because they deal with themes that have a lasting resonance and are not merely pieces of populist ephemera. When we think of French films of the late 1930s, we immediately bring to mind doom-laden works such as Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939) and Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938). Battement de coeur reminds us that another, totally different kind of cinema was also in vogue – one that the French nation desperately needed if it was to get through its darkest hour.
6.50GB | 1 h 37 min | 1480×1080 | mkv