For Sacha Guitry, making movies was never his endgame. Born into a theater family in 1885, Guitry followed in the footsteps of his famous actor father, Lucien, and made a name for himself early in his career as an actor and playwright, penning everything from historical dramas to light comedies. He made one film in 1915, a short documentary named Ceux de chez nous (Those of Our Home) celebrating some of the brightest French creative minds of the day. Otherwise, cinema interested him not one bit … at least until the increasing popularity of sound cinema in the 1930s, when he—an artist of exuberant wit very much devoted to the possibilities of the spoken word—began to reconsider his initial objections and dived more deeply into filmmaking.
What resulted were some of the freshest, funniest and above all most cinematically innovative films of the early sound era, the finest of which turns 80 this year: his 1936 film The Story of a Cheat. And yet, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of either that film or this filmmaker. Even among hardcore cinephiles, at least in the United States, Sacha Guitry has, over the past few decades, become something of a forgotten figure. Jean Renoir, Abel Gance, Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné: Those are the names that tend to get floated around first when it comes to discussing French cinema before the French New Wave movement of the 1960s. And yet, even before Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and the rest of their Cahiers du cinéma rule-breaking contemporaries, there was Guitry in the late 1930s indulging in the kind of wild technical experimentation that not even Jean Renoir dared in his ’30s masterpieces.
His freewheeling style didn’t come overnight, by any means. His earliest directorial efforts—Pasteur (1935), Good Luck (1935) and Indiscretions (1936), all adaptations of his plays—feel like little more than filmed theater, the camera simply there to record stage performances. None of them indicated the depth of invention to come in The Story of a Cheat. Perhaps the fact that Guitry was this time adapting not a play but a novel of his inspired him to greater creative heights. Instead of the omniscient perspective among multiple characters of a stage comedy or drama, here he was locked into one character’s perspective, and thus tried to find the appropriate cinematic analogue.
Necessity may have been the mother of invention in this case, but that still doesn’t fully account for the way Guitry imaginatively bridges the gap between silent and sound cinema. With the exception of a handful of café-set scenes in which Guitry’s impish main character converses with both a waiter and an elderly countess he had met decades ago before coincidentally running into her again, there is technically no dialogue in The Story of a Cheat; this could practically be a silent film were it not for Guitry’s effervescent narration voicing even the characters within the tales he recounts. More dazzling, though, are the technical tricks he uses throughout: whip pans through scenery, creative transitional wipes, complex montage sequences, even a reverse-motion scene of soldiers marching through a town square. Rarely has the medium seen such blazingly confident use of the medium’s full visual breadth since D.W. Griffith in his 1910s heyday. Not even Griffith, though, quite dared to break the fourth wall as frequently as Guitry does here, though—most notably in an opening-credits sequence that takes us behind the scenes of the movie set to introduce his main actors and collaborators before the story properly begins. Surely Godard, Truffaut, and other French New Wave filmmakers took note with their similarly anarchic aesthetic—as perhaps did Orson Welles, whose use of voiceover narration in films like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons may well have found its basis here.
Ultimately, though, Guitry fancied himself a man of the theater first, and the greatest pleasures of The Story of a Cheat lie in the story Guitry spins and the zest with which he tells it on the soundtrack with his richly theatrical baritone voice. It’s a story of endlessly amusing perversity: the chronicle of a man who, early on in his life, discovers the value of dishonesty when he escapes death as a result of a theft attempt that leads him to avoid eating the poisonous mushrooms that kill off the rest of his family. He then spends the rest of his life either cheating people out of money or trying his damnedest to go onto the path of the straight and narrow. There’s no tsk-tsk moralizing in Guitry’s universe, however: He relates his character’s autobiography with all the relish of a man who knows he’s got a humdinger of a story to tell, leaving all judgments to the individual viewer. If anything, the film’s anything-goes technique only adds to the sense of gleeful amorality.
Guitry would continue to make films on and off for the next 20 years, up until his death in 1957. Only three other films of his are available on home video in the United States, though: The Pearls of the Crown (1937), Désiré (1937) and Quadrille (1938), all of them collected in a DVD box set as part of the Criterion Collection’s budget Eclipse label. The latter two are by no means negligible; Désiré, especially, is a sharp comedy of class and sexual manners that revolves around a valet (Guitry) with a history of seducing his upper-class employers, and the current employer (Jacqueline Delubac, Guitry’s wife at the time) who finds herself, to her horror, ensnared by his charms. Both films, though, are relatively more conventional in style, eschewing formal wizardry for a more invisible technique, the better to showcase Guitry’s wit and satirical worldview.
Guitry conceived The Pearls of the Crown expressly for the screen, though, and the result is a mind-boggling film that is, if less gleamingly perfect than The Story of a Cheat, is even more ambitious in its scope, visual imagination and verbal humor. Its greater scope is obvious on the surface: This breezily irreverent historical epic spans four centuries of European history, takes place in three different countries, and features about 200 characters (Guitry playing four of them) speaking three or four different languages among them, all in the service of tracing the (apocryphal) histories of seven pearls. Verbally speaking, language is a frequent source of humor, as in a scene in which four people speaking different languages play an inadvertent game of telephone in trying to respond to someone’s question, or another gag in which a woman tries to seduce someone by answering his questions entirely in adverbs. But it’s on the visual front that The Pearls of the Crown most impresses, with Guitry trying out jump cuts even before Godard discovered their utility in Breathless more than 20 years later, and with one joke revolving around an Abyssinian princess that anticipates, of all things, the backward-running Swedish-bookstore scene in Top Secret! (1984).
Perhaps one day, more of Guitry’s refreshingly witty and inventive cinema—especially his post-World War II films, which, by all accounts, showcase a rather different sensibility than the one he sported in the late ’30s—will make its way to these shores, giving us more of a chance to explore and appreciate. Based on the paltry selection we have so far, it seems long overdue. Still, for The Pearls of the Crown and especially The Story of a Cheat alone, there’s enough evidence for us to make the case for Guitry as a still-unsung early master of the medium.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.