It’s amazing to think that critics slapped a dismissive “canned theater” label on the films of Sacha Guitry, four of which are now being offered in a welcome new box set. Guitry, a Russian-born French playwright and actor of the 1920s and ’30s, initially looked down on silent cinema, but by the time sound arrived, he embraced the art form with a vengeance.
Alain Resnais once cited the director’s 1936 masterpiece, The Story of a Cheat (included here), as a key influence on his atmospheric Hiroshima, Mon Amour—a shocking comparison, since Guitry’s film is a bubbly comedy about the life of a con artist. But look closer at the sly Cheat—with its voiceover so relentless, it calls into question the very nature of its reality—and you can see a director boldly inventing a new cinematic language.
Guitry would take it even further with 1937’s The Pearls of the Crown, which hops with glee across centuries and historical personages (the director himself plays four roles). The fanciful liberties the movie takes with European royalty pale in comparison to those it takes with narrative convention: At one point, the tale fragments into three parts, simultaneously told by three separate characters in three different languages. The result is intricate enough to make Christopher Nolan blush.—Bilge Ebiri
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