This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016.
Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.
By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.
Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.
Clair, a former journalist, was first inspired to write film scenarios by watching Chaplin films, and his study is evident everywhere – especially when his hero fidgets with the tassel on a cushion or is petrified by an encounter with an angry motorist. Chaplin appeared to return the compliment when he made Modern Times (1936), a film that seemed to owe such a clear debt to A nous la liberté that Clair’s bosses sued United Artists. The two parties settled out of court almost a decade later, with Chaplin claiming never to have seen A nous la liberté. Had he watched Les deux timides, he would surely have noticed a loving homage and a film-maker with the same reverence for comic artistry.
Les Deux Timides is, like The Italian Straw Hat, an adaptation of a play by Eugène Labiche, celebrated for its verbal wit, which Clair transforms into sparkling visual comedy. The hero, the first of the timid ones, is a young lawyer called Fremissin (Pierre Batcheff, better known as the lead in Un Chien Andalou) charged with defending a hulking wife-beater Thibaudier (Maurice de Féraudy). It’s his first day in court, and his nerves get the better of him, so Thibaudier is put away for a short sentence, undeservedly but understandably aggrieved at his below-par representation. In the first of many master-strokes, Clair throws away the play’s dialogue, rendering the closing argument entirely in images. What should be a re-enactment of the crime scene becomes a cloying fantasy of marital bliss, with Thibaudier’s uxorious virtues multiplied in a kaleidoscopic split-screen. Whenever Fremissin falters, the figures freeze, building narrative tension into the sight gag.
Years pass, and Fremissin is courting a local girl who unknown to him seems doomed to marry Thibaudier instead. Her father (the second timid one) can’t bring himself to refuse the brute, and the young lover is too shy to propose. Timidity loses its charm as danger looms and the whole mess will only be resolved with ludicrous amounts of violence, real and imagined.
Clair summarised Labiche’s plays as “vaudeville-nightmare”: comedy spiked with fear. The film’s immaculate mise en scène (aided by the handsome art direction of Lazare Meerson), with its attractive lovers, bourgeois interiors and well-kept lawns, becomes a veil for brutality about to surface at any moment. Just as in the court scene, fantasy and reality mingle dangerously, so that declaring the presence of bandits seems to conjure them out of thin air, and the noise taken for a gunshot will always be a burst tyre, or a firecracker, until it is finally, shockingly, the sound of a bullet being fired.
Another split-screen sequence features Fremissin and Thibaudier rehearsing their moves in anticipation of a punchup. Contrasting high and low angles suggest which man sees himself as David and which Goliath, and arrange the pair almost, but not quite, into a genuine grapple. Their blows fail to connect, but they react as if they were real – in Les Deux Timides, an imaginary battle is just as likely to wound as a physical one. When the combatants are back in court again the fantasy images and the split-screens return. As accusation and counter-accusation flash before the audience’s eyes, it is revealed that victory in court, as in romance, is a confidence trick.
Les Deux Timides is a timeless film, but until recently it was little seen, which may be about to change. The Cinématheque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival have produced a gorgeous 4K restoration of this film, based on an original camera negative acquired by Henri Langlois in 1958. It’s a fitting tribute to a film that deploys its own prettiness as a weapon, and presents a sitting-room brawl with panache worthy of a symphony.
- This restoration of Les Deux Timides recently screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. More details here.
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