Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. Bertolt Brecht.
When I decided to look at the representation of the old woman in films for my MA in 1997 I thought I would analyse a film I had seen when younger: La Vieille Femme Indigne. It was unavailable. I searched far and wide for years and it is only days ago that I found that Allio’s film has been reissued, restored and digitised by Shellac with no English subtitles.
Allio based his film on a Brecht short story taking place in the 1920s in Achern, in the Black Forest. Brecht focuses on the behaviour of an old woman after the death of her husband. Allio’s film situates the old woman in a realistic, detailed, geographical and social background in the 60s. The film is prefaced with a Brecht anecdote about ‘change’.
“A man who had not seen Mr. Keuner for a long time, greeted him in these terms: ‘You have not changed’. ‘Oh’ said Tuner and he went all pale”. It is change that permeate all elements of the film. As usual I will concentrate on the representation of the old woman.
It has been difficult to consider the old woman Berthe apart from her relationships with other people and the social context of her life after the death of her husband. Details of the mise-en-scene and the cinematography, as well as the relationships between major and minor characters offer us a realistic view of a society in flux between old family values and the break-up of the family. This dual aspect is reflected in the narrative as well as the mise-en-scene.
The film starts with the death of Berthe’s husband and ends with Berthe’s death. In the titles sequences still photos show the stages of the life of a woman from youth to the death of her husband. These are interspersed with views of Marseille. On the sound track Jean Ferrat sings about the tedious domestic life of women. Its title “On ne voit pas le temps passer” and the refrain ” Should we cry or should we laugh, Should we envy her or pity her” set the ambivalent tone off the whole film. The end sequences show Pierre looking at photos of his grandmother having fun. On the soundtrack a direct Brecht quotation in voice over : “She lived two lives. Simply as daughter, wife and mother and a second one as Mrs. Berthe, single woman with no duties and not excessive but reasonable means.” This quote is followed by “The first life lasted around 60 years, the second not more than 18 months. She had enjoyed the long years of servitude and the brief years of freedom and consumed life’s bread to the last crumb.” While the song describes in details the dreary life of a housewife, the commentary does not imply a judgment on the quality of this life. In fact there is ambiguities throughout the film.
The shots of Marseille that interrupt the narrative have two aspects. Frequent long and circular travelling shots show the city and its environment, the old houses and streets as well as new blocks of flats and building sites which indicate modernisation. Two bars as communal space also signal the old and the new. The old bar next to Berthe’s house keeps its phone in a locked cupboard while the new one where Albert conducts his business has a phone booth. The purchase of a car plays in important part in the narrative. But a horse-drawn carriage still operates in the centre of town as a luxury ride. Berthe’s house in the outskirts of the town has a big terrace from which she can observe the street life. The kitchen and stairwell to the bedrooms where the family gathers after the death are very small. Albert lives in a cramped apartment, in the city, with his wife and children. It is in this environment that Berthe is going to discover the world beyond the family home and start a second life.
Berthe: a small woman. Many shots of her next to her towering grandson, sons and friends stress this fact. Dressed in black, white hair in a bun, two extreme close-ups, one in profile the other full face, show every wrinkle, every fold of the 74 years old skin. We will see the expressions on her face going from stark, to animated and positively happy.
Berthe has three sons. Gaston is rich and has a successful transport business. He is mild and tolerant. His wife is rich and confident. Albert owes his brother money and struggle with his only truck. He has one truck only. He is always angry and frustrated* His wife is timid and self-effacing . Robert, the third son is only present in one scene. Gaston’s adult son is silent and retiring. Albert’s older son is attractive and outgoing, an aspiring pop singer. He has a younger brother.
It is evident at the beginning of the film in two contrasting scenes that Berthe is a determined person. At the death of the father, when the family is still gathered in the parents’ house we see the men at the kitchen table and Berthe subservient, silently cooking and serving them. She even washes an item of clothing in the sink while they eat. A later shot shows the women still in mourning clothes around the table. Berthe declines the offer of living with one of her children. Her face is determined and she announces that she desires to live in her house on her own. This pronouncement is the source of the conflict. Albert who expected to inherit his parents’ house for his family is devastated and it is his perception that leads to the judgmental view of his mother’s subsequent behaviour. He accuses her of wasting money, of frittering away his inheritance, of behaving outrageously and even of needing medical help. Allio introduces a secondary story about the father/son conflict. Albert sends his son to spy on his grandmother and try to make her change her mind. He opposes his son in his ambitions. While the grandson’s emancipation goes in parallel with his grandmother’s, Albert’s failure to succeed is its opposite.
Change: It is established that Berthe is a competent woman who kept the accounts for her husband’s business. We will see her escape her closed home environment into a changing Marseille. She visits the department stores with their escalators and the kitchen, perfume, hats departments. She observes the youth outside the cinema and eventually makes cinema one of her regular outings. On a rare visit to Albert’s cramped flat, where she witnesses a fit of anger at his young son, she does not stay long. She instead goes into town, savours a Knickerbocker glory at a cafe and takes a panoramic ** ride home in the horse driven carriage. The expressions on her face soften.
An important factor in Berthe’s emancipation is her friendship with Rosalie. Rosalie is the local restaurant waitress and is considered like a prostitute in the neighbourhood. She is fiercely independent. She is spoilt by Berthe who consider her as a child and she in turn revives Berthe’s life. They have fun together going to the cinema and spending money. Berthe sells all her household goods and her husband’s clothes, mortgages her house, buys a car goes on holiday with Rosalie. Together they attend the left-leaning, fantasising cobbler’s circle of friends. Eventually Berthe finances the cobbler who buys a shoe shop away from Marseille. Berthe’s facial expressions gradually lighten and she even smiles and laughs during these escapades. But in contrast to the pleasures of consumerism and friendship we see Berthe getting up in the dark early and walking to a point of view where she sits down on the grass and contemplates serenely the bay of Marseille.
Berthe dies quietly on a chair before going to the cinema with Rosalie who disappears to join the cobbler.
The ambiguities throughout the film leaves us to think about the characters and the issues raised. Did Berthe enjoy her long years as a daughter, wife, mother? Is widow Berthe’s behaviour indigne? the word is translated into : unworthy, outrageous, unseemly, shameless. Is she being cruel financing an unreliable character instead of her inadequate son and his family? In the words of the bar owner who had been spying on her to her son: “She does not look ill. She is having fun. And nobody can forbid her from doing so – nobody”.
* In an interview, Allio declares that he feels some affection for Albert’s character the only one who is alienated. He says that the film is at the same time about Albert’s failure and the liberation of the old woman.
** I am not able to judge the quality of the restoration but it seems to me that long shots of the environment lack definition. This spoils the effect of contrast between the interiors and the open spaces of Marseille.