Miss Europe / Beauty Prize
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 22 May 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
I’ve never felt too sure how good — or not good — an actress Louise Brooks really was. Can anyone really believe in her as the virginal dressed-in-white Thymiane at the start of Diary of a Lost Girl? But in a sense it doesn’t matter, for Brooks was made for the camera. On film her round white face, sharply-drawn eyebrows and Dutch bob hairstyle are given a glowing luminosity which lights up the scenes she appears in. Prix de beauté is a minor, and in some ways rather odd film, but it’s worth a viewing simply — almost, only — because of Louise Brooks.
It’s the last of the three European films, starting with Pabst’s masterpiece Pandora’s Box, that gave Brooks her only starring roles and made her name in the annals of film history. (After her return to Hollywood, it was all downhill, at least as far as a film career was concerned.) Pabst apparently had a hand in the script — he’s credited with the adaptation — although René Clair’s contribution was probably more significant. Clair came up with the story and for a long time he was lined up to direct as well; instead he directed Sous les toits de Paris, a far more successful example of the early use of sound in French cinema. Maybe Clair was glad to escape this one, although he seems to have been proud of Prix de beauté’s climax; it’s a climax that’s conventional in narrative terms, but interesting in the way it’s treated.
The director’s job was then handed on to one Augusto Genina. The Italian-born Genina had a lengthy filmmaking career stretching from 1912 to 1955, not a single one of whose films I’ve ever heard of, which I guess makes Prix de beauté some kind of highlight. I guess it also means that the visual invention of the film (and there is a fair bit of it) might be more to the credit of the great German cinematographer Rudolph Maté rather than Genina.
In the film, Brooks plays Lucienne, a lowly typist in a company organising the Miss Europe beauty contest, whose typesetter boyfriend André is conventionally jealous and controlling. He’s even unhappy about the “spectacle” she makes of herself (which Brooks makes the most of) when they go swimming and sunbathing. So, Lucienne enters the contest surreptitiously, is selected, rushes off to the contest in Spain without telling André, and — this is the movies — wins. Now, surrounded by lecherous upper-class types — a prince, an Indian maharajah — Lucienne is pursued by André with the ultimatum: choose love or fame. Back in France, Lucienne is mired in the depressing banality of her domestic life with André until a movie offer provides an escape (this time André at least gets a note) to a more exciting world. Which André pursues her to, this time gun in hand.
So, there’s a certain proto-feminism to the tale, giving expression to a woman’s frustrations at the limitations placed on her by the man in her life, and driven by a desire for personal freedom on her own terms. But it’s double-edged. Lucienne is made to pay for this with her death, and there’s a sense that, in contrast to the authentic realities of André’s life on the factory floor, Lucienne is being seduced by surface glamour, and the intensity of her quest for personal fulfillment over all other ties is solipsistic and egotistical. Certainly, even on the point of death, she seems unperturbed by the events happening around her and to her and is mesmerised by her image on the screen in front of her. But then that turns back on André, and by extension on all men, underlining the futility of his act of jealousy and of his assertion of his male prerogative.
In the end what’s most fascinating about Prix de beauté is its hybrid quality, the way it marks the crossover between silent and sound cinema. Like a lot of very early sound films it’s a mix, partly shot as a silent film and later dubbed, partly shot with sound; Hitchcock’s Blackmail is a famous example of this. The back of this Kino release claims that there were simultaneous silent and sound versions shot, although I’m not sure if this is entirely right. The French trade publication of the day La cinématographie française certainly reported the news of plans for two separate versions in May 1929, but by the end of the year they were only talking of a single “mixed” version—but in four different language versions, French, English, German, and Italian, each one of which the actors shot separately. Perhaps this “silent” version is more that of a “sound-less” version for those theatres not yet equipped for sound.
Whatever the situation may be, Prix de beauté retains the fluidity and visual invention of late-twenties silent cinema at its height. Right from the first shot the camera is on the move; there’s a fine visual texture to many of the scenes, a play of light and shadow; at times the montage effects — extreme close-ups, rapid cutting — seem even Soviet in style. On the other hand, the soundtrack is pretty primitive. It’s often obvious where “ambient” sounds have been laid, rather unconvincingly, over silent footage, and the musical score for a lot of the time operates rather indistinctively as some kind of low background hum. Also, it is a bizarre effect to have actors play one scene “silent,” immediately followed by another scene shot with sound (still it’s clear from the way her lips move that Brooks was speaking French all the time). But equally it’s fascinating to get, from the several real-life bridging sequences, sights of French contemporary life, viewed now by an audience seventy-seven years after they were shot: scenes of people at play at a swimming pool, at a fairground, on the streets.
The scenes of Lucienne at home after her return from Spain reflect the visual strengths of Prix de beauté. The tone of the film darkens. There’s a strong feeling of the deadening repetitiveness of Lucienne’s life and her feeling of entrapment, expressed through visual rhymes (the back-and-forth movement of her ironing, the swing of the cuckoo clock pendulum) or parallels (the caged bird). The cage and the clock are developed into repeated structuring motifs to the scenes in the apartment, so that Lucienne’s escape becomes an escape for us too.
In the film’s final sequence, the dark, shadowy, expressionistic look of André’s shots plays off against the open brightness of Lucienne’s, ensconced as she now is, in her white full-length fur coat, in the world of glamour. There’s a daring self-reflexiveness about the film’s climax. Surrounded by admiring men in the screening room, Lucienne stares up enraptured by the image of herself on the screen, her face literally lit up by her own reflection. Then, after she’s shot, there’s a series of rapid cuts, close-ups of her dying face, of the film going through the projector, and of the film projected on the screen. Lucienne’s face is still, bathed in the light reflected from the screen; but her image continues to live on that screen. It’s an image of Prix de beauté itself, where after the uneven qualities of the film fade, what remains is its core: Louise Brooks.