Set in the world of swindlers accidentally outsmarting death and monarchs waiting to be assassinated, surrounded by tiny, smoke-filled theatres for angelic crooks and ornate, wrought-iron elevator doors for dishonorable gentlemen, Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur encapsulates a zeitgeist fascinated by the fanciful elegance of fraud. It is charming and light (although the tricheur evoked in the title, played by Guitry, commits himself to the reasonable rule of never robbing his own home) but the dominant tone is dictated by its pride in narcissism, invention and confessional self-reflection (beginning with the ostentatious opening credits and exploring the stripped-down, modernist humor of the constant opening and closing of lobby doors). The narrative intricacy and Guitry’s performative scintillation are striking in that the self-exhibition veils the film’s moving details.
A diverse emotional depth manifests itself in reductive dramatic form, vivid immediacy and gentle symbolism, charging virtuosity with feeling and vigor.
As the cheat recounts his life in a café, he tells the story of his first sexual experience – the sequence begins with an image of two lovebirds, a couple of doves. It is so untypically direct that it might as well be a coincidence, a remainder of the production’s spontaneity and freedom. That spontaneity feeds into the moment when the cheat is interrupted by the countess with whom he had shared this experience decades ago, and now she wouldn’t recognize him. She starts a monologue – the authenticity and internal life of the situation, Guitry’s mannered body language with which he reacts to her dimmed memories signifies a touch of reality, the hours and days spent working on the film, achieving an unfalsifiable sense of inhabitation.
The film’s most improbable and haunting scene shows the young cheat (played by Serge Grave, around 16 at the time but the physique of an 8-year-old orphan) realizing he had lost his entire family. In the austere framing, he is just hitting his head to the wall, contemplating about the impossibility of considering such loss.
It seems as if Grave’s tragic nodding was a reaction to Guitry’s voice-over – the self who suffered in the past is now acknowledging the fake reconciliation from the future. In a few seconds, the film’s richness is encompassed. The playful, self-aware defiance of linear time is given weight by the profundity of the actor’s presence – there, the innocence of a teenager forces its way in, forgetting about instruction and ignoring absurdity.
A hollowed chest, a small head, the hair still neat, bearing witness to the nearness of a once caring family, the genuineness of a face, before the exposure to street-wisdom, the beady eyes preserved in the moment of solitude by a fascinating poser with an immense skull and masterfully calibrated gaze.
And I wonder if all that is not trickery – the formidable Sacha Guitry showing exclusive attention to his own absorbing persona. And at once: showing the sharpest attention to life’s most delicate instances.
Flashes of deception rush into my mind occasionally and I think of the film’s universe with warmth.
Grave’s harrowing, catatonic movements; I could never forget them.