Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry (The Story of a Cheat / The Pearls of the Crown / Desire / Quadrille) (The Criterion Collection)
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Sacha Guitry was once a household name. Something of a Gallic counterpart to Nöel Coward, this disarming, multitalented artist served up some of 1930s French cinema’s tastiest dishes. The son of a beloved theater actor, Guitry was devoted to the footlights, first turning to the silver screen as a way of bringing his plays to a wider audience. His films were anything but stage-bound, however: often the director, writer, and star of his popular movies, Guitry brought a witty inventiveness to the cinema and deployed radical tactics with such aplomb and control that he’s considered one of the medium’s first “complete auteurs.” With these four films, American audiences can finally sample Guitry’s creative, comic confections.
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THE STORY OF A CHEAT (Le roman d’un tricheur) Considered Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece, this fleet, witty picaresque about a gambler and petty thief is a whimsical delight. Guitry himself stars as the “tricheur” looking back fondly on a life of crime, which he narrates with an effervescence matched by his clever editing and cinematography. With its rapid storytelling and inventive use of voice-over, The Story of a Cheat’s style has influenced filmmakers from Orson Welles to François Truffaut. 1936
THE PEARLS OF THE CROWN (Les perles de la couronne) Sacha Guitry plays four roles—including King Francis I and Napoleon—in this multilingual whirlwind of pageantry that investigates the fate of three pearls missing from the royal crown of England. Guitry’s first script written directly for the screen rockets through four centuries of European history with imaginative, winking irreverence.
DÉSIRÉ Sacha Guitry exchanges his usual top hat for a uniform in Désiré, in which he plays a cavalier valet embroiled in an awkward flirtation with his new employer (played by the actor-director’s real-life wife, Jacqueline Delubac), who is involved with a stuffy politician. A carefree class farce filled with memorable supporting characters, Désiré blurs the line between upstairs and downstairs.
QUADRILLE A sparkling four-way affair overflowing with dialogue that showcases writer-director Sacha Guitry’s wit, Quadrille stars Guitry as a magazine editor whose longtime girlfriend (whom he hopes to make his fiancée) is uncontrollably drawn to a handsome American movie star. Meanwhile, a discerning reporter (Jacqueline Delubac) watches from the sidelines with amusement and provides the final corner of this romantic rectangle.
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DE'SIRE', 1937, 97 min
At well-to-do Jacqueline Delubac's domicile, De'sire' (Guitry) applies for the valet position. She checks his reference with his former female employer, who implies that De'sire' is sexually aggressive--which puts Jacqueline off, but De'sire' with his overwhelming mouth persuades her to hire him. The other household staff comprise maid Arletty and cook Pauline Carton. All travel to the country house, where Jacqueline continues her affair with a balding minister, but unfortunately talks in her sleep about the sexual threat of De'sire'. The household is thrown into disarray, finally evoking a buzzsaw monologue from De'sire'.
QUADRILLE, 1938, 95 min
Newspaper tycoon Guitry has had a long affair with stage actress Gaby Morlay (1893-1964), and may finally pop the question of marriage. But American movie star Georges Grey (1911-1954) descends upon Paris like morning sunshine and, by gosh, promptly seduces Gaby. The aftermath is a very long verbal exchange between Guitry and Gaby. Star newspaper reporter Jacqueline Delubac tries to intercede to good effect, and Guitry is attracted to her, and vice versa. As complication, the American movie star has to leave Paris. Will he be back to do the right thing by Gaby or abscond as a cad? (Personally, I found Gaby Morlay, at five feet, to be obviously undersize as uncleverly photographed, her hard simple face distorted with "corrective" insect-antennae brows. Her birdlike warbled nasal French, like that of co-player Jacqueline in this pic, annoyed. In the final minutes, she's stuck with a terrible artichoke hat.)
PEARLS OF THE CROWN, 1937, 105 min
Of Guthrie's films, this extravagant, multilingual, wildly inventive historical romp achieved popularity internationally. He hashes together four centuries of Italian, French, and English monarchies in creating the legend of the seven great pearls--four of which finally decorate the English crown, and three strays which are traced in the 1930s by an Italian, a French, and an English gentleman. Some actors play multiple roles. Guitry is Jean Martin, Francois I, Barras, and Napoleon III. Robust Lyn Harding is delightful as the modern king's aide-de-camp and Henry VIII. Jacqueline Delubac is affecting as Mary Queen of Scots readying for the ax. Jean-Louis Barrault briefly stuns as young Napoleon. As the chocolate-covered Queen of Abyssinia, Arletty is highly amusing, her vocal track being played backward to create an exotic tongue.
STORY OF A CHEAT, 1936, 81 min
Matured by a wig and Harold Lloyd eyeglasses (elsewhere, photos show Guitry wore such emphatic specs in life), Guitry as the Cheat is seated at a sidewalk cafe and commences to write his memoirs. As the son of a grocer and as a WWI soldier, he is played by other actors. From early on, life seems to teach the Cheat that dishonesty is best, indeed inescapable as circumstances arise. The WWI sequence includes a rare appearance by the troubled alcoholic chanteuse Fre'hel (1891-1951) roughly singing "Et v'la pourquoi" (And that's why; lyrics by Guitry). The film includes docu footage of Monaco & Monte Carlo, as the Cheat becomes a successful gambler. But then, one evening he sees in the casino his former army acquaintance, one-armed and stolidly playing cards, and the Cheat remembers...
Yes, I said at the outset that I found Guitry's voice unattractive, especially since it's his primary acting tool, his countenance too frozen. Yet "Cheat," astoundingly, is almost entirely his voice-over, an often frowned-upon technique in drama. But in this instance the images become all the more gripping, or the more amusing in presenting the grocer's boy. The sawing has become a frazzled bow on old dry cello strings.
FIVE STARS! Merci beaucoup, Criterion, a la recherche du temps perdu et des films use's.
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