a knight in shining amour
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Sigurd (screenplay, based on an idea by Charles Spaak and Marcel Carné), Marcel Carné (director, assisted by Serge Friedman and Paul Seban) Les Tricheurs (The Cheaters) aka Youthful Sinners / 1958
These 20-some year-olds, some of them members of gangs, descend upon the mansion en masse—a few without even an invitation—to drink, smoke, and dance with the music turned up as loud as it can get. Their goal is to get stoned, and they mix whatever bottles of liquor they find together in a huge bowl. In a corner some play out a version of “Truth or Dare,” while in other corners a few bemoan the meaningless of their parents’ generation, indeed the absurdity of all bourgeoise values. In some of the bedrooms couples who can’t wait or have no other place to go are already busy fucking. Some are so drunk already that they’ve begun picking fights. Couples who arrived together have begun to switch companions. They dance late into the morning, trashing the place before they drive off.
If this sounds like a Los Angeles canyon party-house rave, an end-of-the-year frat bust, or a New York penthouse wilding, think again. Indeed, perhaps you might need to rethink cinema history since the scene I described above occurs twice in a film by the great French film director of the classic of poetic realism Children of Paradise (1945)—a film which appears on nearly all the lists of the greatest movies—Marcel Carné, working with cinematographer Claude Renoir, the nephew of director Jean Renoir, and the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Yet this film, like the New Wave works that followed, attracted a huge audience, winning that year’s Grand Prize for French Cinema. The old master was 52 at the time while Truffaut and Godard were 26 and 28, just a little older than the characters he portrayed in Les Tricheurs (known in English as The Cheaters and Youthful Sinners) performed by actors such Jacques Charrier (who quickly became a big movie sensation in France and a year later married Brigette Bardot), Laurent Terzieff (who the very next year acted in Mauro Bolognini’s La Notte brava, which I review in these pages, performed extensively on stage, and later appeared in Luis Bunuel’s The Milky Way) and a third “newcomer” by the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo (who, of course, starred in Breathless and numerous other works by Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut, Resnais, and almost all the other major directors of European cinema). It is clear that Carné had an eye for youthful male beauty in this trio and in the character of the lead figure Bob’s (Charrier) best friend, Bernard (Pierre Brice), although Pascale Petit as Mic (Michèle), with whom Bob falls in love, does not make a bad stand-in for Jean Seberg in Breathless.
In fact, you might say that Carné, as a gay man, features his male figures in this work in a manner that in this films’s earliest scenes almost seems to skew his narrative in a direction that might take us down the wrong track of what, at heart, is a normative heterosexual tale.
The handsome Bob, it is made clear from the very beginning of this story, is an outsider to the wild youth set to whom he introduced and with whom he becomes thoroughly involved. He is from what they describe as “the suburbs,” meaning anything outside the “French Quarter,” and his family is most clearly from the well-do environs of the right back and Champs Elysée. Whenever he even pauses to consider whether he might join in the “gang’s” (more of a band of friends rather than what we might describe as a gang) actions, determined mostly by the group’s leader Alain (Terzieff), he is accused of backsliding and of being, like all parents and people who embrace the societal order, “bourgeois.” And the film begins evidently after his involvement with the group at the center of the rest of the story, after he has finally graduated with his B.A. and is on the phone assuring his father that he has clearly determined what he further actions will be after the series of the events we about to witness.
In essence, accordingly, we cannot truly yet evaluate his relationship with the obviously heterosexual gang, made up of Alain, Mic, Clo, Lou (Belmondo), Nicole (Dany Saval), Gérard, and the numerous others. Bernard, with whom he begins the story, is clearly from his Right Bank friends, not a member of the “idle” gang with whom Bob spends most of his time on film.
So when Bob, in a voice over, begins his tale by observing two young boys hovering over the juke box to play jazz, as he calls up an earlier, more innocent time when he first meets Adrian in a record shop, we can only wonder whether the blue funk he is clearly now suffering has to do with a love for Adrian—whom a bit like a puppy-dog he watches stealing a record in the shop, soon after paying for Adrian’s listening-booth time, and taking him for a drink. At the first of the two parties to which Adrian takes him, the two sit on a couch together observing the dancing crowd, Adrian asking “So where am I going to sleep tonight.” But then, we quickly discover, Adrian must find a bed or couch in someone’s house every night since he has no apartment nor any money to rent one. He relies solely on “the kindness of strangers,” so to speak, having already been given a substantial amount of money by his newfound friend.
Upon observing an American boy (Alan Scott)
being approached by a boy named Danny, who has obviously been to bed with him
This is a minor incident of seemingly no
importance to the rest of the story, but Carné has introduced it, rather
inexplicably, and cannot quite let it go. Adrian asks Bob with whom he has overheard
the entire conversation, “Are you bothered?” Bob answers, almost predictably, “No,
but I prefer girls.” But Adrian’s answer is a bit odder, “Me too. But I don’t
One can suppose that a complete cynic such as Adrian, whose God, as he explains, “used to be dead, but is now indifferent,” could have no prejudices, particularly since he can’t be choosy in finding a bed for each night. But we still wonder why this scene is even in the movie. Surely you’d never find such an incident in a work by Godard or Truffaut. In Godard, gay boys in a bathroom are something to mock, but little else. And in Truffaut’s world, other than the occasional ménage-à trois his pictures seem basically to be free of all things relating to sexually queer behavior.
In The Cheaters Bob is quickly hurried away to Clo’s parent’s bedroom where apparently to two have sex and a conversation in which you better get to know Clo, while Bob remains a kind of pleasant smiling and cute cipher.
But it is useful to recall that his first such manifestation of his romantic tendencies is performed for a male friend, not for the woman with whom he soon falls in love, Mic, Clo’s best friend.
Mic (Petit) is perhaps the most fascinating figure in Carné’s work. From a poor working family, she has evidently dropped out of college under the influence of Adrian and the others, determined to be even more cynical and nonchalant about societal values than anyone else. Having no money with which to pay her rent, she visits her mother, who simply doesn’t have enough to loan her; yet each time Mic visits she notices cash missing from her shop register. Mic’s brother Roger (Roland Lesaffre) who works as a car mechanic is more generous, at least willing to give her enough for food; but also cannot pay for her rent. While in his garage she notices a new sports car for sale for 600,000 francs, determined that she will one day own the car, even though she is allergic, like all of the others of her friends, to any concept of a job.
From the meeting at the party, Bob and Mic fall in love, she inviting him to visit her, and soon after the two going to bed. The central focus of the film is their sudden and deep passion for one another, which, given the restrictions of their group dismissal of sentiment and bourgeoise emotion, they intentionally refuse to express. And so what might have been a traditional love story for Carné in the 1940s and 1950s becomes a kind of tragedy of silence in this film, as they quickly get involved in a societal situation which demands moral attention, another human expression disallowed in their post-World War II hothouse bohemian philosophy. For them, all moral values are simply corrupt.
One morning, while sleeping on another friend’s bed, Adrian is visited by a stranger who slips a substantial amount of money under the door, suggesting they meet that evening at a bar to settle up the rest of the matter. We soon glean that the other boy, who has had an affair with an older woman, is involved in a blackmail scheme, which the wealthy woman and her husband are willing to pay if he returns her love letters. The boy himself has clearly gotten cold feet and left town, telling Adrian to burn the letters.
But now announcing the news to his friends Bob and Mic, Adrian suggests they meet with the mysterious man named in the note, Hippolyte Félix (Jacques Marin) to negotiate the amount. In fact Adrian is simply happy with down payment, allowing him to eat and drink for a few weeks. We perceive throughout that despite his power over the group, he is no schemer. The record he stole in the early scene of the film was for a friend. He relies, as I have said, on others for his survival, and seems disinterested in manipulating anyone or demanding anything from his friends.
Mic is a different creature, and Bob, influenced it appears by the most recent person with whom he has taken up, is willing to join her in meeting up with Mr. Félix. They do so, she negotiating enough money for the car, another bill, and a few weeks of lunch money.
But at the last moment, when they are to meet for the payment, Bob appears to regain his moral compunctions, telling her that he has burnt the letters because of the sordidness of the whole thing. Mic, we suddenly realize, is immature and greedy, furious for his inability to carry what she considers an easy payment for the wealthy “cheater,” while allowing her the possibility to fulfill her dreams.
Bob disappears, and out of anger, Mic takes Adrian home to her apartment for sex.
He cannot bring himself to show his disappointment about her behavior, but simply throws the money at her and leaves. Mic, realizing her errors, nonetheless buys the car and proceeds to pretend that it is just as well that their relationship is over.
The “cheaters” of this work’s English title do not truly care deeply, I would argue, about what Americans might imagine: people cheating on one another sexually. Bob is not so disturbed by her having slept with Adrian as he is by her inability to express her love for him. She is cheating herself out of her own life by refusing to admit to the everyday sentiments—love, caring, and responsibility—out of her silly commitment to her “gang” code of behavior.
Yet Bob also has mindlessly joined up with the gang, and is just as unable to admit his own feelings, both for Mic and, I would argue, for Adrian.
As the pretend cynic of all time Adrian would never be able to express his admiration for and love of Bob, and instead taunts and teases both Bob and Mic for their secret longings. At Clo’s final bash, he puts himself, Mic, and Bob through a “truth and dare” game to which, simply to save face in front of their friends, they all lie, exposing themselves as horrible human beings, when in reality they are basically loving and caring kids who simply feel they can no longer trust the human values which destroyed their parent’s lives.
Clo has called her friends together for her last bash because, as I mention earlier, she has discovered that she is pregnant, and has no knowledge of who the father might have been. Presumably it could have Bob, but she asks him if he might marry him not for that reason but because she realizes that of all her acquaintances he is the only one in her financial “caste.” The marriage she offers him, in which she would never intrude upon his life, is precisely what this entire generation of young men and women, and particularly those of the Right Bank, most detest.
After Bob and Mic go through their play-acting lies of the game of “Truth” in which they both reiterate that they have utterly no feelings for one another, Bob returns to the main room where the now utterly drunk Clo has just shouted out that she is going to get married. The crowd, gathering around, demands to know who. And suddenly Bob, in his third attempt in this film to save a life has finally become a confused knight in shining amour, rising in the midst of the chaotic celebrating to shout out “Moi.” But his continuation of his rash announcement, “Since all women are the same, whores and bitches at least with Clo there won’t be any surprises,” reveals he perhaps does like girls as much as he thought he did.
Mic immediately bolts, a Cinderalla who has not just lost her shoe but her prince. She speeds away in her Jaguar, with Bob soon in chase, his final and most fatal rescue attempt.
Since we know immediately the result of this countryside race, surely Bob must also know what he is doing, that the closer he gets to her the more she will speed up until something is put in the way to bring her to a stop—in this case a trunk slowly driving the rural lane into which she seemingly purposely crashes.
Carné ridiculously postpones the inevitable in order to have Bob and Roger meet up in the hospital so that the latter can express the director’s own moral sympathies for a new lost generation who must face a “treacherous world” alone. Mic dies, Bob becomes brave, and an even younger generation of boys and girls make plans for a wild party that night. So sentimentalizes Carné, who previously worked so very hard to resist his moral homilies: youth will always seem wild and out of control to the generation before it as the new gradually are forced to come to terms with their lives.
But where is Bob going in this “brave” new world of his without Mic and with a resentment of women that almost suggests a misogynistic view of the world he inhabits. Maybe he’ll go off with his best good looking best friend, Bernard, although he’s got a girlfriend he’s about to marry. Or maybe Bob will marry a woman like Clo who, like his and her parents, will be both wealthy enough so that they never need bother each other for sex. Maybe Mic was right: better to die like James Dean in a fireball of anger and passion than close oneself off from love.
Bob isn’t gay perhaps, but he’s surely confused about "girls" and about his sexual life. At least he now may have learned that before he attempts to come to the rescue of anyone else he might first try to save himself.
Los Angeles, September 11, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).