J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Pig Across Paris: The Other White Meat Goes on the Black Market

This little piggy is supposed to go to the black market.  It is Marcel Martin’s job to take him, but he cannot schlep four suitcases fully loaded with pork goodness on his own.  He will have some dubious help from a mysterious stranger in Claude Autant-Lara’s classic A Pig Across Paris (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Martin was once a taxi driver, but the German occupation has been bad for business, what with the curfews, rubber and gasoline rationing, and constant military patrols.  Technically, he is unemployed, but Martin still provides for his somewhat out of his league wife through black market gigs.  Skeptical of her fidelity, Martin button-holes Grandgil, a stranger he suspects of being her lover.  When satisfied this is not the case, he recruits the stout fellow to help him carry his freshly slaughtered baggage across town.

Much to his surprise, his new companion more or less takes over the operation.  He is resourceful but somewhat reckless.  They bicker like an old married couple and the leaking baggage draws a pack of appreciative dogs, but somehow the two men proceed to navigate the nocturnal world of air raids and police check points.  Yet, irony is always waiting just around the corner for them.

A Pig Across Paris (a.k.a. Four Bags Full, a.k.a. La traverse de Paris) is one of those films that almost got away.  Surprisingly, it was a hit in France, but at the time, it snuck in and out of American theaters like a black-marketeer with a side of bacon stuffed in his trousers.  Happily, it now returns to circulation with a newly translated set of subtitles.  There is indeed a reason the Nouvelle Vague enfants terribles singled out Pig as one of their few worthy French predecessors.  Autant-Lara’s depiction of occupied Paris is far bolder and more barbed than really any of the films they produced in the 1960’s.

Adapted from a short story by Marcel Aymé, Pig presents a full spectrum of cowardly and/or opportunistic behavior.  This is the black market after all, not the resistance.  Indeed, the latter are nowhere to be found.  As befitting Autant-Lara’s lefty inclinations, rather pronounced class differences emerge between the two men.

They are well paired though.  As the more well-heeled Grandgil, Jean Gabin is both appropriately manly, in a Spencer Tracy kind of way, but also convincingly sophisticated and rather condescending.  Likewise, Bourvil (as André Robert Raimbourg billed himself) perfectly balances broad comedy with tragic pathos as the increasingly put-upon Martin.  They are one of the great big screen odd couples.

There are a lot of funny bits in Pig, but it never whitewashes the era.  Frankly, Autant-Lara’s film is not so far removed from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, both in terms of their morally ambiguous milieu and quality of execution.  Highly recommended for general audiences, A Pig Across Paris opens this Friday (5/24) in New York at Film Forum.

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