Julien Duvivier was born in Lille, France, on 8 October 1896. He started out as a stage actor in Paris in 1915. He worked at the Odéon under the direction of the reactionary André Antoine, whose realist approach left a lasting impression on the young Duvivier. In 1918, he started working for cinema, as a part-time screenwriter and assistant director to such masters as Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier. His first film, Haceldama ou le prix du sang (1919), was not a worthy effort and has been described as one of the least promising debuts in cinematic history.
During the 1920s, undeterred by this first failure, Duvivier continued making films. His first notable success was in 1925, with his poignant adaptation of Jules Renard’s Poil de Carotte (which he later remade in 1932, one of his favourite works). This resulted in an invitation from from producers Marcel Vandal and Charles Delac to work for their film production company, Film d’Art. Here, Duvivier stayed for nine years, perfecting his craft as a film-maker and learning the value of team work.
In was in the 1930s, with the arrival of sound, that Duvivier’s career as a film director suddenly took off. By the end of the decade he had earned an international reputation as one of the most important French film-makers of his generation. His successes included such works as David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tête d’un homme (1933), La Bandera (1935), Un Carnet du Bal (1935), La Belle équipe (1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937).
Duvivier’s first major success was David Golder (1930), which starred acting heavyweight Harry Baur. That actor would subsequently work with Duvivier on another great film, La Tête d’un homme, playing Inspector Maigret in one of the earliest screen adaptations of a Georges Simenon novel. Baur also appears in Un Carnet du Bal (1935), Duvier’s first and most successful attempt at a “films à sketches”.
Another legendary actor who would achieve prominence thanks to Duvivier was Jean Gabin, who starred in three of the defining French films of the 1930s: La Bandera (1935), La Belle équipe (1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937). What connects these films, in addition to Gabin’s remarkable performance, is a distinctive style of French cinema, termed poetic realism, which was very much in vogue in this period. Duvivier (along with Marcel Carné and Jean Grémillion) was one of the few directors to master poetic realism and Pépé-le-Moko is often cited as one of the finest examples of this style of French cinema.
It was the international success of Pépé-le-Moko which earned Duvivier an invitation from MGM in 1938 to direct a lavish Hollywood musical, The Great Waltz, a biography of the composer Johann Strauss. Duvivier returned to America during World War Two where he made a number of big-budget films, most notably Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943).
After the war, Duvivier returned to his native France, but had great difficulty regaining his former popularity, having been displaced by those directors who had remained in France during the German occupation. His 1946 film Panique, a grim depiction of human greed and hysteria, proved to be a commercial failure and was viciously written off by the critics as a return to poetic realism of the 1930s. Today, this is regarded as an unequivocal masterpiece, one of the greatest films made during the 1940s.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Duvivier’s more serious films show a marked change from the poetic realism of the 1930s to a far darker kind of realism which explored the worst qualities of human nature. Examples of this are to be found in Sous le ciel de Paris (1951) and Voici le temps des assassins (1956). Meanwhile, he was making popular comedies such as Le Petit monde de Don camillo (1951), the first in a series of films starring the popular actor Fernandel. This film won him a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.
Duvivier’s last great film was Pot-Bouille
(1957), which combines the grim realism of Zola’s novel with popular farce.
et les dix commandements (1962) is less impressive but shows Duvivier’s
flair for comedy and, thanks to its all-star cast, proved to be a popular success.
On 30 October 1967, shortly after completing his final film,
Diaboliquement vôtre, Julien Duvivier died tragically in a car accident,