In Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), director Julien Duviver relocates Emile Zola’s nineteenth-century bildungsroman into the age of mass consumption, automation, and modernization. Made at the end of the silent era, the film identifies the metropolitan space as the locus of both industrial and capitalist power and uses the novel’s department store romance in the employ of a bold visual reinterpretation that mixes social realism, conventional melodrama, and complex cinematographic strategies. In effect, Duviver’s film does not merely illustrate Zola’s novel, but reinvents it, enhancing the novel’s social and political vivisections of modern Paris through bold, virtuosic cinematic technique.
Duviver’s film follows Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphaned girl who moves to Paris to live with her uncle, a beleaguered fabric merchant whose business is threatened by a gargantuan luxury department store called Ladies’ Paradise, where Denise will later gain employment as a “live mannequin.” Eventually, Denise is caught in an ideological tug-of-war when an unexpected romance with ruthless storeowner Mouret (Pierre de Guingand) forces her to reconcile true love with the encroaching force of capitalist monopolization. But this slight, near-quotidian plot—a melodramatic, narratively-convenient love story punctuated by class conflict and contrivance—does not account for the film’s challenging, avant-garde aesthetic. In fact, the film works best when it widens this disconnect between story and discourse, as conventional bourgeois melodrama clashes with its fragmentary, enstranging modernist design. The opening sequence, for instance, portrays the metropolis as the site of psychic dislocation, as jittery, vertiginous cinematography, multilayered double-exposures, and elliptical editing reinvent Denise’s entry into the city as a harrowing subjective journey through both inner and outer spaces. With the unconventional fusion of modernist visual tactics and rote melodramatic narrative, the film’s aesthetic at times overpowers the wafer-thin plot, crafting visual representations of the sort of psychic dimensions denied by its surface narrative.
Even the controversial conclusion—which many critics have written off as a pro-capitalist cop-out—merely highlights the corrupting, coercive influence of both capitalist and patriarchal systems of power. Even as the machinery of melodrama attempts to disrupt such an interpretation, the ideological about-face made by its characters can be read as a representation of the ways various structures repress and dehumanize the subject through the removal of human agency. If anything, the crass monopolism and soppy, reductive romance featured in the conclusion seem like parts of a self-made prison, constructed through a pre-written script that is as artificial as the matte backdrop that enframes the lovers’ final reconciliation.