One of the things I love about watching European films from the 1930s and 1940s – particularly French films – is how much more sophisticated they are than most if not all Hollywood films from the same era. French films are often both technically superior – location shot, liberal use of advances in technology, liberal use of different film techniques – and what you might call “morally” or “culturally” superior – telling adult stories that would never have been allowed in the US, for both “moral” and commercial reasons. (And that’s what I wrote before I saw the nudity!) This film, about a recently widowed woman in her 30s who wants to find out about all the suitors she didn’t take up when she debuted, is the kind of story that would have been absolutely untouchable in 1930s Hollywood.
If you think plot that sounds familiar, yes this probably inspired Broken Flowers. Yes, this is more ridiculous and unbelievable than Broken Flowers, as that film deals with memories of actual relationships, whereas this film deals with the memories of, as far as I can tell, one night. (That must have been some night. But maybe in the ages before mass media, one night could dominate your memories as this one does hers.)
But the film is more ambitious than its silly conceit, using its device to tell miniature biographies/stories in away I’m not sure too many films had attempted to do prior to 1937. Yes, those stories are simple, and of a type that I would probably get tired of in modern films. (I really enjoyed Broken Flowers, but the part of it I liked least was the navel-gazing, and there’s plenty of that here, of course.) But it’s well told – exceptionally well told for the time, given what came before it.
This is one of those plots that I often struggle with – I know how important our memories our to us, individually, but I don’t know that I find the idea that they are important to others, or are universal, very compelling. But this is as good a version of this type as I’ve seen and though it might not resonate with me the way Broken Flowers does, it’s still a pretty fantastic film, especially given the time it was made.