[Editor’s note: Fandor features this film along with others in the RomCom theme via the Criterion Collection and Hulu for a limited period of time.]
Quadrille is frequently viewed as one of Sacha Guitry’s more effervescent films—an accomplishment given the French director’s penchant for cinematic gossamery. But airiness doesn’t necessarily imply minor, even if the film itself is so diligent in making a subject like adultery a feathery matter. The film’s irreverent tone is not a trick, to get us to take it less seriously, but a considerate attempt on Guitry’s behalf to temper the seriousness of the subject, to reveal a more playful and bittersweet side to relationships.
Guitry plays Philippe de Morannes, the male counterpart in the marital discord, a newspaper editor-in-chief planning to interview a big Hollywood celebrity sailing through Paris named Carl Herickson (Georges Grey).
Through sheer happenstance, Philippe’s attempts to be socially courteous to the young, handsome actor—by securing him balcony tickets for his wife Paulette’s (Gaby Morlay) play—leads Carl right into her lap, and the two performers hit it off.
Guitry is privy to their rendezvous from the beginning, and hides every bit of knowledge from Paulette in order to see just how much she will reveal to him—and she, of course, omits everything. It seriously puts a damper on his plans to propose to his partner of six years.
Completing the quadrille, this dance of many a bon mot, is the successful reporter and pretty young thing Claudine (Jacqueline Delubac), a good friend to both Philippe and Paulette. The journalist colleagues are secretly smitten with each other but keep things classy and professional throughout, and as Guitry and Paulette’s situation becomes increasingly awry, it is up to Claudine to play the difficult position of mediator between her two friends.
While all of this sounds quite melodramatic—and, certainly, the film carries more seriously charged moments, particularly the ones that pepper the mesmerizing twenty-minute exchange between Philippe and Paulette when the two finally have a tête-à-tête about her affair—the film is otherwise, masterfully light. Cleverness abounds, even in the height of jealous talk:
Paulette: I found him handsome like you.
Philippe: Handsome like me?
Paulette: No, I mean handsome like you found him.
It’s worth noting that Quadrille is weighed down by the gendered preoccupations of its male director and his not-uncommon anxieties of being cheated on. Philippe is quite the sympathetic character in the quadrille, clearly the most talented dancer blessed with many of the script’s great witticisms, which frequently are made at the expense of others and reveal, for example, Carl and Paulette’s mutual daffy flakiness (perhaps a common condition in their mutual profession). Philippe is the most fully realized character of the four, and this imbalance becomes all the more glaring in the virtual absence of detailing the female characters’ implied turmoil, particularly Claudine’s supposed undisclosed feelings for Philippe.
But the thematic and moral outcome here is not so much a vilifying of faithless characters or an accusatory look at female infidelity. Instead, Quadrille adroitly acknowledges that there is such a thing as a six-year itch, that lust abounds extra-maritally no matter one’s gender, and that serendipity can have as much as a role to play in love affairs as a character’s perfidious nature. The film’s narrative set-up is rather remarkable in establishing a row of random events that all work together to set the affair in motion. Philippe is at the Ritz to interview Carl, unaware that the actor’s manager has double-booked him with Claudine. Paulette happens to accompany her husband to the hotel to have tea with a friend, which is how she and Carl first see and fall for each other. Hounded by fans, Carl asks for Paulette’s autograph and she signs Claudine’s name, trying to ward off her own feelings, the lovestruck suitor, and the unwanted media attention. Carl enthusiastically shares his love note with Claudine and Philippe, not realizing they all know each other, and they recognize Paulette’s handwriting. Having already invited Carl to Paulette’s play, Philippe finds himself in the unwitting and unfortunate position of a cuckold catalyst and turns to Claudine for help, who, thanks to her presence, becomes intimate with the rather sticky circumstances from the start, and is compelled to help him with the quickly derailing situation, while also remaining a true friend to Paulette.
In line with this idea of the story being a creative thought experiment in which a filmmaker asks himself, “what would happen if my wife were to cheat on me?” Quadrille is very much a masculine, auteurist work, one that fully acknowledges its status as such. Guitry was ahead of his time, his formal flourishes and idiosyncratic visual compositions an undeniable influence on the likes of many an auteur, from Orson Welles to the French New Wave directors. But he was also ahead of his time in establishing the concept of the auteur while simultaneously highlighting the collaborative nature of cinema, inscribing the creative importance of their work in a self-reflexive fashion into the film—this is immediate within the opening credits. Guitry’s films always introduce themselves spectacularly, and Quadrille is one of the best examples of that accentuated flair, with each actor and high-level crew member receiving their due, their name and role beautifully credited on screen. Guitry’s dedication to filmmaking as a separate craft from his other love, theater, extends to every formal element available to him, and this includes the score, which changes in tone, rhythm and melody as each person is introduced, implying that even music can be used to mark character development. Guitry is listed as writer, director, and in bigger cursive script, “auteur” of the film. It’s a bold declaration that proves to be ultimately evident in not only his formal audacity, but the substantial maturity of his narratives, stories that refuse to become weighed down with emotion, that sweetly infuse tragedy with comedy, and that find the courage to be spry even in a time of loss.