Mauvaise Graine (1934, aka Bad Seed)

Synopsis:

In Paris, France, Henri (French singer Pierre Mingand) enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle thanks to his father’s immense wealth. Tired of financially supporting his son, Henri’s dad takes away his son’s priciest possession: the young man’s sports car. Henri rebels against his father by joining a gang of car thieves.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Happy people don’t have stories.”

This French comedy-drama marked the film debut of Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment) as director, after many years as a successful screenwriter in Germany. Although it took him almost ten years to seriously consider a career as a film director, Wilder’s first attempt at directing is surprisingly good.

According to Ed Skivo’s 1998 book On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, at this point in his life, Wilder had no desire to be a movie director. Wilder accepted the job only after the producers failed to attract an established film director. Apparently, Wilder wasn’t sure he could handle the technical aspects of the job so the producers hired second-tier director Alexander Esway to assist Wilder.

You may ask yourself: How did Austrian Wilder end up directing a French movie almost a decade before he made his first Hollywood movie? This is what I learned from Skivo’s book: After dabbling in journalism for a few years, Wilder had established himself as a prolific screenwriter for UFA, the famous movie studio located in Berlin, Germany. When everything was going in his favor, Hitler came to power and the Austrian-Jewish filmmaker quickly relocated to Paris, France.

Once in Paris, Wilder joined forces with a group of German expatriates and together they started making low-budget movies. Mauvaise Graine wasn’t meant to be anything special, but as filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) astutely observes in his 1999 book Conversations with Wilder, “(Mauvaise Graine) feels very modern… like something that would be done today on the independent film circuit.”

Mauvaise Graine anticipates the films of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and the whole French New Wave movement by almost three decades. Strange jump cuts, odd soundtrack, hand-held camera, etc. The film’s imprudent style resembles Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s Beathless, just to name a few avant-garde ’60s movies. But unlike the darlings of the French New Wave, Wilder didn’t set out to break the rules — the film’s low-budget forced him to be inventive.

In addition to that, Wilder, who always credited German-born Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as a major influence (Wilder had a sign in his office that read: “How would Lubitsch do it?”), apes his mentor well. Mauvaise Graine feels “Lite Lubitsch” — the film’s sense of irony is much closer to Lubitsch’s movies (e.g. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be) than to Wilder’s own comedies like The Major and the Minor, Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Over the years, Billy Wilder gave contradictory statements about the film. Like Hitchcock, Wilder loved to tease interviewers. When fellow filmmaker Cameron Crowe asked Wilder if he ever felt like re-watching Mauvaise Graine, the old master responded, “No. It’s sh*t!” Never mind. The film is well-crafted and interesting. Above all, it’s always fun to see a great artist at the beginning of his/her career. B&W, 86 minutes, Not rated.

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