La Femme du Boulanger (1938)

Or, in English, The Baker’s Wife.

Recently, across a period of about three months, I’ve had to watch a slew of films from across the world (for an article I needed to research). While making my way through films from the US, Brazil, Spain, France, Mexico, Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam… and of course, closer home, Hindi cinema—it came home to me rather forcibly just how much of a gap there often is (and has been, for many years) between Hollywood and much of the rest of the world.

The Hays Code, applied to Hollywood productions between 1930 and 1968, imposed restrictions on the scenes shown—the sex, the violence, etc—as well as the language, the themes, the messages and more. But even later, after the Hays Code was no longer applicable, I’ve realized how much more tame Hollywood is when compared to other cinema (for instance, from France, Spain, or Mexico, to name just three countries, recently-watched films of which were far removed from what Hollywood would make). Hollywood’s risqué is often tame for Europe. (And Indian cinema, across regions, seems to faithfully follow Hollywood in this matter, though it’s much tamer even than Hollywood).

Anyway, on to one of the films that highlighted this point for me. La Femme du Boulanger is a French film about a middle-aged baker who sets up a bakery and patisserie in a sleepy village in the French countryside, along with his pretty wife to help him out—and within a couple of days, the wife has run off with a local buck. In Hollywood, this would have been probably treated quite seriously; in France, it becomes more a comedy than anything else. All anybody is really worried about is that their baker has gone off his desire to bake, so they’re not getting bread any more…

But, to start at the beginning. The story begins by introducing us to the villagers, and here the perceptive will quickly realize that all is not peaceful harmony in sun-kissed Provence. Two men refuse to talk to each other because of a long-standing enmity—their fathers were enemies, and before them, their grandfathers, though they’d forgotten the original reason for the mutual dislike.

Here, two neighbours have a bitter quarrel and stop talking because of three elms and a bed of supposedly spinach. “It’s never grown taller than watercress!” shouts its disgruntled grower, who is annoyed that his neighbour’s elms droop over his spinach and block out the sunlight. The neighbour, on the other hand, refuses to cut down his elms or even trim them a wee bit because he’s annoyed that the shade his garden should be getting is being used up all by ungrateful neighbour.

The curate (Robert Vattier) is highly disapproving of the local school teacher (Robert Bassac) because the teacher had the blasphemous gall to tell his students that Joan of Arc believed she heard the voice of God. The teacher, in turn, lashes back at the curate for saying that the ‘human kingdom’ is separate from the ‘animal kingdom’.

Yes, this lot isn’t especially dripping with the milk of human kindness.

But, like all good Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) they love good bread, and it seems their chances of getting it have just shot up. The previous baker had committed suicide, and the villagers have been forced, for too long now, to get their bread from a distant village—and it’s been terrible bread. But now, a new baker, Aimable (Raimu) has arrived, and the aromas emanating from the bakery suggest very good bread indeed.

Along with the middle-aged and chubby Aimable is his much younger, lovely wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc), who weighs out the bread, acts as cashier, and generally helps Aimable with his work. For instance, as Aimable later tells a villager who comes by, he, Aimable, has to wake up at an unearthly hour every night so that he can get started on the bread. He goes to sleep at 4 AM—in the trough near his massive oven—and it is Aurélie’s job to wake up at 6 and come and wake Aimable so that he can carry on with his work.

The villagers crowd around the bakery, and pushing his way through them comes the local marquis (Fernand Charpin). The curate is extremely disapproving of this reprobate nobleman, since the Marquis has, living in his chateau, a bunch of young women whom he passes off—without any intention, even, of deceiving—as his nieces. Right now, heedless of the curate’s stern looks, the Marquis has come to the bakery to place his weekly order. So many loaves, plus so many brioches on Saturday, for his young ‘nieces’.

The bread, says Monsieur le Marquis, will be collected by his shepherd, Dominique (Charles Moulin), whom the marquis has brought along with him. One look at the darkly handsome and very virile shepherd, and Aurélie is smitten. Dominique, too, is obviously struck by her: with her makeup and her fashionably cut hair—a far cry from the other women of the village—the baker’s wife stands out.

Later that day, while Aimable is busy at his oven, the villagers buy their loaves from Aurélie. One by one, they take their bread, pay up, and go. Dominique waits till everyone is gone, then steps forward, holding out a sack into which Aurélie will put the bread. One loaf is slipped in from a safe distance. Then she steps a little closer. By the time she’s put in the third loaf, she’s nestled up against him. The fourth loaf goes in, and her hand creeps in through the open collar of his shirt, to rest on Dominique’s chest…

Aimable is blissfully unaware of all of this. That night, though, the baker and his wife are awakened by loud singing outside their window. Aurélie opens it to find Dominique standing outside, down in the street with two other friends. He’s serenading her in Italian. Aimable, good and innocent (also a little naïve?) is convinced that this sweet young man has come to thank them for the good bread they sold him earlier today. Go downstairs and give him a pancake (that’s what it appears as in the subtitles, though what is given to Dominique looks like no pancake I’ve seen before).

So Aurélie goes off to give Dominique the pancake (and some more, much of it probably pretty steamy). Again, Aimable is completely oblivious, though one of the villagers realizes what is going on. He says nothing to the baker, though.

Meanwhile, Dominique, ‘pancake’ in hand, is busy exulting to a friend that this is love. He sees it in Aurélie’s eyes, he feels it in every breath. She has asked him to meet her behind the church at 5 in the morning, and to come for her on a horse. So romantic! And he will. The friend looks sceptical, but Dominique is all fired up with romantic (lustful?) zeal.

At 4 AM, Aimable, having done much of his work and put his loaves of dough out to prove, settles himself in the trough and goes off to sleep, secure in the belief that Aurélie will come downstairs and wake him up in two hours’ time. Within moments, he is so deeply asleep that Aurélie, shoes in hand, comes quietly down the stairs in her stockinged feet and slips out the door without Aimable stirring.

Morning dawns in the village and one of Aimable’s neighbours sees smoke billowing out of the bakery. The oven’s on fire! He rushes in, wakes up a still-sleeping Aimable, and together they open the oven, let out the smoke, weep over the burnt bread, and generally get things back in order. Poor Aurélie, says Aimable, affectionately. She was very tired last night; she must have overslept. He’ll take her a cup of coffee and wake her.

It takes him a while to realize that under the heaped-up covers on the bed is a pillow, not his wife. Where is she? Aimable cannot imagine. He goes searching all across the village, but no-one can help him. Nobody’s seen her. Aimable even rushes into church—it’s empty right now, with only the curate there—in the hope that he’ll find Aurélie there, but to no avail. There’s a longish conversation with the curate (who ends up with the impression that Aimable has been preventing a pious Aurélie from coming to church). The curate manages to badger an unwilling Aimable into attending mass (the curate and Aimable being the only ones present).

It doesn’t take long for the truth to emerge. The marquis turns up, all hot and bothered because his horse has gone missing. Some more frantic questioning of all and sundry, and a man speaks up. And then another, and another. The friend Dominique had confided in confesses: the shepherd had decided to steal the marquis’s horse to run away with Aurélie.

Poor Aimable soon finds himself the butt of all the jokes in the village. Some people are genuinely sympathetic, but there are others who think it’s hilarious. And the curate, churning out a sermon on how men should let their women come to church “to the Good Shepherd, so that they won’t go to the bad shepherd”, doesn’t exactly endear himself to Aimable with those words.

For the moment, Aimable’s grief and humiliation are pretty much his own. But when he decides he’s too heartbroken to bake any more—which means that there’s no more bread to be had in the village—the villagers suddenly wake up to the fact that Aimable’s misery also translates into their own. They have to do something to help.

What I liked about this film:

The humour of it (though the version I saw had very sparse subtitles, which meant that a good bit of what was going on was lost on me, since my French is very limited). Despite my inability to understand some of what was being said, I did find it funny—funny in a way that understood the foibles of human nature, the way people hold grudges and judge others on the basis of something they don’t even remember, for instance; or the way people’s motivations drive them to do complete turnabouts.  Some scenes in particular stand out for their hilarity: the marquis superintending the formation and deployment of a posse to search for the baker’s wife; Aimable, drunk and despairing, giving his own rendition of an Italian serenade; the burying of enmity between the elm-growing and spinach-growing neighbours.

And, Raimu’s Aimable. I have to admit I’d never seen Raimu before (not that I’ve seen much French cinema before…), but he is brilliant. He is hilarious as the cuckolded husband, staggering around drunk and doing his take on an Italian serenade. Maudlin at times, pretending to bear up to others (even trying to convince himself that his wife has merely gone to visit her mother), just plain lonely and miserable at others. His performance is flawless.

Mostly, though, it was the complete package: the portrayal of the different characters in a small village; the farcical nature of the entire episode, with the village coming together to help find Aurélie because in her rests their hope of good bread (any bread, actually); the dialogue; the acting.

What I didn’t like:

A bit of a niggle, really. The sudden lust between Aurélie and Dominique is puzzling, and it’s never quite clear what made Aurélie marry Aimable in the first place, since she doesn’t seem to love him (I can imagine, though, that a man so indispensable to a village as a good baker would be a fine catch). Aurélie’s motives are never quite clear, and at the end, I couldn’t figure out whether I sympathized with her or not—or a little bit of both.

Overall, though, a good film. I do wish someone would do comprehensive English subtitles for this. If you are willing to watch a somewhat inadequately subtitled version, here’s the one I saw.

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34 thoughts on “La Femme du Boulanger (1938)

  1. Had never heard of this before but it does sound interesting. I can’t say I have seen many pre-WWII French films either, apart from a few by Jean Renoir. I would heartily recommend Boudu Saved from Drowning which also incidentally happens to be a comedy like this one, and also quite risque even by pre-Hays Code standards.

    Btw, noted playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon just passed away hours ago. May he R.I.P.

    • I hadn’t heard of Boudu Saved From Drowning (that title itself sounds funny!); will put it on my to-watch list. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I read about Neil Simon’s passing away. RIP, indeed. This calls for a tribute.

  2. Thanks for sharing about the film and love the various layers or emotions laden with humor. Rare to find humor with tragedy and your writing makes the flick something to watch. You’ve uncovered the lid on the soul of different cinema across the globe.

  3. Will try to see this. Not seen too many French films. As I mentioned before I collect postage stamps, and as a thematic collection on Cinema. I have the postage stamp issued by France to commemorate Rimu, or Jules Auguste Muraire (1883 – 1946), which was his actual name.
    I guess I cannot post an image of the stamp here.
    Girish Vaidya

    • Wow! That is very interesting. Yes, sadly you can’t post an image of the stamp here. But if you have an image uploaded somewhere (or if you can find it somewhere online), you could post a link to the URL. I would like to see that.

      By the way, that made me think: how truly appreciative of talent of the French that they chose to issue a stamp featuring a comedian… I wonder when India Post will think of issuing a Johnny Walker stamp (unless they already have one?)

  4. Hi Madhu,
    Nice review of a well-loved movie! I went to check “Fougasse” for you, which as you say, doesn’t correspond to a “pancake” at all; It’s a kind of flat bread, stuffed with olives and sometimes goat cheese, which is typical of Southern France. You’d eat it as a starter if it was cut into little pieces, or indeed a regular meal if you wanted to eat half a loaf.
    In answer to Girish, here’s the link to that stamp of Raimu: http://www.phil-ouest.com/Timbre_zoom.php?Nom_timbre=Raimu_Cesar&type=Zoom
    There are many other actors who have been honoured by having their faces on French stamps. Check here: https://www.wikitimbres.fr/timbres/4802/acteurs-du-cinema-francais
    All the best!

    • Thank you, Yves! Glad you liked the review, and thank you for finding out what that ‘pancake’ really was. That sounds rather nice, to be honest. :-)

      And, thank you for the links to the Raimu stamp and the other ones of actors. Besides the fact that I like that postage stamps have been issued in honour of these people, I like that the design of the stamps – very chic.

    • Yes, that is the stamp. That shows him from the play Cesar. I have that statamp as well as the set of stamps on French actors!

      • Madhu if you’ve enjoyed La femme du Boulanger, you probably know it’s originally a book by Marcel Pagnol, who also directed some of his novels or plays at the cinema (he wrote many screenplays and scenarios), and that there are other famous movies made by him: César, Topaze, Regain, La fille du puisatier, Manon des sources… I’m sure you’d like some of them too!

        • Yes, I did notice that it was based on a Pagnol play. I don’t think I’ve seen any others from among his movies. Will make it a point to look out for them! Thank you for the recommendation, Yves.

  5. I watched this a long, long time ago – when my college film club organised a ‘World Cinema Festival’. The art secretary was a cineaste. I must confess that that print seemingly had better sub-titles than what you watched. Because at that point, my French was non-existent.

    I should watch this again. Now if only you can increase the hours in a day. :)

    their baker has gone off his desire to bake, so they’re not getting bread any more…

    As far as the French are concerned, they can always get another wife/girlfriend, but a good loaf of bread is irreplaceable. :)

  6. Madhu,
    Your review encouraged me to watch the movie, and I enjoyed it. Thanks a lot. It is a sweet and funny story of a simple-hearted husband whose love for his wife does not diminish in spite of her constant nagging, and later her bringing shame to him by her elopement. His persistent denial against all the evidence is very endearing, though at times one is surprised why he is not outraged. The villagers, too, who start with derision, change to having sympathy for him.

    The lust for Dominique is the foundation of the story. Therefore, one has to accept it as it is, otherwise there is no story.

    There are other nuggets of humour too, which unobtrusively address some fundamental issues, such as the nok-jhonk between the priest and the teacher on science versus faith; the hero ruing that the farmers want higher price for wheat, but protest any rise in the price of bread etc.

    As regards your opening remarks about European versus Hollywood films on risqué factor, this film is not the right place to enter into that discussion. I just wanted to say that Europeans films had this way of intellectualising sex. I enjoyed the abstract thoughts in their sub-titles. While Hollywood films made one film one was watching porno, the French films made one feel one was seeing something profound.
    AK

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this movie, AK – and yes, it’s true that without the lust for Dominique there isn’t any story. My point was that right at the end, the look on Aurelie’s face suggests that she really does love Dominique, and that she’s tied to Aimable for more mercenary reasons. As I mentioned in the review too, I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for her or not.

      You’re right, I think the Europeans tend to treat sex with a more intellectual approach. Also, perhaps, in a more matter-of-fact way. Even in the rare Hollywood film where there’s an attempt to show sex in an ‘aesthetic’ way, the eroticism of the act tends to be always highlighted – not something I’ve seen in a lot of European movies. For instance, in La Grand Bouffe (about four ageing men who decide to have a long weekend indulging in an orgy of food and sex), the sex is just that – an act similar to that of consuming good food: they derive pleasure from it, they laugh and enjoy it, and when they overdose on it, it takes on the same tones of gluttony that overeating does.

  7. Madhu ji , if U had nt reviewed this film , I would nt hav watched it . ( Same thing happened with the movie ” People will talk ” )

    Nd what an excellent movie it was !
    Raimu , hats off to him ! ( Sometimes he looked like our own bollywood comedian Agha .)

    The movie was a perfect example of
    Black Comedy.

    Madhu ji , thnx a lot for this review.

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