Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

mademoiselle fifi

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Directed by Robert Wise

From the opening minutes, where its historiographical context and thematic values are specified, as a cheap, hasty and unadorned film, it is rather ambiguous, even esoteric, inconceivable to predict where the artificial melodrama will lead its little narrative lucidity. However, this austerely budgeted film, produced by RKO in the hands of parsimonious filmmaking genius Val Lewton, surprises with sophisticated trickery that condenses this narrative based on two short stories by Guy de Maupassant into something functionally captivating, and thus impossible to take your eyes off its seamless evolution from its tenuous beginning to its exhilarating end. Frugal but gripping, Mademoiselle Fifi is one of the greatest films produced by Val Lewton; a financial fiasco for RKO but a stupendous project that may not have yielded the financial rewards they had hoped for but did meet their cinematic standards. And rediscovering this film, and re-evaluating it, I think is always a challenge too seductive to pass up, it has so many layers on an intellectual level, that it quickly makes it one of my favorite films of the influential mini-productions that bear Val Lewton’s name.

Mentioning a producer as memorable and important to the progress of American B movies as Lewton, makes me rethink the specificity of his ingenuity as a visionary. He revolutionized psychological horror cinema, he was modern when others were old-fashioned, he was minimalist when others were maximalist, he was conscientious when others were pretentious, he was subtle when others were explicit. Each of these peculiarities, gave him a place in film history, and his influential role to this day is invaluable; arguably one of the first producers to make the auteur theory obsolete within his cinema. From the ominous psychosexual fury of Cat People (1942) to Mademoiselle Fifi, each of the films Lewton produced feel as much his own as Vertigo belongs to Hitchcock. They are the definition of collaborative productivity, where the producer has as much input as the director does, and voilĂ , a formula that evidently works wonders for RKO’s B productions.

Mademoiselle Fifi is one of the few films that Val Lewton produced outside the spectrum of horror, or psychological thriller, there is no supernatural folklorism, no feline metaphors, no undead, yet on a molecular level they work with the same literary composition. Alluringly, Mademoiselle Fifi suggests that it is the most political of all the low-budget films made during the Second World War. And in that conjunctural territory, it operates with the same novelistic tools and bases as the other horror films of the Lewtonian productions. Being a film not set in the creepy atmospheres of the previous productions, it was almost predictable that it would not have the same success and would be immediately forgotten. Nevertheless, my instinct tells me that thematically, it is the one that has aged the best.

As a main thesis, this production has through propagandistic oratory a patriotic canticle that scrupulously analyzes the true meaning of the word patriotism, both in practice and in idealism. How can one explain that this stylistically modest B-movie has more to say about patriotism than any other epic film made with pompous sophistication? The explanation, I think, goes more to a literary side than a cinematic one. Unlike other patriotic hymns in the history of celluloid, Mademoiselle Fifi does not confuse the philosophy of unconditional love for a nation with extremes, it expresses itself only in the primary sense of the word but not with chauvinism, which many films mistakenly exalt. By having a solid moral foundation, and well-ordered ethical principles, the film validates its anti-German propaganda not from the banal perspective of intrinsic anti-Nazism in the 1940s, but rather justifies honor and respect for human ideals as essential components of patriotism, not as mere love of a nation, but as a fearless defense of the fundamental rights of human beings to think freely and stand up for what is right.

The story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 in occupied France. In the same style of the grandiose Stagecoach (1939), the plot assembles a variety personalities belonging to different socioeconomic classes, thus giving the first step to an intriguing dialectic abundant in unpredictable conflicts. A polite and beautiful young laundress, a group of businessmen and loquacious bourgeois, an enthusiastic revolutionary and a silent but observant priest share a stagecoach trip from Roen. As can be seen, the film brings together divergent points of view from diametrically opposed social perspectives. On this journey they discuss the socio-political conjuncture and war issues facing their country yet what governs the thematic atmosphere of these dialogues is that of patriotism. Each character grandiloquently emphasizes being a great patriot, they proclaim their love for their country and all agree that the Prussians should get the hell out of France; however, there is only one character who upholds patriotic ideals with genuine bluntness. We go from seeing a group of proudly patriotic people to pseudo patriots, or rather pusillanimous patriots, and in contrast to them, the working-class, sweetest and most innocent-looking laundress is the most tenacious in her patriotic devotion and the only one who really convinces us of her love for France. A resplendent and gorgeous Simone Simon, plays this laundress named Elizabeth Rousset, a woman without preconceptions, treats everyone equally and lives firmly under a well-established ethical philosophy, unafraid to sacrifice herself for it.

The writing has as a dialectical apparatus to create parallels so tangible that they hurt, from the beginning we can see that Elizabeth is a kind of martyr, curiously there is a shot where you can see the name of Joan of Arc on a sculpture in the place where she died; more than sure it is referential or a kind of juxtaposition to the heroism of Elizabeth in the film. Elizabeth’s organic kindness operates like poetry, rhymes that only make sense when we holistically understand the context and pathos. There comes a point in the plot where all the characters are held by a cold Prussian, nicknamed Mademoiselle Fifi, a totalitarian and soulless seducer of women. The only way for the characters to be released and continue their journey is on the condition that young Elizabeth accepts the Prussian lieutenant’s unseemly proposal. Of course, Elizabeth is a woman of dignity and is unwilling to do so, much less with someone who represents the very opposite of what she considers gallantry and eminence. For Elizabeth even the simple act of eating with a Prussian would be an anti-French gesture, an act of dishonoring the flag, yet the drama of the film and Elizabeth, teach us that patriotism is not fierce defense on the battlefields or nationalistic piety, but rather it is a sacrifice for what you believe is right or best for your nation. It is the ethos that this film exudes that translates into probably the finest depiction of patriotism I have seen on film. Simone Simon’s sublime performance leaves a piercing impact, one of her most astonishing performances and my personal favorite of hers.

Mademoiselle Fifi was Robert Wise’s solo directorial debut, and you can definitely sense a certain blandness (I’ve always felt he’s a better editor than director) in his handling of the mise-en-scene, it’s not the most strikingly visual of the films produced by Val Lewton, though what Wise successfully demonstrates in his patient empathy for the characters is that he is a director focused on contentious psychology, passionate atmosphere and compassion, something that is exhibited here with abundant energy. Mademoiselle Fifi can be seen allegorically as many things, but its conclusions make it one of the most satisfying, searing and poignant insights into the libertarian spirit of the 1940s.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.