Two by Louis Valray: La Belle de Nuit and Escale | Features

The narrow streets lit only by the light of the different dives, the shaded doors and the variously exhausted and embittered faces strongly recall the photographs of Brassaï at the same time; but the film is also eagerly awaiting the high-end style of film noir a decade later. Valray keeps her camera on certain people for so long that you might be fooled into thinking, for example, that a dark, attractive prostitute in an unusual black strappy dress is surely a character; she is not. Instead, Claude is destined to meet Maïthé, another sex worker and a strange double for the infidel Maryse (Maïthé is also played by Korene). But rather than launching into an affair, Claude hires the cynical and fatalist Maïthé to take revenge on Jean. More than a third in the film, Valray thus presents us with the most complex and emotional character; Maïthé’s fate is the one that resonates the most.

“Escale” (literally, a stopover) eliminates Paris and heads straight for Marseille. Naval officer Jean (Pierre Nay) falls in love with Eva (Colette Darfeuil) one evening in a cafe, even though she is the mistress of Dario, a gangster and bootlegger (Samson Fainsilber, who recalls the look and manner of ‘Avant-Code Ricardo Cortez). Eva escapes with Jean to a tropical island but does not manage to stop herself from resuming her old habits and her affair with Dario, when Jean returns to sea.

The intense sensation of sunlight, shade and wind that so fascinated Vecchiali is clearly visible; the characters in “Stopover” run into trouble almost as soon as they step inside. Inside there is a world of hectic boredom and double crosses at best, and drugs and degradation at worst, most memorable in a decisive journey as Jean searches for Eva through the Marseille dives.

Jean’s servant, Zama, is played by François “Féral” Benga, born in Senegal, renowned dancer and striking beauty at the Folies-Bergère (where he sometimes associated with Joséphine Baker) as well as a frequent model for the artists of the Harlem Renaissance; a nude statue of Benga by Richmond Barthé recently sold at a record price. Zama’s childlike affection and dedication to his employer are nasty colonial tropes, though the character’s final action isn’t what an American movie would have been likely to allow at the time. “However humiliated, [Benga’s] the presence gives the film an additional historical value ”, wrote J. Hoberman recently; “Escale”, a role like “The Black Angel” in “Le sang d’un poète” by Jean Cocteau (1930), and “Quand Minuit Sonnera” (Leo Joannon, 1936) seem to be the only films directed by Benga.

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