A Woman of Paris

For of all Chaplin’s accolades and his (now) nigh impenetrable cinematic legacy, the one debate that still frequently occurs is over his technical skills as a director. Unlike Keaton, Chaplin never really experimented with cinematic form, pushing the visual aspects into new, uncharted territory and rethinking cinematic narration. Rather, the camera in Chaplin is mostly a functional device through which he staged his slapstick genius and melodrama in front of it. Considering the profound effect that Chaplin has had on cinema, comedy, and the 20th century in general, it almost seems trivial to discuss a thing as pedantic as directorial virtuosity.

But for those looking to observe Chaplin purely as a director, there are no better candidates than his 1923 film, A Woman of Paris. Not only does it not star Chaplin, but it’s not even a comedy. Reportedly, Chaplin wanted to test his skill behind the camera and to tell a story that he wasn’t apart of so he couldn’t bank on his popularity. But the results were disastrous and the film was a flop, even though the reviews were favorable and Chaplin had taken measures to inform the audience beforehand that he wasn’t in the film (such as passing out flyers, and even stating as much in the opening credits). Chaplin was devastated, and never went on to make another film like it, even though it has influenced filmmakers and was a landmark for Chaplin, considering it was his first film with United Artists.

The story stars Edna Purviance as Marie St. Clair, a poor woman who’s in love with Jean (Carl Miller). The two want to get married, but neither Marie’s father or Jean’s father approve, so they are forced to meet clandestinely. However, Marie’s father finds out and locks her out, and even when Jean tries to take her to his house, his father refuses to let her stay. Despite this, the two plan to get married, but when Jean’s father dies, he informs Marie he can’t marry her at the moment, but she runs away in tears before she can find out why. Marie becomes a “lady of Paris” who is courted by the wealthy and dashing Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou) who is getting married, but wants to keep Marie as a mistress. Meanwhile, Jean and Marie are destined to meet again when she accidentally contracts him to paint her portrait.

For the debate over Chaplin’s directorial talents, it’s difficult to say whether this film argues for them or against them. Ostensibly, it’s so unlike any other Chaplin film (that I’ve seen, at least) that even if we were able to glean something from it, it would be difficult to apply it to his oeuvre. What’s here mostly seems influenced from Griffith, especially in how Chaplin modulates long shots, medium shots, and close-ups; utilizing the latter in the most dramatic moments (Keaton famously said that comedy was a long shot, while tragedy was a close-up; Chaplin seemed to believe this as well). There is certainly darker and more somber lighting used here than in most Chaplin, but he never crosses into the inventiveness of expressionism.

But if Chaplin can’t be seen in the film, he can be felt. A Woman of Paris is certainly infused with frequent lightness, and even with Chaplin endeavoring to make a drama he couldn’t resist from inserting visual gags here and there, such as the dueling waiters or the out of control party. The melodrama is also distinctly Chaplin, and “melodrama” is distinctly apropos in this case, considering the film’s score—one of Chaplin’s best—was reportedly his very last creative endeavor that he undertook in 1976 when the film was recut and rereleased. In fact, the film may make a better gauge of Chaplin as a film composer (an area where I feel he’s never gotten enough credit) than film director, as this is certainly one of his most memorable and all-around finest scores.

But no matter the quality of the writing and score, it doesn’t help the film’s weakest length and that’s the narrative itself. Or, more accurately, it’s not so much what of the narrative is there but what’s left out. The film is full of major gaps that would play a crucial part in the story. Or, as one IMDb reviewer noted, “The parts of the story that were not told would have made a better movie than the movie.” Many such instances were noted, such as the lack of explanation why the fathers disapprove of the marriage and seem to be feuding, and just how Marie becomes a “Woman of Paris” to begin with.

This last point is especially troublesome considering she leaves for Paris alone and poor, and when we next see her she’s living the high life. One theory would be that a lot of time has past, and she’s worked her way up the ladder, but this would seem to be contradicted by the fact that when she meets Jean he’s still wearing a patch to indicate he’s in mourning for his father. The only explanation that leaves is that Marie has taken to hanging around rich men, and is now, basically, using her Paris suitor, Pierre Revel, as a sugar daddy.

But the film is also flawed in more subtle ways, such as the fact that Jean is so mopey from the second half onward, and Marie transforms into such a materialistic, pretentious snob that it’s hard to root for either. If anything, the real hero is the adulterer, Pierre Revel, who has the suaveness of a Lubitsch lover. In fact, the entire second half plays largely like a sophisticated Lubitsch comedy that’s free from villains but full of complex, flawed humans. This would probably work better if the set-up was better, as the first half hardly prepares you for this shift in tone.

The film’s tragic ending also seems a bit perfunctory, and the fact that all of these coincidences are relied on so that it could play out that way makes it less affecting than it should be. Ultimately, I think what’s most missed here is the warmth and humanism that Chaplin exuded when he was in front of the screen. None of the film’s actors can match his charisma, and while they are interestingly rendered (for a film of ’23) I think the film is more a failure than a success. But if you have to fail, then it’s always best to make an interesting failure than a bland one, and no matter the film’s flaws, it’s hard to deny that this film is full of interest for Chaplin fans.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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