This needs to be considered among the preeminent achievements of silent film, and pending more exposure I'm sure it will, up and above anything Murnau did, and in the lofty company of visual epics La Roue and L'Argent.
My theory is that the French revolutionized the cinematic eye, the subjective eye in motion, at around the same time but quite independently from the Soviets, by studying the same DW Griffith scenes. Since then exists a deep fraternity between the two schools, up to Godard and beyond, and of course well before; it was Parisians who realized the first modern commune after all.
Insofar as that revolutionary eye is concerned, you'll be hard pressed to find a better resume; just the stunning array of technique used is the equal of Kane, 10 years early.
But there is a lot more than virtuoso display here, channeled from the French notion of noir at the time when it was still a fluid and new impulse for a certain type of story, and not yet melded with the detective film and solidified as a category of its own. The Germans going back to Caligari and Mabuse and reflecting the overall daze of the Weimar period, had posited an early noir blueprint in metaphysical terms; forces of some calculating darkness devising narratives to control dazed minds. The French were more clear-eyed and pragmatic, no doubt influenced by Marx and going all the way back to that commune.
This compares favorably to L'Argent from two years before. Both are adapted from Zola, both are highly asymphonic looks of modern life in motion, both demystify Weimar film's evil masterminds to be nothing but scheming business men in service to their capital. Both nevertheless assert profound forces mobilizing for control of a multi-layered world.
The central character is a plucky young girl fresh to Paris from we presume a slice of innocent countryside, for her wide-eyed introduction to big city life she is layered through wheels, chains, trains, streets bustling with automobiles, visually rendered transparent as another cog in the huge machinery. Life does not simply happen here but is actually engineered, has staccato sound, urgency. Her haberdasher uncle at the brink of foreclosure owns a shop opposite the new dazzling mega-plex, a real palace of commerce called Au Bonheur des Dames. Ordinarily, this would unfold a trite David/Goliath plot, progress starving out the little guy plus a forlorn denouement. Not so here.
The genius of the thing is all in the rhythm of shifts between opposing pairs of characters saturating the world to reveal some part of the machinery. There is no solid anchor, and the film can be read simultaneously from multiple overlapping points.
On one hand we have the engineers, the nerve center from where they hatch their plans for control is above the throng of consumers excitedly cavorting in the huge halls of the department store, and later on a balcony overlooking nothing short of the entire city. When the owner proclaims on a whim during a company trip that the first in a bathing suit wins a pay rise, the entire crowd of employees is seized in a paroxysm.
The women on the other hand, our orphaned heroine and as counterpart the haughty daughter of a multimillionaire funding the enterprise, already living the dream the other aspires to, lavished by a father the other has been deprived of. The manager of the store is between them, love is at stake.
A third pair, the haberdasher uncle stubbornly clinging to his small property and his young clerk who eventually gives in to the seductive dream on the other side of the street. The manager is once again layered in between, arriving at the scene too late to note dire repercussions of his business. The clerk's wife is in her last throes, and we presume this is going to translate as a karma where he loses love, final and irrevocable punishment for hubris.
At this point, the film pulls an amazing coup. Faced with eviction notes, the uncle has gone stark raving mad, the scene is rendered with tremendous rapid-fire montage as nearby construction workers on the Bonheur payroll demolishing the walls of his mind. This would have been the Soviet notion only a few years back, workers crushed by the capital and spliced together in a way that arms the eye. Now I don't know if this is found in Zola or is Duvivier's contribution..
..but in the finale the manager is contrite and about to call off his involvement with Bonheur, except is stayed at the last moment by the young girl proclaiming her love and devotion to him and the incandescent dream. This is the anti-Strike, the anti-Potemkin.
(I believe this small scene, just these two minutes, explains away the entire difference in French and Soviet worldviews. The French would have clearly seen around them the same motifs as workers did in Petrograd, no doubt, but this system had already succeeded to provide a good enough life. 1936 would see the first paid vacations.)
And this is the genius for me, because it's a really trite finale at face value, this sudden change of heart, almost immoral, but we can read it through many different pairs of eyes, starting with the manager.
Another layer on top of all this; the neon-lit mega-plex as a sumptuous movie house, named the same as the movie no less, the young girl enticed to star in a dream that has reserved a place for her, the whole movie daydreamed somewhere as a movie, probably back in the countryside or during a boring day on the job.
Source : IMDb