The Story of a Cheat

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 29, 2015

Ah! The miraculous extended opening to The Magnificent Ambersons suddenly looks just a little less miraculous. As I believe Orson Welles himself has freely acknowledged, that exquisite long opening is straight out of Guitry, and out of this film particularly. The Story of a Cheat is relentlessly clever, a really terrific combination of cinematic and theatrical devices. The transmission of a story or method is enhanced when you’re so aware of the methods of that transmission. That’s Brecht, isn’t it? And this film is definitely a convention-buster. It is also ideological, after a fashion. But the foregrounding of method or style can also emblematic of high modernism. We’re definitely open to that, but even Bergman and Fellini’s most ardent fans fans are aware of their heroes’ sometimes self-absorption, even narcissism. Well, Bergman and Fellini have got nothing on this guy!

There’s an aftertaste to all of this clever creativity. Unlike Welles, for instance, Guitry’s formal freshness doesn’t really enhance a story that needs telling, or a set of ideas worth exploring. Unlike Welles, this doesn’t feel like the joy of youthful genius that’s still and ultimately devoted to the medium and to creativity in general. Rather, it’s the author, only and always. At first it is amusing and unique that his is the only voice we hear. But at one point there’s a whole static—inert, really—shot, in which Guitry sits there filling in expository info for some poor minor player who’s only task is to sit there and listen. When it comes down to it, this isn’t Brecht after all. It’s not even Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s just Sacha Guitry, standing at the centre of all creation.

Also, we know that the French will be French, but compared to the untidy humanity of, say, Renoir, this confession comes across as crass to the point of grossness. The Story of a Cheat is one of those films that brings out the dad and the lay minister in this viewer. Look out, kids!

On the other hand, or in another connection, this Guitry set is absolutely a worthy addition to Criterion’s Eclipse series. Not my cup of tea? Who cares? I’m very glad to have sipped. But, though I wouldn’t want to put this on a  billboard or anything, it really isn’t my cup of tea. Look at that. The Magnificent Ambersons is miraculous, after all.