Limning a cavalier sophisticate made vulnerable by a twilight romance, Philippe Noiret excels as the reigning star of the popular stage circa 1930 in “The King of Paris.” This visual and thematic love letter to the heyday of legit melodrama is a carefully crafted and pleasantly old-fashioned hunk of entertainment that re-creates the look and feel of an era when talking pictures were poised to overtake the theater. Upscale arthouse exposure is warranted for the somewhat overlong but endearing pic.
A fictional character modeled on thesps Jules Berry and Sacha Guitry, Victor Derval (Noiret) has just celebrated the final performance of his most recent hit when lovely young Lisa (Veronika Varga) accosts the great actor on a foggy Paris bridge. She may be the 1930 Hungarian equivalent of the ambitious Eve Harrington in “All About Eve,” or equally the poor stagestruck immigrant she appears to be.
Getting Lisa work as an extra in a new sound film he’s in, Derval soon invites her to be his private secretary and to move into his lavish house, the garret of which is occupied by his rebellious son Paul (Manuel Blanc), a would-be revolutionary and aspiring writer who craves his father’s affection. Father and son become smitten with Lisa, whose love for the stage is stronger than her sense of loyalty.
All Paris is charmed by Derval except Coste (Jacques Roman), the long-suffering playwright whose text Derval freely snips and embellishes. (“You know what I like about Moliere?” says Derval. “He’s dead.”) Lisa will get her time in the limelight, but not without casting some very long shadows. Paul, who doesn’t know whether to kill his father or applaud him, devises a dramatic third option.
This borderline-corny yet self-aware feature debut by film journalist Dominique Maillet employs many standbys of boulevard mellers, but makes trusted old devices such as the love triangle, the talented ingenue, and the duel sufficiently fresh to engage contemporary auds. Pic’s strength is in its deliberate contrasts: youth and age, stage and screen, pandering sycophants and assertive auteurs, bourgeois tradition and the budding avant-garde, the flippant and the deadly serious.
Creative lensing makes sly use of mirrors, curtains, partitions and doorways to echo the notion of life being played out in an endless parade of proscenium arches.
Noiret, who started in legit in the early ’50s and worked there through the mid-1960s, is a delight to watch as an old pro who brings an insouciant spark and a hint of disdain to every social interaction.
As Lisa, newcomer Varga conveys the mystery and drive of a young woman intent on fulfilling her dreams. Blanc, who is called upon to suffer and declaim as Derval’s son, is the stagiest thesp of the lead trio. Michel Aumont is both amusing and poignant as Derval’s sidekick and yes-man.
Among the supporting players from the Golden Age of French film is Paulette Dubost as Noiret’s dresser who, after a hard day at the film studio, opines that “talking pictures will never last.” Other marvelous oldtimers include Sacha Briquet, Bernard Lajarrige and Franco Interlenghi.
Jacques Rouxel’s evocative art direction pays attention to such vintage details as the folding smokestack on a passing steamer, Derval’s overstuffed chotchke-emporium of a residence, and a stretch of real Paris sidewalk redone with period storefronts and marquees caught in an impressive tracking shot. Quentin Damamme’s score is as elegant as the surroundings and repartee.
A series of late-arriving developments and false endings make the film feel longer than it is, but the composite result — dedicated to master helmer Max Ophuls — is theatrical in the best sense of the word.