Maya (Raymond Bernard, 1949)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Maya.

Maya, a Hindu word describing magic and illusion, is embodied in Bella (Viviane Romance), a bewitching prostitute in an atmospheric port town who conjures the fantasies of visiting travelers and temporarily becomes the women of their dreams. The pragmatic Bella has no expectation of finding true love or leaving her profession until she meets Jean (Jean-Pierre Grenier), a passing sailor who saves her from the police and devotes himself to building a life with her, provided fate does not intervene. Based on Simon Gantillon’s successful play and produced by Viviane Romance herself, Raymond Bernard’s Maya deftly blends the styles and techniques of poetic realism, film noir, melodrama, and Cocteau-like fantasy to create a world of mystery and eroticism.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • “The Film That Made You,” a 1989 conversation between Viviane Romance and Louis le Roy
  • Interview with film critic Italo Manzi on the casting and distribution
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: Essay by filmmaker Guy Maddin

A spine numbered, Blu-ray release of Raymond Bernard’s Maya (1949) by the Criterion Collection may be unlikely given that Bernard’s agreed masterpieces, Wooden Crosses (1932) and Les misérables (1934), remain on standard definition DVD in the Raymond Bernard Eclipse set. Questions could certainly arise about putting a high-definition Maya “ahead” of these other titles, as Maya is conventionally thought of as a lesser Bernard film, a post-war anachronism resembling a pre-war aesthetic. Adapted from a 1924 play by Simon Gantillon, Bernard’s Maya heavily resembles the poetic realism of 1930s French cinema with some strong affinities toward Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko (1937), yet it also evokes the contemporaneous styles and sensibilities of American film noir and the dreamy fantasies of Jean Cocteau. Considered altogether, Maya might be better celebrated as an inspired curiosity in Bernard’s oeuvre that provides a darkly wondrous vehicle for its lead, popular French actress and established femme fatale Viviane Romance.

Maya opens aboard the cargo ship Saint-Jacques as it slowly navigates through a thick fog while bearing a dangerous consignment. The crew’s nerves are fraught but a change of course southward indicates an impending arrival to port and the mood quickly brightens as the sailors joyfully turn their minds to the warm companionship of women waiting on dry land. The fog, the ship, and the French dialogue all evoke the tropes of poetic realism, but the sequence at sea equally resembles a transition from tense nightmare to relieved dream and one borne atop a cargo of film’s perilous medium: nitrate. Kodak was commencing its campaign to convert film studios to safety stock when Maya was shot and so the reference to nitrate points to a belated mode of filmmaking as much as it does the chimerical magic of film. The welcome, but illusory thrall of women and the mainland is bound in these early moments with cinema itself and it is by this knot Bernard eventually exposes a tragedy of conjurer and conjured alike.

Transitioning to what passes as solid ground in Bernard’s film, the red-light district of Maya‘s unnamed port town is a warren of cobblestone streets, heavy shadows, and accommodating, exotic women. Viviane Romance’s Bella waits in a small alcove looking positively imperial, wrapped in a dhoti saree, adorned with a sparkling necklace, and staring intently from beneath a veil of bettie bangs and two broad swaths of dark eyeshadow. She is introduced as a cypher that promises to have any name and be any woman, however she rankles in her home when subjected to the questioning of Jean of the Saint-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Grenier) who mistakes her for a girl from his hometown. Bella’s patience wears thin at men who poke at her illusion too persistently and she exposes a practicality and a world-weariness hidden behind the fantasy being sold. Romance was known in French cinema for playing vamps, but Maya offered her much more, a well-rounded character full hopes and misfortunes, and she served as a producer without credit. Bella is a mentor and substitute older sister to young Fifine (Françoise Hornez), a beloved and admired colleague to the other prostitutes of the neighbourhood (including Pépé le moko‘s Fréhel in her final film appearance), and a distinctly independent woman, refusing the supposedly lucrative business offer of Ernest (Jacques Castelot) to take her abroad as her pimp. Maya is her story and she is no mere mirror for men to impose their desires upon.

Bella’s seductive spell is both her trade and her armour and so Jean’s resolve to win her over is naturally met with caution, however he proves himself by providing her with a much needed alibi when the police arrive questioning her about a murdered steward to an docked ocean liner. The steward (Marcel Dalio), besotted by a beautiful marquess aboard the ship and having just killed a man in a bar who teased him about his obsession, is taken unawares by Bella into her home. There, she dons the marquess’ gown stolen by the steward, transforming herself in his eyes into the object of his affection. Bella has no knowledge of the murderous revenge taken out on the steward after he left her consolations, however authorities only withdraw their interest in her after Jean claims the role of client for the evening. This act of altruism is enough for Bella to soften and the film to figuratively and literally brighten.

Cachemire (Valéry Inkijinoff’s Asian-inspired cook of the Saint-Jacques) ceaselessly warns that “all is illusion,” presumably counselling against the spell of women and the mainland with near-mystic wisdom. “Maya,” Cachemire’s Hindu word for illusion, is explicitly associated with Bella early on but the film resolves itself by asserting the permanence of illusion rather than dispelling it. Movie love is never easy or straightforward and Maya‘s conclusion is appropriately melancholy, with Bella’s chance at love disappearing on the ocean surf. She is left believing in love more than ever but is also left more disconsolate about her own relationship with it. True love for Bella is as transitory as the passion she inspires in her clientele and she is left only with her own illusion as her reality. In a concluding repetition of Bella’s introduction, she appears even more magical, even more regal, but also more blank – looking skyward, framed by elaborate, glittering earrings and a helmet of backlit hair, holding a cigarette like Isis holding an ankh. All of life – passion, money, love – is temporary and individual and Bella’s tragedy is in realizing this and embracing it in one fantastic final shot of self-denial.

Admittedly, MMC! is a sucker for these kinds of kinds of bittersweet films set in liminal worlds of monochrome beauty. Maya may not be a film many are clamouring for, but I suspect there are plenty of French cineastes amongst the Criterion Collection’s fans who would appreciate an introduction to the film and who would gratefully embrace it. Considering the beautiful Viviane Romance as a potential subject and the vaguely Orientalist exoticism of Bella and Cachemire, MMC! can’t help but think of the gorgeous poster for The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) by French artists Stan & Vince and suggest them for a potential cover commission for Maya.

Credits: The extra features for this imagined Criterion edition are taken from the French DVD. While I’m not sure Guy Maddin has even seen Maya, it certainly feels like a film he would appreciate and as a friend of the Collection, he was an easy choice to provide an essay.

This post owes big thanks to James Travers’ review at Films de France, Olivier Père’s article for Arte, and the Ciné-club review. (You can also watch Maya here.)

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