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Prix de Beauté (1930)
 
Louise Brooks
The best known guide to the movies gives Prix de Beaute a low score, and remarks that the story is clichéd and that Louise Brooks is the whole show.

The low score is too harsh - Prix de Beauté is better than most Hollywood efforts at the time. But films where the morality shown on the screen does not conform to accepted norms tend to incur a penalty.

In the latter part of Prix de Beaute the lead characters, Lucienne (Louise Brooks) and André (Georges Charlia), are shown living together. From what has gone before we can assume they are engaged, but there has been no mention of marriage and there is no trace of a wedding ring on Lucienne's hand. Whoops! Not the sort of thing to go down well with the overly righteous.

In actuality this detail adds realism. It reflects the realities of the time. And of course the pragmatic acceptance of contemporary European audiences of such an everyday situation. Shocking to some, no doubt, although in the 21st Century when an amazing amount of dubious material hits everybody's inbox daily, one wonders who could be worried about it today. But no doubt Rain's Mr Davidson is still with us somewhere. Perhaps he's taken up film reviewing.

Neither is the story banal, after all the script for Prix de Beaute was written by René Clair. It's not the standard 'can't-live-with-her, can't-live-without-her, so-I'm-gonna-shoot-her' plot. There is - or should be - a psychological tension which grows out of the characters, ultimately leading to tragedy.

Lucienne and André love each other, but both of them are self-centred individuals. In André's world Lucienne is supposed to orbit him like a planet around the sun, getting his meals, cleaning the apartment, etc., and then being overjoyed to see him when he returns for work. He cannot accept that Lucienne dreams of a life of her own.

Lucienne is a true narcissist. She is thrilled to win the beauty contest and loves the attention she gets as Miss France, although after she goes on to win Miss Europe, her love for André temporarily wins out. She returns to live with him but she is soon bored, possibly regretting the choice she has made.

But she gets a second chance. A film studio wants to put her under contract, and she is persuaded to return to Paris and see the film test she made when she won Miss Europe. As the script makes clear, it is the promise of a big publicity campaign and the lure of seeing herself on the screen which is the attraction. The money isn't given a thought.

However André has followed her to Paris and tracked her to the studio where her screen test is being screened. There is a magnificent last scene. Agents and producers are fawning over Lucienne as she sits spellbound at what she is seeing. And so she dies, her eyes glued to her own image on the screen, unaware of anything that is happening around her, even of André firing the fatal shot.

That is how it is supposed to be. Unfortunately in Prix de Beauté Louise Brooks displays the reasons why Hollywood never took her seriously as a lead star. Louise Brooks is the main character, but she either can't or won't carry the film. Probably the latter, as Louise Brooks didn't even take Pandora's Box seriously. In Prix de Beaute she has an opportunity to show depth, a full range of emotions, but her understanding of the plot seems only skin deep.

Barry Paris (Louise Brooks: A Biography, Minneapolis, 2000) quotes the director, Augusto Genina, as saying: "She [Louise Brooks] would have been the ultimate actress, if it hadn't been for the alcohol." It appears that while making Prix de Beauté Louise Brooks drank all day, from the time she got up to the time she went to bed, and in the mornings had to be carried on to the set. If this is to be believed - and from other individuals' recollections it is probably near the truth - it goes a long way to explaining her inability to make the best of her part. Prix de Beaute could have been Louise Brooks' vehicle to super-stardom, but the opportunity was missed. Today many Brooksie fans rave about her performance, but few could see it at the time.

In the scenes in the apartment, Louise Brooks is supposed to be struggling with the complex emotions engendered by her love for André set against her own demanding need to be somebody; but she merely looks like a bored housewife. If it wasn't for the fact that the script highlights the promise of the full publicity campaign and it's effect on her decision, we would never know that she is supposed to be driven by her narcissism. Louise Brooks plays the role as if she is merely an empty-headed young woman, tempted by the lights, and out of her depth.

There are other problems as well with Louise Brooks' performance in Prix de Beauté. Louise Brooks was beautiful, but she couldn't act beautiful. When it's her turn to display her charms in the beauty contest the audience goes wild. But one wonders why because Louise Brooks makes nothing of the opportunity.

Louise Brooks parades before the judges with the odd gait typical of professional dancers when they are off stage, a little flat footed, almost a waddle. There's no presence, no allure, no sex appeal. Compare Louise Brooks' performance with what her contemporary Joan Crawford would have made of the scene. The young Joan Crawford knew how to be a star, and no one in the audience would have been able to take their eyes off Crawford if she had been parading along that catwalk. She might not have been the most beautiful girl in the line up, but her acting would have convinced you she was.

It's a shame about Louise Brooks' performance, but Prix de Beauté is not a bad film for all that. The direction by Augusto Genina and the camera work is excellent, as is the supporting cast, and Georges Charlia is convincing in the difficult role of André. There is also a strong sense of realism, with a first rate portrayal of the small factory where André works.

One caveat. Prix de Beaute was originally released as a silent, but it was very quickly dubbed for sound. The dubbing is not very successful, and the voice used for the part of Lucienne sounds nothing like the voice one would expect from Louise Brooks.