Croisières sidérales

Rating: 5 out of 10.

A company offers “time trips” 25 years into the future through the science of time dilation in space. It’s a passable entertainment romp, but this French 1942 comedy fails to make anything interesting out of the intriguing premise. 5/10

Croisères sidérales. 1942, France. Directed by André Zwoboda. Written by Pierre Guerlais & Pierre Bost. Starring: Madeleine Sologne, Jean Marchat, Julien Carette. Produced by Pierre Guerlais. IMDb: 5.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

In Paris of 1942, newly-wed scientists Robert and Françoise Monier (Jean Marchat and Madeleine Sologne) are about to attempt the first high-altitude balloon flight in a bathysphere-like gondola. But on the eve of flight, Robert has an accident and breaks his leg. As a last-minute replacement, accident-prone assistant Lucien (Julien Carette) steps in to save the day, albeit reluctantly. However, things go awry when Lucien opens a window in the pressurised gondola. The balloon goes up in flames, and the gas burner ignites, sending the gondola rushing into space. Françoise manages to turn them around, and lands safely with the aid of a parachute. There’s just one hitch: because of the relativity of time and space, 25 years have passed on Earth, where the year is now 1967. Robert is now a grey-haired man, but has been waiting for Françoise, and they have a loving reunion. Lucien’s son, whom he had on the day of his departure, is now a grown man.

Realising the business possibilities of this new discovery, banker Antoine (Robert Arnoux) decides to not only finance a second flight, but to do it in cuise-ship style with take-off from a “Sidereal Station” for his his newfounded “Croisières Sidérales”, or Stellar Cruises. The next “cruise” is announced with a Busby Berkeley-style musical show aboard the station, where guests board the new upscaled space rocket, complete with dining hall, bar, and first class cabins. This time, Françoise stays at home while Robert takes the trip, thus levelling out their age difference. However, Lucien once again has one of his accidents, sending the cruiser en route to Venus, where they land in a Garden of Eden-styled society, where the inhabitants are peaceful and “only use science for good”. And speak French, naturally. After at 10 day interlude, the cruiser lands back on Earth in the year 1990. Robert and Françoise decide they have now had enough of all this science stuff, and would rather cultivate the soil, represented by the tree planted when they first left Earth 50 years ago.

Jean Marchand, Madeleine Sologne and Julien Carette. Photo: Alamy.

This French SF comedy from 1942 has long been on my viewing list, but it has taken me a while to track down a copy with English subtitles (thanks, Harald!). The last French SF movie I reviewed, The World Will Shake (1939, review), turned out to be a positive surprise, so I had rather high hopes for this one as well. However, the clunky, exposition-laden dialogue of the first minutes of the movie immediately makes it clear that this is not on par with the previous film. That is not to say that it is all bad.

Croisières sidérales was one of the many escapist comedies made in France during the German occupation of WWII. It was directed by workhorse André Zwoboda from a script by Pierre Guerlais and Pierre Bost. It has the distinction of being one of the earliest feature films in which time travel is attempted through science, and likewise one of the earliest to use Einstein’s theory of relativity as an explanation. However, little is eventually made of the premise. The setup is mainly used for the gag of having the characters age, and a large part of the film’s comedy is derived from Lucien’s dealings with his aged wife and grown-up son. Apart from the fact that cars are streamlined and people dress like Liberace in 1967, France seems to have changed little in 25 years, and there is hardly any mention of new technology, innovation, politics or social issues in the movie. To an extent this is natural, seeing as filmmakers had to be careful with social issues and politics during the Nazi occupation, and the movie was also meant as harmless entertainment during the years of war.

Madeleine Sologe and Julien Carette walking on the ceiling.

André Zwoboda’s direction is workmanlike without impressing. There’s a few standout moments, like when Lucien and Françoise appear to be walking around the walls and ceilings of their round gondola — using the same trick of rotating the set, which Stanley Kubrick supersized in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Another highlight is the Busby Berkeley-style dance and song number, which brings together the talents of set and costume designer Henri Mahé, choreographer Hélène Pierson and composer Georges Van Parys for a sequence that one suspects must have swallowed the lion’s share of the film’s budget. The special effects are pretty good for a comedy of the era, even of the Venusian landscapes are of Star Trek quality. The acting is fine, but the there’s little for the actors to do with their characters. Françoise and Robert are so sweet and unproblematic through and through that they become uninteresting. Julien Carette carries the film on his shoulders as Lucien, and does so with gusto. He is the classic comedic character of the era, the sceptical man of the people who finds himself unwillingly drawn into the action and always manages to put his foot in it. However, by relegating him to third banana, the filmmakers deprive him of the sort of character arc that would have made him an interesting lead to follow.

The rotating rig set up for the weightlessness scenes.

The main problem of the film is that it has no central conflict or arc, and reminds more of the sort of “there-and-back-again” follies that Georges Méliès produced in the early days of cinema. The film has no real villains or heroes, which is, in a way, refreshing, but isn’t able to substitute the, admittedly clichéd but functional, goodies vs baddies formula with anything else that would hold the interest of the audience. There’s no interpersonal drama driving the movie nor any interesting philosophical or moral questions being probed. The movie doesn’t probe society of the future, nor does it want to say anything about today. It tries to do some sort of “saying” in the second half, bringing an assortment of flawed characters on board the cruise rocket, all out to use the trip in order to solve their own problems, but they are too many and enter the film too late. And ultimately, the film isn’t really clear on what it wants to say about them, as some have their problems solved by the trip, while others don’t.

The Busby Berkeley-style musical number.

As I stated in my review of the German 1934 SF comedy The World Without a Mask, the knowledge that its director was a member of the NSDAP and a patron of the SS can lead cineasts to insert Nazi symbolism in the most inauspicious of details. Likewise, it can be tempting to read everything on screen in Croisières sidérales as a comment on the Nazi occupation of France. For example, Gulzar Joby at the blog 36, quai du Futur, finds social and political comments in almost every turn of the movie. The mere presence of police officers in the movie becomes a statement on the police state, and the fact that media doubts the claims of two persons turning up out of nowhere claiming to have travelled 25 years into the future becomes a prescient comment on the state of the media. Rather, these anti-authoritarian streaks were part and parcel of the kind of underdog comedy that was extremely popular in the 30’s and 40’s, from French films with Fernandel to Cantinflas in Mexico, and as such clichéd already in 1942. Of course, the film’s portrayal of the commercial exploitation of the possibilities of time travel doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture of capitalism, and director Zwoboda was known for his collaboration on Jean Renoir’s socialist propaganda movies. However, Zwoboda fails to do anything interesting with the premise, and as such, any intended satire falls flat. There is a comment here that does seem to have flown past the Vichy government censors, and that is the final comment about cultivating the soil – a not-so-subtle nod toward a future when French soil would again be French.

A shot of the original gondola.

Croisières sidérales was long considered one of the great white whales of the science fiction community, as no official home viewing option was made available for ages, and few had ever seen the film since its original release. It doesn’t look the like the film has had an official release to this day, although the film has been available for those who know where to look, and there are even English subtitles to go with it. It has apparently also been available for a short while on Amazon Prime, and it looks like it is streamable on Orange in France. As with many of these “rare films” that have recently resurfaced, the quality doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype – there’s often a reason as to why some films become classics and some are forgotten.

The movie seems to have had a very limited release outside of France in 1942, and I have not been able to dig up any reviews from that time. Neither does it have many modern ones to choose from. Currently, Croisières sidérales has a 5.5/10 rating on IMDb, based on under 100 audience votes.

The rocket taking off from Venus.

I have discovered 4 modern reviews of any real worth, ranging from gushing to moderately bemused. First there is Gulzar Joby at the afore-mentioned blog 36, quai du Futur, who represents the gushing reviewer. He opines that the film “oscillates between exhilarating comedy, social criticism, coarse scriptwriting tricks and technological realism”. The somewhat clumsy shot of Sologne and Carette walking along the “treadmill” in the rotating set is described thus: “The illusion of the absence of gravity is spectacular”. According to Joby, the movie is “pleasant and full of quality, aesthetic and narrative treasures”. Captain Jim at Cinematraque also gives the film a strong recommendation, but rather than taking it as a crafty fable of the socio-political mindscape of the French Vichy years, Jim sees it as an absolutely baffling trainwreck of a cult movie: “If the special effects are at times very inventive, the treatment of the laws of physics in the film is quite scandalous, and often funny. […] This movie is a must see. This is not a simple recommendation that I make to you, it is a friendly advice. You have to see Croisières Sidérales to believe it.”

James Travers at French Films reviews the movie along the same notes as Captain Jim: “mindblowing, crass implausibility aside, Croisières Sidérales suffers from what is known in the trade as chronic silliness. It starts out with the silliest of premises and just gets sillier and sillier until the silliness quotient becomes unbearable.” Travers concludes his 3/5 star review: “Croisières sidérales certainly has plenty of shortcomings, but amidst all the silliness and liberty taking with scientific exactitude, there’s much fun to be had.” And lastly, there is Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster: “Words fail me.  This is a very strange little film.” As opposed to Joby, Cole notes that the film “seems to be little more than entertainment with no political commentary, overt or covert”. He concludes: “It isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, although it does have a few interesting moments.  More than anything else, it reminds me of Just Imagine, the first SF film musical, which despite its excellent production values has little to recommend it beyond its novelty value (and a certain naive charm).”

Madeleine Sologne and Jean Marchand.

I must say that on the whole, I agree with Cole’s assessment of Croisières sidérales. While there are certainly a few jabs and stabs at the press and capitalism, they are too generic, too inconsequential and without any follow-up to be taken as any real attempt at social satire. While Julien Carette was a talented comedic performer (but perhaps even better when cast against type in serious roles), the material he has to work with in Croisières sidérales doesn’t do him any favours. The character is too much of a clown to be taken seriously, and unfortunately, the two main characters are way too bland and dreadfully written for us to care one iota about their romance. Some of the characters on board the second cruise are juicy enough, but they enter the film a little too late to catch up on our sympathies. There are a few fun moments, a couple of nice gags, a couple of pretty nice shots and effects, and the Busby Berkeley number is impressive, if somewhat too long and on the whole rather unnecessary.

Croisières sidérales is a passable bit of entertainment that moves along at a decent clip, but the script is problematic, as it is, in a way, cut up in two wholly different segments with two altogether different plots. The first follows the mishap on the first mission, and Lucien’s and Françoise’s struggles to come to grips with living 25 years in the future. But this issue is solved almost too quickly and too easily, and without any real drama. Robert, astoundingly, has been waiting for 25 years for Françoise, and they have no problems rekindling their romance, despite the 25 years Françoise has missed out on, and Lucien’s wife Georgette (Suzanne Dehelly) likewise falls right back into old habits. This means that there is no drama whatsoever left over from the first half of the movie to carry onto the second half of the film, which instead focuses on the fates of the new passengers on the second trip — which could have been interesting, had they been part of the movie from the beginning.

Poster.

Time travel has been part and parcel of speculative fiction from the days of mythology. You can find instances of time travel in old myths and folklore. Some of the best known ones are the stories of King Kakumi’s meeting with Brahma in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, that of the Cave of Al-Kahf in the Quran and that of the fisherman Urashima Taro in Japanese legend. Of course, these all deal in magic rather than science, and that would generally be the case until the late 19th century. Also, from the 18th to 19th centuries, dreams were often employed as the means of time travel, revealing to the reader utopias or dystopias of the future. One of the first, and best known, of such works, was L’An 2440 by Louis Sebastien Mercier, released in 1771, and the trope was also employed later by writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens. Another early time travel example is the Danish play Anno 7603 by Johan Hermann Wessel from 1785, in which fairy magic is used to show a future society where social gender norms are reversed.

The two grandfathers of modern time travel fiction are, of course, Mark Twain and H.G. Wells. In 1889, Twain published his satirical “anti-romance” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the protagonist is transported to Arthurian England after getting clonked in the head with a crowbar. As opposed to common belief, Wells wasn’t the first author to write of a time machine. He was preceded by eight years by Spanish author Enrique Gaspar, who in 1887 published El Anacronopete (“that which flies backward in time”), translated as The Time Ship. A somewhat clumsily written satirical romance, it may be the first adapt the idea that if you go fast enough around the world counter-clockwise, you travel back in time. While its obscurity means that it probably didn’t serve as an inspiration for Wells, still it gets points for pioneering a couple of cool tropes — like the Tardis effect (the time ship is bigger on the inside than on the outside). Of course, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) is the one which everyone refers to, and many are familiar with it through George Pal’s 1960 movie with the same name. Wells’ book was at least one of the very first works of fiction employing the idea of time as a fourth dimension that can be accessed with the right tools. Time travel was a popular theme during the height of the pulp magazine era, and most major SF authors of the first half of the 20th century had a stab at it in one form or another. There are two works, however, that stand out as seminal. The first is Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder (1952), which is the first major work of SF to revolve around the so-called butterfly effect. The second is Isaac Asimov’s novel The End of Eternity (1955), which is probably the first novel dealing with the quantum physics of time travel. In Asimov’s novel, time is linear, however, in recent years, not least with the introduction of Marvel’s multiverse, the notion of time travel connected to parallel universes has become increasingly popular, even if the notion is in no way novel.

Filming the night on the rocket.

Time travel in film seems to emerge at around the year 1920. Whether or not Willis O’Brien’s The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918, review) should be considered a time travel film or not (there’s a pair of binoculars that can look back to the age of the dinosaurs) is a matter of some debate. Two other contenders for first time travel film are Czech movies Noc na Karlstejne (1920) and Príchozí z temnot (1921), but they both use the dream frame. As does, in fact, the first movie version of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1921), released by Fox. It’s not a straight adaptation, but rather concerns a man who falls asleep while reading Twain’s book. The criminally neglected German edutainment movie Our Heavenly Bodies (1925, review) was the first film to use Einstein’s theory of relativity to describe time dilation occurring during space travel, and can be said to be the first movie to feature time travel with a scientific explanation, very much in the same vein as Croisères sidérales. In order to get a (pseudo)scientific explanation for going backward in time, you’d have to wait until 1942 as well, as this was the same year as the Hungarian film Sziriusz (review) was released. The film uses Enrique Gaspar’s old “rocket-around-the-moon-backwards” trope in order to have the protagonists travel back to the Habsburgian 18th century.

In this context, Croisères sidérales is a movie of some pedigree, as it is the first movie to revolve around time dilation as a means of time travel — even if it wasn’t the first to incorporate it in a plot. In its opening credits, the film states that its premise is based on scientific fact, even if the screenwriters have used some “artistic licence” when it comes to the numbers. And certainly, while the theory is basically sound, compressing 25 Earth years into 25 days would require a speed and distance far beyond Venus or our solar system — and I’m not sure a balloon propellant would quite be up to the task.

Rigging cameras with André Zwoboda.

Director André Zwoboda was a journeyman who worked in numerous genres, beginning as assistant director, then graduating to directing, writing and producing, seldom with spectacular results. He is perhaps best known for working with Jean Renoir on a couple of left-wing political movies in the late 30’s. To the extent that his work is known outside of France, Croisères sidérales is perhaps the movie that has endured best thanks to its genre. He is also noted for his biopic on François Villon (1945), and many (or at least a few) consider his philosophical La septième porte his best effort. He ended his career in the early 50’s with a couple of war films. After his directing career he turned up a couple of times in the 60’s as a producer, most notably producing the first Senegalese feature film, Black Girl (1966).

An engineer by trade, screenwriter and producer Pierre Guerlais is probably responsible for the scientific contribution to Croisères sidérales. Guerlais also worked as a director and producer, and during the war years, he was also chief of Agefi, a media corporation specialising in finance. Its newspaper continued appearing during the Vichy regime, praising the French-German “collaboration” and writing positive assessments about Hitler. After the war, Guerlais was imprisoned for financially aiding the occupiers, and committed suicide in his cell in 1945. Co-writer Pierre Bost had a longer life and career. Working briefly as a civil servant, he debuted with a stage play in 1923, and soon became moderately successful as an author. He wrote his first of around 60 screenplays in 1960, and soon struck up a successful and long-lasting writing collaboration with Jean Aurenche, often for director Claude Auntant-Lara. Many of their collaborations were literary adaptations, best known internationally is probably the Oscar-nominated Forbidden Games (1952). Bost and Aurenche were amongst those attacked by François Truffaut in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954 — Truffaut called their literary adaptations old-fashioned. With the rise of the novelle vague, Bost and Auranche fell somewhat out of fashion, but continued to work in commercially viable pictures up until the mid-70’s. Bost was also a journalist and edited several magazines. He passed away in 1975. In the 2000’s, Bost’s literature has been re-discovered and several of both his novels and other writings have been re-published.

Those of you who have read my previous review of The World Will Shake (1939) will perhaps recognise the names of the two main actors: Madeleine Sologne and Julien Carette.

Madeleine Sologne.

Lead actress Madeleine Sologne was born Madeleine Vouillon in 1912 in the district of Sologne, which she took as her stage name. At the age of 24 she was happily working away as a hatter in her own hat shop, when she married a cameraman and started modelling for a painter, who encouraged her to take acting lessons. In less than a year, she appeared on stage and landed her first small film role, in no less a film than Jean Renoir’s communist propaganda vehicle La vie est à nous (1936). Although long assigned to uncredited bit-parts, she slowly worked herself up the career ladder, until, in 1939, she received her first leading lady roles, first in the minor film Le père Lebonnard, and then in the SF melodrama The World Will Shake, a film that made her something of a name in the French film press. More leads followed between 1940 and 1943, most notably for fans of genre cinema, in three movies: Les hommes sans peur (1942), not exactly SF, but a movie about the invention of x-ray machines; Croisières sidérales (1942), another one of the very rare French SF movies of the era, and lastly the horror film Le loup des Malveneur (1943), France’s answer to The Wolf Man (1941). However, the crowning glory of her career was Jean Delannoy’s Love Eternal (sometimes as The Eternal Return), a romantic retelling of Tristan and Isolde in modern-day France, from a script by Jean Cocteau. Released in 1943, it was one of the biggest commercial hits of the occupation period. Sologne, who dyed her hair peroxide blonde for the role, became a fashion icon, and hair dressers all over France were overrun with young women who wanted their hair “à la Madeleine Sologne“, with a sharp side parting on the left, a long swoop and a single, unified lock by the shoulders. Sologne continued to me a box office draw in leading roles throughout the 40’s, but the quality of the scripts she was offered was in steady decline. In 1946 she teamed up again with Erich von Stroheim in La foire aux chimères, this time as his lover, in a Phantom of the Opera-inspired melodrama about a disfigured money forger and a blind girl. After 1948 she withdrew from the screen to focus on her stage work, although she did occasional roles in film and TV from the late 50’s to the mid-70’s. She lived a long life and passed away in 1995.

Julien Carette debuted with the advent of the talkies, and quickly became an audience favourite with his thick Parisian accent and his man-of-the-people air, his facial plasticity and intensely emotive acting. He also had the chance to play the lead in a handful of movies.

Jean Marchand (left) and Julien Carette.

Jean Marchat, playing Robert in the third lead, will not be a name instantly recognisable to international audiences. Marchat was a giant on the French stage, as actor, director and theatre manager, and worked with many of the greatest theatre directors of France. However, his stage success didn’t carry over to film. A reliable character actor on film, his rare leads came in minor productions, and in prestige films he was generally relegated to bit player. He is perhaps best known for a large supporting part in Robert Bresson’s The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (1945). He regularly dubbed Cary Grant in France.

French viewers will note the film debut of comedian Bourvil in a tiny walk-on role as a scientist. Born André Raimbourg in the small village of Bourville in 1917, he excelled as a musician in the village orchestra. While in the 1940 he staged music hall shows for the troops, mostly singing songs by his idol, comedian and singer Fernandel, and adapted the name of his hometown as a similar stage name: Bourvil. He soon got some recognition as a stand-up comedian, with a character based on the everyman farmer grown out of his clothes. He made a bit of a career in radio, and got noticed by film producers. Most of his early film roles were bit parts based on the character he had created, but in the 50’s he started getting offers to expand his repertoire on screen. His great break-through came in the Bost/Aurenche-written Four Bags Full (1956), where he played one of the two leads trying to smuggle four bags of contraband meat across Paris in the night during the occupation. Another standout performance came in the lead of La grande vadrouille, again set against the backdrop of the occupation. Bourvil played second lead, a rare serious performance, as the chief of police in Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic police drama The Red Circle (1970). He may also be recognised in a small role as a mayor in the star-studded US war film The Longest Day (1962). Some may have seen Bourvil in the lead of the cult comedy Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969).

In the balloon gondola.

Songs by composer Georges Van Parys can be heard in close to 100 movies — most notably Les diaboliques (1955), Moulin Rouge (2001), 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Frida (2002).

Janne Wass

Croisères sidérales. 1942, France. Directed by André Zwoboda. Written by Pierre Guerlais & Pierre Bost. Starring: Madeleine Sologne, Jean Marchat, Julien Carette, Suzanne Dehelly, Robert Arnoux, Suzanne Dantès, Jean Dasté, Bourvil. Music: Georges Van Parys. Cinematography: Jean Isnard. Editing: Raymond Lamy. Set decoration & costume design: Henri Mahé. Choreography: Hélène Pierson. Produced by Pierre Guerlais for Industrie Cinématographique.

4 replies

  1. Hey, you finally caught up with this one! Great review as always, I particularly enjoyed seeing the poster you managed to dig up!

    I’m going to have to scramble to catch up with you, you’ve had so many interesting new additions lately. Watch for my review of The World Will Shake whenever I get to it, and I need to try to find Once in a New Moon. I couldn’t the last time I looked, but it’s been a while!

    Keep up the good work, can’t wait to see the next one!

    Liked by 1 person

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