Watching The Baker’s Wife was a fairly unique experience for the Project because the only version I could find was a really grainy one that somebody’d uploaded to YouTube and for which they’d supplied closed captions in English. A labor of love. Bless her, whoever she is. The issue with the closed captions, however, is that apart from being unverified translations (though the words do seem to correspond with the actions) we only get like two lines worth of dialogue for everything a character says. If a character speaks what seem like thirty or fifty words, we get eight of them. Maybe sixteen. Sometimes, I guess if the translator felt she’d communicated the essence of the conversation, we’ll just get an ellipse at the bottom of the screen while conversation wraps up.
So even though it’s not a silent movie, the translator’s abbreviated contributions give it the function of silent cinema, where the heart of a story is communicated through action, reading the characters’ faces, with only the most crucial bits of info appearing as text on the screen. The subtitles basically have the function of intertitles. It was stressful at first, feeling like I was missing so much of the story, but it proved a pretty familiar and accessible experience.
The cast is what sends it skyward. It’s interesting that this movie appears on the heels of The Life of Emile Zola, which is a (perhaps excessively) chatty movie whose legacy resides in the spectacular performance of Paul Muni as Zola. So too does The Baker’s Wife – reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country as an anodyne, pretty, passively entertaining movie – is simple and totally unremarkable but for the heart-twistingly spectacular performance of its lead. Amiable Castabier, who plays the middle-aged baker in a small French town whose beautiful and much-younger wife runs off with a dashing shepherd of roughly her own age. Their small torrid romance is engaging, charming, and part of me kinda wanted things to work out for them. But when they do take off one night, on a borrowed horse, we aren’t made privy to their happily-ever-after. We’re left behind to watch the languorous heartbreak of the cuckolded baker, his early denial as he searches through the town for her, speculating about where she may have run off to.
At the movie’s midpoint we get the long grueling scene in which, having come to terms with the reality of his wife’s departure, the baker goes to a café, drinks an entire bottle of wine, and rants his anguish to the gathering bystanders. Finally the minister and some local official, along with one of the baker’s friends, embark on the long and difficult process of walking Raimu home while – with painfully believable and familiar drunken alacrity – he rants through as many topics as he does emotions. Upon reaching the house, they lower the baker into the cushioned trough where, for mournful disdain of his marital bed, he has chosen to sleep.
I don’t have much to say about the movie beyond the interesting context in which I had to watch it and the beautiful power of Castabier’s heartbroken performance – which I’ll concede, to familial annoyance, may have sat with me more poignantly for how evocative it was of living with my dad in the first months following my mom’s departure.
I think that, thanks to Castabier, I could have watched the movie on mute, with no subtitles, and not only have followed along with the story, but felt something heavy.