LOS ANGELES — Along with his more famous essays, plays, short stories, and novels, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre also dabbled in screenwriting a few times over the course of his life. He wrote the script for a French adaptation of The Crucible in the 1950s (with a characteristically communist interpretation of the story). He also wrote several drafts of a Freud biopic for director John Huston, but the two had a falling out and he ultimately went uncredited. Most curious, however, is a postwar project based on a screenplay he wrote in 1943. Rarely seen and essentially inaccessible to those based in the US, 1947’s Les jeux sont faits is getting a not-to-be-missed screening in Los Angeles on March 24.
“Les jeux sont faits” translates to “The plays are made,” and comes from gambling. When the screenplay was published in English in 1948, translated by Louise Varèse, the title was rendered as “The Chips Are Down.” (Said translation has been long out of print. I was able to read a reference copy kept by the Los Angeles Public Library.) The movie’s script was adapted by Sartre’s friend Jacques-Laurent Bost and Jean Delannoy, who also directed.
Set against the backdrop of a vaguely defined military occupation called “the Regency,” the film follows Eve (Micheline Presle), an upper-class woman, and Pierre (Marcello Pagliero), a working-class resistance leader, who are both betrayed and killed by people close to them. Eve is poisoned by her unfaithful husband, while Pierre is shot by an informer for the Regency. They find that the afterlife consists of lurking as ghosts among the living, while being able to see their fellow dead. (“How can you tell them from the living?” Pierre asks his guide. “That’s simple: the living are always in a hurry,” the guide replies.)
Soon, Pierre and Eve meet and quickly fall in love. And it transpires that they are literally soulmates; an afterlife bureaucrat learns that they were supposed to meet and be together in life, but a cosmic “clerical error” threw things off course. To rectify the mistake, the couple are given an uncommon opportunity. Their deaths are undone and they are given 24 hours to assert their love for one another in life. Once they are returned to life, however, the realities of the real world undermine the idyll they had in death. Eve wants to protect her naive younger sister from her murderous husband, while Pierre wants to save his comrades from a trap the Regency has set for their planned insurrection. And, removed from the total equality and freedom granted by death, class concerns expose a deep gulf between the two.
“I told them I was leaving with you. We are bound to each other, Pierre.”
He stops suddenly, looks at her for the first time and exclaims:
“Bound? But what have we in common?”
She puts her hand on his arm and says gently:
“We have our love.”
Pierre shrugs his shoulders sadly.
“It is an impossible love.”
Elements of the story are familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Sartre’s work and philosophy. The use of the afterlife recalls No Exit. The idea of free will acting as a kind of engine of fate, essentially dooming the protagonists since they cannot imagine acting other than how they do, ties strongly into his writings on the subject. The emphasis on class differences comes directly from his political framework. And of course, the setting darkly reflects the context in which it was written, in occupied France.
In Les jeux sont faits, war is felt as a frighteningly mundane aspect of everyday life. It looks a lot like Vichy France, but the country and city in which it is set are unnamed, and a throwaway line in the script establishes that the Regency has been around for at least 10 years. It is an archetypical framing more than a specific political context; Pierre’s struggle could be any struggle, the Regency any authority. And its violence is all violence a state inflicts on its citizens.
The transition from life to death is fully matter-of-fact, and the afterlife is not all too different from life. The distinction is almost cruel, both to the living and the dead: the living can change their world, but are constricted by conventions and class, while the dead have complete freedom granted by a lack of need or responsibilities, but can affect no change whatsoever.
“A man’s life is always a failure in as much as he dies.”
“Yes, when he dies too soon,” exclaims Pierre.
“He always dies too soon — or too late.”
Les jeux sont faits is being screened in Los Angeles as part of Projections, a new series coordinated between the Vidiots Foundation and the Bootleg Theater, which will be hosting the event. The series’ stated mission is to exhibit movies outside the usual purview of repertory programming — hard-to-find curiosities and long-forgotten gems. If it continues to make choices as unique as this, it could become an invaluable part of the Los Angeles film scene.