Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

 

 

 

 

 

Director:     Robert Wise.

Starring:     Simone Simon (Elizabeth Rousset - A Little Laundress),  John Emery (Jean Cornudet),  Kurt Kreuger (Lt. von Eyrick - Called 'Fifi'),  Alan Napier (The Count de Breville),  Helen Freeman (The Countess de Breville),  Jason Robards Sr. (A Wholesaler in Wines),   Norma Varden (The Wholesaler's Wife),   Romaine Callender (A Manufacturer),  Fay Helm (The Manufacturer's Wife),  Edmund Glover (A Young Priest),  Charles Waldron (The Cur of Cleresville).

conquering Germans throw their weight around in occupied France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, while French nobles kiss their posteriors

 

 

Spoiler Warning:

1870.  The Franco-Prussian War.  Then as in our own time, there was occupied and unoccupied territory.  In occupied France  -- Cleresville. 

Priest Morin is up in the belfry talking with Prussian Lt. Von Eyrick (who is called Fifi by his comrades).  The priest is refusing to ring the bell and the lieutenant is demanding him to do it.   Father Morin tells the lieutenant that he won't have to deal with this issue soon because he is retiring and a young father from Rouen is coming to take his place. 

In Rouen the young priest walks through the snow. He stops in front of the covered statute of Joan of Arc, who died for France, and kneels before it.  He gets up and starts walking to the stage coach to head to Cleresville.  Passengers are already waiting to get onto the stage coach.   They are heading to Totes and then on to Dieppe to get on a ship that will take them to London.  The young priest gets on the stage coach.  A young lady named Elizabeth Rousset says she is going to Cleresville and yes she has her permission from the Prussians.  All the rest of the passengers get aboard the coach.  

As the coach goes along the road, a Mr. Louiseau asks the man in the darkened corner of the coach who is he?  The fellow (actually the priest) asks Louiseau who is he?  Louiseau says that his group is composed of very respectable people.  For instance, there is the Count and Countess of Breville.  Then there's Mr. Carre-Lamadon.  And finally, there is Mr. and Mrs. Louiseau.  The priest tells Louiseau that he knows him very well:  "You sell bad wine at a good profit."  And he sells wine to the Prussians.  Finally, Louiseau notices the priest's collar and says:  "Excuse me, father,"    Louiseau then turns to another passagenger and says he knows the man.  He is Cornudet, the revolutionary.  He's the man who built the barricades in Rouen but then ran away at the first sight of a Prussian helmet. 

The wives of the rich me are very snobby and very unpleasant to Elizabeth.  Cornudet seems to know a little bit about Elizabeth because he says that the women don't seem to like him or the little launderette.  The stage coach gets stuck in the snow and everyone has to get out for awhile.  Louiseau helps the "ladies" out of the coach, but refuses to help Elizabeth.  She stands off to the side away from the group of passengers.

When the horses have rested, the women get on the coach and the men push the coach out of the snow.  Then the men get on the coach and away they go.  The passengers are very hungry and Elizabeth thinks of giving them some food from his basket.  She hesitates a lot because no one has been very nice to her.  But she finally picks up her basket and starts eating some chicken.  After awhile she gives some of her food to Louiseau.  The women remain standoffish.  Louiseau asks permission to give his wife some of Elizabeth's food and Elizabeth says yes.  Little by little the food is given out to everyone. 

The passengers are very curious how Elizabeth got permission from the Prussians to return to Cleresville.  She tells them that the Prussians know her.  She wouldn't eat with any Prussians or even do their laundry.   And she also has a habit of throwing things out the window. 

The stage coach arrives at Totes and the passengers get off to go into the inn there.  Fifi is there and watches the passengers as they go into the inn.  When Fifi comes inside, all the passengers stop talking.  Fifi whispers something to the inn owner and then goes upstairs to his room.  The inn owner asks if Elizabeth Rousset is among the passengers?  Elizabeth announces her presence and the inn keeper tells her that Fifi wants to see her.  At first Elizabeth refuses to go.  A couple of the men tell her that it would be best for everyone that she go and see what the Prussian wants.  Elizabeth agrees to go up to Fifi.

The wife of the innkeeper comes in saying that the Prussian Fifi is not a human being.  His comrades call him Mademoiselle Fifi because he is always saying:  "Fifi Donc." 

At the dinner table, the priest says grace.  Elizabeth returns to the table very angry.  They ask her what happened and she only says:  "It concerns no one but me."  She adds that it is nothing. 

In the morning the passengers are ready to leave, but find that the horses have not even been harnessed up.  The stage coach driver has to tell them that Fifi told the driver not to harness up the horses. The innkeeper explains that he had no choice but to obey the Prussian officer. 

Two men go up to talk with Fifi.  One of the men says that Fifi's general gave them permission to go to Dieppe.  All Fifi will say is:  "I do not wish it!" 

The passengers have to wait until Fifi changes his mind.  Two of the men play chess while waiting, while another man watches them play.  The innkeeper says that officer Fifi will not let them go until Elizabeth changes her mind.  The passengers demand to know what Fifi wants of Elizabeth.  She tells them that he wants her to dine with him.  One of men says that Fifi just wants to humble Elizabeth.  For now, the passengers support her stand. 

Father speaks with Elizabeth and tells her that he is going to replace Father Morin.  Elizabeth is thrilled and tells him that he will be her priest then.  She also says nice things about Father Morin.  She says that even in Rouen she heard the story of his refusal to ring the church bell.  The young priest doesn't know the story and so Elizabeth tells him it. 

Fifi comes into the inn, but Elizabeth still says no to him.  Later at night Cornudet speaks with Elizabeth.  He says he likes her  -- she is honest and sweet.  He tries to kiss her, but she says no because there are Prussians here.  (Louiseau sees and hears all of this, as he peeks out from his room door.)

Louiseau says that all his plans are being ruined because of this delay.  He adds:  "I'm losing money every minute."  Cornudet defends Elizabeth's stand, but Mr. and Mrs. Louiseau start teasing him by telling him that he is "green" (with jealousy that is).  They also bring up the incident between him and Elizabeth last evening.

The passengers put a lot of pressure on Elizabeth to dine with the officer.  Elizabeth answers:  "I don't want to eat with him."  She turns to Cornudet for some help and asks:  "Are they right?"  Cornudet doesn't say anything, which leaves Elizabeth feels completely abandoned.  She agrees to having dinner with Fifi. 

Up stairs with the officer, he makes her sing for him, while he harasses her.  He says:  "Sing!  Be merry!"  The rich are so happy that they decide to have a party with champagne. 

Fifi starts making advances on Elizabeth saying she knows what is going to happen.  When he goes in for a kiss and Elizabeth doesn't stop him, he blows some smoke into her face instead of kissing her.  Fifi says that she seems very determined on making a sacrifice for France.  He then says:  "I don't want you!"  He lets her go, saying that he just wanted her to know that when the Prussians ask the French to do something, they must do it.

Elizabeth is very angry seeing that the rich are having a ball and getting drunk on expensive champagne. 

In the morning the group (except for Cornudet and the priest) snub Elizabeth, even though they virtually forced her to eat dinner with the officer.  The passengers get back on the coach and head out for Cleresville.  The rich speak of the wonderful profits they will be making.  Now this time, Elizabeth has no food, but the rich do.  They refuse to share their food with Elizabeth.  Cornudet offers her two boiled eggs, but she tells him she is not hungry.

Fifi tells the young priest that he wants that church bell rung.  The father answers that when he's the priest of Cleresville, he will give him his decision.  The stage coach arrives in Cleresville.  Elizabeth's mother runs out of her laundry shop to greet Elizabeth.  The priest also gets off at Cleresville.  The stage coach starts leaving Cleresville when Cornudet decides to get off the coach.  He is disgusted by the rich people's snobbery.  He knocks on the roof of the stage cabin and gets out. 

Elizabeth starts working in her mother's shop doing some ironing.  A Prussian patrol rides down the street on their horses and the four other women working at the shop run to the window to smile and wave at the soldiers.  This upsets Elizabeth and she says something to her mother. 

Cornudet comes to the laundry shop.  He asks to talk with Elizabeth.  Elizabeth doesn't want to talk to him.  He says:  "I've come to ask your forgiveness."  Elizabeth won't listen to him.  She feels that he betrayed her and helped force her to dine with Fifi.  Cornudet says:  "I've come here to change."  He goes on to say that the priest and he need her.  Elizabeth becomes angry, asking:  "Did you help me when I needed you?"  Then she tells him to get out. 

Cornudet is brought before some Prussian officers, including Fifi.  They ask him some things about him and what he is doing here?  Cornudet is not cooperative at all.  A Prussian officer on a horse (who is called the madman by the villagers) pushes Cornudet along with his right boot.

Cornudet goes to the priest.  He tells him about the very rude and possibly violent Prussian officer.  The priest says that he knows about the madman soldier who preaches the use of force.  Cornudet comments that Father Morin wanted resistance to the Prussians.   He picks up a shotgun and says he'll stand guard at the church. 

Fifi and two other officers are making a bomb.  The madman wants him to make the bomb huge, but Fifi insists he only wants it big enough to ruin the furniture in the room.  The three officers light the fuse and run out of the room closing the doors behind them.  They wait a little while until a big explosion goes off.  The room is not destroyed, but the furniture certainly is.  The officers complain to a superior officer that they are bored.  So another superior officer suggests that they have a party. 

The superior officer sends a soldier named Devoir who is great with the girls of Cleresville.  They tell him that they want him to grab five beautiful girls and bring them to the party they are having.  They give him some gowns from the large house and tell Devoir to dress the girls in the gowns. 

Devoir goes to the laundry shop.  He picks up the four willing launderettes.  Elizabeth tells them that they should go back to work.  Devoir says he wants to take Elizabeth too.  Elizabeth refuses to go.  Now Devoir threatens her.  He will take away the officers' laundry and send it to Totes.  One of the women begs Elizabeth to come, because she doesn't want to lose her job with a sick husband at home.   Elizabeth asks if Fifi is there?  Devoir says that Fifi has left the chateau. 

The madman takes his patrol to the church to ring the bell.  Cornudet is there and when he hears them coming down the street, he grabs his shotgun.   The madman sends one of his men to run Cornudet through with a lance, but Cornudet shoots the man and knocks him off his horse.  Then Cornudet has to run to escape the rest of the patrol.

Devoir and the women arrive at the chateau.  Pamela is to go with the major and Elizabeth is go with Fifi.  Filfi comes down to Elizabeth to take her into dinner, but she snubs him and walks in by herself. 

Cornudet comes to the laundry shop and asks for Elizabeth.  Her mother is shocked to see him.  She recognizes him as the man who shot at the Germans.  Cornudet insists he wants to know where Elizabeth is and mom tells him that she's at the chateau.  Cornudet asks where's the chateau? 

The German officers are drunk and kissing their girls.  Fifi forces a kiss on Elizabeth.  She pulls away from him with a bloody lip.  Fifi taunts her by asking where are all her French heroes?  He also asks, if the French were so brave, would the Prussians be here occupying the country.  He says everything France has is theirs, including the women of France.  Elizabeth talks back to him and he slaps her twice with his gloves.  Elizabeth becomes furious, grabs a knife and stabs it into Fifi.  One of the officers examines Fifi and says he is dead.  Elizabeth runs out of a large side door and scampers awayt.  The superior officers demand:  "Find that girl!"

A Prussian patrol comes looking for Elizabeth.  She hides in a place where Cornudet is hiding.  He grabs her and pulls her back deeper into the recess where they are standing.  Now they both run together in order to avoid the Prussians.  When they stop for a rest, Elizabeth tells him that she is not afraid of the Prussians.  In fact, she says she's happy.  They have to run for it again.  They go to a door and knock on it to get in.  After a while, the priest opens the door and lets them in.   But now the three of them have to slink away.  The priest tells Elizabeth that he will hide her in the church belfry. 

Later a Prussian officer tells the priest that Fifi is dead and they say that the priest will ring the church bell at Fifi's funeral.  The priest surprises them by saying:  "Yes, I will ring the bell."  Why is he going to ring the bell?  The priest says it's because a French woman has struck the first blow against the Prussians.

Cornudet tells Elizabeth that he is going to join the French resistance. He says that he will return after the Prussians have left France.

The funeral for Fifi takes place. Up in the belfry the priest rings the church bell.  With him is Elizabeth who looks down on the funeral procession. 

 

 

An entertaining movie and one of the few that deals with the Franco-Prussian War.  Simone Simon is very good as Elizabeth Rousset, the Little Laundress.  The film is very critical of the rich French men and women during the war.  They are primarily concerned with the amount of profit they are making during the war and now are heading over to London to be with the rest of French society there.  It's the poorest and smallest of the group traveling on a stage coach that proudly displays courage and resistance against the Prussians.  Many others are very busy trying to please the Prussians, instead of resisting them.  The bold example of Elizabeth inspires one of the male passengers (helped along by his love for her).  He then takes a bold step to prove to her that he is a brave man who will fight the Prussians.  As it should be, the film focuses on the cruelty of the Prussian officers, especially "Mademoiselle Fifi". 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

 

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