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Chaplin's story of doomed love is a self-proclaimed drama of fate, and a groundbreaking example of cinematic storytelling
A Woman Of Paris begins with a title card bearing a message from Chaplin to the audience: "In order to prevent any misunderstanding," it reads, "I do not appear in this picture. This is the first serious drama written and directed by myself." Such a frank break with the vaudeville comedy tradition of Chaplin's previous work must have seemed disappointing at the time, yet acquaintance with this self-styled "drama of fate" proves that the absence of Chaplin in front of the camera is not as disastrous as many might have feared.
Starring one of Chaplin's favourite actresses, Edna Purviance (she appeared in over 20 of his films as a leading lady) as Marie St Clair, a young French woman who flees to Paris and becomes part of the city's rowdy high society after her hopes of married happiness with Jean (Miller) are dashed by fate, A Woman Of Paris is a heart-wrenching drama of lost love and lost virtue.
Yet what's most striking about the film is not so much its central plot - abandoned by Jean, Marie becomes the wanton mistresses of Adolphe Menju's louche lothario before discovering that her true love has moved to Paris - but the vibrant patchwork of urban decadence that Chaplin weaves around it through a wealth of incidental details. Magnificent scenes include a rowdy Latin Quarter party where a risqué striptease reduces the room to chaos, a brief interlude in a restaurant kitchen where Menju's gourmet hobnobs with the chef; and a scene where one of Marie's friends relates the latest gossip while the camera focuses on Marie's masseuse who's clandestinely listening in. Pushing the limits of this one-note melodrama to break new ground, Chaplin discovers that cinema's power can sometimes lie not in the central action, but in the marginal details.
An important milestone in Chaplin's career, this simple melodrama overcomes the limits of its story to offer a fascinating example of the writer-director's understanding of the constraints of cinematic form.
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