L’Auberge rouge
(The Red Inn)
Directed by Claude Autant-Lara
Fernandel as The Monk
Françoise Rosay as Marie Martin
Julien Carette as Pierre Martin
Filmed in 1951 – Running time: 98 minutes
Black and White – Now available in DVD

This is perhaps one of the greatest of the classic French films of the post-WWII era from the standpoint of director, star, and social comment. Additionally, it is a very funny film in a macabre way. The French call it farce noire (black humor). This is particularly poignant as it is based on actual events of a gruesome nature which occurred early in the 19th century.

The story takes place in the Ardèche region of France in the 1880’s. The Martins have a country inn situated on a mountain road where, for the past twenty years, they have systematically killed their guests in order to rob them. The story opens late one snowy afternoon when a group of wealthy travelers are forced to spend the night at the inn because of a broken wheel on their coach. Shortly after their arrival, a monk and his assistant arrive by mule.

Taking advantage of the monk’s vows not to reveal what he hears in the confessional, Madame Martin confesses her crimes to him. This is one of the great moments of the film as, not have a proper confessional, a fireplace grill is held up by the penitent as a substitute and we view Madame Martin on one side, the monk on the other. The monk, learning that more than 100 travelers have been murdered in the establishment over the years, feels he must alert the other guests but at the same time keep the secrets of the confessional. The story goes on from there.

There are some conventional touches such as a romance between the monk’s assistant and the Martins' daughter, Mathilde, who seems oblivious to her parents’ crimes. A counterpoint to the other characters (for that time) is in the casting of the Martins’ servant and fellow murderer as a mulatto (Fétiche, le Noir).

The film flummoxed critics of the time because of the blend of farce, satire and thriller. It was a highly unpredictable film for that era and the choice of the lead actor (Fernandel) in a prestigious, high quality film was not the least of the oddities of this work.

The director, Claude Autant-Lara, had established himself as one of the leading directors of quality films with Douce (1943), Le Diable au corps (1946) and Occupe-toi d’Amélie (1949). His specialty was to combine conventional filmmaking with provocative statements. In this work he chose to attack the behavior, if not the beliefs, of members of the cloth. While not an anti-religious film, it was done with such biting satire that it was particularly offense to the Catholic Church. Serious attempts were made to discredit the film and, while they did not wholly succeed, the reputation of Autant-Lara was severely damaged.

Fernandel, in his role as the monk, laid the groundwork for his future success as an Italian village priest in the Don Camillo series in which he starred from 1951 until his death in 1970. Born in Marseille in 1903, his real name was Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin. While he was French his family obviously had north Italian origins, a frequent occurance in Provence where the city of Avignon was a possession of the Church until the mid-1700’s.

Fernandel was a comedy star who began his career in French vaudeville and had his first part in a film in 1930. At the time of the filming of L’Auberge rouge he had appeared in more than 100 films but was not considered a "serious” actor. To work with Autant-Lara would be a feather in his cap and an impetus for his career. He did benefit greatly from this film. He was invited to Hollywood in 1956 for a role in “Around the World in Eighty Days” and later starred with Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg in “Paris Holiday”.

While the Don Camillo series are his trademark films, many consider his role in L’Auberge rouge as his finest performance.

As a footnote to the film, it is interesting to review the historical facts on which the storyline is based. The Ardèche region is a mountainous area on the west side of the broad Rhône Valley in the southern part of France. Even today it is noted as a particularly savage, desolate area from a standpoint of both geography and inhabitants. It is quite different from the gentle, lavender-growing, dairy-farming French Alps which bracket the Rhône on the other side of the valley.

The Ardèche region was hostile for a long time. It is covered with dark, somber forests intersected with impregnable marshy lowlands. Today it is studded with massive abandoned stone farmhouses, reminders of the time when the region was prosperous because of the production of indigo used for uniform dye during the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, deserters from these wars hid out in the mountain vastness of the Arèche and lived by robbing travelers and plundering isolated farms.

These bands of outlaws had disappeared by the beginning of the 19th century but the area retained its bad reputation. On a mountain road between the cities of Aubanas and Puy-en-Velay, Pierre and Marie Martin were the proprietors of a country inn. Rumors flew about the couple and when, in 1831, the body of a rich farmer was found at the foot of a cliff not far from their establishment, an investigation was begun.

The end result was that the Martins and their servant, Jean Rochette, were accused and convicted of having murdered more than fifty travelers over a period of twenty years. The sole witness was a tramp, Laurent Chaze, who, after changing his story several times, said that he had witnessed a murder two years earlier but had been afraid to come forward to the authorities.

Madame Martin and the two men (Martin and Rochette) were beheaded in front of the inn in October, 1833. More than 30,000 people came to witness the decapitation, traveling not only from the far reaches of the département of Ardèche but from surrounding areas as well. Justice was done in the morning and, for the remainder of the day, the crowd celebrated by dancing to accordion music. “Distractions are rare here”, said one participant.