115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

From All-Seeing to Absent: The Female Concierge in 20th-Century French Literature and Film

Mariah Devereux Herbeck, Boise State University

  Following a summary of ways the French female concierge has seen / been seen in French culture, literature and film, this presentation will analyze her role of privileged observer in Simenon’s 1933 novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire and subsequent elimination from the novel’s two filmic adaptations,Panique (Julien Duvivier, 1946) and Monsieur Hire (Patrice Leconte, 1989). 


According to Sharon Marcus in Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London, literary works of nineteenth-century France often portrayed the fictional female concierge’s (a.k.a. portiere) powers of observation as limitless: “Urban literature characterized the portière as an adept observer: her duties as mail distributor, rent collector, and maid gave her an intimate and composite overview of the building’s individual parts” (Marcus 43). The trope of the concierge as consummate witness to daily life persists into the twentieth century; case in point, Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel, Les Fiançailles de M Hire, in which the nameless female concierge character’s focalization introduces the reader to the eponymous character, Monsieur Hire.   With her “hard gray” eyes (7), the concierge peers into Monsieur Hire’s apartment as she delivers his mail and, in doing so, happens to see “une serviette imbibée de sang” (“a briefcase drenched in blood” 7)—a chance sighting that sets in motion, for all intents and purposes, a witch hunt of the main character.

Throughout the novel, references to the concierge’s eyes, to what the concierge sees, and to how she is seen by others are integral to the third-person narration of the detectives’ case as they investigate and pursue Monsieur Hire. However, both French film adaptations of the novel—Julien Duvivier’s Panique (1946) and Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989)—eliminate the concierge character (and thus her narrative function as focalizer) in favor of privileging Monsieur Hire’s senses, from his sight to his sense of smell, as well as his direct interactions with the detective on his case. As if to reinforce that the female concierge has been eliminated, in Duvivier’s film, Monsieur Hire’s love interest, Alice, describes where Monsieur Hire lives as a building where there is “pas de concierge” (“no concierge”).  In Patrice Leconte’s film, there is no mention of the mere existence of a concierge. Instead, without her intervention and role as witness, the detective assigned to Monsieur Hire’s case delves directly and personally into his investigation. 

After a brief summary of how the French female concierge has seen and been seen in popular culture, literature and film, this presentation will then analyze her role of privileged observer in Simenon’s novel and subsequent elimination from the plotline of the novel’s two filmic adaptations. Who or what in the two films conveys information her character provides in the novel? What is lost or gained from eliminating her character? What are the larger cultural implications of the erasure of the female concierge from the form of visual media par excellence, cinema? Is this part of a larger trend that aims to eliminate the concierge and her (visual) power from cinema and / or society? 

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