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Marthe Richard vs. Mata Hari: The (De)mythologizing of a French Spy

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Raymond Bernard's ambitious exploration of the career of the spy Marthe Richard (1937) boasts strong performances by rising star Edwige Feuillre in the title role and the established Hollywood actor Erich von Stroheim as her adversary, but the film has enjoyed little critical acclaim. In its treatment of the spy genre's key themes of deception, single combat and vengeance, the film celebrates high patriotic endeavour and embraces Americophilia. However, it sets itself an impossible task: the destruction of the Mata Hari myth (which Greta Garbo's remarkable performance had consolidated across the world), and in its place the hoisting, Joan of Arc-style, of a new legend, the virtuous national secret agent. With its strong popular appeal, Marthe Richard, espionne au service de la France belongs to a series of works which not only reinvent and dramatize events from the Great War, but reflect the heavy climate of impending hostility during the inter-war years. Marthe Richard herself was not destined to become France's new Marianne, and her own complicated legacy reflects the film's qualified success. Though it proved ultimately an unsuccessful attempt to create a new national myth, Marthe Richard anticipated the strategy which would carry France through the travails which lay immediately ahead.

Keywords: Bernard; Feuillre; Stroheim; espionage; female emancipation; mythologization

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/sfc.9.1.63_1

Affiliations: 1: King's College London. 2: University of Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-La Dfense.

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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  • Studies in French Cinema is the only journal published in English devoted exclusively to French cinema, providing scholars, teachers and students from around the world with a consistent quality of academic investigation across the full breadth of the subject. Contributors scrutinise the cultural context of various works and the diverse stylistic approaches that infuse the visual fabric of this genre.
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