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inhabit the novels of François Mauriac and Irène Némirovsky). The old skinflint Fabregars, quibbling over the cost of his wife’s funeral, and the deputy mayor, who allows the youth of Ambricourt to hold weekly dances which end in drunken mayhem, are there as reminders of what the idealistic new- comer has to contend with. No, it is the curé’s mission, nothing less, to confront the darkness enveloping the three lost souls behind the castle gates. They have wealth and education on their side, if little else. At the very core of the film is the con- frontation between the countess – mourning the tragic early death of her son; ignoring her husband’s myriad infidelities, the latest of which is with the governess, Louise; refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s state of near- suicidal despair – and the now patently dying priest. He is there to rescue her from her self- ishness, the selfishness of protracted grief. “I would rather be with my son in hell than

separated from him in heaven,” she asserts. It is then that she notices the anguish on the childlike face of her counsellor and perhaps recognises at last the depths into which pos- sessiveness has taken her. She throws a medallion containing a photograph of her boy on to the fire and the priest, risking burn- ing his hands, retrieves it. She has, through his guidance, attained peace. “How wonderful that we can give others

that peace which we do not possess. Oh, mir- acle of our empty hands”: of all the thoughts visited upon the priest, that surely is the most profound. And it is here that I must return to Claude Laydu, whose death during the summer has sparked off these reflections on the masterpiece of which he is the central luminary. In the closing sequences of Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, his eyes alternately bulge and retract with the knowledge, imparted to him by a specialist in Lille, that the stomach cancer he has been enduring is far advanced. I have lived with that face of a doomed angel for 60 years, encountering it for the first of many times in the long- gone Academy Cinema in Oxford Street. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the angel’s interpreter had lived a long and happy life with Christine, his wife, and their two children.

decade. He appeared in dozens of films, but none of them seems likely to survive. What will survive, beyond all doubt, is the film he starred in at the age of 24, which ends with the image of the Cross and the words “All is grace”. It was only after the seeing the film in its entirety, before it was shown at Venice in 1951, that Claude Laydu realised that he had played a saint. I like to think that he was pleased with the revelation.

I 10 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011

■Paul Bailey is a novelist. His latest book, Chapman’s Odyssey, is published by Bloomsbury.

n the 1960s, Laydu and Christine Balli wrote a puppet show for television called Bonne Nuit les Petits (“Good Night, Little Ones”), which ran for more than a

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