Per 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, those twenty-four hours go from sad to happy. Well, wait; they actually go from narrating man in the shadows, face in said shadows, only the brim of his fedora visible—because l’inconnu fantôme wants to tell you all about Beby the clown.
Once the short gets past that opening narration, which is way too much for what the short turns out to be. It’s a look at the life of a clown—Beby—in his late sixties as the world and the place of the circus in it are changing. It’s never clear how much of the film is Beby, outside his keepsakes (but was it his idea to showcase the keepsakes), and how much of it is director Melville. Most of the dialogue in the film is the narrator paraphrasing the actors’ muted dialogue. Even when Beby is speaking, it’s not matched with the image. Clown obviously took some putting together and Melville doesn’t address how that process affects the narrative distance.
So while Beby’s “performance” looking through his old photographs isn’t amazing, the sequence itself becomes amazing thanks to the story told through those photographs. It’s also the first time the short addresses Beby being “real.” If you weren’t familiar with him going in, there’s no indicator Clown is documentary not fiction.
There’s also a cute dog and the suffering wife or maid or daughter person. She doesn’t even get credited. Neither does the dog, which just makes things fair, I suppose.
The next day—the twenty-four hours are from after one night’s show through the next night’s show, which is a great framing—Beby meets up with partner Maïss (who was in the beginning) and they go about doing their research. They just watch life. As they watch life, Melville finds the calm beauty of humanity, even when it’s being a little slapstick.
Then the evening’s performance is excellent and the twenty-four hours are up.
The Phantom Stranger comes back, unfortunately, to tell us so. Because film noir tough guys are all about the circus clowns.
But even with that unfortunate flourish, Clown’s a great little film.
Written, produced, and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; directors of photography, Gustave Raulet and André Villard; edited by Monique Bonnot; music by Henri Cassel.
Starring Beby (a clown) and Maïss (a clown).