Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - Fernand Ledoux

Goupi Mains Rouges
1943, directed by Jacques Becker

Of all the subversive allegorical French movies of the Nazi Occupation, Goupi Mains Rouges stands out for its relative lack of fantasy. There are no castles or devils or dreams, only an eccentric collection of villagers with strange nicknames and an odd collection of taxidermy. Its main plot threads – a love triangle between three cousins, a murder mystery, and a hidden treasure – could be material for a movie anywhere at any time. Nevertheless, the plot alone doesn’t seem to justify all the various happenings and character traits. There is strong reason to think the movie is hiding something.

The Goupi clan is so diverse, and the movie focuses so tightly on them, that they form a kind of microcosm. Four generations are represented, quite a lot for a family with no children, and they span a diverse range of personalities, backgrounds, and social roles. The Goupis represent enough sectors of society to hypothesize that the clan itself represents France, and the crazy nicknames would be an obvious place to look for any coded content that would elaborate on the characters’ counterparts in the real world.

We can start with the more obvious nicknames. Goupi L’Empereur is the 106-year-old patriarch who cradles a bust of Napoleon, from whom he takes his epithet. He is weak and near death, his remaining days consumed by nostalgia, eating biscuits, and drinking wine. He alone knows where the family treasure is stored; his own father had found it while working on the railroads, which sounds a bit anachronistic given his age. Goupi L’Empereur must represent old France in some form, and his father would then be the French Revolution. The idea of working on railroads would have sounded like the work of the Resistance, who were busy sabotaging German rail transport to defend France in a new revolution.

Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - Fernand Ledoux - taxidermy - bat

L’Empereur’s son Goupi La Loi is the grandfather of the youngest generation (Muguet, Tonkin, Monsieur, and Jean). La Loi (“The Law”) is a retired gendarme who idles his time shooting targets and hunting. Like Renaud in Les visiteurs du soir, or the colonel in The Hand of the Devil, he represents the pathetically ineffective French military that quickly capitulated to Germany at the start of World War II. While hunting in the woods he complains that his rifle doesn’t shoot right, and he vows to go back to using gunpowder. After shooting one of his targets he says the shot was enough to blow a quail to smithereens, which his son Goupi Dicton calls “much ado about nothing.”

Skipping a generation to the next easiest character, Goupi Muguet takes her name from the French word for “lily of the valley”. A lily happens to be one of France’s most recognized symbols, the fleur-de-lis. Although France as a whole is already represented by the Goupi clan, such overlapping symbolism also occurs in Lumière d’été, where the ensemble of settings and characters stands for the French nation, while Michèle stands for the people or spirit of France. Like the three men competing for Michèle, Muguet’s two suitors – Goupi Tonkin and Goupi Monsieur – personify different factions staking their claims to the love and affection of the French people.

Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - Georges Rollin - Fernand Ledoux - Goupi Monsieur - stairway

From here on the names get more obscure. Unlike a few other allegories from occupied France, Goupi Mains Rouges is not the kind of anti-Nazi rallying cry whose meaning unfolds easily once you unlock a few pieces. This movie is more complicated because, while sympathetic to the Resistance, it also describes a split within the opposition to fascism. At any rate, like Lumière d’été and a few other allegories, it does not risk direct criticism of the enemy – almost everything it says concerns France itself and how the nation should get through the Occupation. Like France insisting on its sovereignty, the Goupis, as Goupi Mes Sous says twice, settle matters amongst themselves. The closest analogue to Nazis is the gendarmerie, outsiders to the clan who meet resistance when they try to take charge of the theft and murder case… but their role is small, and they hardly come across as villains.

It may be surprising that the title comes from Goupi Mains Rouges (Goupi Red Hands), whose role is not as prominent as Goupi Monsieur. His nickname is just barely ambiguous enough to escape censorship. He flashes his darkened palms and fingers to Monsieur as if they’re literally red, but any French viewer with minimal political awareness might recognize a double meaning. His hands are muddied from work, marking him as a proletarian, while the color red symbolizes the Communist party whose membership heavily overlapped the labor unions at the core of the Resistance. By giving Mains Rouges the honor of the title, the movie makes its sympathies clear.

Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - Georges Rollin - Goupi Monsieur - oval portrait

Goupi Monsieur is purposefully enigmatic. His family thinks he’s a wealthy Parisian store owner, and he arrives at the train station dressed like it. His uncle Mains Rouges dislikes him instantly, the way a Communist would react to someone so obviously bourgeois, but when Monsieur empties his pockets the truth comes out: he is only a lowly tie salesman making a subsistence wage, a proletarian after all. The rest of the Goupis make fun of Monsieur calling him “Goupi Cravate”, but from that point on Mains Rouges takes a liking to him.

Goupi Tonkin, Monsieur’s rival for the hand of Muguet, is especially tricky to identify. Tonkin talks constantly about his years in Indochina, and his shack is filled with exotic masks, drums, and a hammock. Tonkin refers to what is today the northern quarter of Vietnam, which had been a French protectorate since 1883. In this case Tonkin is best understood as a synecdoche for France’s whole colonial empire. Goupi Tonkin is haughty and eccentric; he thinks more of himself and the colonies than he does of Muguet, who quickly comes to prefer Monsieur. A French audience in 1943 probably would have recognized Goupi Tonkin as Charles de Gaulle, the single-minded general obsessed with the grandeur of France, who led the Free French forces who took the colonies away from Vichy France, and who purported to lead the Resistance over the radio although he himself was safely abroad in England. Mains Rouges is sympathetic to him until Tonkin’s pride gets the better of him at the end, climbing a tree like a maniac while yelling that he’ll crush the gendarmes below and lift himself up to the sun. In the same way, many of the French Resistance’s leftist core had come to regard de Gaulle as an egotistical fool.

Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - Rober le Vigan - Goupi Tonkin - climbing a tree

Over the course of the movie Monsieur’s stock continues to rise – in the eyes of Mains Rouge, of Muguet, of his family, and surely of the audience as well. At first he comes off as an effete city dweller out of place in the provinces. Mains Rouges and Tonkin conspire to frighten him away, but he’s braver than expected. Caught lying about his visit to the inn, he comes clean to everyone and establishes himself as an honest man. He impresses the local schoolteacher and Muguet when he speaks of Paris as a bouquet of which each province is a flower. His father hasn’t seen him in 25 years, which in 1943 is the length of time since France last saw its own strength at the end of World War I.

The allegory comes into focus at the end when L’Empereur acknowledges Mains Rouges as the rightful guardian of the family’s secret treasure, and Mains Rouges says he will pass it one day to Monsieur. The old order, the heirs to the ideals of the French Revolution, have passed the torch to Communism, which will one day, when order is achieved, pass it on to the French proletariat. Mains Rouges is not the most senior of L’Empereur’s heirs, but he has earned custody of the treasure, first of all because he found it, and second because La Loi had forfeited the right years ago when he opposed Mains Rouges’ marriage to Goupi La Belle – just as right-wing France had denied the nation’s workers their birthright decades ago.

Goupi Mains Rouges - It Happened at the Inn - Jacques Becker - clock - treasure - pendulum - gold

The last image is the clock, the place where no one but Mains Rouges and the movie’s audience knows that L’Empereur has hidden the family’s gold. Everyone thinks the pendulum is brass, but the old patriarch has disguised the gold circle and painted the gold weights to keep the inheritance safe. In the movie’s eyes, this treasure is not some fantasy – by putting it in the clock, it tells a country suffering through the Occupation that time itself, the future, is France’s treasure.


Les visiteurs du soir – Character who stands for France’s ineffective military

The Hand of the Devil – Character who stands for France’s ineffective military

Lumière d’été – Woman choosing among suitors, who stands for France choosing among its options