Charlie Chaplin's only completely straight drama that he directed but did not star in was a flop in its day, and due to its anomalous status has not fared especially well in later years either. Nevertheless it has had its champions, like British director Michael Powell and Swedish actress and director Liv Ullmann, and is hailed in some quarters as being as sensational and innovative as his comedies.
However a look at the formal style of A Woman of Paris shows much more simply an assured yet conventional grasp of film form, consistent with Hollywood production of the time. As in his comedies, Chaplin shows an intelligent handling of space and arrangement. In those early shots he gives a cramped feeling by having side walls visible up to the edge of the frame and foreground objects like the bed in Edna Purviance's room leaving little room for manoeuvre. An honourable mention goes here to the cinematography of Roland Totheroh which resembles Rembrandt lighting in all but one aspect – the slight level of clarity in the darkness (as oppose to full shadow) gives a very real feeling of squalor to those opening scenes. Chaplin also makes great use of background and foreground, minimising cuts by having multiple characters in the shot at once. Often there is emotional acting up front with physical acting out back. This is all superb, but it is hardly ground-breaking for the period, nor is it particularly surprising to anyone who has studied Chaplin's other works.
The plot of A Woman of Paris too is a fairly routine melodrama, with many twists that are clichéd and hard-to-swallow. Its condemnation of the excesses of wealthy socialites could almost have been borrowed from one of Mr DeMille's moral crusades. This being Chaplin however its depictions are generally a little more sensitive and humane than the average, and while we do have that hackneyed device of a man ruined by an unfaithful woman, in this case the woman is herself a more or less innocent victim of a callous playboy, and her reasons for her lack of fidelity to one man are at least given some empathetic explanation.
However, A Woman of Paris's melodrama, in spite of its formulaic structure, has a kind of truth-to-life that most other melodramas fail to achieve. Chaplin draws from his cast some steady, measured performances, free from the overt gesture and strained mugging of your typical silent picture. The emoting is clearly stated, yet it is never overstated. The wonderfully restrained Adolphe Menjou makes the best job of this, underplaying everything with a kind of suaveness which makes us believe women could be attracted to him in spite of his being a repellent bounder. Purviance is great too, always having been a competent straight woman to Charlie's funny man, now sticking to a languid pace and letting the emotions drift on and off her face. It's also nice to see Henry Bergman, probably the most professional of Chaplin's regular players, making a bit part and adding just a little note of the ridiculous without violating the drama. Amongst the other cast members, all of whom are now forgotten, no-one exactly stands out, but by the same token none of them shows themselves up with a bad job.
And while, like most Hollywood pictures of the time, A Woman of Paris is a little excessive with the intertitles, Chaplin rarely uses words to give anything away. Moments such as the young artist realising Purviance has another man in her life are revealed with sequences of visual clues, giving them an incredible smoothness and forcing us to really pay attention to those subtle reactions. Then there are those little touches of genius, those moments that separate the truly great filmmakers from the merely good, such as Purviance slowing down when she encounters a gendarme after hastily retrieving her necklace. With A Woman of Paris Chaplin, with his typical mix of unpretentiousness and devoted humanism, dives shamelessly into the lowest depths of melodrama, whilst giving to that genre a sprinkling of the dignity and honesty it so often lacks.