Jean Grémillon’s first talkie, the 1930 LA PETITE LISE, is anything but talky. While opening and closing with soulful afro-Latin strains, something just above silence reigns throughout the film. Grémillon is already orchestrating the auditory menace of nuanced sound sculpting that would later pervade REMORQUES (1941), setting forth evolving rhythmic figures at an atmospheric whisper. Grémillon grafts this aural frieze onto smoldering b&w photography. Truly, the frame is often smoking for purposes of motif.
In truth, this film has the most impressive use of sound I know of, including Bresson’s MOUCHETTE. It’s up for speculation as to how much technical issues played into his creative use of sound and off-screen. What is of particular note is that instead of milking the capability of sync sound dialogue, Grémillon uses it very sparingly, increasing the range of expressiveness. An abstract score of atmospheric insinuation is always in accompaniment with the imagery tonally, rhythmically and dynamically. Listening carefully, ambient sound is ever at work in a subliminal music score.
The story of LA PETITE LISE belongs to the sandbox of melodrama, but Grémillon grinds it into expressionistic minimalism. What is this story? Perhaps it will suffice to say that it is the reunion of a father fresh out of prison with his daughter now grown up, all prepared under a pressure cooker of lens and mic. Conflagrations arise periodically from the embers of troubled quiet, with lighting flickering to and from peaks of intensity. Emblazoned gestures extend from the sustain of affective brood, while conversations flare up before subsiding back into the simmering cauldron.
Upon locating his daughter, Lise, Bertier’s ascent to her room is countered aurally in such a foreboding fashion that it feels more like an ominous descent. She’s not there, so he’s been given the key to wait. Where the doors of cinema typically close with snappy effect, Lise’s door closes with a disquieting hush. Grémillon uses this waiting period to establish the significance of some objects for future narrative finesse. When Lise arrives, her ascent up the stairs is not the same aural spectacle, naturally. When she enters her room, the camera remains at the staircase, fixing its gaze upon the landing outside her door. We only hear the reunion, and in the infant legacy of the silent era, it is evident where inter-titles have been traded in for off-screen dialogue and the title card for an evocative film frame. While the off-screen dialogue commences, the staircase and landing aren’t completely vacated; flickering light presides. —Dvdbeaver.com
Jean Grémillon (3 October 1901, Bayeux, Calvados – 25 November 1959) was a French film director. After directing a number of documentaries during the 1920s, many now lost, he had his first substantial success with the dramatic feature Maldone in 1928. Over the next quarter-century, he directed twenty more feature films, of which he is best known for five made between 1937 and 1944: L’Étrange M. Victor, Gueule d’amour (1937), Remorques (1941), Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944).
Grémillon rejected what he referred to as “mechanical naturalism” in favor of “the discovery of that subtlety which the human eye does not perceive directly but which must be shown by establishing the harmonies, the unknown relations, between objects and beings; it is a vivifying, inexhaustible source of images that strike our imaginations and enchant our hearts.” —Wikipedia
Jean Grémillon stages a murder on an elegant ocean liner, but the mystery is not the murder: it’s everything.