Jean Grémillon: Realism and Tragedy (Part 2)

Part 2 of a 1978 re-evaluation by Mireille Latil Le Dantec of the films and career of French director Jean Grémillon.
Ted Fendt

Translators introduction: This article by Mireille Latil Le Dantec, the second of two parts, was originally published in issue 40 of Cinématographe, September 1978. The previous issue of the magazine had included a dossier on "La qualité française" and a book of a never-shot script by Jean Grémillon (Le Printemps de la Liberté or The Spring of Freedom) had recently been published. The time was ripe for a re-evaluation of Grémillon's films and a resuscitation of his undervalued career. As this re-evaluation appears to still be happening nearly 40 years later—Grémillon's films have only recently seen DVD releases and a 35mm retrospective begins this week at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens—this article and its follow-up gives us an important view of a French perspective on Grémillon's work by a very perceptive critic doing the initial heavy-lifting in bringing the proper attention to the filmmaker's work.

Passion and Prison

One can only be struck in Jean Grémillon’s films by the return, over many years, of an obsessive image in which the need for freedom is affirmed: a man pulls apart a woman’s arms closed around his neck. This is Dullin with Annabella in Maldone. This is, with Madeleine Renaud, Gabin in Remorques and Paul Bernard in Lumière d’été, where the dialogue specifies the metaphor through Patrice’s terrible words to Cri-Cri: “Maybe you’d like for me to be dead? You’d care for me. We’d put a straight jacket on me...and you’d kiss me peacefully. I wouldn’t even be able to defend myself.”

We’d be very mistaken, however, to see any misogyny in this. The accusation of imprisonment is reciprocal and Madeleine Renaud – Grémillon’s favorite actress – is, in three consecutive films, the support of an in-depth approach towards what today we’d loudly call “the feminine condition.” Because her ambiguous face alone, before celebrating love that exalts freedom (Le Ciel est à vous), incriminates love that takes it away (Remorques, Lumière d’été). For Patrice, Cri-Cri gives up dancing and locks herself up in the “Guardian Angel” like birds in a sumptuous cage. The canary cage was already present on the flowery balcony where the rancor of the solitary spouse, Yvonne Laurent, explodes in tragic counterpoint: “I am your wife, a faithful animal, a thing that is yours. You love having things be yours. This belongs to you. You are holding this in your hands. But if it disappears a little, you open your hands” (Remorques). Indeed, Gabin-Laurent, on a bright, white beach, like a dream with hazy borders, squeezes Michèle Morgan-Catherine like an ephemeral apparition: “All I want is to not lose you. To keep you.” At this moment – as Henri Agel saw clearly1, referring to Ugetsu at the time – it is Laurent himself that the mise en scène renders imprisoned by a charm. Like Gueule d’Amour (under Gabin’s same features), he forgets everything that his life has been: career, crew and friends. The dreamed-of love – adamantly described in identical terms by the spouse and the lover – is their isolation in a “white bedroom with a window overlooking the sea.”

The myth propagated by Quai des Brumes (same screenwriter and same actors) must not make us miss the originality of Remorques, even and especially if Morgan’s role has a very different meaning and scope than the liaison in Vercel’s novel. Quai des Brumes, it has been said enough, is about the mythology of far away places and impossible escapes, weighing down with the full weight of “atmosphere” and destiny on two characters who are, so to speak, summed up by where they are looking. Remorques is about the couple’s sacrifice (legitimate or not) to solidarity, a career and companionship. Just as, later, the engineer in L’Amour d’une femme (Massimo Girotti) leaves the one he loves (Micheline Presle) upon understanding her attachment to her career and in Le Massacre des innocents, Gérard respects the militant in Maria, and Catherine in Remorques returns Laurent to his solitary and solidary task. Grémillon aims, then, to root Morgan (poetic apparition) and Gabin (unlucky romantic) in uncustomary human dimensions.

A film only gaining its true meaning through its confrontation with all the others, the personal auteur note takes a few years to be heard, stifled as it is by the stereotypes of the moment. For example, that of the femme fatale imposed on Gueule d’amour by its proximity to The Blue Angel, La Chienne and La bête humaine, is attenuated today in favor of the more Grémillon-esque theme of friendship endangered by passion. It is easier to recall the two friends’ walk in the countryside above Orange, the sober, beautiful scene of Gabin with René Lefèvre framed obstinately from behind (“I think it would have been just as well for me not to come”) as well as the two friends’ final embrace at the train station, opposing, as in Maldone, links of tenderness with links of passion.

Instead of looking nostalgically towards faraway places, the play of gazes in Grémillon can also show that passion isolates us from the world and makes us possessive. This is the meaning of two similar scenes: the one on the balcony in Remorques and the one in the café where Marie’s successful operation is celebrated in L’Amour d’une femme; Yvonne and the engineer, respectively, cannot bear seeing on their loved one’s face the glow of happiness that they cannot share.

“No one belongs to anyone.” This is Michèle’s line to Julien in Lumière d’été while she frees from its cage the happiness-bearing cricket a worker (Blavette) at the building site had given her. The scene (modified from the one in the script) indicates the future that opens to the couple we see leaving at the end: their departure in Monsieur Lange is not an escape from the world but only liberation in relation to a particular world and a particular destiny. The cricket’s monotonous song is the routine of the home understood as a cage. “Since I’ve had it,” says the superstitious worker, “nothing has happened to me.” Melancholic, Julien sighs: “Maybe that’s happiness.”

Risking the Sky

In the bestiary of Lumière d’été (which opens on Cri-Cri’s birds in a castle-shaped cage) there is also another animal, always absent and even more fascinating: the female eagle that devours sheep2 that another, somewhat illuminated worker, Aimos, pursues relentlessly to kill but not without feeling its seduction.

Of course, the rifle (an object which hovers threateningly over the entire film) serves a purpose in the denouement. But we have perhaps not paid enough attention to the poetic metaphor through which Julien takes the place of the eagle by risking his life at a fantastic height (but doing his job) to unhook the mine elevator carrying the doctor – an act of heroism at which Patrice aims his gun, in the exasperation of his own downfall (morally and literally: his fall into the abyss). Certainly the poetry dissipates upon contact with the explication of the text saying: Julien and Patrice represent the two sides, positive and negative, of passion; Blavette and Aimos represent the two tendencies that exist in every average man. But, not without a guilty conscience for such pedantry, how does one not recognize the permanence of the symbolic tension reflected in the most everyday reality, so different from the symbolism imposed from the outside that was so esteemed at the time? Le Ciel est à vous – a famous film exemplifying a very simple “French reality” in the judgment of contemporaries – is the stunning confirmation of this.

Obsessive critics (of the right or left) are always ready to judge films (and especially in wartime) based on their content and current political events. We lost the war because of Quai des Brumes. Lumière d’été exhaled the same “harmful pessimism” as Carné. Later, how could one make Pattes blanches at the time of the atomic bomb or the Citroën strike? At the time of Le Ciel est à vous, we were polarized over a representation of the French petit bourgeois that was comforting after the one in Le Corbeau. But did this fortifying optimism that made us happy belong to Vichyist morality or the ardor of the resistance? This myopia makes us smile today since, no more than Lumière d’été, Le Ciel est à vous, presenting the fundamental ambiguity of everything that is “real,” far from enclosing itself in the certainty of the future, leaves open an interior conflict that is the film’s deep and true subject.

Of course, the joyous ending of Le Ciel est à vous seems to exorcise the tragedy through the miraculous union of contradictions: conjugality and passion, everyday happiness and a taste for risk, society and the individual, bourgeois conformism and artistic exaltation (in the figures of the grandmother and the piano teacher, smiling at the side of the triumphant woman). But, too quick to accept the happy ending, we easily forget that the precariousness of this balance has been told to us by the film’s structure – of the musical variety – in the form of a leitmotif and variations.

The often-cited leitmotif3 is that of the orphans walking by. Dressed in black, they pass by four times in the film singing On the Pont du Nord, an old song about punished disobedience. The variation is in the tone, meaning the emotional context into which the passages are integrated: rain and the train’s deathly whistling when the father returns without his wife to the train station where the children are waiting for him; commotion, the noise of loudspeakers, small, joyful flags and a bright atmosphere in the marvelous scene of popular joy filmed by Louis Page in a newsreel style that the neo-realists have not surpassed. Separated for a moment in the wildly excited crowd, the orphans move away, seen from behind. The scene has been commented on abundantly (G. Bounoure, Henri Agel): the threat of misfortune is only pushed to the side, but it remains.

The crowd is revealed as being as versatile and sheep-like as the white herd glimpsed at the beginning of the film and linked dialectically through a pan to the passing orphans, as if to make the dilemma felt: to risk/to not risk. Tomorrow, therefore, the everyday can change colors, the little bourgeois room with the chimney covered in trophies preventing the godmother from “dusting” could again become the huis-clos where, the night before, in the light filtering sinisterly through his closed shutters, the unhappy mechanic was encircled by the condemnation of opinion, like the lighthouse keeper by the sea. A scene where Vanel’s massive, defeated figure, head in his hands, literally recalls Fromet (Gardiens de phare), Alcover (La petite Lise), Gabin (Gueule d’amour, Remorques) and Ledoux (Pattes blanches). In all of these men, physical massiveness goes hand in hand with a sobriety of gesture at the limit of awkwardness. And a visible lack of eloquence (admirable performance from Vanel!) makes even more tragic the disproportion between their means and what happens to them, as Henri Agel points out. But must we follow him unreservedly when, comparing the destiny of “the man who has lost everything” in this scene in Le Ciel est à vous, to that of the protagonist in Greek tragedy faced with a “mysterious order,” he applies Bazin’s expression, writing about Le jour se lève: “The universe of everyday life has clearly become, without ceasing to be itself, the universe of the Gods”?

The Clock and the Clockmaker

We’re familiar with Bazin’s famous analysis of the dual function – realistic and symbolic – of a set’s objects that to his eyes is enough to constitute a “social documentary about a worker’s life.” Bazin adds, in a manner that is suggestive for us: “It is impossible to explain why the set in Le jour se lève is good without also explaining Gabin’s character, life, destiny and tragedy.” It is precisely this causal chain that goes from the outside to the inside that forces an opposition between Carné’s dramatic-formal expressionism and that which, in Grémillon’s tragic realism, we could call the living expression, at once interiorized and musical (interiorized because musical) of destiny and the signs of destiny.

Much commentary has been written on the famous flashbacks in Le jour se lève, audacious at the time and today questioned again by the a-chronological subjectivism of a Resnais. Of course (though Carné – not as naïve as Autant-Lara in Le diable au corps – always associates François with the remembered scenes), it does not escape us that the auteur uses the past as an immovable “thing,” leaving to his hero no internal freedom. But, in fact, all of the intentions are perfectly clear: the interweaving of two ordered, chronological series establishes the sequence of destined events like clockwork (an object-leitmotif in Carné symbolizing an abstract fate).

In Carné’s “undergone” universe, this chronological abstraction of life goes hand in hand with the symbolic figures of destiny (blind men, clothing merchants, beggars, more or less inherited from German expressionism) and with the direct agents of evil: Valentin (or Zabel or the devil or the unknown man in the compartment added to the material in Thérèse Raquin).

This monolithism is also in accordance with the rigidity of the beautiful, formal “style” of the sets and lighting, with the unvarying dualism of social stereotypes born from Prévert or Jeanson’s dialogue: the petty and stupid bourgeois, the kind workers who seem to have gone into the street to do a little good on Trauner’s sets, with their bicycle that neorealism, it is true, had not yet taught them to go searching for...

The of course undeniable reality of social determinisms – barely mentioned in the dialogue – is immediately put at a distance by the abstraction of the codes of representation and frozen by the clarity of a “style.” The entire reality is invited, then, to take refuge in the presence of an actor (Gabin, Jouvet) strong enough to momentarily hide the abstraction by concentrating the emotion in the no less abstract myth that it is propagating: unattainable happiness, etc... 

Therefore, for want of a devil, a vague “no work, no luck” does not fill the young couple’s attempted suicide in Hôtel du Nord with any convincing force despite – or perhaps because of – the greater attention paid to the social setting. As if for Carné (whose preference, of his films, goes more towards Juliette et la Clé des Songes), peoples’ destinies and social reality cannot enter into the same creative project. If, in Hôtel du Nord, Jouvet’s personal story is included dramatically in the popular setting of the July 14th ball, we can see that it is a matter of two separate elements competing for dramatic effect (confusion: explosion/gun shot).

Destiny and Writing

If, allowing ourselves to jump ahead from Le ciel est à vous, we go looking gladly in Pattes blanches (Grémillon’s most theatrical film because of its sources) for the culminating tragic point – meaning the strangled bride’s scream on the cliff, orchestrated with the music’s crescendo at the dance – we can see that despite appearances, the project is different: it is the culmination of a lyrical structure, deliberately musical, integrating into one whole the quick rhythm of the editing of the nocturnal, four person chase, the music at the inn and the expressive contrast the of black and white (a “rhyme” between the black of Mimi’s white torch with Pattes Blanches’ gaiters; the bride’s veil floating in the night, an inspiration recalling Epstein and Jean Vigo).

Starting off with the most simple village event – Odette’s wedding, represented so truly that, as they say, “we believe in it” – starting off with the banal place where, in the light of ordinary Sundays, the inhabitants go bowling and Jock, the fish merchant, imposes his law on the fishermen as truly as in La Terra Trema, we arrive, without leaving these places, at complete, tragic expressionism. But the stylistic metamorphosis and quickened pace come from within, if we allow that it is transmitting the chain reaction of an internal storm unleashed (as in Lumière d’été) by the characters’ passions: Maurice, Pattes Blanches and Mimi (who, a moment before, was on the threshold of the inn, either watching Odette or watching the other person watching) throwing themselves towards their “destiny.”  

The explosion is of course set off by Maurice’s ticket given to the bride by an innocent little boy who may in a way appear as destiny’s messenger. Just like the old servant coming to look for Maldone. Like the sailor on a motorcycle who, three times in Remorques, is the messenger of Captain Laurent’s internal drama. Like Julien tapping the window at night in Lumière d’été just after the tarot cards Cri-Cri consults have announced: “Shadows – Absence – An Unknown Man.” Like Roland arriving suddenly at the “Guardian Angel,” his engine lights reflected in the face of Michèle who, in relation to Julien, we can say is the other face of destiny. Like, finally, in Le ciel est à vous, to which this long parenthetical takes us back, Noblet, announced by the noise of his motor and the banging of the door, his “providential” arrival permitting the material prosperity of the mechanics. Also like the barback at the aviation club, messenger of misfortune when the death of Maulette, the mayor, means the refusal of the grant, messenger of fortune when he comes to announce the record. What does this mean? Is this world full of signs and omens that culminates in the most everyday, realistic film, the world of “the Gods”?

In fact, the only real question is a question of writing. Of course, it is not a matter of again questioning this continually repeated evidence: auteurs are sovereign, either confirming causality through the succession of images or playing with “deconstructing” chronology or, as during the neo-realist period, introducing contingency and digressions into the story with what Cocteau ironically called “the imagination of Arab storytellers.” We know that “no more actors, no more script, no more mise en scène (...) no more cinema at all” – the terms with which Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves – only created – as he was aware – a new avatar for the “shaping” of reality. It is no less true that this “phenomenological realism,” readily drawn together (Amédée Ayfre, André Bazin, etc.) from existential philosophy and modern American novels, implies an image of destiny (and the auteur’s position) that is very different for the worker in Bicycle Thieves, Gabin in Le jour se lève and the lovers in Ossessione and Thérèse Raquin.

The Italians make their “French elders” outdated through the modern feeling of the totality of reality where “realism” can only express two-way relations between the world and man (between “outside” and “inside”), where, therefore, “setting” and “character” cannot lead separate existences anymore than “events” and “feelings” or “history” and individuals. All of this, anticipating Visconti, Rossellini and Antonioni, anticipating Alain Resnais’ neo-expressionism, we find in Grémillon’s films in the 1940s.

Of course, it is with the vocabulary of the time: actors, mise en scène, lighting, narration through dissolves, fade-outs, ellipses, and the use of music. But the familiar means must not hide from us the originality of their application and the common theme of destiny and the writing of destiny. Take, for example, the very classical sadism of Carné’s parallel editing of the couple in Thérèse Raquin (mailing the letter/clock/death of the blackmailer) or Clouzot’s confiscation of meaning in favor of sadism in a cruel cat and mouse game with his characters (Le Corbeau, Les diaboliques, Les espions). Can the leitmotif of the orphans or “expressionistic” lighting in Le ciel est à vous assume the same kind of significance? Can we even say on a more modest level (because the goal of the above-cited auteurs is precisely to get away from the naturalist fate relative to their narcissism and obsessions) that a social or psychological predetermination contributes to fixing the character in place?    

The Color of Time

If life, to the contrary, seems so quivering to us in Grémillon’s films it is because of the paradox of music. Not by pretending to be absent from his creation but through the total and rigorous orchestration of all the elements, including the music,4 Jean Grémillon the musician discovers life’s movement as well as its tragedy. By revealing the inseparable relations between setting, characters and events and by subtly controlling them throughout the film, paradoxically, he frees them from the objectivation individual functions reduce them to.

Altogether, they compose a simultaneously concrete and symbolic universe. But, unlike Carné’s, the symbolism is polyvalent and provisional, varying with the person and the moment. They have the color of time; time that we experience from within.

No matter how attentive he is to the authenticity of “real details” (Patrice smokes “Abdullah Imperial” cigarettes, the Gauthiers have a Westminster clock and a birdcage, the captain – Gabin – in Remorques gives his orders differently than Clark Gable in the same role, the doctor – Micheline Presle – correctly sets up a perfusion pump), Grémillon knows to be ironic about the superstition for details through the intervention of Marcel Levesque in Lumière d’été who reduces William Tell to the apple. He knows that what matters is elsewhere: in lived duration.

How, then, does the “inside” move to the “outside”? Through the emotional tone of the latter which varies for each person and varies for one person at different times. In Lumière d’été, the location of the dam is both the very authentic place of work (for the workers) but also the sinister setting of a self-imposed prison (Cri-Cri), something that makes too much noise and that is bothersome (the little rentier) and a sun-filled landscaped where she waits for her lover (Michèle) before becoming his refuge against solitude.

The most typical example of this polysemy (in the moment and over time) is in Le ciel est à vous. The scene of the piano purchase brings all the points of view together around an object. For the grandmother who knows nothing about music the piano is what stops her from hearing the phone. For the parents it is the sound of their old love (Lilacs and Roses) and, at the same time that it is a sign of affection for their daughter, it is the proof that “business is good.” For little Jacqueline it is a passion. For the teacher it is first of all an instrument of work: it must sound good.

But for the mechanic – again taken by the passion for his former profession – a running motor is “music.” For Thérèse, isolated in the din of the aviation club party, the plane is first something to avoid that steals her husband from her. But once she is taken with it, the plane “changes meaning.” Transfigured by the night, it resembles the fabulous white whale.

Even the grandmother character finds herself changed by her relationship to the plane: first the cause of extra, daily work and then suddenly the instrument in the loss of her daughter, at the end (reality again “changing signs” and the crowd’s insults being revealed as acclamations) it becomes the flattering symbol of a stardom with which she readily associates herself. Raymonde Vernay is excellent – human even in her ridiculousness, moving in her pain! This “supporting role,” however, does not draw its density of being from her “performance” alone, but by Grémillon having juxtaposed her with situations and other characters, since with the piano teacher (from whom Thérèse asks for encouragement) she exteriorizes her daughter’s confused conscience. This justifies the presence in Grémillon’s films of “digressions” (for example, the piano story), “gaps” (the ellipsis of records) and “longueurs” (the male companionship at Bourbara) which are only such in relation to an external logic and narrative concern for the balance of the parts but which appear coherent if they are obeying the desires of an internal conflict.     

At the Heart of Actions

A tragedy of freedom (or of a degree of a freedom) and responsibility in a world where everything links us to other people gives a rhythm to the interlacing of the piano and plane “motifs” (antagonistic objects since they cannot coexist), between the monotonous Westminster clock and the dust rag, in the aural shock of the loudspeakers against the outmoded waltz, much more than the familial conflict. In the scene where Gauthier spends an anguished night in the newsroom, in the middle of the crackling tele-printers, he remembers the sound of the piano falling during its arrival. The real sound affects the doleful sound of his son’s reproach.

Since every scene is linked to another, previous one, the powerless despair of the “man who loses everything” appears much less a sanction coming from an abstract “Fatum” than the gut wrenching feeling of his responsibility in the change of decision the night before when, in the heat of rediscovered passion, Gauthier asks his wife: “What is the greatest proof of love? To say yes or to say no?”

The “meaning” of events appears only after the fact, as in life, which is to say once they have happened, according to the way in which we experience the present, which is in itself linked to a vision of the future. It is linked to every person’s psychology, but a psychology “in motion.” It is the “understanding relationship” (here we can only go back to [Jean] Pouillon’s magisterial analysis of Stendhal and Dos Passos’ novels5) that Grémillon maintains with his characters that allows him, as we’ve seen, to understand them “step by step” and in the desires of their hearts without fixing them in an immobile “character.” In this way, Thérèse’s unforesable passion appears justified “after the fact” but surprises us as much as her. It is this same manner of accompanying his characters, of experiencing destiny with them, that makes it so Grémillon loathes artificially slicing up the past, present and future and tries to make destiny appear as it actually is – a vision of our conscience at a particular moment in time, often a projection of our concerns, our anxieties and our despair.

A more detailed study would show the progressive interiorization of the writing of “signs” in Grémillon’s films since Maldone. In Remorques the fall of the captain’s diploma, torn by the storm that is “avenging itself,” is connected to the insecurity his wife is experiencing. Cri-Cri projects her anxiety onto the tarot cards. For the timid grandmother in Le ciel est à vous, everything becomes a sign of bad luck (including having “taken Jacqueline away from the nuns”).

It would hardly be paradoxical, then, to maintain that the more destiny is emphasized, the more psychological freedom is affirmed... From Maldone to Le ciel est à vous, it is also be interesting to see the writing of the action evolve to the point of weaving such complex networks of relations between these visions that trigger it, just as outside events and interior determinations overlap directly at a strictly human level without us being able to incriminate some “higher” power.

The catastrophe in Lumière d’été illustrates this aptly: attracted by Julien, Michèle delays her departure; hence Cri-Cri’s anxiety: it is her fear of her own future that awakens her criminal past in Patrice’s presence (the aural reminder of the tragic chase and the pseudo-accident mixed with the real noise of the dam, in contrast with the peaceful setting); this punishment hides Patrice’s own future from his eyes and hastens him into the tragedy of the costume ball, ending in the wild race, with the car driven by Roland. But it is Roland’s own hopeless vision of himself (diabolically fueled by Patrice) that pushes Michèle towards Julien... We should note that spectators are “with” the wild car up until the hopeless romanticism of the headlong rush (cf. Maldone, Pattes blanches) is dissipated through its tragic contrast with the concrete setting of the working hive: the dam.

Song of Love, Song of the World

Grémillon’s style is therefore much less capable of being pigeonholed in a single formula than dependent upon the human beings that it wants to serve: romantic with them but also modest and soberly classical (but no less tragic) with them. This is the case in his final feature L’amour d’une femme (1953) whose prudish and stripped down song builds like the Schumann lied that was inspired by Chamisso’s poem L’amour et la vie d’une femme, where a grandmother evokes before her granddaughter the amazement of her first love as a girl and her destiny as a woman.

Here, the contradictory states of the young female doctor’s soul (an interesting casting of Micheline Presle against type) are inspired by her anguished questioning of her destiny as she discovers life in the middle of the Illiens, marked like theirs by nature’s harshness, austere processions of the dead and the practicing of a profession. A heartbreaking individual, she resonates more than ever on the vastest human scale. Once again, there is a conflict of connections, a choice between two affective chains, with a sacrifice as the key (a father sacrificing his son in Gardiens de phare, a father immolating himself for his daughter in La petite Lise, the mistress killed for the friend in Gueule d’amour, a woman sacrificed for her companion in Remorques and Lumière d’été, a daughter sacrificed for her parents in Le ciel est à vous). Here, she sacrifices the men she loves for her passion for her job and the cycle of the sea once again coincides with the heroic cycle. But if the nobility of the idea that was already underlined (solitary/solidary) evokes Gardiens de phare and Remorques, the writing of destiny attains, this time, its most pared down point, a simplicity in the way it makes concrete reality symbolic. This reality is the touching character of the old teacher (Gaby Morlay), at each moment herself and, for the heroine, the anticipated image of the life awaiting her, a destiny she both admires and rejects. Again, we find the subtly musical play of these repetitions forging the image of destiny: for Gueule d’Amour, whose friend’s adventure repeats his own to the letter, for Yvonne Laurent, who sees an image of her destiny in the young wife deprived of her husband (“all wives look alike”), for Cri-Cri, who sees Michèle ready to fall in the same trap as her, and for Thérèse Gauthier, logically promised the same life as her mother.

The image of the old girl sacrificed for so long to her young students and so quickly forgotten the day of her burial in favor of a small lamb, throws Marie momentarily into the tender and solid prison of the arms of the engineer who does not want to share her with any of the others to whom her job ties her. Yet she chooses them and their inconsistencies (as Marie, the militant, would have done in Massacre des innocents). She remains alone at her window overlooking the sea in the final minutes of the cruel alternative, surrounded only by the dry, alternating noise of a forgotten lighter, nervously opened and closed. She doesn’t return it to its owner even as the boat’s siren sounds its departure.

The cruel and concise sound editing within the shot shows both the pared down quality of the language Grémillon had reached and marks his opposition to the already mentioned external, parallel editing. Again evoking André Bazin, we could easily transform for Grémillon a sentence written for Bresson, “each moment has the destiny and freedom it needs” into “at each moment our freedom writes our destiny” if this “absolute singularity” did not risk losing sight of the page – not chosen – on which it writes. This page is the concrete world on which our choices, small or large, are exercised; the vast and mysterious world of the elements that man confronts in his profession and whose force he feels; the vast world where men work and suffer in such a personal and similar manner; the world to which Grémillon was so attentive that undoubtedly not one of his films omits showing a workshop or a machine operating (even a modest sewing machine). To the point that some people’s myopia has sometimes found in his films a concern for “social realism” alone!

It is with some intuition that Henri Agel, commenting at length on the end of L’amour d’une femme, evokes Rossellini and Europa 51. Even if in retrospect, the lyricism of the latter film seems more heavy-handed than in Grémillon, even if Stromboli might appear to be a more appropriate reference, there remains nevertheless between the two great, departed filmmakers something other than a “stylistic” kinship (a notion which both rejected seeking in favor of work and humility before the truth), a thematically deeper spiritual kinship where the individual’s solitude is orchestrated with his belonging to a collective future. Also at the level – a not accidental correspondence – of the filmmaker’s responsibility, from his conscience to his own personal sacrifice, his duty to bear witness for man before others.

In an important article6 on his conception of his job, Grémillon writes: “The nature of cinema, like that of architecture, is not to limit its audience; its function and responsibility is to assume the immense burden of nourishing large crowds for whom it is, in many cases, the only cultural nourishment […] It is therefore not impossible to bring the problem back to the conscience that the director takes or refuses to take of the recording function of which his work is the instrument. […In relation to Valéry’s “divine constraints,”] the precise constraint that weighs on cinema and takes away from the creator his choice of subject or transforms out of necessity works of art into objects of negotiation seems to me somewhat different and is deeply destructive of the intimate richness of the work of art itself. (The true Valéryian constraints) are perhaps in a confrontation with the thousands of aspects of reality and the obligation to find for each of them the mode of storytelling that is most appropriate and faithful to the secret nature of the phenomenon that needs to be described. Gide wrote in If It Die... very beautiful pages on classical art, finding its most valuable individuality in the apparent renunciation of the prestige of originality.”

It is not surprising then that Pierre Kast, connected to Grémillon through work and friendship, also uses evangelical words to say how much “social realism” as well as the quality of a “style” had been given (not without effort) to someone who was not looking for them, but only the kingdom of truth. “Like someone who wants to save his life and for that loses it, like the person who is not primarily looking for his salvation finds it, Jean Grémillon did not want to escape his time period in order to survive it and thus perish in Parnassiansim. He wished to give a valid reflection of the problems, conflicts and men of his time.”7

Having not saved his life like so many others by making it out unscathed of the political and aesthetic game, did Jean Grémillon in fact save it for us today? We could say no if an artist’s permanence must be marked by stylistic exhibitionism. Grémillon looks at the concrete beauty of glasses placed on a table with Chardin’s eyes, the luminous quality of a seascape with Boudin’s and, why not, Picasso’s if he makes a mutilated statue in Normandy scream like Guernica. Beauty and tragedy never being aimed at by Grémillon as self-sufficient goals but constrained by the truth of the model, the definition of his style is in its refusing analysis, its very perfection tending to desire invisibility. And his model being life’s truth, it is just as normal that the man who committed himself to “being able to renounce the perfection of the moment in order to discover it in movement” finds himself (like Murnau, Bresson and Rohmer) among directors who are most betrayed by the still frame.

Yet, his modesty before every subject reveals a much more precious unity – more durable for us – than the obsessiveness of a style. In conclusion, it suffices to remind ourselves of certain returning images that discreetly orchestrate the tragedy of Grémillon the man, and man plain and simple: ambiguous embraces glimpsed from above that are at once tender and overbearing; the permanency of scenes (marriages, parties, glasses drunk together) where man appears sometimes happily integrated into a group (Thérèse in Bourbara, Marie Prieur in the sailor’s café), sometimes isolated (Thérèse at the aviation club party, the engineer in the same café, Cri-Cri lost at the masked ball) and sometimes separated (the Gauthiers watching from outside the reception for the female aviator, Maurice watching Odette’s wedding, Marie, in Le Massacre des innocents, seeing a family party through a window). And above all – a motif linked to the previous one – how can one not find in the farandole that traverses Maldone, Gardiens de phare, Lumière d’été and Pattes blanches gaiety quickly become frenzy, how can one not find in this the cruel, double image of necessary solidarity and the risk of losing oneself?

The secret language of this chain is perhaps that human adventure, in any case, could play elsewhere only in the earthly dimension. Is it imagining too much to oppose two series of images: in one, made famous by Carné, the camera watching from outside a couple at their window seems to block the future of these eyes lost in a mythical faraway place; in the others, frequent and less famous by Grémillon, what the camera, placed inside, invites the spectator to watch with the protagonists is the world where we are. 

1. In his beautiful book on Jean Grémillon (Editions Pierre Seghers).

2. “They have only to not show resistance.” Lambs reappear in Le Ciel est à vous and L’amour d’une femme as an emblem of mediocre passivity and egotistical indifference.

3. See the excellent analysis of the film in the IDHEC sheet by Gaston Bounoure, to whom we also owe the one on Remorques.

4. Rland Manuel (Interview in Ciné-club no. 4):

“ …Grémillon’s big idea is that the primacy of the image is the fundamental law of cinema (meaning that the image imprints its rhythm on the film)…so Grémillon’s big idea is that film music must renounce, if it is allied with the image, having its own form. […] There is only one composition principle for the film composer, which is that this principle responds precisely to the most hidden, secret and, at the same time, most elementary laws of primitive and archaic music, what Manuel de Falla calls the internal rhythm. For Manuel de Falla – and Grémillon adopts this point of view entirely – there are two elements in the music that are under the musician’s control: rhythm and tonality. And, according to Falla, the internal rhythm manifests itself through the fact that rhythm and tonality are linked, when you change the rhythm, you change the tone and vice versa. […] I’m convinced that Grémillon’s profound originality as a director comes from this sense of rhythm that in his films is innate (to the point that perhaps it comes into play in his conception of cinema) and that his musical training developed. Hence the importance he gives to sound in his films. You see, for Grémillon, film music becomes primary material that he orders into a whole. I repeat, and it couldn’t be said more, that he is a composer. And working with him is a singular privilege for a musician.”

5. Jean Pouillon, Temps et roman. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1946.

6.  Ciné-club no. 4, January 1950.

7.  Premier Plan no. 5.

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