Poetic Rhythm: Three Films by Jean Grémillon

On the three impressive films included in Criterion's Eclipse Series set, "Jean Grémillon During the Occupation".
Farran Smith Nehme

A father, worried sick that his wife may be dead, walks his son and daughter across a rain-slicked square, while a long line of black-clad children from an orphanage snakes past them in the other direction. The bars of a castle-shaped birdcage, which has been the backdrop for a bitter quarrel between an aristocrat and his middle-aged mistress, gives way to a shot of a mountaintop hotel crisscrossed by countless panes of glass. A man and woman on the verge of an affair walk through an empty seaside house that evokes both their waning marriages and the life they will never have together.

Those are three moments from the three movies in Eclipse's set, Jean Grémillon During the Occupation: Le ciel est à vous, Lumière d'été and Remorques. This DVD release marks an extraordinary stroke of luck for those who, like me, had barely heard of this director. How often does anyone encounter, out of nowhere, brilliant 70-year-old films for the first time? (If you are in New York City, you can even see all three, plus the magnificent Gueule d'Amour, on the big screen as part of the Film Forum's "French Old Wave" series.)

The Eclipse title promises a wartime angle that the films really don't have, at least not overtly. Remorques, a melancholy romance that's the earliest and best film of the three, was started in 1939 and interrupted by the outbreak of war in September. Filming began again, only to be interrupted again by the fall of France the following June. Completed at last in late 1941, it was successful on release. By that time, stars Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan had found refuge (for themselves, if not ultimately their careers) in Hollywood; Grémillon moved south and continued to make films under the Vichy regime, films which studiously ignored the war and its impact--at least on the surface.

Of the two other films, the 1943 Lumière d'été can be read as having a coded agenda, with its five-spoked love-wheel of dressmaker, dam worker, hotelier, frustrated artist and--the character that undoubtedly hit home with the authorities--a vicious, amoral aristocrat. Vichy eventually suppressed the film.

Le ciel est à vous, on the other hand, is a family-focused drama about a couple who pit their dreams against all dictates of common sense, via the wife's attempt to break the women's long-distance flight record. It's a movie so stringently apolitical that its lack of ideology begins to seem an ideology itself, like a political candidate whose paeans to family and diligence are really darts tossed at those who've failed to get with the program.

Le ciel is something rarer, though--a love story that begins mid-marriage, well after most romances have scrolled through the end titles. It opens with overhead shots of those orphans at play in a field, then the town and the auto shop that the Gauthier family is leaving for another. The camera descends to the ground, to meet the movers loading up a cart, and there the camera stays for the rest of the movie, earthbound no matter how high the characters aim.

Pierre (Charles Vanel) runs the repair business; Thérèse (Madeleine Renaud) runs the household. Almost the entire first half is given to domestic cares and their burgeoning business. It's Pierre who sneaks off to the local airfield, not Thérèse. When she goes for her first ride in an airplane more than 45 minutes in, she gets out and collapses in Pierre's arms, overcome with elation. It's a coup de foudre quite unlike the deep, well-worn love that is all we ever see of her marriage.

Thus Le ciel est à vous reverses the usual progression of desperation propelling ambition. Instead it's the ambition that causes problems, playing havoc with the business and so obsessing the parents that they sell their talented daughter's piano. The couple's devotion to each other is stronger than to their children, and that's an unusual message for a family film in any era.

Lumière d'été, often cited as one of Grémillon's best, shows a stronger social agenda from its very first shots of workers blowing up rock for a dam--or even earlier, if you count the writing credit for Jacques Prevert, with his strong pro-worker sympathies. Beautiful dressmaker Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) arrives at a hotel to await the arrival of her beau. She appears at the side of the road in a cloud of smoke from the explosions, an apparition that is going to up-end everything.

Patrice (Paul Bernard), whose every mannerism screams indolent nobility, offers Michèle a ride to the hotel, and he's obviously interested. Just as obviously, he's tired of his former mistress, hotel proprietor Christine (Renaud), whom he calls Cri-Cri, a nickname that irritates even her. Patrice seems untrustworthy, yes, but it takes a while for his true personality to show. We realize Patrice is not just selfish, but sociopathic, only when Christine reminds him of how he tried to manipulate her into friendship with his wife--and how he shot his wife in a hunting "accident" that was nothing of the sort. That scene also makes striking use of sound, with sounds of a hunt echoing on the soundtrack as the two characters remind each other of what they'd both like to forget.

It isn't merely Patrice--almost everyone in this movie has one face for the world, another for private life, surely a situation the citizens of an occupied country know all too well. Christine is the epitome of the crisp, still-chic middle-aged businesswoman, until she's alone with Patrice and abjectly begs him to say he still loves her. Michèle makes a show of her devotion to the drunken artist Roland (Pierre Brasseur, warming up for a similar egotistical turn in Children of Paradise). Alone with him, though, her doubts emerge--how could they not, when he's speaking some of Prevert's most deliciously cynical lines: "I love you, but I prefer myself."

Nearly the only character who's actually what he appears to be is the stalwart, handsome, dam worker Julien (Georges Marchal), who loves Michèle. And while Michèle and Julien are sympathetic, in the way that youth and beauty pairing off is always sympathetic, they're also the least interesting part of the five-part love roundelay. The trio left on the outside have the deeper, more complex emotions; confronted with faded love, Christine says, "The longest jokes aren't the funniest."

More so than Le ciel est à vous, Lumière d'été shows the rhythm of Grémillon's shots, the graceful way they build on one another. Michèle approaches the hotel from the winding access road, shot from below; later, when the roaring drunk Roland rides a motorcycle to the hotel, it's shot from a long distance above, until he arrives in the courtyard and falls flat on his face. Again and again, we're shown things climbing, like the cable car that connects to the dam, and things falling, like a shower of rocks from an explosion or the late-movie crash of an automobile. And the light in the movie functions like a dimmer switch. Set near the timber line in the mountains high above Provence, the hotel and its surroundings are blasted by sunlight that throws everything into sharp relief. The final part of the movie takes place under artificial light: at night, during a masked ball, and at the dam---until the sun comes up again for the final showdown.

All three of the movies are deeply rewarding, but it's the simplest one, Remorques, that has the greatest beauty. It's helped by the presence of Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin, two stars so blindingly charismatic that their merest eye contact is worth pages of exposition. To this Remorques adds Prevert's gorgeous dialogue (he rewrote much of the script), and Grémillon's passionate feel for the freedom of the sea and the confinement of land.

Gabin plays André, a tugboat operator ("remorques" translates as "towline") who makes a dangerous living rescuing boats from the storm-tossed waters off the Brittany coast. He's married to Yvonne (Renaud again--Grémillon loved this actress, with good reason); their relationship is loving, if not quite happy. She's grown tired of André's profession, tired of constantly fearing for his safety. Quietly, persistently, she's trying to persuade him to give it up. But he doesn't want to, not really, despite his frequent expressions of disgust for the low pay and wretched conditions. Gabin plays his scenes with Renaud with a mixture of real affection and wariness; she's trying to detach him from his one source of excitement, the one place where he's strong and in control. Yvonne is a Spanish-moss spouse--lovely but potentially suffocating.

André's crew rescues the vessel of Marc (Jean Marchat), a craven captain who's willing to let his boat go down so he can collect the insurance. His wife, Morgan, naturally has come to loathe him. Unable to spend another minute with the man, she takes a raft to Gabin's boat. Morgan and Gabin snipe at one another on board, they meet again onshore, they talk...

Remorques is a romantic melodrama, and these films are always built on emotions that are common, even when the situations are not. Here's a man who has lingering love for a good wife whose needs have become dreary and whose presence is no longer exciting; and here's a woman married to someone whose once-thrilling attentions turned out to be a cover for contempt and abuse. And the two connect, as such unhappy souls easily might in reality.

Where Grémillon's artistry shows the most is in the scene where Gabin and Morgan walk on the vast, deserted Breton beach. Their feet sink slightly into the hard sand and impede their progress, just slightly, not enough to make them turn back. They sit in an abandoned rowboat; Morgan fights the wind to keep her hair out of her eyes, Gabin looks down at his hands, and it's as though they've already made love. They enter the deserted house, its furniture smothered under bridal-white covers, and Morgan climbs a curving stairway to the bedroom, and it's as though Gabin's emotions are towing him up after her.

It's all hurtling to a point where the boiling sea, the illicit lovers and Andre's duty toward the pallid, clinging Yvonne will build to a final crescendo, along with Roland Manuel's score. Grémillon studied music at a conservatory, and his movies have a musical flow. Remorques deserves its frequent designation as poetic realism, a beautiful term that signals the way this director gave his best movies the depth, emotions and cadences of poetry.

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