This image represents you. You are Maldone, an itinerant canal worker – surprising how many classic French films take to the waterways: L’Atlante, of course, and also Gance’s La Roue. (Britain offers The Bargee and Young Adam. America doesn’t do canals.) Jean Grémillon’s Maldone (1928) is less famous, but deserves its day in the sun.
Charles Dullin, his Punchinello face a surly crescent-moon, is Maldone, a bargee who enjoys his free-and-easy existence, having run away from a prosperous estate. But when his brother dies, he’s called back to manage his inheritance, losing out on the gypsy girl he loves and winding up married to a neighbour.
This image represents the past.
The past – in this case, 1928, although the film’s setting is mostly timeless – is another country – in this case, France. Grémillon was a busy, well-regarded filmmaker from the late 20s to the late 40s (with a few obscure years on either end), whose reputation seems to have been eclipsed by time alone – no critical downgrading occurred, just collective amnesia.
Working with two great cinematographers (Georges Périnal shot The Blood of a Poet and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Christian Matras shot La Ronde and Lola Montes – Maldone was his first job), Grémillon devises a style that blends pictorial beauty in the landscape scenes – Vaseline smears blur the edges of frame into an impressionist glaze – with a fascinating, schizoid approach to movement.
The early scenes on the barge establish a drifting approach, the camera locked to the deck, scenery gliding past like a dream, and this is developed by tracking shots like those in Dreyer’s Vampyr, floaty and not really motivated by conventional concerns. At times, the camera moves to express emotion, at times to follow moving characters, and at times to reveal narrative information, but it’s never quite in synch with anything else. It has it’s own speed. But these wanderings are interrupted by fitful whip-pans that jolt the lens into full alertness, snapping this way and that to catch unfolding action as if we were in a documentary, all at once, and we have to move fast or we might miss it.
This conflicting aesthetic is quite strange – I’m not sure it’s 100% successful but it’s 100% distinctive and interesting.
This image represents the present, the eternal now when the second hand stops and we’re all statues with beating hearts.
Grémillon gets even more startlingly modern results with his editing, since he’s apparently looked into the future, like the gypsy fortune teller Maldone consults, and seen what Resnais and Roeg are going to get up to forty years later. The more immediate influences may be Gance and Feyder, but whatever the source, Grémillon mixes times and tempos masterfully, with flash-cuts to the vision of the future that startles Maldone and us with its abrupt spinning POVs and radically canted angles dropped in almost at random, and the double images which can create a lazy flow of summer’s day timelessness, or a jazzy contrapuntal racket. Looked at from the standpoint of now, the film still seems fresh and experimental, free from the constraints of custom or industrial practice.
This image stands for the future – the foreshortened rows of trees like a sinister cloud of squid ink, waiting to engulf us. It’s a pastoral image that somehow radiates menace, appearing early in the action and imparting a sense of dread which hangs over the story, aided by the director’s dissonant music choices (the restored movie preserves the selections of music by Erik Satie and others which accompanied it on original release).
Grémillon achieved a lengthy career, with high spots including Remorques and Le Ciel est a Vous, key films from the occupation era. Dullin, his leading man, while mainly a stage star, was memorable repulsive as a hunchbacked movie mogul in Clouzot’s Quais des Orfevres. Annabella, the local girl Maldone marries, would later run around in a tutu for René Clair in Le Million, and innocently draw Louis Jouvet to his doom in Carné’s Hotel du Nord, as well as marrying Tyrone Power. Her father introduced the Boy Scout movement to France (stick with me, kids, it’s not much fun but it’s educational).
After Grémillon’s death, his reputation somehow sailed into that dark, obscuring nebula that crouches on the horizon waiting for Maldone, but the process of forgetting is not irreversible, and the prow of his craft may be due to emerge into sunlight again.