The Forgotten: Triumph and Disaster

The Jean Grémillon retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival sheds new light on a neglected filmmaker's varied works.
David Cairns

Every time I see a Jean Grémillon film, I write about it for The Forgotten. I'm now going to break with tradition slightly, because thanks to the Edinburgh Film Festival's Grémillon retrospective, subtitled Symphonies of Life, I've now seen too many films to catch up on except through a kind of overview, which I will now attempt. I should stress that the retrospective isn't over yet, I haven't been able to see all of it, and anyway there are some films not showing. So this should be considered a work in progress.

Between La petite Lise (1930), which deserves to be considered alongside Lang's M when early sound cinema is discussed, and Gueule d'amour (1937), a magnificent melodrama that works along far more stylistically conventional lines, it's been hard to see exactly what kind of filmmaker Grémillon is. A great one, certainly, but what qualities unite his work?

This is now a bit clearer to me. Seeing the silent Lighthouse Keepers (1929), falsely described as a grand guignol (really it partakes of the spirit of French impressionist cinema more than anything else), written by Jacques Feyder, right after Remorques (1941), I could see not only Grémillon's love of the sea (he was raised in Normandy), a love mingled with respect and fear, but also that the films share an ending. The heroes lose their loved ones but are able to plunge back into their work, saving lives in the process. Duty is a cold comfort to those who have known love, but it separates the films from the fatalism of Carné's work. Carné has no particular feeling about social responsibility.

Remorques and Lumière d'été were both co-scripted by Jacques Prévert, and the similarities and differences between these films and Prévert's work with Carné are fascinating. Grémillon's characters are much more likely to struggle against their fate, and more likely to win, at least partially. Lumière d'été is a particularly fascinating example of Occupation-era cinema, because although all reference to the war and the Occupation are excluded, Prévert's allegorical elements got the film banned. Set around a deserted mountain hotel, a castle and a dam under construction, the film comes with ready-made microcosms for the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the working class. The romantic plot takes place against a constant background of distant explosions. Prévert's socialistic impulses are deeply buried in the story, but did not escape the censor's eye. And both screenwriter and director are united by a shared love of both documentary reality and magical fantasy, brought together when guests from a fancy dress party, injured in a car crash, wander through the vast construction site crying for help: an image out of dream.

Grémillon wanted to film the storm-tossed ships of Remorques for real, on location (as he had successfully done in Lighthouse Keepers a few years before), but was compelled to make do with models. When dawn breaks, the ships are once more life-sized, making the previous events seem a nightmare of miniaturization. And in Lumière d'été, the vehicles traversing the vast arid landscapes are filmed with undercranked cameras, reducing them to toys.

Seeing Grémillon's documentaries alongside his fiction films also allows us to gain perspective on the importance of the short factual films in his oeuvre. The director regarded documentary not as a marginal, inferior genre, but as central to the value of cinema, and many of his dramas contain substantial sequences which function as documentaries capturing particular ways of life.

His Goya film, The Disasters of War, a collaboration with his pupil Pierre Kast, consists entirely of beautiful rostrum camerawork exploring Goya's grotesque and horrifying etchings in detail, while the director's own commentary and score bring out further layers of awe and terrible wonder. 

The Sixth of June at Dawn (1946), screened in a rarely seen extended version, is based around footage Grémillon shot in his home province after the Normandy landings, charting the destruction of towns and landscape by war. Images abound of gutted cathedrals, bullet-pocked plaster saints and dismembered Jesuses, calling to mind Sam Fuller's The Big Red One. An exploded cemetery with shattered and upturned gravestones. A procession of men bear coffins over a landscape of rubble, the last in line shouldering a box the size of a packing crate.

These are the rambling thoughts of one overwhelmed by a wealth of beauty and genius. Expect more next week!

The first two images are from Remorques, the second two from Lumière d'été. Grémillon's work can be explored via a box set from Criterion's Eclipse label.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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