Jean Grémillon: Realism and Tragedy

Part 1 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 first 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.

Filmmaker maudit? The romantic ring of the term, more suited originally to a Stroheim or a Welles – destroyed by the Hollywood machine – seems less adequate to the character of Jean Grémillon whose human and aesthetic generosity is veiled by a restraint that attracted neither confidence nor attention. Moreover, is it easy to claim the martyr’s palm for the author of Le ciel est à vous (a film considered by Roger Régent as the typical result of the French School) who was honored at the Liberation with the title of President of the Cinémathèque?

But let’s re-read the homage Henri Langlois made to his friend who passed away prematurely in 1959, an homage accompanied by deep bitterness.

“It was while seeing Jean Grémillon’s La petite Lise that I forgot Under the Roofs of Paris and stopped missing silence. In the history of French cinema, Jean Grémillon’s La petite Lise is an essential date. It is the first manifestation of the school that would impose itself definitively in 1936 and make French cinema the first in the world. [...] Who can say what Jean Grémillon could have done after La petite Lise from 1931 to 1937? Who can say what French cinema lost due to the silence following the tragedy of Daïnah la métisse and the jobs Grémillon had to give in to, before rumors were again whispered, in 1937, as they had been in 1927, that he was the director of tomorrow? Who can say what French cinema lost in this period of gestation? Who can say, if not those who remember the tragedy following the affirmation of Remorques, Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous (where) the greatest French director, his reputation complete, devoted his work to films that were commissioned and that were never shot? Films prepared up to the very beginning of shooting and whose incriminatory scripts alone remain. [...]

“I remember the enthusiastic climate that reigned on the second floor of Avenue de Messine when Jean Grémillon was preparing Le printemps de la Liberté there. I remember the inn in Provins where, with Charles Spaak, he prepared a film on the Commedia dell’Arte that was somewhat reminiscent of an avant la lettre Golden Coach but was situated not that far from Intolerance. How many lost masterpieces and why?  Why this conspiracy of smiles and flowers, of mediocrity and envy? Why this tragedy that was the distant cause of his death, because it is not with impunity that a man carrying within him such works cannot express them?”

It was, in fact, while reading the newspaper that Jean Grémillon learned – only 20 years ago – that he would not shoot the big film commemorating the Revolution of 1848 whose long preparation he had just finished; the official money promised by the Éducation Nationale having been suddenly transferred to another use. “Curious way to take time off work,” comments Pierre Kast, “for one of the most major film directors in our country who we’ve just retained for fifteen months on a commissioned project. And which grows in intensity if we remember that Grémillon, for this task, had passed on directing the first film that he had the possibility of shooting in five years.” There still remains a trace of this wreckage that never made it to sea. It is the text published by Pierre Kast* (Le printemps de la liberté mutated, for lack of a better alternative, into a radio broadcast), an article considering the script and preceded by notes revealing working methods that are as rigorous as they are impressive. Over the four versions marking the successive steps of the reduction of its budget, we see Grémillon reject naturalism and expressionism one after the other. Neither a grand fresco lacking in a single detail, nor an epic poem in the Russian style centered on some popular hero, Le printemps de la Liberté practices what Pierre Kast has excellently called “an everyday exercise of tragedy.” With other means – though undoubtedly in the same spirit as Resnais later with Hiroshima, La guerre est finie and Muriel – Grémillon concentrates a historical drama into the limited space of ordinary lives: a young provincial couple “ascended” to Paris and an old craftsman who is killed in the Faubourg St. Antoine riot. Grémillon remained, therefore, faithful to a line he defined with regards to Pattes blanches (1948) but that was also evident in his films that remained on paper (La commedia dell’arte, Le massacre des innocents). “Inserting a passionate drama into the framework of a social structure that both explains it and goes beyond it seems to be what fits cinema best. [...] Cinema is the mode of expression best adapted to the simultaneous vision of individual lives and the frame in which they exist. I think that a story remains inseparable from its social framework.”

Is there some critical masochism in being interested in aborted projects? If an un-shot film is not yet a film, reading Printemps de la Liberté is nevertheless a fruitful approach to the personality of an auteur who is too unknown by the general public in relation to Feyder, Duvivier, Carné, Clouzot and other tenants of what it is convenient to call “French realism.” Seeing, then, this fabulous work of documentation – not dependent upon dull believability, but transcended by the heart’s imagination and the intuition of people in the singularity of their destiny, everything submitted nevertheless to a rigorous architecture – we can better see how Grémillon’s realism, while making recourse to the usual obligatory paths (dialogue writers, actor-stars, etc.), transcends, through the scope of its ambition, what in many of his contemporaries often remains barely camouflaged narcissism or brilliant work of haute couture.

We begin to understand as well that — much more than the false martyr, falsely audacious in terms of style or subject, gaining in the short term through the game of snobbism – what merited Grémillon the production’s reservations is precisely the patient and passionate humility, outside of any search for effect, outside of the codes of representation in use, before the truth of a subject, the humility of the craftsman allied directly with the demands of the artist for total control of all the means of creation reserved for specialists (script, dialogue, actors, sets, music). For Grémillon,  “rigorous procedures” alone are “the path leading to overlooked regions of people and things, not out of curiosity or delight, but to find or rediscover their secret more exactly.” The path of knowledge crossed with technique, the combat against the material and the coincidence of Art with the profession... Is it surprising that Grémillon, discontented with his feature, devoted his final short films to alchemy, craftsmen (La Maison aux images, Haute Lisse) and the paintings of his friend André Masson? But the profession of faith declared with regards to engravers and so clearly valid for himself — “without time and discipline, no task is worthily accomplished” — was certainly barely in accordance with the demands of the industrial production whose great success was stimulated by the talkies.

One of the interests for critics in Grémillon’s career is its exemplary aspect, both historically and morally. Begun with the Avant-Garde, it reflects the aesthetic evolution of thirty years of French cinema and often precedes it in its pioneering risks: what is disappointing or disconcerting in Grémillon is recognized ten years later as a sign of modernity. On the one hand, in the manner of a seismograph, it bears witness to the jolts felt from inside (as is normal in an essentially conflictual art) and coming from outside, amidst two events, both important in their own way: the coming of sound and the war from 1939-45. But on the other hand, it bears witness for itself to a personality that is even stronger for not being ostentatious.

Nature and Forms

Maldone (1927) is, therefore, not only a first feature that revealed a young provincial man who was talented and cultivated, musical and enthusiastic for seeking out the Parisian avant-garde milieu but who nonetheless kept deep roots in nature through heredity. The dual personality of its hero – smitten with adventure amidst the dull calm of everyday life (he does not resolve his conflict by shooting the “other” in a mirror, like in The Student of Prague) – is a kind of commentary on the dual path where the young cinema is searching for itself: stylistic adventure and attention to the simple truth of things. Just as the Jean Epstein of Finis Terrae also directed The Fall of the House of Usher, Grémillon in Maldone shows both his expressive capacities (the frenetic whirlwind of the ball, the unusual angles, the subjective representation of the horse’s fall) but also his sensitivity to the meanings of the landscape (the whiteness of a towpath under a stormy sky, quivering leaves, light reflecting in the water of a canal) and his sense of everyday beauty: the scene of the thresher with the cloud of wheat dancing in the sun in the movement of the belts is reprised to the letter in June 6th at Dawn.

Very curiously, in the same year, 1928, when Epstein, in Ouessant, among the goémoniers, was shooting Finis Terrae without actors or sets, Grémillon began his Brittany cycle (Remorques, Pattes blanches, L’Amour d’une femme), shooting in St. Guénolé — but also on an André Barsacq set — a drama of solitude, Gardiens de phare. Next to professional actors, a formidable non-professional actor: the sea. And already, the play of forms (far from the “gratuities” that lent its title to a stylistic exercise directed by Grémillon just prior in a montage of industrial documentaries**) affirms his suitability to the subject. The infernal spiral of the lighthouse’s interior staircase, the mechanical revolving that seems to break the isolated protagonists and the pitilessly regular alternation of light and shadow on the faces elevate to a tragic level the everyday reality to which they belong as much as the pipe, the oil drum and the lighthouse keeper’s goatskin vest. The set enters, then, into a perfect dialogue with the natural elements: the multiple faces of the sea, the furious assault of the waves and, in contrast, earthly sweetness, smoke stretching over piles of seaweed — o Flaherty! — and ribbons of hair blowing in the wind. Grémillon is already in search of a film realism uniting the “freshness of childhood and the precision of calculus.”

Indeed, a young Marcel Carné — at the time assistant to Georges Périnal, the cinematographer for Feyder’s Nouveaux Messieurs as well as Grémillon’s first two films — praises, as a connoisseur, the work of his master: “Périnal endowed the film with stunning photography that was a revelation for many. It isn’t luminous photography. It is better than that, an atmospheric photography, grey without being flat, intentionally imprecise without being dark. It adds to the anguish and oppression. Périnal is a magician without realizing it. With the help of red filters, he transforms for you a sunny sea into a strange, lunar landscape and his play with shadow and light is as delicate as an image by Man Ray.”

This is very significant praise of the temptation to aestheticism that was awaiting the future auteur of Port of Shadows, whose tendency was to sacrifice his characters to atmosphere, the opposite of Grémillon. Consider the superb shot where, his son finally asleep after a terrible night spent keeping watch over him, the somewhat calmed father watches the sea and (as if he were scrutinizing his destiny) the twilight that is whitening the immense horizon line. Here, the image is neither in the service of bland realism (we are in a lighthouse) nor form (it is beautiful). It is in harmony with an inner rhythm where anxiety alternates with the more and more restrained hope of seeing the threat averted. The hope is the happy images of marriage, the white coiffures and dances on the heath (Epstein, in L’Or des mers, finds the same inspiration); the threat is the return, like a leitmotiv, in a more and more obsessive form, of the image of a rabid dog. But, unlike, for example, the theme of the fatal swallow in Epstein’s La glace à trois faces, here destiny begins to be interiorized in the protagonist’s feeling of it rather than being pinned on him from outside as so often happens in every film to come. Destiny undergone (the son’s ineluctable illness, confinement) is mixed with destiny “dominated”: it is because of the siren calls from the boat in danger that the father decides to confront his son who has gone mad in order to be able to turn the light back on. A simple everyday gesture is therefore elevated to a heroic level. This Sacrifice of Isaac has for its God the community of men and nothing is at once crueler and greater than the flipping of perspective where the lighthouse’s tiny light, seen from land by the women at their window, begins to again throw its alternating beam — a sign of hope for the men — but whose ransom, inside the lighthouse, is the death of the son and the despair of the exhausted father.

First Scales of Tragedy

Realism and a sense of tragedy: Grémillon practices himself, then, the virtues that he enjoyed praising in Jacques Feyder’s films. But on this Grand Guignol play using the old, sadistic huis-clos theme, the filmmaker of Gardiens de phare had already conferred the nobility of an interior drama that in Albert Camus is deciphered with the difference of just one letter: SOLITARY/SOLIDARY. A theme whose exemplary consistency is proven by his final feature (and original script, which is important), L’Amour d’une femme: it is while going through the storm to operate on the lighthouse keeper that the young female doctor from Ouessant becomes aware of the force of the links attaching her to her profession; she sacrifices to it her personal happiness with the man who loved her too jealously, from now on prisoner of the island like the lighthouse keeper.

Destiny undergone or destiny dominated? The question is pursued in La petite Lise; but the fact that we have to ask it is already suggestive of an unusual degree of ambition in a French cinema where destiny had very quickly been subsumed (Bresson aside, of course) by the mechanics of banal naturalism and limited psychological analysis. The Grémillon parable is developed both in terms of interiority and scope: in interiority, towards the irrational secret of the movements of the heart; in scope, towards the mystery of the links that connect man so strongly to his group, family, profession and powerful Nature whose power he fights and questions at the same time.

Gardiens de phare is therefore the first mark of a vibrant, humanist exploration placed at the meeting point of personal and collective adventure. An exploration that Grémillon was never able to take to the conclusion of its natural course – history – apart from a simultaneously lyrical and modest song about mutilated Normandy, a musical montage of documents cut in half by the distributor – June 6th at Dawn – as well as in never-filmed scripts such as Le massacre des innocents.

But Gardiens de phare is also more typically interesting for being situated in the frontier period where a filmmaker who had found his balance between formal rhythms and concrete reality had to work to rediscover it by integrating new information: sound and speech. La petite Lise is the first (and in this regards particularly interesting) result of this work.

In 1930, at the moment when French cinema (Vigo and Cocteau being notable exceptions) was devoting itself to vaudeville and light opera, when even Renoir, before being able to shoot La Chienne, had to prove his know-how with On purge bébé, Grémillon, with his first talkie, proved two things: first (as Visconti did much later with La Terra Trema and Rocco), his confidence in the truth of the tragedy of simple people: melodrama; second, his distrust of the ease, in the form of pitfalls, of the new means of expression. The prisoners’ song in the long opening sequence cannot be suspected of picturesqueness supporting some “backdrop,” with the camera, in its passage over all the shaved heads, paying so much attention to each face and each kind of solitude in this cruel parody of a community to which the hero must return at the end. The carpentry studio where, freed, he rediscovers his old profession, is enriched by the marvelous immediacy of the sound. But, furthermore, the whistling of the trains in the smoke that rises through the window of the lousy hotel room where her father waits for Lise, the noise of the unknown footsteps on the moneylender’s staircase that fill the murderous couple with fear (a Dostoyevsky reference?), the blare of the jazz in the club underlining the character’s disarray and the final crash of the gong sealing the return to prison and anticipating, far in advance, the destiny-awakening of Le jour se lève all show a certain amount of foresight in the array of sound's possibilities. And the image knows to be conservative when the eloquence of silent writing and the expressivity of silence are required. Conceived at the outset as a veritable butchering — Nadia Sibirskaïa recounts — the murder is reduced to the ellipsis of a rivulet of blood advancing with monstrous slowness across the light-colored floor (the splendid tragedy of black and white) under Lise’s terrified eyes. Likewise, the eloquent use of deep focus is realized in the shot of the courtyard where, while a woman is peacefully hanging her laundry, Alcover enters the frame, seen from behind, and goes towards the trap awaiting him; the same thing happens in the final shot where, from the entry of the police station, we see him (without hearing him) talking to the police officer.

Simultaneously revealed here — in spite of the moving imperfections of a first attempt — is the mastery of the expressive means that we find later, often with much more emphasis, in Duvivier, Carné and Clouzot and, at the same time, the more personal concern (and ultimately more innovative) of not alienating them from what we call the internal rhythm, meaning the auteur’s communion with the character, the attention to his characterization, the intuition of the character’s inner clock. This distinguishes the sequences of waiting, announcing Le ciel est à vous in advance: the father waiting for Lise in a silent one on one with the objects or Lise, anguished, at the window waiting for her father in the setting sun. This is also what is interesting about the rapid flash to the prison: a memory-future that lends the full heroic weight to the father’s decision to accuse himself in order to save his daughter.

Though different in spirit, La petite Lise announces the cruelty of Le jour se lève. But the public rejected altogether in Grémillon both the pessimistic content and this new kind of expression. It appreciated it a few years later, once directed by the laws of a genre, the “aura” of a star and the recognized prestige of a style. Grémillon (after the producer’s mutilation of Daïnah la métisse) had to wait six years shooting mediocre, commissioned projects before — the myth of Gabin beginning to take shape (La Bandera, Pépé le Moko) and the romantic code of film “noir” assimilated — he could, with Gueule d’amour, start on his second wind: L’Étrange Monsieur Victor (1938), Remorques (1939-41), Lumière d’été (1942) and Le ciel est à vous (1943).

Realism and Reality

We have, undoubtedly, not thoroughly explored the coincidence between the development of the “French School” of cinema in the sense of naturalistic pessimism or “poetic realism” — as we would like to call it — and the rise of the film industry brought on by sound.

Certainly, in cinema’s more and more general recourse to literary “credibility,” it was normal for our filmmakers to draw on their own — glorious — cultural tradition. Zola and Maupassant were references admired abroad for a long time; it would, moreover, be interesting to follow the migrations of our “realist” literary inspiration from Germany to America, its film acculturation in Stroheim and the first Sternberg, its return to France in their admirers Renoir and Carné and its new avatar in post-war Italy in the former assistants of the latter two, Visconti and Antonioni. This would only prove that all so-called “realist” advancements in art are not a specifically French phenomenon, or specific to cinema, but exhibit a reaction against an earlier state. Just as Flaubert and the Médan Group were reacting against romantic idealism and petit-bourgeois sentimentality, it was normal that the lyrical verism of a Stroheim was a reaction against the sugarcoatedness of Hollywood, that in Germany with “street” films, Pabst and Joe May wanted to free themselves of subjective, expressionistic delirium, just as later, Italian neo-realism declared war on the escapism of peplums and Telefoni Bianchi.

In the frivolity of the 1930s, at the moment of his first film Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929), the aspiration of the young Marcel Carné “to describe the simple life of little people” instead of “the overheated ambiance of dance halls” was therefore understandable. But it was already indicative of the error that, separating content and form, calls realism either the selective painting of the first or the connotation (pessimistic or critical) of the second. Later, Visconti’s aristocrats and Antonioni’s bourgeois (because taken as connoisseurs by auteurs not lacking in critical faculties) accuse without pity the stereotyped quality of the characterizations and the “popular” settings favored by French cinema but usually seen from the outside in inevitably picturesque terms, like the bourgeois of Casque d’or going to a guingette to taste the charms of mixing with the riffraff. “Populism” fresh from the fruit cart in Crainquebille and “lucid pessimism” cut into a series the characterizations of a hostile social order: the nurse who does her nails and the reserved judge in Hôtel du Nord, the lady looking for her silver spoons in Le jour se lève, the hateful concierges in Le diable au corps, Clouzot’s embittered bigots, Autant-Lara’s bourgeois and all the elements of what Bazin calls “André Cayatte’s cybernetics.”

Reality succumbs, then, under realism — or, rather, under its accessories and under its signs. The great Renoir, who opened doors with Toni, wrote wryly at the time of The Golden Coach and French Cancan: “Today, the film industry stuffs me with naturalism. It’s just bad boys in grimy bistros, delinquent girls giving themselves to ugly seducers in hotel bedrooms with bed bugs. It’s the reign of dubious laundry, poorly washed bodies and grime-stained hands. This undercooked French onion soup makes me want to dine in a big restaurant. That’s what I’ve been forcing myself to do in my latest films.”

Of course, every phenomena of a school in art inevitably gives life to stereotypes. But as Renoir seems to see, there was undoubtedly an even deeper harmony between naturalist determinism (the man who represents and is conditioned by his milieu) and the programming imperatives of a cinema that had become industrial and forced to specialize tasks. We need only to read the bitter reflections of a Sternberg to see the functioning of a system that tends to fix in one state (like a taxidermy bird or a butterfly pinned to a board) the screenwriter in his brio, the story in its genre, the actor in his work, the star in his myth, the set designer in his style, the cinematographer in his lighting and the musician in his music. While less oppressive than the big Hollywood machine, the French industrial system forced film auteurs just as much to progress rationally from the outside to the inside, in the sense of the layering of successive interventions (script, sets, actor’s performance), therefore losing their most precious privilege: their own rhythm, their own inner feeling to the whole.

The success of French cinema beginning in 1935 is undoubtedly due to having been able to put together famous crews whose well-polished work helped hide the layers, making appear homogenous and free what, by its constitution, was not. But its very successes, through the industrial repetition of their own formula, carried their death seed. “Realist” French cinema was both a cinema of destiny — objectivity leading to objectivation — and the combined gods of production and the public devoting the actors to the hell of repetition. We cannot imagine Sisyphus passing his rock to one of the Danaides to go look for water anymore than we can conceive of Bernard Blier as a seducer, Gérard Philipe as a flirt, Gabin as a happy family man or Arletty as a nun.

A realistic cinema deprived of real life, it is not by accident if two of the biggest names that we’ve retained from this period are the ones who escaped from it – Renoir and Bresson – either by cheating with “rules of the game” through fantasy or by refusing them completely through rigor.

It is through rigor, without refusing it, that Grémillon sets off, despite the constraints, in search of the inner realism that, for Renoir, is the mark of the great classics. “Every creator,” he says in regards to the paintings of his friend André Masson, “must be at once inside and outside his creation: inside in order to participate in its private life, outside in order to witness it.”

The private life of his creation is, first, the lives of the actors themselves.

The Flesh and the Seed

In relation to actors, as a director Grémillon was of course familiar with a system that did not give him complete freedom of choice. But it is impressive to see the memory that everyone has of his direction. It is also significant that, invited to describe a method, they remember only extraordinary human qualities and a privileged emotional atmosphere.

“He was,” says Madeleine Renaud, “very human, without exaggeration. I mean: he had a lot of compassion. His attitude towards actors proves it; he didn’t consider them to be elements of his own constructions. He didn’t reduce them to the role of materials that were good to build his own architectural designs, he understood them, he loved them, he wanted to see them do their best. Our profession is scary. He let us be uneasy but he got rid of the fear; uneasiness is useful but fear is paralyzing. When we were filming under his direction, we had only to let ourselves go.”

And Pierre Brasseur: “He is a man in the full sense of the word before being a director. At no moment does one feel the director but instead the friend, the wonderful friend who, instinctively, has something more than us. He is never above us but in the middle and that’s very important. We’re the flesh of the fruit and he is the seed.”

What other term could be invented to define this approach other than sympathy in the strongest sense?

Certainly, Grémillon is not the only one who loved actors for who they were: there is Daquin, who was his assistant, there is Becker and there is, above all, Renoir, who was sometimes in love with his actresses to the point of forgetting the script.

But Grémillon went further in his search. As if through a sort of intuition of people’s other side, he knew how to reveal in them a richness of ambiguity and tragic virtues that without him would have perhaps remained unexplored.

It was Grémillon who, in La petite Lise, before Renoir in Monsieur Lange, made us aware of the victim’s broken voice and Nadia Sibirskaïa’s wide eyes, the frail, unconscious executioner of her father (Alcover). In Gueule d’amour, where he inherits the couple from Pépé le Moko and the sometimes heavy-handed dialogue of Charles Spaak, Grémillon manages to relax Mireille Balin and to make the solitude of her mythological femme fatale character touching and poetic.

With Raimu, the stakes of the struggle were not insignificant at a time when the prolific vaudeville actor aspired (Théodore et Cie, Les jumeaux de Brighton) only to demonstrate the variety of his “range” for inventing his own “effects.” What the public hardly knows (because they identify Raimu with Pagnol and his trilogy) is that not long before The Baker’s Wife, it was L’Étrange Monsieur Victor which revealed Raimu’s “inner presence” — if we can call it that — his disquieting ambiguity that later attains its apogee in Pierre Billon’s The Eternal Husband, after having inspired Lacombe’s Midnight in Paris, The Strangers in the House and, above all, Decoin’s Le bienfaiteur which takes advantage the principle of a dual life.

It is not this principle in and of itself that is original. At the time, we see it frequently connected to the search for formal surprise effects, as in Clouzot’s films, for example. Despite the heavy-handed parable of darkness and light in Le corbeau, Vorzet-Larquey is not ambiguous because he only exists functionally in the twisting, pinball-style narrative trajectory that is, moreover, what is interesting, purely abstractly, in a film that was despised at the time (hard as it is to believe) as a representation of a French village!

To the contrary, Monsieur Victor, a respectable businessman, family man and, at the same time, a gang leader presents the unity of his ambiguity immediately. Success is obtained in so far as Grémillon manages*** to block Raimu’s desire to go over the top, to “compose” from outside in order to make him bring from within himself his tragic presence, intensifying it as if to echo the dual face of a very real city: Toulon, whose diurnal side (the sunny terraces of the “bistros,” everyday activity, the sailors' happy faces) is opposed to the nocturnal side (the half-light of the garage, the immense, dubious shadows of the alleys in which the same sailors and people at their windows — note the difference with Hôtel du Nord — still conserve their weight of authenticity). It is therefore the indissociable relationship (neither material nor causal, but emotive) of the character to the set that makes it so difficult in Grémillon’s films to analyze separately the elements of the mise en scène that play sometimes with doubling and sometimes with counterpoint. Take the scene in the peaceful, bourgeois apartment where the woman and her newborn are napping. Our eyes follow Raimu in deep focus to the back of the bathroom where he goes to wash the blood staining his hands. From Alcover to Vanel, and including Raimu and Gabin, Grémillon knows the silent eloquence of certain backs and a certain massive slowness.

At the same time, Grémillon seizes Brasseur’s private truth — until then stuck with roles as gigolos or the rather monotonous one of the small gangster in Port of Shadows — in his movement and performance in Lumière d’été. Doesn’t the inexhaustible, blabbing alcoholic painter, the “poor Hamlet” whose drunken lucidity detects “rats” — meaning the rottenness of the world — and the “character” constantly in search of his “being” anticipate the prodigious Frédérick Lemaître “healed” by the role of Othello in Children of Paradise? What naiveté, we might say, the honor goes to Prévert, the screenwriter on all these films. Yes, but who stages the monologues of the “null and void” artist (compare with Le Vigan’s pale performance in Port of Shadows) in the balcony scene, similar to the one in Remorques? Who shows the defeated painter staggering in the space of the great hall, the toy of the aristocracy that makes him spin like a top? Who makes the clash of the whisky bottle heard as well as the merciless “glug glug” in the glass, who discovered the knee on the ground before Madeleine Robinson, the pathetic quest for a simple hello? Who shows Brasseur (like Dullin in Maldone) escape from a prison of paper snakes to escape the party’s hysteria, where under the rain of confetti four characters pursue one another without finding each other? It was while leaving the shoot of Lumière d’été at the Studios de la Victorine that Nice Prévert and Carné, in search of a film, heard from Jean-Louis Barrault an insignificant episode in the life of the mime Gaspard Debureau. The idea grew to the dimensions of Children of Paradise. Is it paradoxical to wonder if the most beautiful child of the Carné-Prévert couple (in any case the one that has best aged thanks to the “theater in the theater”) is not indirectly a child of adultery that came from Grémillon?

The same intense work with the actor is done in the “use” of Paul Bernard, “the lovesick aristocrat,” so ill at ease in Les dames du bois de Boulogne where he remains clearly caught between acting and non-acting. A murderer in Lumière d’été, as in Pattes blanches, how can we forget his appearance in the incriminating, early morning light, in the white frock of the Chevalier des Grieux, facing the dam workers with his gun and bloodied mouth, before disappearing into the abyss, an image that we have not forgotten to compare with the Stroheim of Foolish Wives? But this lyrical shrillness must not make us forget the more discretely emotional resonance of the proper strictness of the character’s posture, in both films isolated in the grandiose setting of his castles, with (like Maldone) his horse as his only friend. And Grémillon, in a subtler way than the traditional “psychological close-up,” knows — with gentle, forward tracking shots — to question this strangely motionless face.

Through the character of Paul Bernard, then – despite the deployment of a kind of external, baroque frenzy, justly noticed in Lumière d’été and Pattes blanches — both dramas retain their inner tragic charge. A tragedy whose dilemma, already explored elsewhere is: to accuse or not to accuse oneself of a crime? That one did not commit, in La petite Lise or that one committed and hid (L’Étrange Monsieur Victor, Lumière d’été, Patte blanches). An image of the collapse of an artificial and mortally cracked world in Lumière d’été (a film-link between the Renoir of The Rules of the Game and the Visconti of Senso and Sandra), Paul Bernard finds a way to make amends in Pattes blanches. In fact, guilty of the same cowardice as Monsieur Victor, Pattes Blanches finally takes on his responsibility with regards to society by turning himself in. Mimi, the mysterious, little servant (Arlette Thomas), who loves him and turned him away from useless romanticism by reminding him of his duty to live, will wait for him. And the departure of the station wagon in the reality of a country morning dissipates both the nightmare of the night on the heath and the nostalgic dream of the splendors of the past included in the preceding dream sequence.

There are therefore hardly any characters in Grémillon (although his preferences are certainly for what we could call the “grandeur of little people”) who do not receive from him a kind of soul supplement (meaning mystery, indetermination) in relation to the margin accorded both by the script and by the usual use of the actor.

Even Suzy Delair in Pattes blanches frees herself from Anouilh’s stereotyped character and the Clouzotian connotation of the sensual coquette where her sexuality in Quai des Orfèvres had obviously led her. Is this an accident? To put it differently, Anouilh’s universe (thrown off on Grémillon), through its complacency in darkness, its miserable sexuality and the rather suspect quest for purity, curiously meets Clouzot’s.

To the contrary, Grémillon gives the match girl a chance, perceiving beyond her sensuality, a kind of tragic innocence, erasing from the bridegroom’s face — in anticipation of the sacrifice on the cliff — the slightly simplified Parisian vulgarity given to the character of Jenny in Quai des Orfèvres. It is, in sum — in the authenticity of the sea landscape, the same year as Manon — the true redemption of the character that Clouzot talked a lot about without ever achieving it in a film. But here the humanism of the writing passes through the clarity of the framing. Grémillon’s framing depicting Odette's sensual attraction  for Jock in the inn bedroom and for Pattes Blanches in the castle twilight is in direct contrast to the famous framing of Jenny’s thigh and black garter in the foreground in the famous photography scene in Quai des Orfèvres. This angle — which we find again in Manon and Woman in Chains — betrays Brignon’s gaze and reveals that the two women’s true relationship onstage is, for Clouzot, only a formal schema useful to giving the camera an alibi.

But it was certainly with Madeleine Renaud, his favorite actress, that the Socratic Method operates most remarkably (and most prophetically for a career that led Musset’s ingénue to the solitary tragedy of Beckett and Marguerite Duras). Madeleine Renaud is, in succession, the spouse of the murderous businessman in L’Étrange Monsieur Victor, the spouse of Captain Laurent in Remorques, Cri-Cri, the mistress neglected by the chatelaine in Lumière d’été and, finally, the mother suddenly seized by a passion for aviation in Le ciel est à vous.

In the one who, gently teasing, he called, in reference to a glorious production, “Miss World-Where-One-is-Bored,”**** he noticed, beyond her charm and tenderness, “another side” that was less known: the passion, organizing will and even, in Lumière d’été, the violence of a love-hate relationship of the Racine kind. The camera shows, in the beginning, a bird caressed melancholically by a charming, tactful woman and underlines, at the end, with the same cruelty as the dialogue, “this little nervous mouth, these eager eyes and these pathetic death threats.”

Well beyond an average mind, we might say that Madeleine Renaud symbolizes in the most concrete manner the unsolvable conflict already at work in Maldone between, first, the quotidian and tenderness as well as routine and boredom; and, second, adventure and passion which inspires us but that can also destroy and isolate us from the rest of the world. An inner tragedy that goes far beyond narrow romanticism ­– at the dimension of individuals – and that Grémillon is not content to seize intuitively from within his actors. We see the conflict between passion and freedom expressed discreetly all throughout the films, through the return of the same gestures, the same situations and recurring metaphors deeply hidden in concrete reality.    


*Translator’s note: Gratuités, 1927.

**Le printemps de la Liberté. Ed. Bibilothèque Française.

**He does not always get there: the scene, for example, where Raimu demanded to keep an “effect” that he liked, where Monsieur Victor puts on a fez by mistake instead of his own hat (a memory of Louis Daquin’s).     

****A reference to the very popular Édouard Pailleron play Le monde où l'on s'ennuie (The World Where One is Bored, 1881).


Jean GrémillonTranslationsLong Reads
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