Edinburgh International Film Festival, under the direction of Chris Fujiwara, has ended for the year, and with it the Jean Grémillon retrospective, Symphonies of Life. Gathering most of the features (saving a few for-hire assignments) and all the surviving shorts, the season afforded an overview rarely possible with this neglected filmmaker.
Though the shorts were not my favorite Grémillons, they do illuminate the rest of his body of work. Documentaries on alchemy and astrology expose the filmmaker's fascination with the esoteric sciences, a major part of his life, which informs the tarot scenes in Lumière d'été and Maldone, where the cards indeed know all. Grémillon's sonorous, dreamy tones probably make him the greatest director-narrator outside of Orson Welles, and his self-penned music may be the finest outside of Chaplin's. The festival also played, at a fascinating symposium, the player piano score Grémillon wrote for a lost silent short, Un tour au large (1926), whose original performance had been described as a battle between two machines, the projector and pianola.
Grémillon's musical background can be seen to inform all his work, with the soundtracks composed like music, harmonizing voices, effects and score, the music never merely amplifying the tone of a scene, but always adding some new quality to it. And the documentaries help explain Grémillon's insistent emphasis on the ambience of place: each of his fiction films, no less than his first short, Chartres, is about its setting, explored photographically and aurally, the customs of the people and their unique character recorded amid the narrative.
Despite the variety of style (impressionistic to naturalistic) and tone (tragic to comic), the films link up directly once you see enough of them. In L'amour d'une femme (1953), Grémillon's final feature, Micheline Presle looks out her window at a lighthouse recognizable from his second movie, Lighthouse Keepers. Later she will brave impossibly stormy seas familiar from Remorques to perform a spectacularly graphic surgery in the tower, and as with Remorques and Lighthouse Keepers, the drama deals with a battle between love and duty.
Raised in Normandy, Grémillon was often attracted to coastal settings like the isolated community of L'amour d'un femme. Another such town appears at the heart of Pattes blanches (White Shanks, 1949), where the arrival of big city tart Suzy Delair (French cinema's only truly blowzy femme fatale) provokes nascent tensions into a thunderous fury. Hunchbacked serving girl Arlette Thomas and neurotic nobleman Paul Bernard are pulled into her destructive emotional orbit, manipulated by Bernard's Iago-like half-brother, Michel Bouquet (still going strong and recently seen as the titular painter in Renoir).
Pattes Blanche is the film closest in spirit to Grémillon's wartime masterpiece Lumière d'été: the setting appears both ethnographically authentic and mythologically fabulous, and at times the movie seems about to jump free of its sprocketholes, twist around, and magically transform into Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. In particular, a fantasy at the end transforms the nobleman's decaying chateau, which he has strewn with straw preparatory to a suicidal arson bid, into a fairy tale palace. But the movie always keeps one careful toe in reality, and Grémillon's desire for conviction extends to impressive and beautiful night-for-night photography (actually late dusk, so the tiniest amount of light keeps the sky visible like a dark cloth that's backlit).
The scenario is by Jean Anouilh, who pulled out of directing the film at the last moment. Grémillon reportedly recast partially but filmed the script quite faithfully: at any rate the setting and tone seem conducive to his odd fancy. Delair's scheming tramp (not without a shred of humanity, but capable of the most brazen wickedness) and Thomas' soulful, lonely maid (Cinderella to Delair's sexy-ugly sister) are like figures from folklore on one level, but seams of psychological realism keep them from being stereotypes, and make the plot hard to figure. A certain carelessness from Anouilh aids this: a cache of old love letters is introduced in act one like a loaded gun, then wholly forgotten. A major character dies offscreen, his tragic fate shrugged aside. Details like this add to the film's disconcerting feeling of having come off the rails somewhere, but if they are flaws they actually make it more effective and interesting.
Is Grémillon concerned with making reality more like a dream or the dream of cinema more real? It probably doesn't matter: these tensions are what make his fascinating and unsettling: he can stretch a thin concept until it is almost translucent, or cram a narrative with incident and characters until it threatens to explode. Either way, his films have the insistent reality of a fever dream and the careful artifice of documentary.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.