If René Clément's short collaboration with Jacques Tati in 1936 has its later development in the surprising (and political) slapstick of Che gioia vivere (1962), his technical assistance to Jean Cocteau on Beauty and the Beast pays off more rapidly with Le château de verre (The Glass Castle, 1950), starring Cocteau's beautiful beast, Jean Marais, and ice queen monstré sacré Michelle Morgan. This one came highly recommended by Shadowplayer David Wingrove, who saw in its opening sequence a foreshadowing of Last Year at Marienbad's glacial surrealism—frozen figures, somnambulent dancers, palatial surroundings. In fact, the Clément film comes with le jazz hot, and the frozen figures aren't frozen, but there is certainly an air of decadent mystery, with Jean Servais as the chess-playing husband a passable progenitor of the Resnais movie's sepulchral M.
But there's more! We begin with a disembodied voice (another Marienbad trope) and open in a fabulous grotto, where Marais' radium wristwatch ("What made it special/Made it dangerous") glows with a romantic magic worthy of the aristocratic beast-man of fairy-tale.
Once we escape "this mad hotel," as Servais calls it, the film hastily settles down to a more naturalistic marital crisis drama, but when you get over the gear-change there's much to enjoy.
Morgan, seduced and disoriented by the romance of the bizarre hotel, has fallen for Marais, and though it was supposed to be a holiday flirtation, for Morgan it may be true love. Such are Marais' romantic illusions, though, that he can't be content with any woman he wins too easily, and subsequent developments reveal him as a slightly seedy, but also childlike figure, one unlikely to support Morgan in the style to which she's accustomed. This seems a love story without a future, but there's one sublime day to be enjoyed in Paris...
The movie is superbly designed by the great Leon Barsacq—note how, as Morgan frets in her now-stifling marriage, every little item of design is curled, clenched and worried into knots around her.
It's surprising to see Marais so relaxed, and playing a traveling salesman! Most of his heroes don't seem to hold proper jobs. The exotic lakeside resort of the opening seems more his natural habitat, but most of the time he's stuck living in a cheap hotel with an elevator that doesn't work, an analog of the plight of dreamers everywhere. Looking from his window he sees a hobo offering bread to pigeons in the park, but only so he can grab them for his dinner. Is Marais a similarly deceitful predator?
He is also encumbered with a long-term girlfriend, the splendid Elina Labourdette, who tolerates his occasional flings but is threatened by this more serious affair. Meanwhile, Morgan's husband is a judge working on a difficult murder case: his attempts to crack a deceitful witness mirror his desire to figure out what's troubling his wife.
Freeing Marais from period trapping and the dignity of the swashbuckling male lead, Clément also shatters Morgan's usual icy demeanor: when her lover sends her flowers, she throws herself on the bed and tears them to pieces, all but devouring them with shocking, lustful savagery. As she finally beds down with the man himself, Marais runs his fingers through her hair and we hear the ticking of his radium wristwatch, hugely amplified from her perspective. "Make it stop," she says, moving the timepiece away, but time moves on and the director is already dissolving through to the next morning...
I would suggest pairing this movie with David Lean's The Passionate Friends (1949), with its lakeside holiday and polite adultery. The differences lie in the resolution: Lean is obliged to affirm marriage, and does so with a brilliantly edited suicide attempt and rescue that rounds up the drama neatly. Clément, whose endings tend more generally to the uncertain and unclosed, leaves us literally hanging in mid-air, all bets off and all relationships suspended, a crash of thunder as a pointer to tragedy, but no clear outcome in vision...