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Resurrection of a martyr
Jean Grémillon at the HFA; plus La bûche at the MFA


"Rediscovering theFilms of Jean Grémillion"
At the Harvard Film Archive November 23 through December 2.

"Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?" The director who said that was Jean Grémillon, the art he was talking about was film, and as the question implies, his conception of film was mystical. His intense yet calm cinema communicates both a passion for realism and a sense of mystery and harmony. The Harvard Film Archive’s current brief Grémillon retrospective sheds some light on the work of this neglected film poet.

Of the directors generally praised as the shining lights of pre-war French cinema (Jean Renoir, René Clair, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné, Jacques Feyder, Sacha Guitry), Grémillon most deserves reappraisal. No one will ever displace Renoir, but Grémillon may have been as great a genius, though a frustrated one. Screenwriter Charles Spaak, who worked with both of them (and with Feyder, Duvivier, and Carné), said of him: "Of all the directors I’ve known in my life, he was, in my eyes, the most talented, the one who combined the greatest intelligence with the greatest sensitivity."

Born in 1901, Grémillon set out early in life to be a composer. Playing violin in an orchestra that accompanied silent movies brought him in contact with the cinema. It may be less accurate to say that film lured him away from music than that he saw in film another means of pursuing music. (His friend Roger Bezault remembered his saying that "he became interested in film as a field of expression for his desire for musical creation.") In the early ’20s, Grémillon apprenticed as an editor; soon he was directing industrial documentaries. He made his first feature in 1927. His third, La petite Lise (1930), has been considered a landmark in the use of sound. Its commercial failure caused French studios to shut their doors to him, and he pursued his career more or less unhappily in Spain (where one of his producers was Luis Buñuel) and Germany.

The success of Gueule d’amour ("Lady Killer," 1937; November 23 at 9 p.m. and November 25 at 7 p.m.), a French-language German production, paved the way for his return to France. The films most often cited as his masterpieces date from the Occupation: Remorques (1941), Lumière d’été ("Light of Summer," 1942; November 29 at 9 p.m. and November 30 at 7 p.m.), and Le ciel est à vous ("The Sky Is Yours," 1943; November 29 at 7 p.m. and December 2 at 9 p.m.). None of his post-war features was popular, and he finished his career as he had started it, making shorts. His film about the Allies’ Normandy landing — "Le 6 juin, à l’aube" (1945) — is famous, and there are those who regard his last short, "André Masson et les quatre éléments" (1958), as his supreme achievement. He died in 1959.

Why was Grémillon’s career so blighted? Charles Spaak attributed his difficulties to his inability either to get along with his producers or to do battle with them. Spaak added, "Grémillon had, perhaps, too many gifts: if he had had only one, he might have exploited it to greater advantage. . . . For a long time — maybe until the age of 45 — he had something like a passion for self-destruction, a feeling one finds in Dostoyevsky’s heroes. Grémillon, who was so gifted, wanted to be unhappy. Was he a masochist? That’s a very complicated word, but he really took pleasure in being a kind of outcast, a martyr of the cinema."

Of the three Grémillon films I’ve seen, Gueule d’amour is the least like a martyr’s film and the most like the work of a smooth professional, but it’s still amazing. It starts with a short montage of life in the city of Orange — shots that establish a unique mood through their feeling for sunlight, stone, and human energy absorbed in tasks. As the plot gets under way, the film pretends for a while that it’s merely a Jean Gabin potboiler. The popular star plays Lucien, a Legionnaire returning from North Africa who’s notorious for his success with women. On leave in Cannes to claim an inheritance, he falls under the spell of Madeleine (Mireille Balin), a shimmering brunette who first rebuffs him, then (after he re-enters civilian life and gets a job with a printer) becomes his mistress. Madeleine has another lover, a rich older man who keeps her and her terrible mother in luxury. Eventually, the violence of Lucien’s obsession gets the better of him, pushing the film in the direction of the "poetic realism" of Gabin’s later films with Carné (Quai des brumes, Le jour se lève) and Renoir (La bête humaine).

Gabin covers all the Gabin bases: he’s a rugged and self-depreciating charmer, a working-class everyman, a devoted lover, a morbid sleepwalker, a lion raging against a tragic destiny. Grémillon showcases his star’s tour de force by making extensive use of location exteriors, by infusing the cynical and theatrical scenes in Madeleine’s luxury apartment with a subliminal fantasy quality, and finally by bringing all his artistry with shadows and sound to bear on the melancholy and pain of the final sequences.

Grémillon’s first postwar film, the robust and spiritual Pattes blanches ("White Paws," 1949; November 23 at 7 p.m. and November 24 at 9 p.m.), recalls both La bête humaine and Robert Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, from each of which it inherits a leading actor (Fernand Ledoux and Paul Bernard, respectively). Jean Anouilh’s script is clanging melodrama, burdened with a precious, fairy-tale quality and with pretensions to social criticism. Grémillon’s triumph is to liberate the melodrama from the non-essential, turn the fairy-tale quality into surrealism (notably in the hallucinatory dénouement), and divert the social criticism into a free, nuanced, and elaborate study of rituals and pleasures. Set in a fishing village in Brittany, the film whips five characters — none of them all bad or all good — through unpredictable clashes and combinations: an aging fish trader (Ledoux), his egocentric young mistress (Suzy Delair), a depressed and alienated aristocrat (Bernard), the latter’s vengeful half-brother (Michel Bouquet), and a hunchbacked serving girl (Arlette Thomas). Constantly over the top, Pattes blanches also feels chaste, measured, and controlled, with its gleaming surfaces, precise tracking shots, and insistent diagonals. The word "masterpiece" is too strong here, but "stunning" will do.

An inescapable but abstract sadness suffuses L’amour d’une femme ("A Woman’s Love," 1953; November 24 at 7 p.m. and November 26 at 8:45 p.m.), Grémillon’s last feature film. It’s in the dialogue with its reminders of sorrow, disappointment, and death; in the flat and rocky landscape; in Henri Dutilleux’s stately, light, and vertical score; and in the dreary, eternal sound of ocean waves (always ingenious and imaginative with sound, Grémillon outdoes himself here). Micheline Presle plays a doctor who comes to an island off the Brittany coast to take charge of the village dispensary. She finds love with an engineer (Massimo Girotti) who wants her to give up her profession and live only for him. The direction uplifts the conventional material: Girotti proposes to Presle in an open-air ruin reminiscent of Magnasco or Piranesi, with broken arches and stairs leading nowhere; the setting creates a mood of anxiety, commenting on disruption and decay. L’amour d’une femme is open, fluid, forgiving, and sensuous, and it has a remarkable unity of tone for a film that encompasses so many modes of seeing: the unearthly realism of a storm sequence (culminating in a graphic surgery scene that is, in its way, as shocking as Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage); the tenderness and severity with which Grémillon sees the villagers; the intensity of the lovers’ need for each other.

AFTER IMMERSING MYSELF in the gray sublimity of Grémillon, I was in no mood for the chirpy banality, playroom colors, and high-key lighting of Danièle Thompson’s La bûche ("The Yule Log"), a 1999 French comedy that the MFA considers worthy of 24 playdates over the holiday season. Set in Paris during the week before Christmas, the film follows the sparring members of an extended assimilated Russian-Jewish family through an orgy of tinsel, red scarves, last-minute shopping, and the eating scenes that are obligatory at a certain level of contemporary French filmmaking. Several generations of French screen womanhood are represented (by, among others, Sabine Azéma, Emmanuelle Béart, and Charlotte Gainsbourg), and each character gets to deliver a long monologue while the camera dollies into a tight close-up. The film is end-to-end with recriminations, revelations, and reconciliations, all of which no doubt add up to something true, wise, and bittersweet about families, but for me the whole thing is summed up by one of Béart’s lines: "It’s not Christmas without truffles!"

Issue Date: November 22 - 29, 2001

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