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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Jean Gremillon During the Occupation

PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET
JEAN GREMILLON DURING THE OCCUPATION
France: Jean Gremillon, 1941-44 (Eclipse/Criterion Collection)

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Jean Gremillon, a  somewhat forgotten giant of French cinema, a genius as neglected in America as he is idolized in France — gets a long overdue DVD revival in this superb package from Criterion’s budget-label-for-the-cognoscenti Eclipse. The three films inside the box — Remorques (1941), Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le Ciel est a Vous (1944) — may be little known to most of us, but they’re among the genuine French film classics of the World War II Occupation years. And, if Gremillon is among the very best, so were the people with whom he worked.

His actors here — including Jean Gabin, Charles Vanel, Michele Morgan, Madeleine Reynaud (in all three films), Pierre Brasseur, Fernand Ledoux and Paul Bernard — were all upper echelon, top of the line. The man who wrote the screenplays for two of the films in this set (Remorques, Lumiere d‘Ete) was the great Jacques Prevert — and the  designer on the same two pictures was Alexandre Trauner. Some would argue, and I would tend to agree,  that Prevert and Trauner were the single finest screenwriter and the best designer in all of the classic French cinema, and that the ‘40s saw their finest, most creative periods.

Those were the years when, despite the Nazi Army presence in France and the censorship and strictures of the fascist Vichy government, Prevert and Trauner were still able to collaborate brilliantly on Marcel Carne‘s Children of Paradise and Les Visiteurs du Soir, both justly regarded as masterpieces of script and production. Their work on Remoques and Lumiere d’Ete was no less brilliant. And the other writers and production people  on these three Gremillon films were no slouches either. Le Ciel est a Vous was scripted by Charles Spaak, who co-wrote Grand Illusion for Jean Renoir. All three classically-tinged scores are by Alexis Roland-Manuel (aka Roland Manuel).

Gremillon began as a musician himself. He was a violin and composition student of  composer Vincent d’Indy at the Paris Schola Cantorum — and he was acutely sensitive to musical scoring and to all the other physical elements of film, which he always tred to fuse into an expressive, naturalistic, poetic whole. He was a master of staging, of cinematic rhythm, of imagery, of photography (Louis Page shot two of the films here, Armand Thirard and Louis Nee the other.) He picked, or tried to pick, intelligent, and deeply poetic or dramatic scripts, and, as we’ve seen, hired the best actors to interpret them. He was a student of classic cinema, and indeed, he served from 1943 to 1958 as President of the famed French film library, the Cinematheque Francaise, helping reveal the movie treasures of his own era, and before, to generations of young cinephiles that included Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and Rohmer.

You’ve never heard of Gremillon perhaps, but  he belongs with Prevert and Trauner, solidly among the elite movie artists of his country and his profession. His timing was bad, and he had a self-destructev habit of arguing with his bosses. (For a simple reason: He was usually right and they were usually wrong — and in the early 1940s, theywere fascist to boot.) Gremillon’s  films simply haven’t been shown in America for most of the entire post-WW2 period. I’ve been trying to see them myself, somehow, somewhere, for decades, and their release on Eclipse was my first chance in more than 40 years. Thank God and the Criterion Collection.

I watched this precious trio with that same sense of excited discovery and measurelesss delight with which , in my early college years, I caught up with the celebrated (and more easily visible) ‘30s-‘50’s French film classics like Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, The Rules of the Game, L’Atalante, La Ronde, Beauty and the Beast, The Wages of Fear, The Earrings of Madame de…and Diary of a Country Priest — and if Gremillon’s Occupation era trio are not quite on the level of all those deathless treasures, it’s only by the thinnest of margins. Anyone who loves those movies should love Gremillon‘s best as well — or at least cherish the opportunity to see them, at last.

(All three Gremillon films are in French, with English subtitles.)

INCLUDES: Remorques (Stormy Waters) (France: Jean Gremillon, 1941)

Jean Gabin is Andre Laurent, a tugboat captain in Brittany, who is both physically brave and romantically susceptible — and who falls for a beautiful married woman, Catherine (played by Gabin‘s stunning Port of Shadows costar Michele Morgan), whom  he meets during a rescue during a storm. He pursues her and she him — despite the fact that this is the very time Laurent’s grievously ill wife Yvonne (the luminously alive Madeleine Renaud) needs him most. This is one of Gabin’s quintessential roles, though it’s relatively little seen and known in the U.S.. The movie, a troubled production which had to shut down for eight months, is still beautifully, seamlessly done: a stormy, tragic, high water French romance.

Lumiere d‘Ete (Light of Summer) (France: Gremillon, 1943) .

For many, this sophisticated, yet woundingly romantic love story — set in  a chic upper class hotel, near a dam and power station under construction in the Provencal mountains — represents the artistic zenith of director Gremillon’s career, and one of screenwriter Prevert’s peaks as well. It’s a haunting, remarkable work. To that chic hotel, run by the cultivated, seductive, slightly sinister Patrice (Paul Bernard), with his over-tolerant  lover Cri-Cri (Renaud again), comes a tempestuous pair: Roland (Pierre Brasseur of Children of Paradise), a drunken and irresponsible poet of more rambunctiousness than rhapsody, and his beautiful exploited mate Michele (Madeleine Robinson). Completing the five-sides affair is the handsome and jealous dam worker Julien (Georges Marchal), who loves Michele, to the displeasure of Patrice, who also loves her, or at least wants her, and  is more dangerous than any of them realize.

The mood of this movie, rightly regarded as one of the great films of  that era, is very like the intoxicating, romantic-comic-noir-farcical-tragic ambiance of Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game. And, at the end, Prevert writes and Gremillon stages a wild party with a deadly climax highly reminiscent of the great emotional orgy in their predecessor. It’s a really wonderful film. The acting is fabulous, the dialogue smart, the images lyrical, the pace perfect, everything done just right. Well, the ending flirts with melodrama, but the emotions run too deep to be dismissed. If you’re looking for something rich and classic and fabulous and Frnech  that you haven’t seen, this should be this one.

Le Ciel est a Vous (The Sky is Ours) (France: Gremillon, 1944).

 

The French fascist censors banned Lumiere d’Ete (for pessimism maybe) and it was off French screens and denied a public for the rest of the war. (Rules of the Game had similar enemies among the right wing.) Le Ciel est a Vous, however, became such a huge public success — one of the best-loved and most-attended films of the entire Occupation period — that some left-wingers became suspicious of Gremillon’s film, theorizing (wrongly) that it must somehow be promoting Vichy values. Not quite. Based on a true story, but fictionalized, it’s the epic tale of a French aviatrix: Therese Gauthier, who takes up her mechanic/garage owner husband Pierre‘s passion of flying, and becomes so obsessed with life in the clouds that she sacrifices almost everything while trying to compete for a world record, against other woman fliers with more expensive planes and more well-heeled backers.

As the aviatrix wife and her loyal, self-sacrificing husband, Madeleine Renaud (obviously one of Gremillon’s favorite actresses) and Charles Vanel gave two of the greatest performances, and created one of the most believable and touching love stories, in the entire history of French cinema. This moving portrayal of a flawed but enduring marriage gave both of them among their finest hours. They were simply never better on screen. Renaud, of course, was primarily a stage actress — she was married to Jean-Louis Barrault (Children of Paradise again) and ran, with him, one of Paris’ premier theatre companies. So her screen apearances were less plentiful. But the incredibly durable Charles Vanel, with 181 roles listed in Imdb, whose career spanned the early silent years (starting in 1912) , and went all the way to 1988, when he was 95 — his most familiar roles include Inspector Javert in the 1934 Raymond Bernard version of Les Miserables, the cynical detective in Diabolique (1955) and the cowardly gangster/driver  in The Wages of Fear (1953) — was living proof that you don’t need extraordinary good looks, or even ordinary looks, to became a great movie star, or, as in this movie, a real romantic movie hero.

Jean Gremillon, who was also at his peak in these movies (or at least that’s what the French critics say),  never got another chance like these three films gave him. (He argued too much.), Though he made a few more features, like 1949’s Locarno prize-winner Pattes Blanches, and though he kept directing, mostly documentaries, until nearly the end of his life, in 1958, he never regained his rhythm, or got a real chance to show his stuff and to play his special sonatas. (He died in 1959, at 61.) He deserved better. He deserves better now.  I can not describe what a pleasure it was to finally make Jean Gremillon’s acquaintance, and that of his beautiful films.

Extrtas: Three fine essays on the Gremillon films by Michael Koreski. 

Note to Eclipse/Criterion: What about another Gremillon set, including. if they’re available, Gueule d’Amour (with Gabin), L’Etrange M. Victor, Pattes Blaches and maybe another? Or how about some more rare Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and Satyajit Ray? After all, Eclipse, at its best,  is where we lovers of film can lose ourselves in the light.

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