Remorques: Stormy Weather
Jean Grémillon was a filmmaker predisposed to appreciate the musicality of cinema. A trained violinist, he arrived in Paris from his native Normandy in 1920, intending to make his living as a musician and composer. One of his recurring engagements with the orchestra in which he soon found a spot was accompanying silent movies. This first significant exposure to the cinema was life-changing for Grémillon, inspiring him to try his hand at the new medium. What had drawn him to music—the rhythmic emotionality, the forward momentum, the crescendos and decrescendos, the distinct movements—was also, he saw, intrinsic to cinema, and that is what he would strive to emphasize in his own film work.
His career spanned three decades and encompassed silent cinema and poetic realism, melodrama and documentary. But the period for which Grémillon is best remembered today is the early 1940s, when, despite (or because of) the upheaval and restrictions visited on France by the German occupation, three films of his were released—Remorques (1941), Lumière d’été (1943), and Le ciel est à vous (1944)—all uncommonly attuned to the beauty and hardships of human experience. They are at once carefully designed and sublimely naturalistic works, with an unerring way of bringing into focus moments of grace amid sometimes overwrought plots, and with a bottomless empathy for their characters. Grémillon never achieved the prominence he might have—perhaps in part because his distaste for the dictates of studio bosses sometimes outweighed his instinct for self-preservation, resulting in fewer of his films being made—and his name has often been left out of the conversation about French filmmaking. But his is an essential voice from a key period in film history, one with a dark romanticism and graceful subtlety of expression. And he has never been completely without champions. As Elliott Stein wrote in 2002, echoing the sentiments of at least a few other critics, “Grémillon belongs in the hierarchy of classic French cinema along with René Clair, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné.”
After apprenticing as an editor and learning the basics of the medium as a director of industrial films, most of them focused on workers, Grémillon branched out into more poetic documentaries, such as Un tour au large (1926), a now lost short about the voyage of a fishing boat, with a score by Grémillon himself, employing an early and short-lived synchronization process. He soon made the leap to narrative features, and by his third, 1930’s La petite Lise, had become a full-fledged film artist with a genuine vision. It was his first sound picture, but rather than attempt an all-talkie, the trend at the time, he wove a highly experimental track of ambient sounds and music into a largely silent film with little dialogue. As film scholar Dudley Andrew has written, “La petite Lise orchestrates its melodrama like the libretto of an opera.”
This early feature was also an example of Grémillon’s uncompromising approach to filmmaking, as he refused to commercialize it for audiences. The movie was a major financial disappointment, and afterward studios were cautious about working with him. It wouldn’t be until 1937—following several years of unfulfilling contract jobs, including work in Germany and Spain—and the poetic realist Gueule d’amour, funded by the German studio UFA and starring French superstar Jean Gabin as a legionnaire and ladies’ man, that Grémillon would come back into favor with critics and moviegoers.
A couple of years later, Grémillon and Gabin teamed up again for Remorques, the first film of the director’s to be released during the war. This touching, fatalistic story—about a married tugboat captain, his flirtation with a woman (Michèle Morgan) he meets on one of his dangerous missions, and the alarming, sudden illness of his wife (Madeleine Renaud)—is a powerful example of the kind of aching, lyrical, profoundly sensitive film Grémillon could craft from a script that a lesser filmmaker might have made into something crassly soap-operatic.
When Grémillon embarked on Remorques’ production, he couldn’t have known just how challenging the filming of this tempestuous tale (whose title translates as “Stormy Waters”) would become. Initially, the problems involved squabbles over André Cayatte’s original screenplay, which Grémillon disliked (Cayatte had been hired after UFA rejected a draft by Grand Illusion cowriter Charles Spaak); it was eventually drastically revised by the now legendary Jacques Prévert, who collaborated with Renoir, Carné, and Christian-Jaque on some of the most memorable French films of the thirties. Complications also arose from the impracticality of some of Grémillon’s ambitions for the film, including shooting its elaborate storm sequences at sea off the coast of Brittany; in the end, the scenes were accomplished using impressive miniatures, filmed at UFA’s Billancourt studio in Paris. But the biggest impediment was the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, which shut down the entire production. Eight months later, work resumed—until France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. It wasn’t until the summer of 1941 that Grémillon was able to finish his film.
By the time of Remorques’ release in November of that year, two of the film’s principals, Gabin and Morgan, had already left occupied France for Hollywood. But despite the ill-starred aspects of its production, Remorques was a significant hit. Interestingly, the drawn-out period between its conception and its release made the film something of a throwback: with its fatalism and its emotionally remote, disillusioned working-class hero, this was an example of the poetic realist strain that had dominated French cinema in the 1930s but that was waning in the early years of the war. Remorques was also, however, very much in step with its time, as it was escapist in a way that was favored by the authorities during the occupation; it had a strong genre hook (men at sea!), a popular romantic lead, and special-effects-driven action sequences. In the end, it is a remarkably successful work of dark poetry, illustrating both Grémillon’s musicality (with its narrative ebb and flow, its long, stand-alone sequences building to emotional crests) and his unique brand of verisimilitude (the documentary-like focus on the arduous labors of its seafarers, for instance). From the singularly wise sketching of his complex dramatis personae to the elegant staging of such sequences as the opening wedding of one of André’s crewmen—which establishes the comfort of home, soon to be set in stark contrast against the perils of the sea—Grémillon gives his actors a lot of emotional space. He never allows his main characters—Gabin’s implosive André; Renaud’s weary but never victimized Yvonne; and Morgan’s Catherine, a vulnerable, lovelorn woman trapped in an abusive marriage—to become types.
The director, who began and would end his career a documentarian, was especially adept at uncovering hidden layers in people’s behavior, using the camera to pick up subtle gestures and naturalistic interplay between actors that seem almost to be caught by chance. His films’ plots always feel subordinate to such humane matters. In Remorques, there’s a fascinating unpredictability to the three vulnerable leads’ encounters with one another, as though they refuse to be constrained by the designs of the script; the interactions between Gabin and the Garbo-esque Morgan are especially dynamic, loaded as they are with a mercurial—but always sympathetic—mix of sexual tension and regret. In his next two films as well, Grémillon would show an extraordinary openheartedness toward his characters, and given that they would be made during some of France’s darkest days, such generosity of spirit comes across as especially poignant.
Lumière d'été: Ugly Truths
The 1940 capitulation of France to Germany had a serious effect on French cinema. For one thing, many of the industry’s major players emigrated to the United States, including directors Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier and actors Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, while others, such as the Jewish production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, went into hiding. Some, however, including Jean Grémillon and Marcel Carné, continued to work as best they could under the newly formed, collaborationist Vichy government. These filmmakers tended to steer clear of touchy subject matter, with comedies (like Jean Boyer’s Romance de Paris), fantasies (Jean Delannoy’s Eternal Return), and dramas set in what seemed to be a safely distant past (Carné’s Les visiteurs du soir) becoming the order of the day. Grémillon’s Lumière d’été (1943) doesn’t fall into any of these categories—and there’s nothing benign about its portrayal of bitter class warfare in the guise of an overpopulated romance. In fact, the film it most resembles is The Rules of the Game, Renoir’s 1939 poetic realist class satire, which was summarily banned by the Nazis when they took power. Lumière d’été—which itself bears traces of poetic realism in its moody fatalism and sympathy with the lower classes—was destined for the same fate; the censors read it as an attack on the establishment, as well as too cynical a view of human nature to show to an already disturbed populace under occupation.
While there was, and in many cases remains, a great deal of ambiguity around which films made during those years were intended as critiques of Vichy France, the exquisitely foreboding Lumière d’été, cowritten by the erudite team of Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche, is widely seen as an allegory about its time—a depiction of a battle for the soul of France, waged between the decadent upper class and the salt-of-the-earth working people, as embodied on one end of the spectrum by an effete aristocrat with a bloody past, Patrice (Paul Bernard), and on the other by a strapping miner, Julien (Georges Marchal). The two vie for the love of Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), who is already dealing with a problematic beau, the disenchanted and emotionally abusive painter Roland (Pierre Brasseur), when she arrives at the mountaintop hotel the Guardian Angel. And, of course, there is a role for Grémillon’s favorite actress, Madeleine Renaud, poignant as Patrice’s hotelier lover, Cri-Cri, turning this love quadrille into a pas de cinq. It’s a perfect storm of sex and jealousy, leading to a decadent masquerade ball at Patrice’s Gothic castle and a whirlwind climax in which the privileged and spoiled get their comeuppance at a dam construction site. Grémillon handles these changes in terrain masterfully—the tone of the film grows increasingly nightmarish as it moves from the elegant hotel to the looming castle to the final mountainside struggle.
Patrice was likely the prime reason the film rankled officials; the Vichy press specifically attacked that characterization—of a wanton, murderous man of wealth and position living in morally impoverished decadence—and viewed the whole as a comment on the inherent wickedness of those in power. Lumière d’été was yanked from theaters after a brief run and suppressed thereafter. It remains Grémillon’s most widely admired film.
Le Ciel est à Vous: Down to Earth
Jean Grémillon’s Lumière d’été was attacked in the Vichy press and ultimately suppressed, but his next film, Le ciel est à vous (1944), was practically celebrated by it. Ironically, the latter film is now regarded as more of a commentary on the occupation, however covert, than the former. Lumière d’été may be characterized by violence and villainous behavior, while Le ciel est à vous concerns itself with decency and fortitude, but the second film is in a sense the angrier one. Its hopefulness—expressed in its characters’ desire to break free of the binds that hold them to the earth and fly far away (the title translates as “The Sky Is Yours”)—must have resonated powerfully with its oppressed audiences. The film’s escapism was itself a political stance.
One of the many popular genres that cropped up in French filmmaking during the occupation was the woman’s picture, of which Le ciel est à vous is a superb example. Grémillon gives Madeleine Renaud the role of a lifetime as Thérèse, the wife of a mechanic and former World War I flier who adopts her husband’s passion for airplanes but ratchets it up to an obsession, becoming determined to break the women’s long-distance flying record. Le ciel est à vous is a distaff Lindbergh tale, a protofeminist statement issued in a cinematic era that didn’t often make room for strong, independent female characters. But the film’s male protagonist is finely drawn as well: while Renaud is radiant and compelling (seldom has a character’s fierce will been portrayed so matter-of-factly), veteran actor Charles Vanel brings transcendent pathos to the role of her husband, Pierre, torn between the desires to protect his wife and to help her realize her dangerous dream.
In dramatizing Thérèse’s exploits (which writers Charles Spaak and Albert Valentin based on those of the real-life aviatrix Andrée Dupeyron), Grémillon creates an earthy, honest portrait of everyday folks, shot on location in rural southwestern France. There’s a vivid, almost neorealist approach here that differs from that of the more studio-bound titles typical of the period, and a lack of flourish in the acting and cinematography. The film’s integrity emanates from its sunny humanism as much as from its buoyant allegory, as it pays patient attention to the feeling and flow of working life. (Appropriately for a film by a former musician, Le ciel est à vous’ most overt political reference is a song: the title of Thérèse and Pierre’s favorite tune, “The Time of Lilacs and Roses,” alludes to a resistance poem by Louis Aragon.)
Grémillon’s tale of liberation was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences, becoming his biggest box-office success. After the war, he would find it more difficult to get his projects produced, making just three more features and some short documentaries—including his last film, 1958’s André Masson et les quatre éléments—before his death in 1959, at age sixty-one. Grémillon’s devotion to cinema is evident even in that later output, however, as well as in his long tenure as president of the Cinémathèque française, from 1943 until 1958. He may have created some of his greatest works in a time of violence and upheaval, but he was a modest artist, using film to uncover what is essential in human nature—surely a form of resistance in itself.