MoMA Presents Louis Valray

Jacques Dumesnil and Véra Korène in Louis Valray’s La belle de nuit (1934)

As Nick Pinkerton points out in Artforum, “something like a minicult has emerged” in France around Louis Valray, who made his directorial debut with L’homme à la barbiche (1933), the story of two half-brothers competing for an inheritance told in forty-seven minutes. Two features followed, La belle de nuit (1934) and Thirteen Days of Love (1935), and more than a decade would pass before he made a final short film, Voyantes et médiums (1947), took a job in radio, then another as a chemical engineer, and died in obscurity in 1972. In January 2020, the Museum of Modern Art screened Lobster Films’ restorations of the features as part of To Save and Project, its festival of film preservation, and now MoMA is streaming them to its members through next Thursday.

What’s caught the eye in recent years of champions such as Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient—and Paul Vecchiali, who ten years ago declared Valray to be an “ancestor” of the New Wave because he “shoots outdoors, produces, and edits his films himself”—is the filmmaker’s unique stylistic flair. Valray infuses “the moody atmosphere of French ‘poetic realism’ with a breath of plein-air cinema and a jaunty music-hall energy,” writes J. Hoberman in the New York Times. “Valray’s distinctive style is marked by off-center compositions and elliptical storytelling as well as a near-documentary obsession with the seamy side of Mediterranean ports like his hometown, Toulon. Both movies lavish attention on waterfront dives, roistering sailors and back-alley hôtels de passe.

In La belle de nuit, a playwright leaves Paris for the Riviera, where he will concoct a plan to take revenge an old friend who has seduced his girlfriend. In one memorable sequence, the film “gives way to a tour of dockside red-light districts,” writes Farran Smith Nehme at “The narrow streets illuminated only by the light spilling from various dives, the shadowed doorways, and the variously exhausted and embittered faces strongly recall the photographs of Brassaï in the same era; but the film also looks forward to the high style of film noir a decade later.”

Thirteen Days of Love, too, set in Marseille, contrasts the cultures of northern and southern France. “The northerner is presented as, if not a portrait of moral rectitude, then at least concerned with the appearance of it; in the hotter climes of the south, however, anything goes,” writes Nick Pinkerton. A “connoisseur of the lower depths,” Valray “revels in the seductive textures of all things sordid without downplaying the dank desperation of the underworld milieu . . . His position remains, always, that of the southerner—it’s the Parisian accent and stiff-backed keeping-up-appearances of northern manners that are odd and incongruous and imposing, not the other way around.”

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