Midway into Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938), a flashy streetwalker named Raymonde (Arletty) delivers some of the most memorable and oft-quoted spoken lines in French cinema. The setting is a footbridge spanning Paris’s Canal Saint-Martin and located just steps away from the bare-bones boardinghouse of the film’s title, where a band of working-class Parisians find temporary solace. It is Sunday, a day for fishing, and Raymonde dutifully trails her abusive protector-pimp, Edmond (Louis Jouvet). The latter has scrapped their plan for moving to the Riviera and now informs his sulking companion, “I need a change of atmosphere, and the atmosphere in question is you.” Edmond’s blunt words unleash Raymonde’s scorn for his coldheartedness, as well as for the pretentious vocabulary he habitually spouts when bullying her. With all the nasal shrillness her parigot vernacular can muster, Arletty inflates the open vowels of Raymonde’s response, howling “At-mos-phè-re! At-mos-phè-re! Do I look like someone’s at-mos-phè-re?” and exits haughtily, frame right, with the gibe “Bonne pêche . . . et bonne at-mos-phè-re!” (“Happy fishing . . . and happy atmosphere!”).
This tense bit of sarcastic dialogue marks a crucial twist in the movie’s plot. Edmond—morose, guarded, and middle-aged—chooses to break with Raymonde because he imagines himself initiating a tender liaison with an angelic-looking young lady, Renée (Annabella), who has recently been hired to carry out odd chores at the hotel. He and Renée will, in the film’s second half, abortively venture to flee France for Port Said, Egypt. But the key word of Edmond and Raymonde’s spat—atmosphère—carries additional resonance when appreciated within the framework of the twenty narrative features that Carné directed between 1936 and 1977.
Inspired early on by German-expressionist filmmaking, Carné excelled at creating on-screen atmospherics designed to arouse and envelop the senses of his audiences as much as they did those of his stories’ protagonists. This talent first came to the fore in his “dark” trilogy: Port of Shadows (1938), Hôtel du Nord, and Le jour se lève (1939). In each of these pictures, the main characters try but fail to extricate themselves from surroundings that are both physically and existentially suffocating—for instance, the heavy fog and mist that engulf Port of Shadows’ distressed army deserter and the increasingly claustrophobic living space in which Le jour se lève’s factory worker turned murderer barricades himself against the police. Both roles were performed by Jean Gabin, whose near-mythic prewar persona was limned by the critic-theorist André Bazin as “the tragic [male] figure of the contemporary cinema.” Like the two other films in the trilogy, Hôtel du Nord exhibits a striking profusion of purposeful chiaroscuro lighting and stylized camera angles, all of which lend support to film historians who have seen these exceedingly atmospheric works as betokening a continuity of sorts between the German expressionism of the twenties and the American film noir of the forties and fifties. Yet Hôtel du Nord distinguishes itself within this trio of movies. Carné offsets his usual steadfast focus on the nightmarish plights of exceptional individuals (like those embodied by Gabin) with an equally deliberate drive to portray the daily vicissitudes of numerous “ordinary folk.” And he expresses this shift through a quasi-naturalistic film aesthetic—albeit one that remains fastidiously controlled.
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