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Two by Jean Grémillon

Mireille Balin and Jean Gabin in Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’amour (1937)

Arriving in Paris from Normandy in 1920, young Jean Grémillon studied at a private music conservatory and landed a job playing violin with an orchestra that accompanied silent films. “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,” wrote Michael Koresky in a 2012 essay on three films Grémillon made during the Occupation, Remorques (1941), Lumière d’été (1943), and Le ciel est à vous (1944), “all uncommonly attuned to the beauty and hardships of human experience.”

In strictly commercial terms, Grémillon’s career was a roller coaster. The final stretch found him making documentaries on such esoteric subjects as alchemy and astrology, films that prompted David Cairns to observe in the Notebook in 2013 that Grémillon’s “sonorous, dreamy tones probably make him the greatest director-narrator outside of Orson Welles, and his self-penned music may be the finest outside of Chaplin’s.” The brief period during which Grémillon enjoyed both critical and financial success began with two films, Gueule d’amour (Lady Killer, 1937) and The Strange Mister Victor (1938), both of which have been recently restored, and starting tomorrow, will screen at New York’s Metrograph.

Jean Gabin stars in Gueule d’amour as Lucien Bourrache, an officer of the French Army returning home from a tour of Africa. Lucien is also, legendarily, a ladies man. But he meets his match in Madeleine (Mireille Balin), a Parisian who refuses to leave the wealthy man who’s keeping her in the lap of luxury. “In the world of Gueule d’amour,” wrote Dan Callahan for Slant in 2004, “happiness is quicker than Mozart, and despair is methodical and melancholic as Brahms.”

“Gabin’s performances fit seamlessly into Grémillon’s style and themes,” wrote Imogen Sara Smith in a survey of Grémillon’s work for Reverse Shot in 2014. “The essential poetic realist antihero, his presence infuses the ordinary with mysterious force.” Gabin “dominates the screen through unadorned directness, stillness that makes him a center of gravity. Again and again, his simplicity and integrity confront a complex, deceitful, morally compromised world, and he unleashes violent spasms of anger and disgust. Gabin’s irresistible glamour is rooted in defeat, in losing, in being fed up. His feet are planted on the rock-bottom truth that—as poetic realist scripts reiterate—living is hard.”

In The Strange Mister Victor, Raimu, the actor best known for playing César in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy, plays Victor Agardanne, a respected and well-liked shopkeeper in the port city of Toulon. Victor secretly earns his living fencing stolen goods, and he’s currently dealing with Amédée (Georges Flamant), the leader of a gang who threatens to expose Victor’s shady business.

If we read The Strange Mister Victor “as a parable for French society on the eve of the war,” writes Nick Pinkerton in his excellent Grémillon primer for Metrograph Journal, “we may conclude that Grémillon’s intention was to expose upholders of the placid bourgeoise order as perpetrators of a corrupt system built on hidden vice and hypocritical moralizing, and that Amédée is acting as the director’s mouthpiece when he tells Victor: ‘We’re frank about what we do, but you, with your relations, your manners . . . You’re the cream of villainy.’”

For more on Grémillon, see the tributes Metrograph Journal has gathered from Ari Aster, Davy Chou, Pedro Costa, Robert Eggers, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi; Mireille Latil Le Dantec’s 1978 deep dive, which was translated for the Notebook by Ted Fendt in 2014; and Bernard Eisenschitz’s 1980 essay, which Kino Slang republished in 2018.

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