Judge P.S. Colbert's holy grail is a well-preserved, unopened bottle of Absinthe, 19th century vintage.
"An unerring way of bringing into focus moments of grace amid sometimes overwrought plots."—Michael Koresky
Criterion Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During The Occupation is a cozy little three film collection by one of French cinema's also-rans. I mean no disrespect by pointing out the obvious; without lesser lights, how would we recognize the directorial brilliance of Renoir, Resnais, or Truffaut, to name just a few?
In accordance with the box set's title, these films date from the infamous era of Vichy government (circa 1940-1944), when France was under the thumb of Nazi occupiers. In his almost excessively laudatory essay, critic Michal Koresky suggests that Grémillon might have sacrificed greater fame due to "his distaste for the dictates of studio bosses," but I believe he's reaching here. How many directors do you suppose actually enjoyed such dictates?
Though the extremely limited run of (and subsequent moratorium on) Lumière D'été (the second film in this collection) was reportedly the result of pressure from people in high places, virtually nothing in these stories indicates the surrounding political atmosphere of the time.
Things get under way with Remorques (released in the states as Stormy Waters), bolstered by the high-wattage star power of Jean Gabin (Port of Shadows), Michèle Morgan (The Fallen Idol), and Madeleine Renaud (Le Plaisir), forming a bizarre love triangle. As André Laurent, captain of the tugboat Cyclone, Gabin radiates everyman heroism, willing to risk all by charging into the stormiest seas on the chance of bringing a stranded vessel safely home, whether or not the captain of that stranded vessel ultimately welshes on payment, once back in dry dock. Laurent bolsters his moral absolutism in a key scene before the storm, where he chews out a crewman seen making moves on a fellow crewman's wife. Laurent's message to the offender parses no words: Wrong is wrong; shape up or ship out.
Grémillon succeeds mightily in conveying the danger facing the tug's captain and crew, cleverly mixing miniatures (you expected CGI?!) with internal action from both crew members and the over-stressed ship's mechanical works. Unfortunately, things get choppier after the storm has passed and Laurent returns to find himself at odds with his wife Yvonne (Renaud), who's had it up to here with waiting anxiously by the shore for her man to return from the deadly elements, and the lovely, seductive Catherine (Morgan), wife of the rescued ship's unscrupulous captain. Catherine makes no bones about her desire for Laurent, at the same time Yvonne demands he gives up his true love, the sea. What to do?
Sadly, Remorques sinks into the rising tide of soap bubbles that wash away all which came before. The most immediate victim is Renaud, whose character turns lightning quickly from lovely and philosophical to weepy, clingy and shrewish. Did I mention that Yvonne also has developed a serious "illness"? Though never named specifically, I've diagnosed it as a "Romantic Melodrama Malaise," in that it shows no physical symptoms, requires no medicinal treatment, and turns deadly in the fourth reel. Fin!
A menacing comedy of (ill) manners,and a serious examination of absurdity, depravity, and manipulation, the infamous Lumière D'été premiered in May 1943. By this time Gabin and Morgan had relocated to Hollywood, though Renaud remained and was awarded top billing for playing Cri-Cri, manager of an opulent mountain resort ironically christened the Guardian Angel. Vichy brass was so troubled by Grémillon's perverse depiction of elites it's amazing the film opened at all. Often referred to as the director's masterpiece, Lumière D'été still titillates and entertains, owing to a dynamic cast, Louis Page's thrilling cinematography, and a bizarrely fantastic costume party that very well may have sown seeds for Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut half a century later. On the other hand, the witty screenplay by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche never manages to finesse its over-similarity to Rules Of The Game. The entire exercise ends in futility, due to a rushed and utterly preposterous conclusion.
The set's final entry, La ciel est à Vous (aka The Woman Who Dared) represents the director's biggest commercial success. It's such a stark departure from his previous work that the same Vichy press corps tut-tutting Grémillon less than a year before were all but carrying him on their shoulders in celebration of this whimsical and inspiring paean to faith and family values. Based on the true story of French aviatrix Andrée Dupeyron, La ciel est à Vous features Madeleine Renaud yet again, starring as Thérèse Gauthier, who quite accidentally discovers the joy of flying, while her mechanic husband Pierre (a wonderful performance by Charles Vanel, The Wages Of Fear) struggles between his desire to support her and his fear of losing her to a great fall from the sky. On the surface, this film seems the least ambitious of the three, but I found it the most satisfying, hands down.
The standard definition 1.33:1 full frame black and white transfers are generally satisfying, with some grit, flickering, and splicing evident, though not unexpected, considering the age of the source materials. The Dolby 1.0 Mono audio quality is predictably flat, but doesn't prevent enjoyment. Optional English subtitles are available. Criterion Eclipse releases are a no-frills enterprise that doesn't allow for extras, though well-written and informative essays on each feature appear on the inside covers of their respective DVD cases.
As an out and proud Francocinephile, Jean Grémillon During The Occupation is a treasure indeed. While not the work of a certified genius, but rather a skilled and talented craftsman, I have no doubt I'll be revisiting all of these films in the future, finding even more to appreciate about them.
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Scales of Justice, La Ciel Est A Vous
Perp Profile, La Ciel Est A Vous
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