JEAN GREMILLON DURING THE OCCUPATION: ECLIPSE SERIES 34 – DVD Review

Eclipse Series 34; Jean Grémillon During the Occupation includes three films: “Remorques” (1941), “ Lumière d’été” (1943), and “ Le ciel est à vous” (1944).

When people say “I don’t get it” in response to a movie, they usually mean “It was stupid and artsy and boring and everyone who says they like it is a pretentious liar.” It’s much easier to find fault with the film than with your viewership.

Sometimes, though, you must sincerely admit to a lack of comprehension, and that’s definitely the case for me regarding Jean Grémillon’s much-praised “Lumière d’été” (1943). For cinephiles like me, Grémillon has become an elusive legend of sorts, a filmmaker written about in glowing terms by critics I admire greatly, but whose work has been largely unavailable in the States. Grémillon, whose career began in the silent era and extended into the 50s, has even been placed on a pedestal with no less a luminary than Jean Renoir as one of the titans of French pre-war and wartime cinema.

With praise from critics like the redoubtable Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included both “ Lumière d’été” and 1944’s “Le ciel est à vous” in his Essential Cinema canon) piling up over the years, I could not wait to dig into this three film Grémillon set from Eclipse. And after watching the first two films, I find I can say very little beyond, “I don’t get it.” And I mean that sincerely.

I’ll start with the second film, often cited as Grémillon’s masterpiece. “ Lumière d’été” was the first movie Grémillon shot after the occupation of France, a time when many directors and actors had fled to America or gone into hiding. Dressmaker Michele (Madeleine Robinson) hitchhikes to a mountain resort hotel where she awaits the arrival of her lover, a painter and insufferable drunk named Roland (Pierre Brasseur). Before Roland eventually shows, tumbling pie-eyed off his wildly weaving motorcycle, the film sets up a complicated romantic entanglement. Hunky, poofy-haired dam worker Julien (Georges Marchal) wanders into Michele’s room by mistake and they share a sleepy kiss that intertwines their fates. Meanwhile, the unctuous aristocrat Patrice (Paul Bernard) possesses no obvious appealing qualities beyond his wealth, but he still owns the obsessive affection of hotel manager and former ballet dancer Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud), a love he casually toys with as he sets his eyes on the younger Michele.

Grémillon relies on the viewer to quickly grasp the network of affections and desires at play (or at least not question them), but this viewer will admit that he fell short in the task. In scene after scene, I found myself throwing up my hands and wondering why on earth a particular set of characters was having a particular conversation. Do these two even know each other? What in the world is Julien so indignant about? Wait, are they supposed to be in love now? What possible appeal does this twit have for anyone? Halfway through I just accepted that I didn’t get it, and by “it” I mean anything that was going on between the characters, and trudged slowly through the rest of the film.

I found the characters almost uniformly dull with the distinct exception of Renaud’s Cri-Cri. Renaud was perhaps Grémillon’s favorite actress (she appears in all three films in this set) and here she plays the discarded “older” woman (she was all of 42 at the time) who is capable of truly contemptible behavior in the pursuit of her (inexplicable) love for Patrice while remaining entirely plausible and even sympathetic in the process. It’s a solo performance, however. Roland’s drunken, drama queen rants quickly grow tiresome, and the two young lovers Michele and Julien are little more than pretty faces. Patrice’s moral decrepitude proved troublesome to Vichy censors who felt he was a stand in for the powers-that-be, but he is so utterly devoid of charisma, it’s difficult to view him even as anything more than a foppish clod. Or is it a cloddish fop? Regardless, his depiction (as well as the film’s broader pitting of the noble working class against the corrupt ruling class) was seen as dangerous enough that the film was suppressed a brief theatrical run.

The first film in the set “Remorques” (1941) is somewhat more accessible to me, but not particularly compelling. A moody tugboat commander (played by superstar Jean Gabin) loves his wife (Madeleine Renaud) but she has to share his affections with both his crew (bros before you-knows) and the estranged wife (Michele Morgan) of the captain of a ship that he salvages in stormy waters (which is also the translated title of “Remorques.”) There are some nifty maritime scenes, though some viewers might find the use of miniatures too antiquated.  Grémillon demonstrates his unabashed fondness for working class heroes, especially when they understand that work is the most important thing, which seems like a decidedly conformist message for a director viewed, at least at times, as a subversive.

In a preview of my troubles to come with “Lumière d’été” I found Gabin’s sudden affair with Morgan so abrupt that it took me a while even to figure out what was going on, further evidence that there’s just something about Grémillon that I haven’t been able to connect with. I haven’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out “ Le ciel est à vous” yet. I’m hoping to return to this set later in the year to see if I’m in a more receptive mood. In the meantime, I will point you to this essay by Mr. Rosenbaum for a much different take.

Video:
All three films are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios. These are not fully restored prints or transfers, but the quality is surprisingly good considering the age of the movies. “Lumière d’été” is probably the strongest of the bunch, showing only minimal sides of damage. “Remorques” is a little rougher around the edges with more scratches and other damage as well as a lack of detail in the nighttime scenes, but nothing severe.

Audio:
All three films are presented with Dolby Digital Mono tracks. The sound quality is generally on the thin side, most notable with the (usually melodramatic) music, and there is the occasional bit of distortion or crackle in the soundtrack, but not much. It’s flat, but solid enough. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Like all Eclipse releases, there are no extras included on the three discs in this set, each of which is housed in a separate keep case, all three of which are tucked into a thin cardboard sleeve. Each film is accompanied by liner notes from Eclipse stalwart Michael Koresky.

Film Value:
Color me shocked. After what I’ve read about Grémillon over the past decade, I had no doubt I was going to fall in love with this set. I didn’t, but I suspect I will be in the minority, just as I suspect a future re-viewing might change my mind. And now that I’ve re-read this essay, I also suspect I have just written my most useless review to date. It had to happen. Regardless, the Gremillon set is going to be received warmly by many film buffs who have been waiting for years for the chance to finally check out the director they’ve read so much about.

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