Rob Harmon’s recommendations 11/12/13

ROB HARMON’S PICKS 11/12/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksJEAN GRÉMILLON DURING THE OCCUPATION

The inventory of movies here at Best Video is vast: with tens of thousands of titles and over 200 sections the collection is so vast that even an employee like me can find myself getting lost in its depths from time-to-time! And with such a huge catalogue there is an ever-present danger: that movies – even great ones – can fall between the cracks.

Take the work of French director Jean Grémillon, for example. If you have not heard of Grémillon you are certainly not alone: in a career which spanned from the 1920’s to the 50’s Grémillon tends to be overshadowed by his poetic realist contemporaries like Renoir, Carné, or Duvivier. I was unaware, myself, until about ten years ago when I was living in New York and was lucky enough to go, on a whim, one night to see Grémillon’s 1937 film GUELE d’AMOUR. I was completely won over by this fatalistic love story about a cocksure military officer and lothario, played by Jean Gabin, both meeting his match and brought to his knees by a beautiful woman of luxury, played by Mireille Balin. The emotions at work were outsized and a little volcanic, sure, but they were also true and hit home. From then on I caught Grémillon’s films any chance that I could.

Aiding the cause of making Grémillon’s name better known is the Criterion Collection, which graciously released a trio of outstanding films of his on DVD last year, all penned by poetic realist stalwarts such as Jacques Prévert and Charles Spaak, starring the radiant French leading lady Madeleine Renaud, and all made during the German occupation. Appropriately enough, the set is entitled Jean Grémillon During the Occupation.

Jean_Gremillon_set_DVDREMORQUES (1941) concerns the day-to-day dangers and realities of a hard-bitten tugboat crew and the patient women—their wives and lovers—who wait at home and take care of them. The film stars Gabin and Renaud, as husband and wife André and Yvonne, he the captain of the crew, and the stunning Michèle Morgan (THE FALLEN IDOL, PORT OF SHADOWS) as a mysterious woman named Catherine whom André rescues, initiating a desperate affair which seriously threatens the stability of home life.

LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ (1943) is a moody masterpiece set in the mountains in Provençal. Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) is a beautiful young woman whose future is ahead of her yet she is desperately attached to the fatalistic, dipsomaniac artist Roland (Pierre Brasseur); Patrice (Paul Bernard) is a decadent aristocrat living on a palatial-but-lonely estate who falls for Michèle, which causes jealousy from his long-time lover, Christine or “Cri-Cri” (Renaud), owner of the glass-enclosed mountain-top hotel The Guardian Angel. Into this already tightly-knit web is injected hunky and sincere, young worker Julien (Georges Marchal), who similarly falls in love with Michèle and who works at the massive construction site nearby—a Mephistophelean nightmare of nocturnal activity—where a dam is being constructed and the dynamite blasting seems to go on ominously and continuously.

LE CIEL EST À VOUS (translatable as the “The Sky is Yours,” 1944) is a nostalgic and warm-hearted drama about family life in a small town and a mother whose love of flying puts her at odds with her expected role in the home. Charles Vanel and Renaud star as Pierre and Thérèse Gauthier, a loving couple and parents of two children whose love is put to the test when Thérèse, jealous of her mechanic husband’s—a former WWI airman—intense interest in aviation spurs her to take up the sport for herself, eventually aiming to break a risky distance flying record. The tension in Le Ciel comes not from unrequited or doomed love (interestingly, all of the flying action is either observed from the ground or takes place off-screen) but from the everyday problems of hard-working people trying to free themselves through pursuit of their dreams, even when those passions threaten to become obsessions and bring everything crashing back down to earth. Renaud is commanding: both her brave performance and the portrayal of a family trying to pull together in hard times make it easy to see how this film would have appealed highly to wartime audiences living under the boot of Nazi control.

In all three films Grémillon’s controlled, often studio-shot virtuoso camerawork is on display: intricate special-effects and tracking shots used during the daring tugboat rescue in Remorques, as well as an extended wedding sequence; a concluding masked ball in Lumière which is a marvel for the eyes to behold; and a sensationally long and idyllic take at the outset of Le Ciel—the camera pans right from a flock of bleating sheep moving across a field to a group of schoolchildren singing and playing, as they eventually are reassembled and begin walking back into town.

If poetic realism is your thing—fatalistic love affairs; settings both picturesque and squalid; buffoonish and hilarious performances by great French character actors such as Léonce Corne; high and low classes intermingling in the ebb and flow of destiny; world-weary protagonists who pontificate and sigh piquant observations on the injustices of life; and plots by turns quotidian or shot through with broad symbolism—then Jean Grémillon’s world is for you.

In the meantime, stay tuned: we will continue to dig around here at Best Video and let you know what other buried treasure we find.