Jean Grémillon During the Occupation (Eclipse Series 34) (Criterion) casts a welcome spotlight on the work of a French director little known outside of France, notably a trio of films he directed during the German occupation that are considered his best work. Let the rediscovery begin.
Remorques (1941), which was begun before the German invasion but released during the occupation, stars Jean Gabin as the captain of a tugboat crew that works for the bounty from saving imperiled ships from the stormy waters off his Brittany shipping town. The export title was, in fact, “Stormy Waters,” which refers to the emotional turmoil as well as the physical danger. Gabin’s weary, stoic Captain Laurent, beloved by his loyal crew, falls for a beautiful woman (Michéle Morgan) he rescues from the storm and from a brutal relationship while his wife of ten years (Madeleine Renaud) watches him slip away. It recalls the poetic realist dramas of the 1930s that made Gabin’s career, in no small part thanks to a script by Jacques Prevert that turns on the hard lives and romantic torments of its characters. Some of the maritime scenes are quite impressive, others clearly miniatures in a tanks (but no less fun to watch), but the drama on land is even more engaging, filled with longing and guilt and remorse and redemption, and the final few minutes are sublime: a spoken prayer for the sailor turns into a chant-like hymn paying tribute to the who risk their lives and the women who endure the wait.
Lumière d’été (1943) take us from the sea to the mountains for a romantic drama complicated by the conflicting desires of five people in an isolated town that feels disconnected from the rest of the world. As in “Remorques,” Grémillon offers a visually dramatic world, this time contrasting the decadence of the petty rich in a luxury hotel and an amoral aristocrat’s castle with the working class pragmatism of the crews blasting away in the hills (the explosions echo through the film, a reminder of the war just outside the theater of 1943 Europe?), and in one sequence, he carries us into a flashback by audio cues alone while keeping the camera in the present, surveying the mementoes of a past romance. It’s an often dynamic film, visually striking and dramatic, and Grémillon accentuates the contrasts, notably in a magnificent long take through a magnificent cavern where the construction crew toils that dissolves from the industry of working men to the frivolity of a costume ball in the castle, where the romantic tangles are pulled tight. This is a portrait of upper-class corruption poisoning the country and then heroic efforts of the working folk to save it, and it was banned in Vichy France almost immediately after it was released.
Le ciel est à vous (1944), a romantic drama starring Madeleine Renaud (once again) as an aspiring aviatrix and Charles Vanel as her mechanic husband, rounds out the set. This release is from Eclipse, the budget-line from Criterion, and features no supplements beyond generous notes and essays by Criterion’s house writer Michael Koresky. Three discs in a set of three thinpak cases.