The films of Jean Grémillon might be largely unknown to English-speaking audiences, but they’re brimming with familiar luminaries: Jean Gabin stars in a few, while Jacques Prévert adds dialogue to others. These collaborators, in fact, can easily overshadow our first impressions of the French director (brokered, finally, by Criterion’s Eclipse set), during which the temptation to underestimate him is not insignificant. Grémillon’s films concern class struggle (the fêted Lumière D’Été most redolently), they portray attempts to jerry-rig moral imperatives amid widespread ethical lassitude, and they feature posh country estates; the leap from here to Jean Renoir, then, hardly requires Dukes of Hazzard-style derring-do. But Marcel Carné isn’t all that far off, either: Grémillon produced films under the Vichy government, and eschewed hard-chipped realism for the look of a hallucinatory gouache. Untrapping Grémillon from between these lauded contemporaries is a tricky necessity; after screening Lumière D’Été, I immediately described it as “Rules of the Game fan fiction.”
Still, the director’s contribution to the narrow plume of cinematic masterworks that erupted from Nazi-occupied France hardly constitutes stylistic redundancy, and to locate his uniqueness is to locate his value. In sharp contrast to the egalitarian embarrassment of both Renoir and Carné, Grémillon’s sympathies were unflinchingly—perhaps even feverishly—with the rugged working class. Adverse to decadence among the upper class and bohemians alike, Grémillon’s 1940s films are love letters to industrial modernism—to sinewy, self-made men (and women), and the elegantly primitive geometry of their tools. All three of the movies included in the Eclipse set begin with small but transitional domestic events, suggesting the durability of family: the maritime marriage of Remorques, the dressmaker setting out on vacation in Lumière D’Été, the moving day of the mechanic and his wife in Le Ciel est à Vous. Furthermore, each film’s conflict hinges on a splintering of everyday “fairness”—such as the tugboat operator (Gabin) who’s cheated out of a hard day’s pay by an arrogant sailor—as well the temptation of an honest if naïve prole into corruption.
This moral breakdown of humanity along socio-economic lines is most aggressively exacted in the unsurprisingly Vichy-suppressed Lumière D’Été; wealth is more or less synonymous with indolence and turpitude. Paul Bernard’s stuffy estate owner, Patrice, turns out to not only be a sexual predator, but one who has a habit of murdering his male competitors. (We’re told this in a strange almost-flashback, where he reminisces with the woman he killed for and tired of, played by Madeleine Renaud; garish sound effects suggest that the past is popping and screeching and roaring at their heels.) Patrice ensnares the dressmaker (Madeleine Robinson), who’s holidaying in a hotel near his manor, in a life-threatening love rectangle. She must choose between him, her raving drunkard-cum-painter of a boyfriend Roland (Pierre Brasseur), and Julien (Georges Marchal), an upstanding construction foreman building a dam in a nearby valley who develops a crush on her. It’s not much of a choice.
That the assiduous Julien represents integrity while Patrice embodies malevolent avarice courts Dickensian obviousness. But the characters’ respective environs explode the allegory to a panorama of class one-upmanship. Patrice holds a costume ball at his mansion, which doesn’t appear to have been redecorated since the enlightenment period, and his guests come dressed as icons of moribund Europe: William Tell, William Shakespeare, and countless courtesans. Julien’s construction site, meanwhile, is full of stark visual poetry: tubular sculptures, Futurist-inspired scaffolds, and light-spitting coal trains that make their rickety way in and out of the adjacent quarry. The dam Julien builds, too, represents a lovely, if unspoken, bit of Robin Hood-ery: He’s presumably flooding part of Patrice’s gorgeous, mountainous view to bring water to French cities and farms. (The masons are, in other words, limiting the aesthetic use of the landscape in order to maximize its utility.) The sheer rightness of industry is rarely asserted so unsubtly; consider the much more controversial dam building of Elia Kazan’s Wild River. The worker upstages even the artist, who here is impotent without a benefactor and incapable of self-control. Prévert and Grémillon nearly trace a new arc of civilization from isolationist affluence to hedonistic aesthetics to democratic labor.
The other two films in the Eclipse set are far more slight than Lumière D’Été, but complement one another with distaff agency and vehicular prowess. An idealistic tugboat captain finds himself torn between his wife and mysterious new woman in Remorques; in Le Ciel est à Vous, a rural mechanic’s spouse (also played by Madeleine Renaud) becomes an aviatrix and determines to make the longest solo flight ever by a woman. In the former film, the tugboat’s wife does little more than maintain their household, constantly and bitterly competing with the tempestuous ocean to win her husband’s attention. Le Ciel est à Vous, made just three years after, reverses this formula and shows the wife boldly encroaching on her spouse’s techie turf. (She first tries piloting an airplane as a lark, to see what all the fuss about.) Both movies are undoubtedly third-estate romances, and short on character development; one can hear the cheering for the righteous protagonists as well as the jeering for the cheaters they encounter. But as hyper-real portraits of unsung underlings they’re peerless, and a refreshing flipside to the pity parties held for migrant and factory workers in Depression-era narratives from the United States.
Jean Grémillon’s affection for white-collar France yields striking vocation-specific images in all three films. There’s a bit too much sea-churning in Remorques, but coarse light and shadow define the workspaces of the dam constructors in Lumière D’Été and the smiths and mechanics in Le Ciel est à Vous—both shot by cameraman Louis Page. The standard-definition transfers here provide more than enough clarity to appreciate these achievements; the cinematographic detail more often than not provides essential visual complexity to otherwise unflappably goody-goody characters. These guys work in dim, spooky places punctuated with searing flares and sparks, just as their nobility is like a sudden, brief burst of white that makes a dark situation instantaneously lucid. Its corny symbolism, but formally seductive. The sound mix is a bit flat and crackly at times, though never so violently as to distract from the performers.
Only Michael Koresky’s liner notes are included, but they’re up to his usual standard of readability, providing curatorial analysis with need-to-know historical context.
A working-class hero is something to be in Jean Grémillon’s films from the 1940s.