Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons! - La Marseillaise
dir: Jean Grémillon
Starring: Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud and Michèle Morgan
Review By Greg Klymkiw
In 1941, during the Nazi Occupation of France, Three Wise Men (director Jean Grémillon, screenwriter Jacques Prévert and star Jean Gabin), all bearing precious gifts of motion picture genius, stood reverently beneath the shining star of French Cinema to deliver Remorques, a dazzling, compelling and moving movie melodrama of the highest order.
Vive le cinéma français!
Vive le cinéma de Jean Grémillon!
Vive le Criterion Collection Série Eclipse!
I always love discovering new films and filmmakers from earlier periods of cinema. Almost shamefully, however, I must admit that prior to diving headlong into the latest Criterion Eclipse Series, I'd never laid eyes upon a film by Jean Grémillon, the French auteur celebrated in this great box of DVDs devoted to work he directed during the Nazi Occupation of France.
What little I knew of him was the great story of how, as a young violinist in an orchestra that accompanied silent movies, he became entranced with the musicality of motion pictures, chucked his fiddle, entered the film business, cut his teeth as an editor, then became a prolific director whose career spanned over three decades.
After seeing Remorques, the aforementioned bit of movie lore comes as no surprise since the picture pulled, pushed, nudged, caressed, walloped and wrenched me until finally, I was reduced to a winded, quivering mass of jelly and gooseflesh.
What a picture!
The screenplay adaptation is gorgeously structured by Jacques (Les enfants du paradis) Prévert (based upon a novel by Roger Vercel, whose book Capitaine Conan was the basis for Bertrand Tavernier's strangely forgotten war film from 1996). Grémillon directs Prévert's deceptively simple script with all the panache of a genuine Master.
This stirring tale of brave, passionate, two-fisted men who work salvage vessels and the women who love them is replete with perfect ebbs and flows to keep us glued to our seats. Ever wanting to push forward with characters we come to love almost immediately, the script and direction allow the necessary weight to both the men saving ships in peril on troubled waters, whilst troubled domestic waters on terra firma roil amongst the women who love their men, fearing widowhood every time their husbands risk their lives to save others.
Jean Gabin plays Captain André Laurent, a veteran sailor who commands his men with confidence and camaraderie. He has taken this job to remain in greater physical proximity to his wife Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud). Their love seems deep and genuine, yet Laurent is unable to acquiesce to his wife's requests that he retire from the sea permanently so they can live out their lives peacefully and in a state of complete devotion to one another.
Gabin, probably France's biggest star and greatest screen actor is, as per usual, utterly fabulous. The first moment we see him on screen, it's apparent some form of doom is going to befall the guy. (This is not a spoiler - if you see enough Jean Gabin movies, you know he's going to suffer some major shit storm sooner or later.)
One of his loyal crew members is celebrating marriage to a beautiful young woman. A grand speech is made by the owner of the salvage company, but it's Capt. Laurent everyone wants to hear from. Perfectly in keeping with Gabin's natural talents/personality, the good Captain modestly wishes to remain silent, but he knows he won't. Neither do his men, nor the wedding guests and frankly, neither do we, the audience. Gabin rises gracefully and reluctantly. His modesty is both heart-felt AND for show.
He's Jean Gabin, after all.
His speech sets the tone perfectly. He claims he doesn't want to make a speech, proceeds to say little beyond some stock salutations, but then, he Gabin-izes all of us with a slight twinkle in his eye and a lovely, simple comment about how speeches are not necessary in times of celebration - that what is of utmost importance is for all to dance. He then adds a thoroughly gentlemanly offer to the bride to dance with him and he receives thunderous applause.
Eventually, the celebration is interrupted. An S.O.S. signal has been received. The men storm off into the eye of the raging waters. The new bride is whisked off to spend her wedding night commiserating with the Captain's wife.
Someone might not come home. Or be maimed. But always, in their lives is Capt. Laurent - steadfast, true and a great leader. We should all have Jean Gabin lead us into the breach. For American moviegoers during this time, it was John Wayne.
France, however, had Jean Gabin.
Jesus, Gabin is unbelievable.
And yes, he's always great, but this might well be one of his best performances. It's a perfect role - replete with a sense of loyalty, duty, perseverance and a genuine love for the sea. At the same, though, he clearly loves his wife - he's mad about her. Because he's so mad about her we feel his guilt all the more. Clearly, his true love, his ultimate mistress is the sea and the camaraderie of his men. When the Captain tells his wife - with a straight face - that she need not fret about him as she did in the early years when he was away at sea for months at a time, he evokes a sense of duality that only Jean Gabin was especially capable of.
He tells her that's why he accepted a salvage commission in the first place - to be close to her. Of course, the good Captain wants to believe this. He wants to believe it so bad that he's able to fool himself into thinking he does. And yet, as he speaks these words, we sense that he ultimately understands his self-deception and worse, that he's deceiving his wife.
Yvonne is no fool. She sees through his deception whilst recognizing and almost accepting his SELF-deception. Ultimately, she wants desperately to accept his word.
These are, of course, extremely complex emotions. On the page, however, in far less skilled hands than Grémillon's, the melodramatic aspects of the story could have gone so completely wrong. The emotions could have been BIG, but simply stayed at that. This might well have resulted in solid melodrama, but here Grémillon uses the tropes of melodrama as a springboard into actions and reactions, as well as subtext, that not only take us further and deeper into the characters, but in fact, forces us - so deliciously - to root for our heroes as people, NOT archetypes.
Instead, we have a sense that yes, emotions here are running high and that the stakes - every step of the way - are HUGE. And there's not a damn thing wrong with this. (As I always say, like a broken record, melodrama in and of itself is not bad, but rather, there is only good melodrama and bad melodrama.)
Without question, Remorques is not merely good, it's GREAT melodrama.
First of all, it helps that the script by Prévert appears to chart the most perfect elements from Vercel's novel to render a screen story that is electrifyingly compelling from beat to beat. Vercel loved the sea and much preferred to set his tales against its backdrop. Strangely, though, he had virtually no experience with the sea - for him it was the pure romance of it that attracted him.
Prévert seems to understand this all too well and he also recognizes that Vercel did, in fact, have the most harrowing of experiences during World War I, which he also wrote about extensively in other books. Since Vercel favoured writing about the sea, the script is infused with this passion every step of the way - especially as it applies to the character of Capt. Laurent.
Laurent is a romantic (perhaps much like Vercel himself) and it is what makes him so damned appealing because his overwhelming degree of romance is what could also condemn him to doom and disaster.
Laurent is romantic to a fault.
And again, who better than Jean Gabin?
In the legendary "What is Cinema?", Andre Bazin writes:
"The film star is not just an actor, not even an actor particularly beloved of the public, but a hero of legend or tragedy, embodying a destiny which scenarists and directors must comply - albeit unwittingly. Otherwise the spell between the actor and his public will be broken. The variety of films in which he appears, and which seem so agreeably surprising in their novelty, should not mislead us. It is the confirmation of a destiny, profound and essential, which we unconsciously seek in the actor's renewed exploits."
It's uncanny that as you watch Remorques, how indelibly you see and feel the aforementioned Bazinian sentiments expressed above. And though expressed well over a decade after the film was long finished, released and to a certain extent "forgotten", one feels explicitly that Grémillon understood, all too well, the sense of how Gabin would infuse his role and the film itself with the "profound and essential confirmation of destiny".
Grémillon was, after all, fashioning what he hoped would be a huge hit with the biggest star in France. And yes, it WAS a huge hit. Given the political realities facing France (and the world, for that matter) at the time of the film's making, Remorques feels like a film that could ONLY have sprung from the loins of a Frenchman during the Nazi Occupation. (Though I suspect, based on the superlative direction displayed in the other films in the Criterion box set, he'd have made a great film in another age - albeit, I think, a different one.)
Gabin's Capt. Laurent represents the culmination of what Bazin termed as the embodiment of "destiny" in a character played by the likes of one who, to his adoring public, represented a "hero of legend or tragedy". Surely audiences in occupied France could not help but identify with Gabin in this role - a loyal working stiff who is loyal to that of his passion which is, ultimately, the passion of laughing in the face of danger, while at the same time, investing his love and loyalty in all the fellow working stiffs whose lives he commands, but also holds firmly in the palms of his hands.
Love presents itself to Capt. Laurent in the form of his "good" wife, but also a "bad" temptress (the character of Catherine played by Michèle Morgan) who, in one of the film's most harrowing sequences during a storm at sea, is catapulted from the raging maw of salt water to escape the abuse of her brutish, conniving husband.
The "bad" girl's hubby is indeed bad. He's not only a wife abuser, but a lazy, cowardly cheat who gets Laurent to save his ship and cargo when the going's truly tough, then cuts himself loose from Laurent once the waters settle into a calm after the storm.
Laurent risks his life (and that of his men) to save the guy and is denied any sort of salvage percentage. For his troubles, he's offered an under the table cash bribe (which he refuses) and gets instead, a temptress to lure him from his wife. Not that Laurent is especially looking for another temptress - he has the sea, after all. However, as referred to above, Gabin has some sort of doom plastered all over him right from the start and Catherine is tossed his way - unasked for. And, of course, she presents herself as one of several ways in which Laurent might choose the wrong fork in the road.
So here we are during the Occupation and Grémillon serves up a movie that must have had a HUGE metaphorical impact amongst the people of France who filled the cinemas to watch Remorques. Right under the nostrils of both the turncoat Vichy government and the Nazis, we get a movie that has, on the surface, nothing to do with the war and yet, as melodrama (and damn fine melodrama at that) gave an entire nation under the thumb of evil incarnate, an opportunity to, in Bazin's words, "reflect on the profound meaning of a mythology in which ... an actor like Gabin [allowed] millions of [Frenchmen] to rediscover themselves."
Not surprisingly, it was Grémillon himself who rejected all previous screenplays of Remorque and finally insisted upon commissioning Prévert to write the script. Who better than a screenwriter with the soul of a poet, the dramatic chops of a pro and the experience of writing FOR Gabin in previous films? Prévert turned out to be the perfect scribe to deliver a blueprint with which a great artist like Grémillon could direct a film that worked as popular cinema which, at its core was both emotional and political.
Then again, as this movie proved to me, at least, Grémillon is no slouch. (This being my first taste of Grémillon, I could hardly wait to get to the other two pictures in Criterion's Eclipse box set.) Remorques is directed with inspiring musical precision which only makes sense - Grémillon is no mere craftsman. He's an artist and filmmaker - the real thing!
The pace of the film is impeccable, as one might reasonably expect from a man who is, on one hand, a virtuoso violinist and on the other, a highly skilled editor. The movie feels like it's moving at a breakneck speed - a steaming locomotive charging crazily into the darkness. Then, before we can even sense it, Grémillon subtly changes gears and we're in a territory bordering on the elegiac.
And no matter what the pace, Grémillon handles his actors expertly - allowing their natural rhythms lots of breathing space. Their deliveries are never stylized. They don't need to be. There's plenty of style and over the top material for them to slow down and play it all very straight. So many of the conversations - especially those involving Laurent and the two women in his life pulse with the stuff of life itself. They're wildly romantic, tender and/or passionate, but almost always naturalistic.
Remorques translates into English as "Stormy Waters" and in every respect Grémillon delivers a most tempestuous tale and one for the ages at that. Astoundingly this uncompromisingly moving experience does not offer an easy way out for either its main character nor the audience. Grémillon serves up a leading man who gives us, much as this film gave French audiences under the Nazis, an utterly devastating conclusion which, in any historical context is as gut-wrenching as it is wildly, irrepressibly satisfying. That Grémillon delivers it with the greatest French actor of his time is mighty rich frosting. As Bazin said: "The public that swallows many affronts would undoubtedly feel that they were being taken for a ride if screenwriters presented them with a happy ending for Jean Gabin."
Movies, like life, do not need, as Bazin offers, "to tack on artificial finales", but rather, when artists present the unfettered romance of a man suffering for both his passion and ideals, like so many do in times of deadly strife, is far more satisfying. Pictures like Remorques can infuse one with a greater satisfaction than all the false "feel-good" tropes foisted upon us like so much trash heaped into a stinking landfill.
Bring on all the suffering and pain as you like, but for Christ's sake, do it with style and a purity of commitment that rivals, if not trumps, the supposed purity of a virgin protecting her most precious hymen.
The waters are indeed stormy. Life and the movies are all the better for it.
"Remorques" is one of three great movies by Jean Grémillon on the Criterion Eclipse release of "Jesn Grémillon During The Occupation". Aside from the great movies - lovingly transferred to DVD - the only extra feature are some printed essays (which I have yet to read and am holding out on doing so, as is my wont, until I am completely finished writing about all three films). And yes, keep your eyes peeled for my reviews of the other two extraordinary Grémillon films in this collection. In the meantime, there is, for those serious about great cinema, no need to rent, stream or download - just buy the whole damn box and gorge yourself on greatness - again and again and again. Grémillon was a genuine new discovery for me. Now, I want more.