Here's your Greg Klymkiw Christmas Gift Suggestion #4 for 2012. From the Criterion Collection's outstanding Eclipse Series comes this amazing 3-movie DVD box set entitled "Jean Grémillon During The Occupation". Eclipse is a frills-free and affordable series of great and often obscure and/or unfairly forgotten works representing the highest degree of cinematic achievement. Though lacking the almost insane degree of added value materials one finds on many Criterion releases, the true frills are the movies themselves. Thus far, I've reviewed two of the three films on this box: "REMORQUES", a mad melodrama set against the exciting backdrop of those companies that specialized in traversing dangerous waters to rescue (and salvage) ships in peril and "Lumière d’été", an even nuttier melodrama involving a group of obsessive lovers and other strangers amidst a mountain resort. 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 this Criterion Eclipse Series, I'd never laid eyes upon a single film directed by Jean Grémillon, the French auteur celebrated in this great box of DVDs devoted to work he directed during the Nazi Occupation of France. I'd heard of him, of course, but what little I knew 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. It's a great story and most cineastes are familiar with it. I, however, am glad I can now place a cinematic face to the story. Jean Grémillon rocks bigtime and so too does this third and final film in the Criterion Eclipse Box that I'll be reviewing.
Le ciel est à vous (1944) *****
dir. Jean Grémillon
Starring: Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Le ciel est à vous is one of the great love stories in all of cinema history. It focuses on the love between a man and a woman (or in the parlance of Gallic romantics, un homme et une femme), their mutual love of aviation and their desire to pursue the freedom of the Heavens.
Pierre and Thérèse Gauthier (Charles Vanel and Madeleine Renaud, both radiant in their roles) are still madly in love after many years of marriage. When their home and business (a car repair shop) is expropriated to make way for a small airport, hangar and landing strip, the family moves to the centre of town and welcomes this otherwise inconvenient intrusion upon their lives as a sign that the 20th Century has finally arrived in their provincial hamlet. Pierre's skills and knowledge of engines eventually extend to assisting local aviators with mechanical problems they occasionally run into.
Though this is a film made (and set) in France during the 1940s under the Nazis and Vichy government, there are several universal elements inherent in Charles Spaak's screenplay that pretty much any couples will relate to on a universal level. Men, in such equations, are generally those who become collectors, pack-rats and/or obsessives whilst women are often more practical and family-oriented. The Gauthiers' fit this bill quite comfortably.
Pierre becomes so obsessed with flying that he begins exchanging his mechanical prowess for flying lessons and, eventually, earns his wings. Alas, when Pierre is injured, Thérèse makes him promise never to fly again - for fear that he'll suffer a worse fate. He agrees.
Boys, however, will be boys. He eventually sneaks off to fly again. Thérèse is, at first, in a rage, but in order to understand why her husband keeps risking his life, she too jumps in a plane.
The bug of aviation proves infectious. Husband and wife - soul mates to the end - infuse their loving marriage with a new passion. Their mutual love for aviation is, however, fraught with danger - a very real danger which seeks to end their love in this world forever. Most of all, though, the movie is populist cinema of the highest order, but blessed with a surprisingly original narrative.
Le ciel est à vous is a buoyant, funny, touching and compelling romance. Missing are Grémillon's usual perverse touches and melodrama, but they're happily replaced and enhanced with his sense of both romance and humanity. It is quite impossible to leave the tale at any moment and by the end, one desperately wants more. This is a good thing.
Amusingly, Grémillon seems all too aware that the film's political and historical contexts might well be stronger and sharper than ever. The movie not only appealed to the Nazis and Vichy government (for, as per usual, all the wrong reasons), while in reality, delivered another of Grémillon's clever, slightly submerged series of swipes at France's conquerors and traitors.
The result was one of France's hugest boxoffice successes, but even better, a movie that lived forever - well beyond its ephemeral qualities to deliver a love story for the ages: told with intelligence, sophistication and considerable political, historical and sociological importance.
I'm actually shocked this story has never been sought out by Hollywood to be remade. It's a great story and has numerous casting opportunities for contemporary stars. It really seems like a natural. Then again, since most executives can barely read, the notion of them having to read subtitles and worse, see a movie in standard frame black and white, means that we and the late, great Monsiuer Grémillon are safe from what would no doubt be an utter abomination.
For my reviews of the other two Grémillon films in this extraordinary Criterion Eclipse Box Set, feel free to visit HERE for "Remorques" and HERE for "Lumière d’été".