Wednesday 12 December 2012

Jean Grémillon Box joins Greg Klymkiw's 10 Best Blu-Ray and DVD Releases of 2012 - There will be one new posting everyday until we hit the magic number. Today's Klymkiw Blu-Ray/DVD Accolade for 2012 is the Criterion Collection's (Eclipse Series 34) DVD box-set of "Jean Grémillon During The Occupation"

The Best Blu-Ray and DVD Releases
of 2012 as decreed by Greg Klymkiw
This was a stellar year for Blu-Ray and DVD collectors that it's been difficult to whittle my personal favourites down to a mere 10 releases. So hang on to your hats as I'll be presenting a personal favourite release from 2012 EACH and EVERY single day that will comprise my Top 10. At the end of all the daily postings, I'll combine the whole kit and kaboodle into one mega-post with all titles listed ALPHABETICALLY. My criteria for inclusion is/was thus: 1. The movie (or movies). How much do I love it/them? 2. How much do I love owning this product? 3. How many times will I re-watch it? 4. Is the overall physical packaging to my liking? 5. Do I like the picture and sound? There was one more item I used to assess the material. For me it was the last and LEAST area of consideration - one that probably surprise most, but frankly, has seldom been something I care that much about. For me, unless supplements really knock me on my butt, their inclusion is not that big of a deal. That said, I always go though supplements with a fine tooth comb and beyond any personal pleasure they deliver (or lack thereof), I do consider the educational value of such supplements for those studying film and/or those who might benefit from them in some fashion (film students or not). So, without further ado, here goes.

Greg Klymkiw's 10 Best Blu-Ray & DVD Releases of 2012 (and to be compiled in alphabetical order in one final mega-post). Today's Title (more to follow on subsequent days) is none other than: 

Today's entry in the Greg Klymkiw list of 10 Best Blu-Ray/DVD Releases of 2012 is from the Criterion Collection's outstanding Eclipse Series; an 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. 

The films in the box include the following:

"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.

"Lumière d’été", an even nuttier melodrama involving a group of obsessive lovers and other strangers amidst a mountain resort.

"Le ciel est à vous", a moving love story set against the backdrop of amateur aviation.

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 Grémillon, 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 do these three great pictures in this magnificent Criterion Eclipse Box that is easily one of the 10 Best Blu-Ray/DVD Releases of 2012.

Without further ado, here's a blow by blow of the entire box set.


Remorques (1941) *****
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!

What a picture!

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. 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.

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.

Lumière d’été 

Lumière d’été (1943) *****
dir. Jean Grémillon
Starring: Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal, Marcel Lévesque, Raymond Aimos, Léonce Corne, Charles Blavette, Jeanne Marken, Henri Pons, Gérard Lecomte

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Jean Grémillon is a revelation. Anyone who cares about moving pictures (and loves the medium as much, if not more than life itself) will want to discover this mad genius who is clearly as important to French cinema (and the art of movies) as Jean Renoir.

Lumière d’été is yet another great picture Grémillon made during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II and, like so many French pictures, concerns itself with those damnably, eternally and irrepressibly entertaining affaires de cœur.

Though repressed and vilified by the notorious collaborationist Vichy government, the movie seems less a criticism (and if so, submerged) than a representational view of a time and place that might only exist under such a turncoat regime. In a sense, and most fascinatingly, the film's critical eye upon Vichy might be seen to be as blatant as it is submerged.

The setting is a remote hotel high in the mountains - gorgeously designed with expansive picture windows to provide both a great view and watchful eyes upon the valley below. Bearing the name L'Ange Gardien (The Guardian Angel), it overlooks the intrusive activities of a demolition company that is in the process of constructing a dam - destroying the valley's natural beauty and assaulting the eardrums of all its inhabitants.

These intruders work with the full support of the "establishment" and in so doing, at least within narrative terms, it's not a stretch to think that Grémillon and his screenwriters, including the legendary Jacques (Les Enfants du paradis) Prévert, were pointing a finger, at least metaphorically, upon the Vichy and by extension, the Nazis. This seems likely since the movie includes, very early on and throughout, the war-like explosions coming from the seemingly endless rock blasting.

As such, Grémillon achieves the seemingly impossible. He serves up a piping hot platter of delectable cinematic comestibles that condemn, expose and/or, depending how you choose to take it, examine the strange world wrought under the Vichy whilst providing the double-scoop indulgence of luxuriating in its own sumptuous, glorious and thoroughly compelling melodrama. We, of course, luxuriate with it. Grémillon and his collaborators in front and behind of the camera work overtime to deliver a movie so infused with emotional resonance that one is hit with scene after scene that will inspire several torrential downpours from one's tear ducts.

Blending high-stakes emotions that are as truthful as they are extreme, Grémillon dapples his multi-bi-polar world with many surprising moments of deep, delicious and decidedly dark humour. Commenting hilariously at every turn of the action that unfolds - not to mention almost every line of consequence uttered by the hotel guests and/or in retort to the duties he's ordered to perform, the crotchety old servant Monsieur Louis (Marcel Levésque) wanders in and out of the proceedings like some one-man, one-line Greek Chorus. Levésque, for those who care (as should ALL!), is that he's the inveterate scenery-chewer who was immortalized by Louis Feuillade as Mazamette in Les vampires, his great 1916 serial.

He's such a great presence here. In fact, it doesn't take long for Monsieur Louis to eventually becomes a kind of "What the fuck!?" surrogate for us, the audience. Believe me, it comes in mighty handy - especially since the romantic entanglements, jealousies, anger, repression and nutty obsessions that roil madly during this one fateful weekend at the L'Ange Gardien mount with every passing scene.

The hotel is run by the middle-aged beauty Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud) who holds a torch for her rakish rich lover Patrice (Paul Bernard) who, in turn, develops un unhealthy obsession with the beautiful, young Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) who shows up at the hotel to meet her untalented alcoholic artist boyfriend Roland (Pierre Brasseur) who is more interested in where his next drink is coming from and drives the young beauty into the arms of the jaw-droppingly hunky miner Julien (Georges Marchal).

What we get is no mere doomed ménage à trois as might be expected from a tale involving affairs of the heart, but rather, a magnificent roundelay of obsessional love that, for lack of a better term, is best viewed as a ménage de l'abondance.

Here's the roadmap of love and regret:

Cri-Cri loves Patrice. Patrice murdered his ex-wife out of love for Cri-Cri. Cri-Cri gave up a promising and exciting career to disappear into the mountains with Patrice. Years pass. Neither is getting any younger and yet, marriage is not even a dim hope.

Michèle is devoted to Roland, but he's a major fuck-up. Patrice has his eye on Michèle. This makes Cri-Cri jealous. It also disturbs Roland. More importantly, Michèle has her eye on Julien and he's jealous of both Patrice and Roland. Patrice, in turn, is jealous of Julien. Roland, ultimately is happiest when he's pissed out of his skull.

And then there's the eternal watcher Monsieur Louis. His response to everything is a deadpan: "Why not?"

Why not, indeed!

Slowly, but surely, all the mad passions collide during an insanely opulent costume ball that Patrice throws at his mansion. Egos collide with all the requisite Grémillon aplomb and here, his kino eye renders some of the most gorgeous, sumptuously malevolent and romantic imagery in all of cinema.

And as if this wasn't enough, crazed conga lines, a drunken Hamlet, a desperate Ophelia, a stalwart stud, a woman scorned and a creaky, spindly, old William Tell with an apple on his head all become unwitting targets of a madman (mad with love and jealousy, of course). In no time at all, Lumière d’été careens wildly from a Cinderella ball on acid to a terrifying drunken drive along the mountain highways and finally, to a mad climax involving unexpected gunplay and disaster in the air on a cable car suspended precariously above the valley.

At times, you simply won't believe your eyes.

And this, my friends, is cinema!

Le ciel est à vous

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.

"Le ciel est à vous" is available on DVD via the stunning three-disc Criterion Collection "Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During The Occupation".