|Gabin, Balin in Gueule d'Amour|
Mireille Balin is telegraphing home to “daddy” for more spending money while a clueless Jean Gabin as the titular “lover boy” peers over her shoulder into what he scarcely recognizes as the abyss of sexual treachery which is about to undo him and make him a nobody. The film is Jean Gremillon's masterpiece, Gueule d’Amour (1937), which is not well translated as ”Lover Boy” or even “Hot Lips”. The French slang’s literal meaning of “Love Face” is indicative of the totally shallow, even juvenile persona embodied by Gabin’s all–show-no-substance Spahis regiment military costume finery, set in the mid-thirties, with which he makes a life vocation of fucking as many women as possible without regard for the fallout. Little does he realize his match has just been met.
I first saw this extraordinary film with fellow Sydney cinephile, Ken Wallin back in Sydney at least 15 years ago during a massively thorough and ambitious retrospective of 30s and 40s French cinema which Barrett Hodsdon had put together from existing 16mm holdings from the various libraries still active in Oz back then. The series in many ways paralleled a similar France 1930s to 1950s retrospective which MOMA had curated just a few years earlier at which a similar cache of hidden or previously unknown treasures were waiting to be re witnessed, alas by too few people. By the end of the 16mm screening of Gueule you had to pick Ken and I off the floor, sobbing. The otherwise zombiefied regular Sunday arvo WEA audience of the usual lugubrious heat-seeking regulars were all seemingly unaffected by the experience. For Ken and I it was the beginning of a voyage of discovery into Gremillon, and Spaak the writer, and into many areas that are so gratifyingly explored by Dudley Andrew in his superb book, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film which examines French Poetic Realism and the film industry and society of the pre-war era.
Gueule also plays a pivotal role in Andrew’s book, as a metaphor, among many, for the Gabin persona as a form of French national idealism, brought undone by the social and political turmoil of the times, not least the corruption and failure of right and then left (Daladier) politics, and the early escapes to “exotic” milieux and themes, like the African colonies, with a barely acknowledged recognition of the perils that lay in store for the colonialists. That also says nothing of the tawdry state of the French movie industry itself which was like the broader society so dysfunctional it was barely standing at the dawn of the Occupation in 1940. Such was the case that this film, along with Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (France, 1938) with Gabin the following year, were substantially filmed at the UFA studios of Neubabelsberg with largely German crews and studio facilities.
René Lefèvre, Jean Gabin
The film came into French language only home video a dozen or so years ago and has only come into wider circulation through backchannels and word of mouth. Redoubtable French DVD label for the working man, Rene Chateau released a splendid (French only) DVD of the title from a beautiful source a few years ago, and late last year a 4K restoration of very high quality was performed from among other elements a lavender acetate print (“Marron”) and original or dupe nitrate neg elements. The audio which was originally recorded unsurprisingly in the superior German Tobis Klangfilm system is startlingly bright here in lossless LPCM, indeed the dance band sequence for the big pickup scene with Gabin and Balin has the real clang and ring of a 30s Berlin jazz gig, but with typically twisted Gremillion-esque harmonic transitions. (Grem, a musician by training, wrote much of his own music scoring.)
Mireille Balin is a tragic figure, and barely known now, aside from her limited career: among other pictures, La Sexe Faible (1934) for Siodmak, Pepe le Moko in 1936 for Duvivier in which she’s first paired with Gabin, and with another Spaak screenplay, a 1939 adventure picture for Delannoy at the dawn of war, then very little. Mireille's story is heartbreaking, comparable in many ways with Bernard Natan's, as documented in David Cairns' marvellous film about him. Mireille certainly liked the company of men, and she had her fair share of high voltage affairs, including one with Gabin which began during the filming of Pepe in 1936 and continued through the filming of Gremillon's picture in 1937. She had on and off affairs with an Italian prizefighter, Tino Rossi before and after the war, but her long term affair with a German officer Biri Desbok during the Occupation spelt poison to the "Resistance" fighters (it seemed like half the French population had been in the resistance prior to the Liberation) who, after the war tarred and feathered her with the full vengeance of their vile hypocrisy. She ended up destitute, an alcoholic and addict living in wretched poverty until she died at age 59 on 9 November 1968 at Beaujon Clichy-la-Garenne. Only Jean Delannoy attended the funeral. He had directed her only once in a frothy comedy-adventure film, Macao L'Enfer du Jeu in 1939 in which she co-starred with Roland Toutain ("Andre Jurieu" in Renoir's La Regle du Jeu), Sessue Hayakawa and Erich von Stroheim no less. I also highly recommend that movie.
The new TF1 Blu-ray is only blessed with French subtitles for the hard of hearing. So here is another plea to whomever might be looking to check the licensing arrangements and an English subtitle file in order to release this in English friendly markets and give Gremillon the final big break he needs.