The new Arrow Academy Blu-ray release last week of Jean Gremillon’s last feature film, L’Amour d’une Femme from 1953, is one of the most important breakthroughs in French cinema presentation for the last ten years. The disc also hosts something just as significant and unheralded, an astonishingly detailed and thorough 94 minute documentary from INA made in 1969 called A la Recherche de Jean Gremillon which covers Grem’s life and career in what must have been the first of several major retrospectives of his work, after his death in 1958 at the age of 61. The inclusion of the INA show is a masterstroke from Arrow, although they made an editorial decision to present the show as it first appeared on French TV, without any of the titles I believe are necessary to identify the dozen of more talking heads who appear throughout the show. Fortunately the program follows the time tested method of bringing on the majority of commentators in the first few minutes with a few horses talking the rear late in the piece.
So I have persuaded Arrow management to post names to accompany the mug shots on the Arrow social media page and elsewhere. The four mugshots captured here from the show are four of the most titanic figures in French cinematic patrimony. The monolithic Charles Spaak, is in my opinion the greatest screenwriter in French cinema and his work for Gremillon included both Gueule d’Amour in 1937 and their first talking picture, La Petite Lise in 1931, a landmark in daring experimental anti-realistic use of soundtrack and music. Spaak identifies it also as the first French talkie, released on 5 November 1930 (Duvivier’s David Golder would follow in May 1931.)
The film was a commercial disaster and Pathe Natan which had not long previously come under the stabilizing control of Pierre Natan hated it, refusing to give the picture an adequate release or any publicity whatsoever. They treated Grem’s next picture, the astounding Dainah la Métisse from 1931 with even greater contempt cutting it and throwing out half the length of the picture reducing it to 49 minutes
In any case Spaak has this to say in opening his recollections of Grem: “He was Blessed by the fairies...”
Only moments later the taut, finely made but razor sharp Rene Clair becomes the second or third talking head and he offers: “He was too talented...”
Moments later Fernand Ledoux, the fine actor from the Comédie Francaise who played two big parts for Grem in Remorques (1940) and Pattes Blanches (1949), says of him, with ambivalent insight: “He had the spirit of a young girl at times...”
These three commentators and a fourth, the immense Henri Langlois, the grand daddy of the Cinematheque Française, contribute the lion’s share of commentary amongst a larger roll call of over a dozen, including actors Michel Bouquet, Madeline Robinson, Micheline Presle, Pierre Brasseur and Charles Vanel. Despite sheer numbers and the sheer breadth of memories recalled Gremillon as a subject still refuses to allow easy categorization as an artist nor indeed as a man.
I have to say, personally in years of writing about movies and especially French cinema, I have the most trouble of anyone in writing about Gremillon, if not about his films, especially the very best half dozen titles. A friend and I once joined forces in Berlin a few years ago to record a vanity commentary track for Gueule d’amour, which we thought appropriate as we were making this in an apartment in Schoneberg, not far from the original location of the Neubabelsberg studios where Gueule was largely filmed (as was Renoir’s La Bête Humaine from the next year, 1937). Only copious amounts of cheap white wine, and a packet of Camels (I had not smoked for over a decade) were anywhere near sufficient to break what I was experiencing as complete block.
And so it goes even today, where I still find myself confounded by so many contradictions in his life and his personality and work. Sensualist and deep theological thinker, hetero and homo, tough nut and fragile artiste, that worst of veiled dismissals of any film maker, the Cineaste Maudit, and brilliant but difficult. Fortunately, we have his work to stand as his testament.
The feature movie on this disc, his last from 1953 is if not at the top of his inspiration, (I believe that last came with the 1949 adaptation from Anouilh, Pattes Blanches) a project with both a commercial imperative and a very personal dimension, set in his beloved home country of Normandy, and the portrayal of a feisty sexually liberated woman largely standing in for Grem (at that time, and in this place!) who breaks with convention and starts an affair with an émigré Italian , played by go to Euro hunk du jour Massimo GIrotti, fresh from the arms of Signor Visconti. Massimo was undoubtedly cast in a production decision to enable Italian engagements in an era where Franco-Italian productions were not uncommon.
It’s with the two leads that the weaknesses in the movie most show through the cracks. Massimo especially shows too limited a range in his moods and performance without very close personal direction such as Visconti , or a later director like Pasolini could give him. So rather than expressing force or menace, he merely seems more petulant than powerful. Micheline Presle in the lead of the proto-feminist doctor and dedicated single woman often looks, even in her most medically focused scenes, like the long night waiting for the small girl’s fever to break, as though she would rather be elsewhere in Paris sampling the latest Dior frocks. But all else in the film is profoundly satisfying, in particular the show stopping scene, mid-point of the outdoor mass for the school children who are farewelling their older spinster (possibly lesbian) teacher to make way for new blood The scene has no dialogue other than the uttered Latin of the sacred text, or Grem’s unerringly beautiful amplification of the natural setting with little recourse to sets, or studio and the landscape.
If I were running a Blu-ray company and I wanted to introduce new audiences to Gremillon with a fast drip feed through the major work I would probably end with this title, as a very worthy closing chapter, and start with the first talkie La Petite Lise which has been restored in a new 2K by Pathe but has been lying around in a vault somewhere without a single engagement or even Festival screening. The next shot might be Gueule d’Amour which has itself been released from a stunning new 4K but in French language only on a superb Blu-ray from France. Pattes Blanches would be next and this has indeed been released on a French Gaumont disc with English subs although a combination of a darkish prime 35mm element and a darker than usual 2K encode by the usual suspect (Lab Eclair as PostHouse) very slightly takes the edge off the brilliance of the image quality for this masterpiece.
And for now in Anglophone territories we have this absolutely beautiful new Arrow disc released in both the US and the UK. I urge everyone with the slightest interest in French cinema to buy it perhaps assisting an environment in which Arrow and other Anglophone labels might be encouraged to pounce on the cart and start another “rediscovery” of Gremillon, this time one on shiny silver discs which may spread the word further than any previous events, including Chris Fujiwara’s groundbreaking Edinburgh Festival program back in the 90s, a season at Bologna just four or five years ago and a massive French cinema overview at MOMA in the late 80s through the entire gamut of films from the late silents through to the Nouvelle Vague. Not to mention Tavernier’s new 3-hour retrospective of French cinema from someone who knows it like the back of his hand.