Jean Grémillon had been directing feature films for a decade before he had his first palpable box-office success with the 1937 Jean Gabin vehicle Gueule d’amour (Lady Killer). From that point on to the close of World War II, he produced nothing but, maintaining a clear and unbroken rapport with the French moviegoing public. For reasons both mysterious and mundane, that rapport would wane over the decades after his death, leaving him today in a position as one of the era’s far lesser-known great French directors, particularly outside of his native land. Perhaps that a filmmaker as idiosyncratic and conscientious in his work as Grémillon—the man whom Jean Cocteau eulogized as “a singular being in a plural world”—could, however briefly, emerge as a popular artist was a fluke only possible in such turbulent times.
One of the factors making Grémillon’s ascent rather unlikely was that his sensibility was shaped by the Parisian avant-garde of the 1920s, a scene of which Cocteau was the doyen. Born Jean Alexandre Louis Eugène Grémillon to a family of Breton origins living in Bayeux, Calvados, in 1901, young Grémillon arrived in the capital in 1920. Against the opposition of his parents he had come to enroll in La Schola Cantorum, a private music conservatory created as a rival of the Paris Conservatoire, and located in a former English Benedictine monastery in the Quartier Latin. Studying violin and composition, his instructors included one of the school’s co-founders, the influential music theorist Vincent d’Indy; his classmates, Alexis Roland-Manuel and Roger Désormière, who respectively would compose and conduct the scores for the majority of his films.
Grémillon’s serious engagement with cinema began when, strapped for cash in his student days, he took on a side-hustle providing pit orchestra violin accompaniment for silent films in order to pay for his lessons at La Schola. It was through these engagements that he met his future cinematographer Georges Périnal, then working as a projectionist, whose storied 40+ year career of collaborations with luminaries including Cocteau, Charlie Chaplin, and Otto Preminger began with his shooting a series of documentary shorts directed by Grémillon—as many as a score, all lost today. (One of these, 1926’s Un tour au large, featured a synchronized soundtrack by the director himself, to be played by mechanical piano.)
Alongside Périnal, the other crucial figure in Grémillon’s conversion to cinema and maturation as a filmmaker was Charles Dullin, founder of the fanatical Montmartre-based Théâtre de l’Atelier troupe/collective. There is speculation that Dullin’s acquaintance with Grémillon went as far back as his La Schola days, but solid testimonials place the young filmmaker as a regular at l’Atelier performances by the mid-1920s, around which time he was likely pitching woo to the Romanian actress Génica Athanasiou, who would be Grémillon’s lover for some 10 years, and who was the former partner of l’Atelier member Antonin Artaud. Whether through Athanasiou’s mediation or otherwise, Dullin, a sometime screen actor, threw his support behind Grémillon’s cinematic ambitions, both starring alongside Athanasiou in the 26-year-old Grémillon’s first completed fiction feature, 1928’s Maldone (Misdeal), and producing it through his newly formed La Société des Films Charles Dullin.
The dilemma at the center of Maldone—Dullin’s provincial forced to choose between traditional family duty and his enthrallment with Athanasiou’s bohemian Roma girl—is, after a fashion, represented in the internal tensions of the film’s style, which combines demotic melodrama, shot in a naturalistic manner that suggests Grémillon’s documentary roots, and expressive fillips that show the director’s engagement with the avant-garde. The film establishes what would emerge as one of its director’s signature themes, described by filmmaker Paul Vecchiali as “the struggle between duty and personal aspirations” and by critic Bernard Eisenschitz as “the conflicts between love and vocation resolved without the mythologies that are always associated with them.” It also represents the amalgam of the popular and the esoteric that would mark Grémillon’s future fiction works, to the frustration of certain observers who preferred that films be clearly labelled as either elementary or experimental, fish or fowl.
The Lighthouse Keepers (1929)
The French silent avant-garde cinema was in its radiant Indian summer when Maldone was release—Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), also featuring Athanasiou, had premiered earlier the same year, and the brouhaha over Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) was only months away. Making “small” films that could be understood in terms of the still-new tradition of art cinema, Grémillon found an appreciative audience; Maldone was praised for the subtle half-tones of Périnal’s images, achieved by shooting with Agfa’s new panchromatic Pankine stock, and a young Marcel Carné, writing in Cinemagazine, enthused that the “interplay of light and shadow” in Grémillon and Périnal’s next film together, 1929’s Gardiens de phare (The Lighthouse Keepers), culminated in scenes with “the smoothness of an image by Man Ray.”
With the advent of sound cinema, however, such attention to pictorial values would give way to a fascination with the medium’s novel power of speech. As a trained musician, Grémillon naturally pounced at the opportunity to make a sound film—and with the resources of Pathé studios, newly under the control of producer Bernard Natan, at his command! Of the resulting film, released in 1930, Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, would later proclaim: “It was when I saw La Petite Lise [Little Lise] by Jean Grémillon that I forgot Sous les toits de Paris [René Clair’s early sound film Under the Roofs of Paris] and stopped missing the silents.”
Langlois’s enthusiasm, however, was far from representing a consensus; La Petite Lise and Grémillon’s next film, 1932’s mutilated moyen métrage, Daïnah la métisse—written, like La Petite Lise, by the Belgian Charles Spaak, and depicting a shipboard entanglement between a Black illusionist, his mixed-race wife, and a white ship’s mechanic—were both costly commercial failures. The flair for experimentation that had won Grémillon praise in his silents was spurned in these formally ambitious talking pictures, for Grémillon was not content that his films should only speak, but made innovative, sophisticated use of overlapping dialogue; off-screen, contrapuntal, and “cross-fading” sound; and proto-musique concrète bricolages that might have been admired by fellow La Schola graduate Edgard Varèse.
Today, La Petite Lise and Daïnah la Métisse are recognized as breakthroughs in French sound cinema to be held alongside Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929) in the US, Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) in the UK, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in Germany, and Jean Renoir’s La nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, 1932) at home; at the time, they were held to be muddled misfires. As to whether they were financial fiascoes enough to render their director a persona non grata, or if Grémillon was simply fleeing a national industry that had already begun to spiral into a crisis and would near-collapse by the end of the decade, the following years comprised a wilderness period for the filmmaker. He directed two features in Spain—1934’s religious melodrama La dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows) and 1937’s ¡Centinela, alerta! (Guard! Alert!), the latter co-scripted by Buñuel, likewise entering a bit of a career impasse—and four for Berlin’s UFA studios, who, in the years before the outbreak of World War II, were making significant inroads into the French market, with distribution company Alliance Cinématographique Européenne, a subsidiary of UFA, a key player in importing Gallic stories from Deutschland.
Little Lise (1930)
It was thanks to the influence of Raoul Ploquin, then supervising the production of French-language films at UFA, that Grémillon found employment on the other side of the Rhine. Such working with the soon-to-be-enemy was by no means unusual. Marcel L’Herbier shot his Adrienne Lecouvreur at UFA in 1938, and Franco-German co-productions abounded through the 1930s—Julien Duvivier’s 1932 Allo Berlin? Ici Paris!; Marc Allégret and Alfred Stöger’s 1937 Andere Welt; 1939’s L’Entraîneuse, a Spaak-scripted Michèle Morgan picture—some of these even filmed in bilingual versions. The UFA studios in Neubabelsberg were the best equipped in Europe; German film technicians among the finest in the world. While the French film industry was in disorganized shambles, under the administration of four different ministries who had saddled producers with back-breaking taxes, UFA was re-emerging from its own crisis in the 1920s as a well-oiled machine. As evinced by the plea for peace put forth in Renoir’s 1937 La Grande Illusion, war between France and Germany was not yet considered a grim inevitability in the late ’30s.
Grémillon’s popular breakthrough, Gueule d’amour, would be his first of three collaborations with Gabin, no stranger to UFA, having shot L’étoile de Valencia and the thoroughly bizarre transatlantic underpass thriller Der Tunnel (both 1933) there. The film’s appearance capped an annus mirabilis for Gabin—like his director, then in his mid-thirties, and firmly ensconced in the first rank of French male screen actors. Opening in Paris in September, Gueule d’amour came on the heels the January release of Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko—in which Gabin co-starred with his sparring partner in Grémillon’s film, Mireille Balin—and the summer premiere of La Grande Illusion.
Adapted by Spaak from a popular 1926 novella of the same name by André Beucler, Gueule d’amour provided Grémillon the opportunity to revisit some of the same thematic territory he’d explored in Maldone and Daïnah la Métisse: the overmastering power of erotic obsession and, particularly, the potential for tragedy when such obsessions spur an overstepping social bounds. Gabin plays Lucien Bourrache, an officer in the Spahis—a prestigious cavalry corps of the colonial-era French Army, their origins and extravagant uniforms coming from the pre-1830 Dey of Algeria—whose luck with the ladies is the stuff of legend. Returning from a tour in Africa to the Provençal city of Orange—the film’s exteriors, of which there are many, were shot on location—Bourrache expresses only benumbed indifference towards the lovelorn women who fill his mailbox with billets-doux when palling around with his best friend, regimental physician René (René Lefèvre). Lucien’s jaded cool thaws quickly, however, when on 24-hour leave to Cannes he sets eyes on Madeleine (Balin), a chic Parisian who inflames him with her highly relatable air of seen-it-all melancholy and willingness to do what seemingly no other woman has ever done: leave this seasoned drageur locked out of her bedroom and dry-dicked.
A demobbed Lucien, still brooding over Madeleine’s rebuff, follows her to Paris, where she will finally give herself over to his charms, though he has exchanged his natty uniform for the glamorless togs of a regular working-class mec. More accurately, she surrenders part of herself—for Madeleine’s availability depends on the whims of a wealthy benefactor who pays for her fashionable apartment, wardrobe, butler, and the gourmet meals that her dependent mother (Marguerite Deval) devours with evident relish. This state of affairs Lucien cannot and will not countenance, and so he returns to Orange a broken man, there to hide behind the counter of a dusty roadside café. This pursuit and retreat occupies most of Gueule d’amour’s runtime, but it’s in the film’s final act that a different love story, that between Lucien and René, comes to the fore. Ferreting out Lucien in his self-imposed exile, Madeleine implores him to return to Paris and resume his role in her neatly compartmentalized life; when he refuses, she threatens to seduce and destroy the meek, lovesick René who, unaware of her connection to Lucien, has been paying Madeleine court during her time in Orange; instead, she meets death at the hands of her estranged lover.
The film’s finale, in which René aids the shellshocked Lucien in becoming a fugitive from justice, packing his friend onto a Marseille-bound train with a wad of francs and promise of more to come, so he can start a new life in the African colonies, is terribly moving, though in a rather queasy way. Moving because of Gabin and Lefevre’s performances, of the moment in which René gives his departing friend a spontaneous, ardent kiss, of the touching sense of male camaraderie; queasy because this camaraderie has come at the expense of a woman’s life—a woman who didn’t “deserve” to die any more than Lucien deserves to live. Gabin’s transformation from cocksure brio to crumpled defeat is a remarkable feat of screen acting, but Balin is more than his equal—her Madeleine is no one-dimensional femme fatale but a “kept” woman not so much kept as trapped, confined to frigid luxury by filial duty and a very understandable fear of poverty. From Maldone onward, Grémillon’s films are distinguished by their grisaille imagery, a preference for all the intermediary shades of gray over hard-edged blacks and whites. This is not merely a pictorial preference, but something that extends to the murky moral universes of his works as well.
Lady Killer (1937)
With Geuele d’amour—a box-office success whose title gave its male lead an enduring nickname—Grémillon had proven himself able to put over a production with a rising star of Gabin’s caliber. This sufficed for Ploquin to entrust the director with another property of equal or greater value: Raimu, the gargantuan, voluble, dewlapped actor who had achieved screen celebrity in middle age with his performances in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy and subsequent comedies by, among others, Sacha Guitry, whom Raimu had known since his days at the Folies Bergère in the 1910s.
Raimu would embody Grémillon’s Mr. Victor, the proprietor of a bazaar in the rough-and-tumble port city of Toulon—the actor’s hometown, introduced in the film with an overture of documentary-style shots of its grotty, bustling, warren-like streets—who, when first encountered, is fretfully waiting for his wife, Madeleine (Madeleine Renaud), to give birth to their first child. But though the star gets the title role in Grémillon’s L’Étrange Monsieur Victor (The Strange Mister Victor, 1938), the film is as much a portrait of a community as an individual, introducing us in short order to Mr. Victor’s cobbler neighbor, Bastien (Pierre Blanchar); Bastien’s disgruntled, coquettish, glamorpuss wife (Viviane Romance); the couple’s young son; the head of the local constabulary (Édouard Delmont), flummoxed by a recent wave of burglaries; and Amédée (Georges Flamant), the smooth-talking leader of a band of hoodlums who’ve drifted into the neighborhood on mysterious business.
That business, it transpires, is with none other than Mr. Victor, who, though to all appearances an upstanding citizen and portrait of well-fed bourgeois substance, has in fact built his façade of respectable prosperity by fencing stolen goods. When Amédée threatens to expose this imposture, Mr. Victor, in a panicked rage, shuts the hoodlum up for good, and Bastien, who had been seen earlier in the streets arguing with the oleaginous gigolo, takes the rap for the murder, for which he’s sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in French Guiana.
The latter half of L’Étrange Monsieur Victor follows the exile’s return, as Bastien, having escaped Devil’s Island after seven hellish years, comes back to Toulon to find his wife remarried to one of Amédée’s unsavory associates, his son verging on delinquency for lack of proper parental guidance, and good old model citizen Mr. Victor unusually eager to help the escapee hide out from the law in his spacious apartment. Having thusly placed the perp and his unwitting patsy in close quarters, the film proceeds to build tension on two fronts, following Bastien’s slow-dawning understanding that his protector’s anxious solicitousness is in fact a symptom of a troubled conscience, as well as the shared guilty secret of the mutual attraction quietly developing between the fugitive and the primly unhappy Madeleine Victor.
L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is the serendipitous product of what, by all accounts, was not a particularly harmonious production. Raimu, displeased with Spaak’s rewrite of the original script, custom-written for the actor by Albert Valentin, requested a punch-up by the playwright Marcel Achard, a specialist in light, sentimental comedies—and a discovery of Grémillon’s old friend Dullin—who enjoyed great popular success in the interwar period. (Raimu would shortly film Noix de coco, a 1939 adaptation of an Achard stage play, at UFA.) The final film, for all of this, feels entirely of a piece—or, rather, what tonal incongruities it does have reflect the division of Victor’s character, delineated brilliantly by Raimu: doting husband, faithful son, and proud papa to the world, a calculating crook behind closed doors, though not above slipping a touch of Sunday sanctimony into his dirty dealings. (“Sacred stuff is against my principals,” he tells Amédée when presented with the spoils of a knocked-over church.)
Taking L’Étrange Monsieur Victor as a parable for French society on the eve of the war—and quite a few commenters on French films of this period find it tempting to search for signs of allegory around every corner—we may conclude that Grémillon’s intention was to expose upholders of the placid bourgeoise order as perpetrators of a corrupt system built on hidden vice and hypocritical moralizing, and that Amédée is acting as the director’s mouthpiece when he tells Victor: “We’re frank about what we do, but you, with your relations, your manners… You’re the cream of villainy.”
The Strange Mr. Victor (1938)
Grémillon, however, is always more interested in the complexities and contradictions of psychology than pat personification, and he reserves no more or less sympathy for the portly, sentimental fusspot Victor—in Raimu’s guilt-gnawed performance, not exactly a hateful heavy—than he does for the betrayed Bastien. Like Gueule d’amour’s Madeleine, Victor is more to be pitied than despised, a prisoner of his pursuit of the appearance of stolid middle-class substance in a society seen to value appearance over essence. Both Daïnah la Métisse and Grémillon’s 1943 masterpiece Lumière d’été (Summer Light) feature standout scenes of costume parties, significant of the director’s view of the social world as a put-on charade—and in Paul Bernard’s portrayal of an odious aristocrat in the latter film, one finds the most acidic of Grémillon’s many depictions of moral depravity as a symptom of easy living and overabundance. If there is one constant in Grémillon’s perspective, it is that money—in absence or in excess—exerts a malevolent, cancerous influence in a class-stratified society that allows a privileged few to batten on the labor of the many. Monsieur Victor, Grémillon’s films suggest, is not so strange after all; there’s at least one in every village, city, or hamlet.
The one-two combination of Geuele d’amour and L’Étrange Monsieur Victor transformed Grémillon, long a peripatetic industry outsider, into an acclaimed and, briefly, bankable filmmaker. This hard-fought triumph would be followed, in short order, by an experience of defeat and ignominy for his native country; the production of his next film with Gabin, 1941’s Remorques (Stormy Waters), underwritten by the German company Tobis Film, was interrupted by the declaration of war between Deutschland and France, only completed and released after the latter had been steamrolled by Hitler’s war machine.
The repercussions for French cinema were immediate. Ploquin, presumably because of his connections in the German industry, would be appointed as the first director of the Comité d’organisation de l’industrie cinématographique (COIC), an “organizing committee” put in place by the Vichy regime to oversee film production in Occupied France, taking orders from Dr. Paulheinz Diedrich, head of the film section at the Propaganda Staffel (German Propaganda Office), whom Ploquin would recall as “a frightening Nazi of whom I have the worst memory.” Balin, an in-demand actress during the Occupation whose credits include the 1940 Italo-Spanish co-production L’Assedio dell’Alcazar (The Siege of the Alcazar), a paean to the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, was imprisoned after the Liberation as a collaborationist, her affair with one Biri Desbok, a German Wehrmacht officer being counted as the most damning of the charges against her. Natan, the head of Pathé when Grémillon made La Petite Lise, would die in Auschwitz in 1943.
Unlike his old associates, Grémillon weathered the war without devastating political compromise or worse. The first film he made under the Occupation, Lumière d’été, was produced in association with a group of left-leaning film professionals who had gathered to continue working under the nose of the Vichy regime in Tourrette-sur-Loup in Côte d’Azur, including the film’s co-screenwriter, Jacques Prévert, and its producer, André Paulvé. (Lumière d’été’s art director, credited under the name of his artist friend Max Douy, was in fact Alexander Trauner, who, like all Jews, had been banned from working in the French film industry by COIC-signed order.) Grémillon’s first film completed after Liberation, 1946’s Le 6 juin à l’aube, was a celebration of the Allied landing at Manche and Calvados, and the tactical genius of Operation Overlord.
Summer Light (1943)
Firmly on the right side of history though Grémillon may have been, he would never regain the prestige he’d enjoyed between 1937 and ’44 in the years following the foundation of the Fourth Republic. He remained a vital and valued presence in French cinema culture until the end of his life—president of the Cinémathèque Française from 1943 to ’58, and of the CGT union of film technicians from 1946 to ’50; an enthusiastic investor and proselytizer for the nascent film club movement and a champion of workers in the industry—but the count of ambitious films he failed to mount after the war greatly outnumbered that of those completed, leading Bertrand Tavernier to characterize these years of Grémillon’s life as “a graveyard of aborted projects.” (Among these were proposed films on the Paris Commune and the Spanish Civil War.)
By way of understanding the difficulty that Grémillon had in finding a toehold in the French film industry after the war, it is worth remembering that he had never precisely been the fair-haired boy of titans like Pathé and Gaumont, the latter responsible for cutting Daïnah la métisse to nearly half its original length, to its director’s eternal chagrin. His popular successes had been achieved through alternate channels—UFA or the filmmaking community at Tourrette-sur-Loup—during a period of opportunity provided by national crisis and industry collapse, and with the re-establishment of the old guard, Grémillon once again found himself an odd man out, too stubborn in his eccentric ideas about the expressive possibilities of film art to be trusted with a budget. His three completed postwar fiction features, Pattes blanches (White Paws, 1949), L'Étrange Madame X (The Strange Madame X, 1951), and L’Amour d’un femme (1953), showed no evidence of creative decline, but rather a decline in paid attendances; the latter is always more likely to be fatal to a commercial filmmaker.
Some of the against-the-grain qualities of Grémillon’s cinema that won him detractors may be extrapolated from remarks published in the pages of La Flèche in 1938 on L’Étrange Monsieur Victor by the journalist and prolific screenwriter Henri Jeanson, consigning Grémillon to the “category of old-fashioned directors who still obey the absurd laws of silent cinema… [creating] images for images’ sake… [making] the dialogue disappear and [hiding] the actors from our sight, all for the benefit of lamentable photographic effects.” Continued Jeanson, in high dudgeon: “The merit of this rubbish is to make us witness, through its faults, the sly struggle that directors deliver to the authors of films. Monsieur Grémillon has no idea that a line by Marcel Achard has infinitely more suggestive power than an omnibus panorama or a tracking shot like a meandering train on a serpentine route.”
When French films began to talk, they spoke with the voice of the French theater; it was Grémillon’s derivation from this, in La Petite Lise, that almost scuttled his filmmaking career, and 15 years later there were still many for whom, like Jeanson, the film image was widely regarded to be of secondary importance to the screenplay. Where figures like Achard, Guitry, and Pagnol came to cinema by way of the stage, and to varying degrees retained a sense of the primacy of dialogue, Grémillon, in his filmmaking, was a musician first, and to some sense would remain one; indeed, per the testimony of his friend, Roger Bezault, Grémillon “became interested in film as a field of expression for his desire for musical creation.”
None of this should suggest that Grémillon was indifferent to the script—indeed, with Spaak and Prévert, he worked with some of the finest screenwriters of his day—but rather to observe that he treated dialogue as one element in the art of cinematic composition, as a song’s lyrics exist alongside such values as cadence, mood, melody, and chromatics. As Pierre Schaeffer observed in a 1946 article in La Revue du cinéma, text in the director’s films “is much less important than the intonation given to phrases, the texture of the voices, even the degree of intelligibility… The text must impose itself on the microphone, just as the image imposes itself on the camera.” (In a 1948 issue of the same publication, Pierre Kast, who would become a close collaborator of Grémillon’s during his last decade, illustrated an article on the director with excerpts from his scores to Tour au large and Le 6 juin à l’aube.)
Grémillon himself offered a vivid image of the director-as-composer with his description of the making of Le 6 juin à l’aube: “Don’t forget what materials I was working with: mines, stones, trees, fragments of statues. It was by arranging these images in time, according to a musical scheme, that I was able to give these inanimate and impassive objects a certain emotive quality.” Significantly, Jean-Marie Straub—whose heavily annotated scripts with collaborator Danièle Huillet have a quality suggestive of sheet music—would state that it was a viewing of this very film that first fired him with aspirations of becoming a director.
Le 6 juin à l’aube (1946)
The “indulgences” in Grémillon’s films—aural as well as visual—that once chafed certain contemporary observers are, today, the very moments that make them stand apart from rank-and-file productions of the periods. Moments like Lucien’s sighting of his long-lost Madeleine in the mirror of a cinema lobby at a Paris film premiere in Gueule d’amour, and his subsequent sheepish withdrawal, or of Bastien’s return to Toulon in L’Étrange Monsieur Victor, a silent, contemplative digression fraught with ambiguous emotion in which the fugitive surveys the city of his birth from its heights. Even a figure like Ploquin, with all his faith in Grémillon’s gifts, could fail to comprehend that it was in precisely such grace notes they were most evident; archival documents show the producer demanding the removal of the shot of Bastien’s homecoming, in which “nothing was happening.”
For Grémillon, cinema was something more than words—more even than the surface meaning of images. “Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?” he would proclaim of his métier—the sort of poetic sentiment that would endear him to generations of cinephiles in France and abroad, but not the thing to attract investors, who tend to prefer the solid, predictable blueprint of a closely vetted screenplay to mystical mumbo-jumbo about the unseeable.
At the time of Grémillon’s death in 1959, the French cult of the screenwriter was beginning to crumble after a long siege by the Young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma. That publication, staffed with a significant contingent of former La Revue du cinéma contributors, failed to make much of Grémillon during his life, though in a 2013 interview co-founder Jean Douchet would proclaim: “For us, it was evident that Grémillon was the greatest French filmmaker of the 1930s-’50s, along with Renoir.” Spaak, who’d worked closely with both men, would say of Grémillon: “Of all the directors I’ve known in my life, he was, in my eyes, the most talented, the one who combined the greatest intelligence with the greatest sensitivity.”
One gift that Grémillon lacked but that Renoir had in abundance, which did much to assure the latter’s longevity, was the ability to cajole, flatter, and please financiers. Here, too, Spaak is insightful: “For a long time—maybe until the age of 45—he had something like a passion for self-destruction, a feeling one finds in Dostoyevsky’s heroes. Grémillon, who was so gifted, wanted to be unhappy. Was he a masochist? That’s a very complicated word, but he really took pleasure in being a kind of outcast, a martyr of the cinema.” In this light, the crucial role played by flight and banishment in Grémillon’s films—even those, like Gueule d’amour and L’Étrange Monsieur Victor—that were embraced by the public, takes on the air of the presentiment of banishment, of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The encomiums Grémillon received in death little good in his lifetime, and in the years since he has frequently been cast as the incarnation of the neglected genius, the visionary who was driven to defeat by the industry that, in the words of Serge Daney, the likes of lesser talents like Carné had “insolently won.” But if Grémillon’s career is to be considered a defeat, it is worth noting that his “defeat” resulted in a half dozen of the finest French-language features produced prior to mid-century, as well as the body of documentary shorts made in his last years which Eisenschitz, among others, regard as the equal of his best fiction efforts. Of such vanquishments the triumph of cinema is derived.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Fireflies Press), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk). The Sweet East, a film from his original screenplay directed by Sean Price Williams, premiered in the Quinzaine des Cinéastes section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
The Strange Mr. Victor (1938)