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Light in August

From Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse label comes “Jean Grémillon During the Occupation,” a collection of three of the most celebrated films by one of the most difficult and stylistically diverse directors of the French cinema. “Remorques,” begun before the German invasion but completed after it, subscribes to many of the tenets of French poetic realism with its elegantly doom-laden tale of a salvage captain (Jean Gabin) and his married lover (Michele Morgan); “Lumière d’Été” (1943) seems at first a sort of “La Règle du jeu” set in the white mountains of Provence but evolves into a densely metaphorical, musically structured symphony of signs and meanings; while “Le ciel est à vous” (1944) turns a haute Vichy fable of “work, family, fatherland” into a love story of Borzagian intensity overlaid with trenchant observations about the limits of personal and political freedom. There is, of course, much more of Grémillon’s work to be discovered — for starters, the eternally astonishing “Daïnah la métisse” (1931) — but the Eclipse set makes a superb introduction to a brilliant filmmaker who has yet to find his deserved place in the Pantheon. My New York Times review is here.

124 comments to Light in August

  • Having just recently spent a few days in New York City, where I visited the Anthology Film Archive,
    it was cool to finally see something from their “Essential Cinema” series – their own kind-of “Best Of Cinema” list that consist mostly of experimental films.
    You can see the full list of films here, it’s quite impressive :

    There I got to see a 35mm print of Dovzhenko’s “Earth” with Russian inter-titles, and they provided at the box-office a print-out English script of the film. It was great to see, but with only the English synopsis, the big surprise was the appearance of the naked peasant women! (though I would later find out that even Eisenstein thought that that scene was “mundanely inserted.”)

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, since the poll represents the aggregate personal tastes of its contributors, what other logical ground exists to criticize it than that it doesn’t correspond to your own personal taste?”

    That’s my point. A lot of people seem to believe that their personal tastes constitute an objective view of what cinema should be.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘was/is Ozu regarded as mainstream in Japan?’

    Yes, as Oliver has written. During his lifetime Ozu was known as master of home drama grenre, many of his movies named top 10 by Kinema Jumpo magazine, top director for Shochiku studio.

  • Yann Heckmann

    Thanks Junko and Oliver.

  • Alex

    Mike Grost, Perhaps the BFI move toward lists of what largely do look pretty much like art films in Bordwell’s sense has been advanced by the devolution of U.S. film since the late 1970s (if not nearly two decades earlier). This weakens the crop of new U.S. candidates and undermines regard for the whole U.S. tradition.

  • Alex,

    You might have a good point.
    So much current American “culture” (????) is so lowbrow, that it casts a pall over the much better culture of the USA’s past. For all its acclaim, junk like THE DARK KNIGHT even fails to tell a story, in the traditional meaning of plot or story. This sort of plotless violence wouldn’t have been accepted as a B-Movie script in 1933, let alone hailed as a some sort of “classic” (????)
    So maybe critics are rushing to the opposite extreme.
    Many of the art films on the BFI list are very good movies, as I said before. L’AVVENTURA is a masterpiece, and the Japanese films are don’t miss cinema.
    Seeing them would certainly do today’s multiplex crowd a world of good.

  • Barry Putterman

    I’ve found that a reading of history can actually have a calming effect as you notice the same patterns repeating over and over again. For instance, what we are now choosing to call “classic” American films were, for the most part, dismissed as the same lowbrow, hyperactive common denominator crap that we now see being applied to contemporary American films. I think it would be interesting to compare Mike’s assessment of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with a batch of 1932 reviews of Hawks’ SCARFACE.

    My own favorite moment along these lines was while reading a book of contemporary assessments of vaudeville. One critic decried that the quick succession of ten minute acts as opposed to full length plays was contributing to the shortening of the public’s attention span, along with such other things as the short story and the department store.

  • Rather than enter the fray, I will just note that a post with my comments (which were written before the present tributary of the discussion, but which has only just been approved by the moderator*) on the S&S poll are now readable on the 2nd page of this thread, along with my ballot.

    * I assume this is linked to my choice to use a different sign-in name, now that we have (at least) two Jaimes on the roster.

  • Brian Dauth

    Jaime C: I love your comments, especially #4. I myself wondered whether the dethronement of CITIZEN KANE might not spur people re-examine it in order to re-argue its value in light of new aesthetics that have arisen since the film’s enshrinement in 1962. For me, it occupies second place in Welles’ work behind THE TRIAL and just ahead of the estimable F FOR FAKE, but I think coming down a notch may be the best thing that could have happened to it.

  • Alex

    Barry Putterman,

    The “classic” in Classical American Cinema –which I think you had in mind–is principally a Bordwellian term for capturing a certain era marked by certain forms, modes of production, etc. –like the era of Haydn and Mozart in music; or ancient Greet and Roman sculpture–not especially a term of qualitative acclaim. (I write “especially” because eras that give rise to basic forms usually are ones on which latter artists draw and highly regarded.)

    For example there’s no presumption in Bordwell that Classical American cinema is bettet than the New American Cineam of roughly 1967-1979 or than the “art film” not that art films are all art.

  • David D.
    Thank you very much for posting the link to Essential Cinema from the Anthology Film Archive.
    This list is totally cool!

    I got a printed brochure of this list ages ago. And have used it ever since as a checklist for watching experimental films.
    Just like Sarris’ THE AMERICAN CINEMA for Hollywood, this is the best teaching canon imaginable for experimental film. I’m still trying to track down and see many of the films on it. And learning so much by doing so.

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, just to put your mind at rest, the “classic” I had in mind is not a Bordwellian term.

  • The term “classical” was first applied to cinema not by Bordwell but (as I understand it) by Andre Bazin, in essays like “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” with its memorable depiction of 1939 films like STAGECOACH as possessing “well-defined styles of photography and editing perfectly adapted to their subject matter; a complete harmony of image and sound.”

    The work of Bordwell, Thompson & Staiger attempted to systematize this insight. Alex’s definition at 5:58 above is essentially how we use the term today, just as Bordwell’s careful definition of “art cinema” is relevant to the discussion of “art films” upthread.

    In a discussion that began with Gremillion it’s always good to get back to his contemporary, Andre Bazin, although I’m not at all sure what B thought of G.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Bazin thought very highly of LA CIEL EST VOUS, included in the Eclipse Grémillon box:

    ”Anyone doubting the usefulness of film critics should consider Le Ciel est à vous. This film without famous actors and no marketing would surely have been ignored by the public if it wasn’t for the opinions of some journalists: without any of the usual attractions, it might have suffered the fate of a minor mélo. Thanks to a team of reporters, however, Le Ciel est à vous stirs up as much controversy as Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys). Now that the success of Grémillon’s film has been established, one can add criticism amid the praise without remorse. Notwithstanding its impressive qualities, this work is imperfect. The screenplay, despite its style, which will be analyzed later, retains a slight childishness. The subject itself could have been explored more energetically. A hint of roughness as a psychological counterpoint would have provided the drama a tension that it often lacks. Without holding back, it is fair to say that not all actors should have been praised indiscriminately. […] But the originality of the film resides essentially in the surprising relationship between form and background. It would have been difficult to bring together more exceptional circumstances, draw more often on the emotional stereotypes of the ‘Veillées des Chaumières’, not to mention the ‘Bibliothèque Rose’. Yet, this screenplay, which could have been based on a feuilleton of “l’Écho de la Mode” was actually based on a real event, and the miracle of Grémillon’s art is restoring situations overtaken by moralistic or melodramatic literature to the clean slate of a documentary with its precision, credibility, and excruciating realism. It is not the quantity of tears shed that proves the value of a drama. What counts is the spiritual value associated with them. […] It takes a unique art form to find the original kernel of truth within each stereotype. Grémillon’s art could be commented on at length. He is a director who first applied his filmmaking virtuosity in Lumière d’été, and is able through his mastery in Le Ciel est à vous to achieve the extraordinary concealment of technique. He expresses himself in a visual prose of such perfect honesty and transparency that it escapes our notice. At this level of skill, art disappears completely in its object; we are no longer in a film, but rather in life.”
(André Bazin, Le Ciel est à vous, “L’Écho des Étudiants”, February 26, 1944)

  • I was wowed too by Le Ciel est à vous, which I just saw on the DVD recommended by Dave Kehr.

    My reaction was the seeming opposite of Bazin’s. The film’s lavish mise-en-scene and visual style seemed conspicuous! By contrast, Bazin writes of “concealment of technique” and “visual prose of such perfect honesty and transparency that it escapes our notice”.
    IIRC, Bazin’s lengthy analysis of Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson) also claims that Bresson avoids visual style.

    Grémillon’s camera movements around the house’s staircase and upper landing anticipate those in The Reckless Moment (Ophuls). And aspects of the style also remind one of Madame de… (Ophuls).

    Bazin is a very deep and great thinker. He is deeply committed to realism, and has much that is subtle to say on the realist practice of different directors and films. I come from an anti-realist aesthetics, and do not have much of a grasp of realism at all. Bazin’s writings open a world of thought and aesthetics that I would have trouble penetrating otherwise.

  • Alex

    Barry, Yeah, I soon figured you might be thinking about actual classics, which can be cool

  • Alex

    Mike Grost, Seems to me Bazin may be a deep and great thinker, but in comparison with Bordwell on Bresson he’s like someone who claim the Rubic’s Cube can’t be solved. Bresson is continuous and inventive stylistically all the time; for all his brilliant use of sound and silence, replete with “visual style.” You don’t evoke audiuence rapture from amateur actors without style, though it may be hard to catch the style of one as extremely original as Bression. (Isn’t; the Bresson film –and most centrally Bresson’s “parametric style”– a whole “mode” of cinema for Bordwell like the CHC and “art film” and Eisenteinian montage?). Of course, in Country Priest, there’s nothing flashy along conventional linbes like the great pickpocketing of the train in Pickpocket.

    That “extraordinary concealment of technique” may just refer to rechnique that won’t stand out for the typical viewer because all is done so smoothly and without any inclination to draw attention to “style” (as such) beneath what style conveys and evokes(as in the Classical American Cinema’s, or an airport thriller’s, typically “unobstrusive” style).

  • Johan Andreasson

    The Grémillon box arrived in the mail yesterday, and I started with “Le ciel est à vous.”

    I think Bazin is right about the realism being the film’s strength. What makes the story (which is pretty standard in itself) interesting is all the everyday details that brings the characters and the small town they live in to life. We get to know everything about the family of the pilot: her relationship with her husband, her rivalry with her piano playing daughter (this is probably the most interesting and unusual part of the film), and all the big and small troubles that come with running a household and the bookkeeping of a repair shop while trying to break an aviation record at the same time. The style also feels realistic to me with lots of location shooting. The scenes from the repair shop and the airfields have a documentary feeling. In short, this is the polar opposite of a Howard Hawks flying movie, but still manages to capture the obsession and adventure with flying.

    It’s really good, and I look forward to watching more Grémillon.

  • Alex

    One interesting foot note to this week’s blog is the availability of the three reviewed GRÉMILLON films (plus Tournier’s Le Main du Diable) for streaming via Hulu (i.e., its sampling of the Criterion Collection, its Legacy branch in particular). 235 of 939 Hulu Criterion Collection films are Japanese

    One major feature of Hulu is its great volume of the Japanese films from a range of directors who, I think, are largely unfamiliar to moviegoers, even one’s with plenty of art house and university viewing experience.

    Besides the widely known Kuroawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi (and, perhaps by now) Naruse are not only such less familiar directors as Shinoda, Ichikawa, Oshima, Nobuhikom, Obayashi, Teshigahara, Kobayashi and such virtual unknowns as Keisuke Kinoshita, Hideo Gosha, Seijun Suzuki, Umetsugu Inoue, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Takumi Furukawa, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hajime Sato, Hajime Sato, Kenji Misumi, Yasuzo Massumura, Sadao Yamanaka, Kurahara Koreyoshi, Shohei Imamura, Hiroshi Shimizu, Nobuo Nakagawa, Kihachi Okamoto, Hiroshi Inagaki, Toshio Masuda, Toshio Masuda and Kei Kumai (and on and on).

    An exceedingly (almost excessively) rich field, I think, for attention by film essayists, reviewers and consumer guides.

  • “Besides the widely known Kuroawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi (and, perhaps by now) Naruse are not only such less familiar directors as Shinoda, Ichikawa, Oshima, Nobuhikom, Obayashi, Teshigahara, Kobayashi and such virtual unknowns as Keisuke Kinoshita, Hideo Gosha, Seijun Suzuki, Umetsugu Inoue, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Takumi Furukawa, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hajime Sato, Hajime Sato, Kenji Misumi, Yasuzo Massumura, Sadao Yamanaka, Kurahara Koreyoshi, Shohei Imamura, Hiroshi Shimizu, Nobuo Nakagawa, Kihachi Okamoto, Hiroshi Inagaki, Toshio Masuda, Toshio Masuda and Kei Kumai (and on and on).”

    A lot of these filmmakers are known to aficionados of particular genres (Inagaki, Misumi, Okamoto, Gosha, Suzuki) or trends (Shinoda, Imamura, Oshima, Masamura.)

    When Chris D. was still curating at the American Cinematheque he had an annual “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema” program and brought over Okamoto one time and Fukusaku Kinji twice. He wanted to bring Wakamatsu too but the State Dept. wouldn’t grant him a visa on account of his association with the Japanese Red Army (and Dennis Bartok refused to screen Wakamatsu’s “Violated Women in White.”)

    The Cinematheque issued DVDs of some of Suzuki’s and Wakamatsu’s movies, and I think some titles by Masamura.

  • Alex

    “A lot of these filmmakers are known to aficionados of particular genres”

    Sure thing.

    I was thinking of the the cinephilic masses, yearning for more to see.

  • La Faustin

    Belated thanks for bringing the amazing DAINAH LA METISSE to my attention. It’s recently become available as a Gaumont on-demand DVD, with (French) subtitles, very helpful for the more obscure dialogue — and all-region. POUNCE!

  • alex

    Brian D.

    I quite agreed with you last post but just found my
    Current state of com by Kindle too frustrating for more then briefest response. (Ah the strains of life at the beach.)

  • Tony Williams

    A very late entry since I’ve just seen LE CIEL EST A VOUS (as the Gremillon films arrived yesterday) but I want to add a footnote mentioning how much I agree with Dave’s comments and add that to regard the film as merely one promoting Vichy ideology is as inaccurate as comdemning Melville’s THE SHADOW ARMY as Gauliist propaganda. Much more is going on in this film and like Clouzot in LE CORBEAU Geemillon appears to use the historical context in his own way. The film can also be read as expressing the resilience of the French people to achieve in a very difficult circumstances and expressing a resilience that would eventually see them through at the end though I would also admit that the film could be read by certain audiences as pro-Vichy