On the occasion of its 700th issue, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma has partnered with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, to present a special two-part CinéSalon film series. Beginning this week, the series features a selection of rarely shown treasures from French film history and continues in June with a showcase of top picks that have been championed in the pages of the magazine. Indiewire pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.
The following articles are recent appreciations of Jean Grémillon’s films by current Cahiers editor-in-chief Stéphane Delorme and curator and film theorist Dominique Païni, a former head of the Cinémathèque Française. Dominique Païni’s article was originally published as part of Cahiers’ “Eleven Stations for a Poetic History of French Cinema,” an alternative history of French cinema inspired by the release of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.” Stéphane Delorme’s text was included in a special section of the magazine dedicated to rediscovering Jean Grémillon.
I no longer remember what occasion Leos Carax seized to share his attachment to Jean Grémillon’s film, “Little Lise,” made in 1930 at the still-experimental dawn of sound cinema.
But I do remember that it seemed to me a movingly obvious fact when I first discovered “Boy Meets Girl.” It was as if nothing had existed for Carax between this period when Vigo, Renoir, and Duvivier seemed allowed to do anything and the eighties when one had to believe in cinema again after the hard political seventies. Aside, of course, from the New Wave and the appearance of Anna Karina, also in black and white, in “My Life to Live,” many aspects of Grémillon’s film can easily be perceived as sources of Carax’s poetic universe—particularly the substance of his images.
“Little Lise” begins in a penal colony flooded by the blinding light of French Guyana, immediately creating a contrast with the nocturnal darkness of the character played by the paunchy Alcover’s imminent freedom. This initial sequence, profoundly stamped by Grémillon’s documentary style, stuns us with the bodies of prisoners seen from behind, their innumerable tattoos extending onto the graffiti-covered cell walls. In the literal sense of Godard’s expression, Grémillon “films the landscape from behind.”
A chorus of men suddenly stirs the viewer’s soul, a feeling reinforced by Grémillon’s insistence on one of the prisoners, a man absorbed, withdrawn into an irrefutable melancholy. How could you avoid being reminded of the equally impromptu and dazzling musical moment in the Église Saint-Merri in “Holy Motors”? Then comes Nadia Sibirskaïa’s striking first appearance on a chair in a Paris park. Sibirskaïa was one of the most beautiful actresses of the era, acting for Renoir the realist and Dimitri Kirsanoff the formalist. Her shiny tartan oilskin sets the tone for the upcoming mixture of visual material. Like a post-impressionist painting by Vuillard or Bonnard, the film combines tartan, the glare of the oilskin’s folds, flowered wallpapers in hotel rooms, and the swaying foliage of curtain shadows and electric signs…
The sensation of these threads woven together would be renewed by “Boy Meets Girl.”
In retrospect, Nadia Sibirskaïa evokes the character played by Mireille Perrier, whose tenderly indulgent smile and check and pied-de-coq print clothes were the foundation of the inaugural night of Carax’s body of work.
The tribal cabaret and jazzy beguine danced in “Little Lise” suggest a “black” culture, forming an unusual exotic diptych with “Daïnah la métisse.” Grémillon’s stylistic audacity of combining documentary and experimentation faded with the dominance of poetic realism. But it continues to enrapture today, partially helped by Carax’s update. The advent of sound film in “La Chienne,” “Night at the Crossroads” and “L’Atalante” offered a new vision of the city, begotten by the idle wanderings of characters fated to destinies specific to the interwar years. Like Denis Lavant and Mireille Perrier, Julien Bertheau and Nadia Sibirskaïa go deep into the night on a long walk, also filmed “from behind.” A stroke of light on their clothes transforms them into romantic fireflies—all the way into a fade to charcoal black, which Carax would also borrow from the twilight of silent film to swallow up the fate of his lovers on the bridge.
Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma issue 682, October 2012.
“Little Lise” and “Daïnah la métisse” are two unique attempts to bring the audacities of the avant-garde to nascent sound cinema. Both films cannot be situated, they are ageless. The former begins in the penal colony, in Cayenne, with a tide of humanity in which bare-chested men are stretched out one on top of another, all covered in tattoos like Father Jules in Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante.” We hear an indescribable brouhaha only the early talkies could get away with and then suddenly a man’s voice rises up and a song takes shape, a love song, a melodious lullaby (“Close your pretty eyes”), and all the convicts join in as one. Amid this primitive world describing a prehistory of mankind, the actor Alcover rests his massive body and waits to be reunited with his Lise, his little Lise, as if he were plunged in an opium dream. This primeval world is that of the burgeoning sound film. Henri Langlois remembered it as follows: “It was in 1930. In a neighborhood theater that had just gotten a facelift. And every Saturday, we would go there and miss the lost cinema a little. Then a film appeared on the screen which had never had a first run release. It was by seeing ‘Little Lise’ that I forgot ‘Under the Roofs of Paris’ and stopped missing silence. This was the first film of the school that would firmly establish itself in 1936 and make French cinema the leading cinema in the world in the years that followed.”
Grémillon was inventing poetic realism live (though no film would ever recover this intoxicating dreamlike strangeness, this primeval naturalism transfigured into dreaminess). He jumped to the other side of the Atlantic with “Daïnah la métisse,” a film anything but hazy—clear-cut, striated, piercing, magnetic. An ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic, two black protagonists, the engine room, the call of desire. The grid of the engine room in “Daïnah” and the grid of the unsettling mask she wears during a black magic show are like the bodies crisscrossed with tattoos in “Little Lise.” Grémillon created primitive spaces and bodies, organic and machine-like chaos, which sadly did not speak to many. He had to go into exile before returning with an orderly, luminous, perfect film, “Gueule d’amour.” Cinema had left the marshes of the post-silent period once and for all. And Grémillon moved forward, hungry to live several lives.
Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 693, October 2013.