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Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Marcel Carné | Hôtel du Nord
a large and open heart
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Aurenche and Henri Jeanson (writers, based on a novel by Eugène Dabit), Marcel Carné (director) Hôtel du Nord / 1938, USA 1940
Filmed between two of French director Marcel Carné’s masterworks, Port of Shadows and Daybreak, Hôtel du Nord has been seen by many critics as a lesser work—in part because Carné’s usual collaborator, writer Jacques Prévert was not available for this adaptation of a novel by Eugène Dabit. And unlike the darker and political elements of the films just before and after, Hôtel, with a cast of dozens, is far more artificed—Alexandre Trauner creating an entire Paris block, including moveable metal bridges along the canal Saint-Martin.
Not that this work does not have its dark moments. The film begins, indeed, with a poor couple checking into the hotel with the intention of committing a double suicide, while downstairs most of the other tenants are celebrating the first communion of a young girl, Michèle, who lives in the hotel with her policeman father. She takes a piece of cake up to a woman, Raymonde (Arletty), who works as a prostitute, and lives with a former thief, Edmond (Louis Jouvet), turned photographer. Thus we quickly meet the work’s major figures before the camera returns us to the suicidal couple when Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) has just shot his lover, Renée (Annabella) but doesn’t have the resolve to go through with his own death.
Hearing the pistol, Edmond enters the room to see Pierre standing over what appears to be Renée’s corpse. He silently signals for Pierre to escape before going down to report what appears to be a murder.
In fact, Renée is not dead, but awakens to find herself in a hospital, having been given, so she is told, a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, despondent and disgusted with his cowardice, Pierre has turned himself into the police and is locked up.
Ultimately Edmond falls in love with Renée, and plans to move with her to another city, to escape his dark past and two men who have been attempting to track him down to kill him.
The two travel away from Paris, but at the last moment, Renée—still in love with Pierre—returns to talk with Pierre in jail. Followed back to Paris by Edmond, Renée warns him not to return to his room, since there are two men waiting.
Edmond not only returns to his room, but tosses his gun upon the bed for one of the men to shoot him. His death, however, will not immediately be noticed since it’s Bastille day, and children below are setting off fireworks.
Without explicitly saying it, accordingly, Carné has told a tale of dark fate and, given the difficult financial states of the hotel’s several tenants, a story of impoverishment. Yet this time, he has wrapped it up in a kind of Grand Hotel structure that includes a great amount of fascinatingly mundane and often humorous dialogue, and we struck less by the inevitability of fate that the possibilities, particularly in the love between Renée and Pierre, to disrupt it.
This film suggests that it is women who can redeem the future. From the early moments of Michèle’s celebration with Madame Lecouvreur at the head of the table to our ongoing encounters with Raymonde and Renée, it is the women who, offering community and love, keep this little society together. If in the first scene Pierre has failed to act out of cowardice, Edmond finds salvation in facing his own death. And although it may be difficult to imagine a happy ending for Renée and Pierre, she has, at least, forgiven him and promised her continued love.
If Hôtel du Nord, with its picturesque scenes and larger-than-life characters, seems, in its very perfection, a bit old-fashioned, over the years, as critic Inge Fossen has put it, the film has gained a kind of lustrous patina, as its large and open heart is seldom to be found in contemporary works.
Los Angeles, November 11, 2016