Monday, May 13, 2013

Jean Grémillon | Lumière d’Été (Summer Light)

why not?
by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Laroche and Jacques Prévert (screenplay), Jean Grémillon Lumière d’Été (Summer Light) / 1943

Made during the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Grémillon’s beautiful film, Lumière d”Été, uses what superficially seems to be a kind of melodrama to speak of deeper issues of the Vichy rule. In a sense the director and authors hide their story in plain site by seeming to focus on a kind of soap opera-like ménage a cinq, pretending to have little but sex on their minds.

     But the film begins with a clue to its exploding message, with the trumpeted warning of the controlled explosion that is about to occur in the Provencal mountains by workers who are engaged in building a dam. Soon after a bus is seen winding its way through the mountain highway only to stop and release a young woman, Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), who is on her way to a glass fronted hotel, the Guardian Angel where she plans to meet her artist lover, Roland (Pierre Brasseur).

     The hotel is owned by a local aristocrat, Patrice (Paul Bernard) and is run by Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud), Patrice’s long-time lover, to whom, we perceive almost immediately, Patrice is no longer very attentive. Michèle, nervous and expectant for Roland’s arrival, immediately catches Patrice eye after he has conveyed her in his passing cart to the hotel, and Cri-Cri, jealously observant of her lover, quickly perceives Patrice’s interest in the girl.

Later that night another guest arrives, the handsome Julien (Georges Marachal), the foreman of the workers nearby. Presuming he is the young man who Michéle awaits, the desk clerk, Tonton, whose favorite expression throughout is “Why not?” sends him to Michéle’s room, where in the dark, Julien is surprised by a woman in his bed who quickly kisses him, thinking he is Roland. When the lights come on, she perceives that he is a stranger, and he, seeing her as a kind of angel in a dream, somewhat distractedly leaves to procure another room.

     When Roland finally does show up, a few days later, he is drunk, his “opera,” for which he has designed the set and written the libretto having been a complete failure. Roland, penniless so we discover, is selfish and pathetic, not at all like the man Michéle has described to Cri-Cri and others. Indeed, in his drunken self-pity, Roland demands that if Michéle truly loves him, she should leave him before he does her further harm.

     So does the director, lay out his story, so to speak, setting up what is less a narrative than a kind of tableau vivant (not unlike Renoir’s Rules of the Game) in which each character  represents a social-sexual position—Michéle symbolizing the present heart of France, Cri-Cri suggests the joys of the past (she was once a noted ballerina, and like the past in Vichy France, she is locked in the “Guardian Angel” just as her birds are locked away in their cages), Roland expresses the failures of the current artistic expression, Patrice demonstrates the emptiness of the aristocracy, and Julien reveals the vitality of the working class. For the rest of this film these figures do not act out a story as much as they “circle” one other in a long waiting pattern in an attempt to regain and to express their beliefs and desires. Except for Michéle and Julien, whom we recognize almost immediately belong to the present and belong with one other, the world in which they wait is empty and dying. Cri-Cri has, in fact, saved all of Patrice’s letters, mementos, and other material of their relationship, including the news of his wife’s death in an accidental shooting—the shooter, we soon discover, having been Patrice himself.

     Without money, Roland cannot pay their hotel bill, in response to which Patrice invites the couple to his castle, pretending to be in search of the artist to paint one of his halls, but in actuality to bring Michéle into his lair. When Julien hears of their change of venue, he rushes to the castle, uninvited, to convince her to decamp and to reveal his previously unexpressed love.

     When Cri-Cri hears of the situation, she also rushes to Michéle to tell her what a perverse and evil man Patrice truly is. Up until that point there has been little evidence of any evil in Patrice’s behavior; he has spent most of his time with Roland and has convinced Michéle that he trying to help him to stop drinking. In fact, we soon discover, he is plying whisky in large quantities to the painter, only biding his time to pounce upon the beautiful girl. We also begin to suspect that his wife’s accidental death has been purposeful. For while Julien is visiting, Patrice takes up a gun (he is an expert marksman) pointing it at the young worker for a second before aiming and shooting at a nearby toy arcade, set up in his game room, admitting that with a single shot there would be “not more boy, no more gardener, no one.”

     Meanwhile Roland gets a brainstorm: he will paint the entire room in white, while composing a small landscape only in a locked closet, a metaphor clearly for what Grémillon himself has done in this brightly-lit film, white-washing the story while hiding his narrative within.

     Finally perceiving the truth, Michéle becomes determined to return to Paris and find any job she can. But when Julien hears of her decision, he suggests she stay just a few more days until he too will return to Paris. Patrice also argues that she should stay at least through his birthday for which he is throwing a masked-ball. But this time we do know his intentions, himself admitting to her that he was spoiled as a child, getting always what he asked for. “I’ll throw myself out the window if you don’t give me what I ask.”

    The penultimate scene of this film is the long, stunningly filmed masquerade, the celebrants all dressed as figures that represent the extremes of this now very frightening house of horrors. Patrice, truly revealing himself, dresses as the Marquis de Sade, Roland, mostly drunk throughout, comes as Hamlet (repeating again and again “There is something rotten in Denmark,” read France), and Michéle “masquerades” as the innocent suicide, Ophelia.

     Cri-cri, attending to Patrice’s action, accuses the young girl as lying and attempting carry on a relationship with Patrice; her accusations awaken Michéle to her mistakes. And when Patrice makes one more attempt to entrap Michéle, she again resists, removing her costume—and in so doing ridding herself of Ophelia’s passivity—insisting that she be returned to the hotel. Patrice is only too ready to do so, but others of the hotel guests insist upon joining them, and finally Roland, stumbling out of the castle to declare “Poor Hamlet, the party is over,” demands the driver’s seat. Patrice seems to fumble with the steering wheel, but given Roland’s drunkenness, we almost feel it doesn’t matter, for we know the inevitable result: the car crashes, and Roland, soon after, dies. Patrice is hurt, but the others have been spared.

     The miners, including Julien come to their rescue, sending for a doctor, and taking them into their office-shack. The doctor and others have hurried into the mine lift, but as they rise, a cable slips, a second in danger of snapping. Julien shimmies up the cable to fix it, while at the same time Patrice takes up his gun with the intention of shooting the young hero. The workers, having followed Patrice, recognize his actions and move en masse toward him, as he, backing away, finally falls to his death from a cliff. The workers have made things right, the old order having been crushed. The “heart” of France, Michèle, is now free to join up with the beautiful representative the French working class. As Julien has expressed it earlier, it is all like a dream. And given the year, one of the worst of Vichy history, Grémillon’s film is an hallucinated dream.

     Indirectly, Grémillon has answered Tonton’s insistent question, “Why not?” in both its negative and positive meanings. Certain things are simply morally wrong, that’s why not; but then why not imagine an alternative universe? Certainly the audiences of the day, if not the officials who had approved the film, could read Grémillon’s metaphors quite clearly, and the Vichy government quickly removed the film from circulation. Grémillon would make only one other feature film, the equally masterful La Ciel est á vous of the following year.

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