The forgotten man of French cinema, Jean Grémillon made close to 50 films between 1926 and 1958: avant-garde works, docs, and a stunning group of features. Although virtually unknown outside his home country, he belongs in the hierarchy of classic French cinema along with René Clair, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné. Grémillon studied composition with Vincent d’Indy and at first seemed destined for a career in music; his first contact with cinema was working as a violin accompanist to silent films in the Paris movie theaters. Later, he would compose scores himself for a number of his pictures, and as a musician, was particularly sensitive to the potential for the contrapuntal use of sound in film.
While his silent films are striking, all of his mature work was done in the sound era. His films of the late 1930s and the war years capture the sensibility of the times with their wistful romanticism, their attention to class differences, and their fatalism—most are imbued with a profound melancholy. Paradoxically, two of his most typically Gallic movies were made for UFA, the giant German company: Gueule d’Amour (1937) and The Strange Mr. Victor (1938). The first is a dark study of masochistic obsession, mixing glamour and anguish, in which Jean Gabin gives the most affecting performance of his long career. Victor stars the formidable character actor Raimu in a troubling and morally ambiguous melodrama in which the distinction between heroes and villains is blurred.
Two major Grémillon works were completed during the Occupation. In the allegorical Lumière d’Été (1943), he traps a bizarre gallery of characters in a glass castle atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Stage star Madeleine Renaud plays the owner of a hotel where a group of self-hating failures lives (literally and figuratively) on the edge of an abyss. Tensions reach an explosive point at a nightmarish fancy-dress ball climaxing in a Dance of Death; the film is in many ways a companion piece to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Renaud also stars in the populist Le Ciel Est à Vous (1944), as an ordinary woman in a provincial town who becomes a record-setting pilot. This was an audacious subject at a time when the Pétainist government’s view was that a woman’s place was strictly in the home.
Pattes Blanches (1949), a tale of sexual rivalry set in his native Brittany, is his sturdiest post-war picture. His final years were spent teaching and preparing scripts that were never filmed due to lack of financing. During this period he did exercise some influence on his country’s cinema as president of the Cinémathèque Française, but it was still something of a sad end for one of the most talented directors ever to work in France.