After working in documentaries, Jean Grémillon (1901-59) started directing impressionist fiction films, beginning with Maldone (1927). Grémillon’s insistence on visual and aural experimentation frustrated his producers, however, and he was forced to seek work in Spain and Germany.
On his return to France, Grémillon made contributions to the emergent poetic realist school of films, which in their gloom and fatalism anticipated American film noirs. Between 1937 and 1944, he made a handful of movies that have only been seriously acclaimed in the last decade. Along with Remorques (1941) and Le Ciel est à Vous (1944), Lumière d’Été—Grémillon’s best work—was released in a Criterion DVD box set in 2012.
Big-screen lovers will have a golden opportunity to see Lumière d’Été at its best when it’s shown at 8.30pm, Friday, July 21st, at Pier 1 in Riverside Park in Upper West Side Manhattan as part of Films on the Green.
The festival’s selections were made by New York-based filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, Laurie Anderson, Isabella Rossellini, and James Ivory. Lumière d’Été (Summer Lightning) was picked by Matías Piñeiro, the Argentine auteur whose delicate, meditative romances include Rosalinda,Viola, The Princess of France, and Hermia & Helena.
“There was a season of Grémillon’s films at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens a few years ago, and I happened to discover him then,” Piñeiro recalled in a recent interview. “Films on the Green gave me a list of films to choose from—a little bit of everything.
A summer’s tale?
“They knew I liked Grémillon, but there wasn’t one on the list. When I asked if it would be possible to show a Grémillon film, they said they could. I decided to choose Lumière d’Été, because even though the title is very summery, the film is not.
“I liked the idea of showing a film outside that, paradoxically, doesn’t belong there—that is a little bit claustrophobic,” Piñeiro continued. “Even though Lumière d’Été partially takes place in a beautiful glass hotel, it’s a very dark film. There’s something about the tone and the behavior of the characters that doesn’t belong in the green.
“It’s very easy to do an outdoors screening of a film by Jean Renoir or Éric Rohmer, or something like Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève. But I like the idea of taking a film that belongs in the shadows and putting it in the open air,” Piñeiro said.
A state-of-the-nation allegory of Vichy France, Lumière d’Été was written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche. It depicts a complex dance of love involving five characters in a mountainous region of Provence. The naive protagonist Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) has booked a room for herself and her older artist lover Roland (Pierre Brasseur) at the glass cage of a hotel run by Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud, Grémillon’s favorite actress), a former prima ballerina.
A maudlin drunk, Roland tells Michèle he loves her less than he once did. Cri-Cri is desperate to keep her aristocratic lover, Patrice (Paul Bernard), a murderer who plans on seducing Michèle. To get close to her, he hires Roland to decorate his castle.
But Patrice has a worthier working-class rival, Julien (Georges Marchal), a handsome engineer working on a nearby dam construction; the rocky terrain is being cleared with dangerous detonations. If the evil Patrice has imbibed the spirit of Nazism, Julien holds out hope for France’s future as a pure-hearted member of its diligent labor force—and as the hero amid its rank and file.
An orgiastic costume party thrown by Patrice suggests Grémillon and Prévert, the era’s pre-eminent French screenwriter, had wanted to make an astringent critique of ruling class decadence, as had Renoir in his 1939 La Règle du Jeu. In the event, Lumière d’Été proved too strong a takedown of the elite for the authorities: it was banned from French cinemas for the duration of the Nazi occupation in the north.
Lumière d’Été is often compared to La Règle du Jeu, but Piñeiro notes that it’s a more fragmented and harsher film that Renoir’s masterpiece.
“The characters seem more condemned than Renoir’s,” the Argentine filmmaker says. “They’re not condemned like the characters in the pessimistic films that Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert made. They’re condemned because they bear the burden of loving people who don’t love them back; I’m thinking particularly of Cri-Cri hopelessly loving Patrice. Whereas Renoir often shows the brighter side of things, there’s a more interesting mix of emotions in Grémillon.”
Piñeiro, who will introduce Friday’s screening, marvels at Grémillon’s jarring mix of settings. “It’s not the most natural idea to juxtapose in the same film a Gothic castle, a glass hotel, and a dam where there are explosions,” he says. “It’s very provocative and phantom-like, and it creates a kind of visual poetry. A detonation on the site of dam in wartime obviously has historical resonances.
“One reason I chose a Grémillon film,” Piñeiro concluded, “is because his work is seldom seen, unlike the films of Carné, Renoir, or Henri-Georges Clouzot. Grémillon is a filmmaker who is a little bit in the shadows. Films on the Green gave me a very beautiful chance to show something that hasn’t been shown that much—and that deserves to be seen.”
All details for the Films on the Green screenings can be found here.