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Vertical Poetry

Gardiens de Phare (Jean Grémillon, 1929)


The Cinema Ritrovato is only a day old, and already we have our first major (re)discovery in the figure of director Jean Grémillon, subject of a retrospective series here in Bologna. Grémillion was never considered a major figure of the French cinema of the thirties on a par with, say, Feyder, Duvivier, Carné, Clair, Renoir and Vigo. If his name rings a bell at all even in cinéphile circles, it is because of the two films he made during the Vichy period, Lumière d’été (1942) and Le ciel est à vous (1943), the first a scathing critique of the ruling classes that was banned for the duration of the occupation (more on this remarkable film in a later report). But Grémillon had been an important director for much longer. His La Petite Lise (1930) is one of the most experimental and creative early French sound films, paradoxically enough in the ample use it makes of silence, that can stand next to the early sound masterpieces by René Clair. Like La Petite Lise, Grémillon’s first second (silent) feature, Gardiens de Phare (1929), which screened today, is at heart a simple melodrama. In fact, the movie was based on a successful one-act play from the ‘Grand Guignol’ repertoire written by Paul Autier and Paul Cloquemin. Both the play and the movie tell the story of a father-and-son team of lighthouse keepers who are prevented from performing their duty when the son looses his sanity after having been bitten by a rabid dog (the English translation of the French intertitle tells us the dog is suffering from ‘hydrophobia’). The play is a huis clos that is opened up in the film, which fully benefits from the visualization of the ever-encroaching sea (the relentless beating of the waves against the shore pushing the son further and further to the edge of sanity, plays like a Symbolist motif straight out of Huysmans). Grémillon and screenwriter Jacques Feyder have not only opened up the play, made it more ‘naturalist’ without sacrificing anything of its symbolic logic, they have also largely discarded psychological motivation in favour of an unforgettable Expressionist-tinged symphony of relentless bleakness: the son’s madness is captured by extreme wide-angle lenses and a consistently low-key lighting scheme, a nightmarish vision of a wedding feast is rendered as a surrealist fugue (anticipating  a strikingly similar scene in Vigo’s L’Atalante), the final and fatal clash between father and son is seen through an aperture created by a swinging door, while the lighthouse itself is a wonder of constructivist set design, captured mostly in extreme low angles (the rich photography – fully rendered justice by a restored tinted print courtesy of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo – is by Georges Périnal, the great cinematographer who worked for Cocteau and Clair, before making classic films with Carol Reed and Powell & Pressburger; Périnal’s work here is clearly inspired by Man Ray’s still photography).

The screening of Gardiens de Phare was preceded by two documentary shorts by Grémillon from 1926, recently restored by the Swiss Cinémathèque: the first,  Essais au bord de la mer, is a montage of seascapes that resonates with the pictorialism of Gardiens de Phare; the second consists of a number of unedited test shots of Ella Maillart, the Swiss adventurer, writer and photographer, who is captured here on the coast of Ile de Groix. Both films are of a piece with Grémillon’s first fiction film, showing a preference for aesthetically pleasing compositions with figures placed against seascape lit contre-jour. The maritime melodrama, the cutaways to crashing waves and the recurrence of skybacked silhouette shots, not only reveal the lasting influence of the Normandy coast where Grémillon was born, or the atmosphere of pictorial experimentation that was typical of the Paris of the 1920s, it also clearly shows Grémillon’s major influence to lie with D.W. Griffith’s dramas of the sea (and those influenced by Griffith, like Victor Sjöström, another master of atmosphere): the silent figures of the women watching the men depart that is a reliable ingredient of Griffith’s sea pictures like The Unchanging Sea and Lines of White on a Sullen Sea, and that will later appear with such expressive force in Visconti’s La Terra Trema, also appear here in compositions that also recall Eisenstein’s sky-backed figures. In fact, Grémillon talked about the importance of Griffith’s experiments in cinematic pictorialism in an unpublished lecture which he delivered for a Ciné-club outside of Paris in 1926. “It is satisfying,” he wrote about Broken Blossoms, “to find a work where such purely cinematographic means carry expression to its maximum intensity. What strikes us in Broken Blossoms is the profoundly human expression obtained by such simple and stunningly balanced means… For the first time, nothing appears that is useless, that is without photogenic value” (quoted in Dudley Andrew’s definitive book on 1930s French cinema, The Mists of Regret).

Grémillon’s use of the expression “photogénic value’ firmly situates him within the French Impressionist movement of the twenties and its theoretical exegesis by such figures like Epstein, Delluc, and Canudo, who all wrote about the impact of Broken Blossoms. And indeed, several of the expressive techniques used in Gardiens are recognizably Impressionist: from the fast-cut clash between father and son, to the leering, feverish face of the son brought extremely close to the camera and captured by distorting lenses, to the use of text as a visual element (“LE DEVOIR”). Moreover, both Grémillon’s comments on Griffith and his own film, Gardiens de Phare, show a firm commitment to the cause of film as art, independent of the other arts from which it derives much of its dramaturgical logic (composition from painting, rhythm from music and dance etc.). But like Epstein’s Finis Terrae (shot and released the same year asGardiens), a harrowing portrait of a group of men harvesting seaweed on the coast of Brittany, Grémillon’s film marks a turn in late-Impressionist filmmaking to a more documentary style, tying the concept of the “photogenic,” the purely filmic, closer to cinema’s ontological basis in reality, where even the tiniest details and specifics – perhaps especially those fleeting moments of unstudied poetry – speak to the viewer who has learnt to consider cinema on its own terms.

In this sense, perhaps Grémillon’s first film, also screened today, a short documentary on  the cathedral of Chartres, comes closest to this later conception of “photogénie.” Grémillon reveals to us the sublime 13th century Gothic cathedral as it rises out of the Beauce valley. Precisely the emphasis that the title card and the framing of the shot place on the effect of the cathedral “rising” out of the landscape, reminds me of Proust’s description of the church spire of Chambres. Chartres is, after all, Proust country. And was it not Proust whose conception of the “mémoire involuntaire” and the “phantasmagoria” of the real laid the groundwork for the cinephiliac moment of “photogénie?” Bart Versteirt suggested after the screening that, with Chartres and the lighthouse of Gardiens de Phare, Grémillon has revealed himself to be a filmmaker in love with the vertical. I can’t wait to see my next Grémillon to find out if he managed to deepen these first impressions.