Monday, January 9, 2023

New from Criterion: Hôtel du Nord, Le Corbeau and Summertime

Jean-Pierre Aumont and Annabella in Hôtel du Nord (1938).

I look eagerly forward to the monthly announcements of the new Blu-Ray releases from Criterion and to viewing (or more often re-viewing) a handful of them in gleaming new prints. Here are three that came my way over the past few months. 

Among the glamorous melodramas Marcel Carné directed just before the Second World War, in a style known as poetic realism, Hôtel du Nord is little known. The Nazi Occupation of France put an end to the Golden Age of French Cinema, though the film Carné managed somehow to put together at the end of the war, Children of Paradise, a much-beloved three-hour epic about theatrical styles in Paris in the early nineteenth century, built on the impulses he followed in the movies he turned out between 1936 and 1939. When you watch a movie like Hôtel du Nord – or Port of Shadows (which Joe Wright excerpts in the stunning Dunkirk centerpiece of his Atonement) or the best of them, Le Jour Se Lève, you feel you’re visiting a time capsule, not just because they’re remnants of an era when almost every major French picture showcased a scintillating ensemble but also because the mood of romantic fatalism is distinctive to those years, when French civilization seemed to be sliding toward the mire.

I’d never seen Hôtel du Nord before Criterion got around to restoring it, and it’s quite engaging, though he made it without his usual collaborator, the poet-screenwriter Jacques Prévert; the screenplay, based on Eugène Dabit’s novel, is credited to Jean Aurenche and Henri Jeanson. The narrative, set at a hotel (really a boarding-house) overlooking a canal in a working-class neighborhood of Paris, is a tale of various couples, sometimes together and sometimes breaking apart, that begins with a failed double suicide and ends with a virtual one. A pair of young lovers, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renée (Annabella), have made a murder-suicide pact and take a room in the hotel to discharge it, but after he shoots her, he can’t go on with the scheme; he feels ashamed and derailed. She survives and he goes to prison, so suffused with guilt that when she visits him he begs her to forget him. During her recovery Renée wins the affection of the hotelkeepers (André Brunot and Jane Marken), who offer her a job. One of the guests, a pimp named Edmond (Louis Jouvet) who lives with Raymonde (Arletty), the prostitute he manages, falls for Renée, leaving Raymonde to form an attachment with Prosper (Bernard Blier) when his wife Ginette (Paulette Dubost) begins sleeping with Kenel (Andrex). At the end of the movie Pierre is released from jail and he and Renée get back together again, since – as Edmond has always realized – she’s never forgotten him. When gangsters come after Edmond, he allows himself to be a sitting duck, so the fade-out is bittersweet.

Jouvet was a legendary stage actor who collaborated with most of the major French filmmakers of the 1930s and 40s, like Jacques Feyder (Carnival in Flanders), Jean Renoir (The Lower Depths), Julien Duvivier (Un Carnet de Bal) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Quai des Orfèvres). (He’s also in Carné’s one-of-a-kind lunatic comedy Bizarre, Bizarre.) A dazzling technician with an unforgettable face – he’s often been compared to an eagle – and what can best be described as an ironic glower, he’s singularly commanding. Aumont was a famous romantic leading man, Blier (the father of the movie director Bertrand Blier) a gifted character player, and both Marken and Dubost gave indelible performances for Renoir in this era – Marken as the married woman on a day trip from Paris who’s seduced by a boatman in A Day in the Country; Dubost, with her fuzzy scrape of a voice, as the lady’s maid in The Rules of the Game who’s far more devoted to her employer than to her overbearing husband. And Arletty and Annabella were famous beauties, the first statuesque and dynamic, the second delicate, a figure for a cameo. Arletty played opposite Jean Gabin in Le Jour Se Lève and Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise, perhaps the two starriest romantic couplings in classical French cinema. (Both end badly.) She tended to play fiercely proletarian roles yet her physical magnificence transcended class: though she begins as a carnival attraction in Children of Paradise, you have no trouble believing that she winds up as the elegantly clad consort of a count. But in Hôtel du Nord Carné lets her indulge her coarse side.

Héléna Manson in Le Corbeau (1943).

The period that followed the Golden Age in French movies was eventually nicknamed the “cinéma de papa” by the French New Wave directors who supplanted it. (The idea was that their predecessors were the fathers they needed to obliterate.) And because, first as critics and then as auteurs, they were largely disdainful of the movies made in France both during the Occupation and for the decade and a half following, the impression persists that except for Children of a Paradise and a handful of other pictures, the movies that led up to the New Wave were static and visually reined-in. It’s certainly true that French filmmaking was studio-bound, but for some directors, like the estimable Henri-Georges Clouzot, who went after a claustrophobic esthetic, that could be a benefit. His thrillers and policiers were often right on the edge of Gothic style. Le Corbeau (The Raven), from 1943, is a perfect example. It’s set in a town where everyone seems to live on top of everyone else and yet there are still secrets, which a poison-pen writer claims to be exposing in a series of eponymously signed letters.  Pierre Fresnay, the aristocratic de Boeldieu of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, plays Rémy Germain, a doctor whom the writer accuses of everything from adultery to abortion; he’s the closest the film comes to a likable character, but he’s thin-blooded and he’s stored up a mountain of resentment against his neighbors. The movie works better just because we don’t like the characters: we can believe any of them might be capable of writing the letters. The others include the two women with whom the doctor is involved, Laura (Micheline Francey) and Denise (Ginette Leclerc): one is married to the chief doctor at the local hospital (Pierre Larquey) and the other is the town slut. Laura’s sister Marie (Héléna Manson) is the head nurse, who is so lacking in compassion and so geneally unpleasant that when one of her patients (Roger Blin) dies of cancer everyone is willing to believe she offed him. (That’s one of the alleged revelations in the letters.) Denise’s sister Rolande (Liliane Maigné) is an adolescent who likes to eavesdrop and to cadge small sums of money out of the adults around her. The women in the movie seem especially unsavory. Like Clouzot’s best-known picture, DiaboliqueLe Corbeau is grim and clammy but compulsively watchable, and it looks terrific, especially in the Criterion disc. The lighting which leans toward the expressionistic, is by Nicolas Hayer.

Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in Summertime (1955).

Summertime (1955), directed by David Lean and shot by Jack Hildyard in sumptuous Technicolor, is the romance of a Midwestern spinster (played by Katharine Hepburn) who pours the wishes of an entire disappointed life into a long-saved-for trip to Venice and an Italian shopkeeper (Rossano Brazzi). Based on an Arthur Laurents play called The Time of the Cuckoo that starred Shirley Booth in the role of the protagonist, Jane Hudson, it has a rather unusual subject. It’s about a woman who is desperate for the life that has eluded her yet so uncompromising about the way she wants her dreams to turn out – and so immediately suspicious when love comes her way – that she keeps running away from her own happiness. She wants perfection; if what she’s offered has a taint of what she sees as moral corruption, she becomes outraged. What’s remarkable about Lean’s direction is the intimate way he homes in on Jane’s peculiar point of view, which means bringing Hepburn’s extraordinary performance into sharp focus in scene after scene. This may be the most sexually complex work she ever did; as a portrait of the rigor and devastation of loneliness it’s right up there with Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons, Deborah Kerr in The Innocents and Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith HearneSummertime is a good movie with serious limitations, like an abrupt, puzzling ending – and is it really necessary to make the older American couple who stay at the same pensione as Jane quite so awful? But its flaws hardly matter, since it’s one of the last celebrated of Hepburn’s great performances. She’s miraculous. (In 1965, Richard Rodgers at the end of his career and Stephen Sondheim early on in his collaborated on a pretty good stage musical adapted from the same material called Do I Hear a Waltz? that even most Sondheim fans aren’t familiar with.)

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.     

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