This week, at the site MUBI, the Siren has a long essay about Jean Grémillon and the new DVD set of three of his films (Le ciel est à vous, Lumière d'été and Remorques) from Criterion's no-frills Eclipse label. This is part of the discussion of Remorques, the Siren's favorite of the four she's seen, the other being Gueule d'Amour. (New Yorkers, take note: Remorques plays at the Film Forum today, at 1 pm, 4:40 pm and 8:20 pm.) They are all wonderful; discovering Grémillon has been a highlight of the Siren's cinematic year.
All three of the movies are deeply rewarding, but it's the simplest one, Remorques, that has the greatest beauty. It's helped by the presence of Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin, two stars so blindingly charismatic that their merest eye contact is worth pages of exposition. To this Remorques adds Prevert's gorgeous dialogue (he rewrote much of the script), and Grémillon's passionate feel for the freedom of the sea and the confinement of land.
Gabin plays André, a tugboat operator ("remorques" translates as "towline") who makes a dangerous living rescuing boats from the storm-tossed waters off the Brittany coast. He's married to Yvonne (Renaud again--Grémillon loved this actress, with good reason); their relationship is loving, if not quite happy. She's grown tired of André's profession, tired of constantly fearing for his safety. Quietly, persistently, she's trying to persuade him to give it up. But he doesn't want to, not really, despite his frequent expressions of disgust for the low pay and wretched conditions. Gabin plays his scenes with Renaud with a mixture of real affection and wariness; she's trying to detach him from his one source of excitement, the one place where he's strong and in control. Yvonne is a Spanish-moss spouse--lovely but potentially suffocating.
André's crew rescues the vessel of Marc (Jean Marchat), a craven captain who's willing to let his boat go down so he can collect the insurance. His wife, Morgan, naturally has come to loathe him. Unable to spend another minute with the man, she takes a raft to Gabin's boat. Morgan and Gabin snipe at one another on board, they meet again onshore, they talk...
Remorques is a romantic melodrama, and these films are always built on emotions that are common, even when the situations are not. Here's a man who has lingering love for a good wife whose needs have become dreary and whose presence is no longer exciting; and here's a woman married to someone whose once-thrilling attentions turned out to be a cover for contempt and abuse. And the two connect, as such unhappy souls easily might in reality.