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Directors in Focus
Rediscovering the Films of Jean Gremillon

Despite a career that stretched from the silent cinema to the brink of the French New Wave, Jean Grémillon (1902–59) remains among the least known of the great French directors. A musician by training, Grémillon began his involvement with the medium as an accompanist for silent movies. An interest in editing led him to work in documentaries and avant-garde films, and it was the critical success of one of his works of “cinéma pur” that led to his first features. While the two silent films he made were popular and critical successes, the failure of his first sound work, the melodrama La petite Lise (1930), forced the director into artistic exile. He made a film in Spain and worked for several years at the Ufa studios in Germany, where his Gueule d’amour (1937) and L’Etrange Monsieur Victor (1938) finally ended his fallow period. Back in France during the German occupation, he completed his masterpieces Lumière d’été (1943) and Le ciel est à vous (1944), which indirectly criticized the Vichy government. While he managed to complete some notable works in the decade following the war, Grémillon was forced to return to documentary production, where he ended his career by making films on art. 

Harvard Film Archive gratefully acknowledges Veronique Godard at French Cultural Services, New York; John Ewing at the Cleveland Cinematheque; and Edith Kramer at Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, for their assistance in assembling this program.


November 23 (Friday) 7 pm
November 24 (Saturday) 9 pm

Pattes Blanches (White Paws)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1949, 35mm, b/w, 92 min.
With Michel Bouquet, Paul Bernard, Suzy Delair
French with English subtitles

The “white paws” of this noirish melodrama are the gaudy white spats sported by a reclusive French aristocrat in a fishing village on the coast of Normandy. Scripted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, who was originally to have directed it, Pattes blanches was ultimately brought to the screen by Grémillon, who accepted the project after the commercial failure of his Le ciel est à vous. The moody plot concerns the relationship of the aristocrat (Bernard) and his vengeful half-brother (Bouquet) and their rivalry over a promiscuous flirt from the city (Delair) who has married the local innkeeper. Although produced within the framework of the commercial cinema, Grémillon’s film manages to imbue the melodrama with a sharp sense of class divisions and his characteristic visual harmonies.

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November 23 (Friday) 9 pm
November 25 (Sunday) 7 pm

Gueule D'Amour (Lady Killer)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France/Germany 1937, 35mm, b/w, 90 min.
With Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Rene Lefevre
French with English subtitles

Made partly while Grémillon was working at the Ufa Studios in Berlin, this adaptation of a novel by André Boucler features the young Jean Gabin as a foreign-legion Casanova—the “lady killer” Lucien Bourrache—who meets his match in the mysterious seductress Madeleine (Balin). Love strikes for real this time for Lucien, but the sincerity of his lover’s affection remains unpredictably in doubt. Eschewing romanticism and melodramatic conventions for a sober and realistic treatment, Grémillon , with the aid of cinematographer Günther Rittau (The Blue Angel), creates a carefully nuanced aura of suspense that culminates in the film’s tragic dénouement. The sizzling electricity between Gabin and Balin made Gueule d’amour a rare popular success for the director.

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November 24 (Saturday) 7 pm
November 26 (Monday) 8:45 pm

L'Amour d'une Femme (A Woman’s Love)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France/Italy 1953, 35mm, b/w, 104 min.
With Micheline Presle, Massimo Girotti, Gaby Morlay
French with English subtitles

Jean Grémillon himself wrote the screenplay for what was to be his last feature film. An unusual feminist tract, the story concerns a young woman doctor on a small coastal island (Presle) who battles both the community’s prejudices about her professional qualifications and the selfish chauvinism of the engineer (Girotti) with whom she has fallen in love. Despite the stunning black-and-white photography of Louis Page and the winning performance of Micheline Presle, the work that critic Georges Sadoul called an “important and noble film on the female psyche and the relationship between men and women” was a complete commercial failure.


November 29 (Thursday) 7 pm
December 2 (Sunday) 9 pm

Le Ciel est á Vous (The Sky is Yours)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1944, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt
French with English subtitles

The alternate English title for Grémillon’s film, “The Woman Who Dared,” suggests the political message the director was aiming at the citizens of an occupied, wartime France. Based on a true account from the 1930s, the story concerns an ordinary woman who overcomes the pettiness of provincial views to break the women’s world distance-flying record, with the aid of her mechanic husband. This radiant and empowering masterpiece is less about aviation than about the average Frenchman’s (and, indeed, Frenchwoman’s) wartime potential. But for the disorganization of the French film industry in the late wartime years, Le Ciel est à vous, with its with beautiful and direct imagery, might have become the seminal film of a French neorealism movement. 

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November 29 (Thursday) 9 pm
November 30 (Friday) 7 pm

Lumière D'été (The Light of Summer)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 112 min.
With Pierre Brasseur, Paul Bernard, Madeleine Robinson
French with English subtitles

Banned by the Vichy authorities for its allegorical attack on the decadence and corruption of the ruling classes, Grémillon’s socially conscious drama, written by Jacques Prévert, focuses on good and evil in a small Provence town. Michèle (Robinson), a naïve young woman, travels to meet her dissolute fiancé Roland (Brasseur), a drunken artist, and encounters in his world an assemblage of unsavory characters. Disappointed in the soullessness of this society and disillusioned by Roland, she is drawn to a young engineer whose values eventually inspire her to love. Often compared with Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939) for its mordant indictment of corruption, this lyrical and courageous commentary on German-occupied France envisioned a return to sanity and freedom. Brilliantly photographed by Louis Page and enhanced by Grémillon’s cunning use of sound, the film has become a classic of French wartime cinema.

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November 30 (Friday) 9:15 pm
December 2 (Sunday) 7 pm

L'Etrange Monsieur Victor (The Strange Mr. Victor)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1938, 35mm, b/w, 103 min.
With Raimu, Pierre Blanchar, Madeleine Renaud
French with English subtitles

Like Gueule d’amour, this intriguing drama about the double life of a shopkeeper was made for the Ufa studios in Berlin. Victor (Raimu) is an upright and admired man by day but a gangland leader by night. His neighbor Bastien (Blanchar) has been wrongly imprisoned for a murder committed by Victor himself, but his escape unleashes the truth. The most notable product of Grémillon’s Ufa years, L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is anchored by the director’s masterful sculpting of the performance by Raimu, one of France’s monstres sacrés. 

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