Playing Tue June 7 at 12:30, 4:00, 7:30 at FIAF [Program & Tix]
The French Institute celebrates director Jean Grémillon on Tuesdays in the month of June, beginning this coming Tuesdays with a World War II ensemble of high emotion that provokes comparison to Rules of the Game (and survives them!), Lumière d’été. Say the program notes, “Though sometimes obscured by his contemporaries, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, and René Clair, director Jean Grémillon’s legacy is secure with a rich body of work combining melodrama, history, politics, and of course, forbidden love.”
Though widely considered Grémillon’s best work, English-language commentary on Lumière d’été is few and far between (calling all eager film writers!). Allan Fish gets things started for the blog Wonders in the Dark:
It begins with a controlled explosion, miners in a valley in the Provencal mountains. It’s summer, the sun is shining, all seems right with the world. Yet this was 1943 and, in France more than anywhere, nothing was right with the world. The Vichy occupation was at its height, and many of the creative talents of the era had either left for other climes or found their vision neutered by the Vichy censorship board. Lumière d’Été, while not perhaps quite as good a film as Le Ciel est a Vous which followed it, is still Grémillon’s most densely layered film. Other directors made excellent films in the Nazi occupation but if I was asked to name a film that summed up the Vichy mood better than any other, it would have to be Lumière d’Été.
What perhaps seems most remarkable in retrospect is that it wasn’t a play to begin with, for its mise-en-scène and design suggest it, quite deliberately in the masked ball sequence with allusions to numerous masters, not least Shakespeare with a drunken Roland wandering about dressed as Hamlet with the demeanour of his father’s ghost, murmuring “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” The performances are all superb, with Renaud and Robinson (replacing Michèle Morgan, by then in Hollywood) perfect as the older and younger femmes and Brasseur having a whale of a time as the drunken artist who loathes everyone else nearly as much as himself. Compared to La Règle du Jeu by Sadoul, despite plot similarities it isn’t quite on that level but it’s a film that bears its fatalism on its sleeve (the cynical title says it all) and includes a particularly brilliant flashback in which we don’t see what happened, but rather hear the sounds, accompanied by the shocked horrified faces of Renaud and Bernard in recollection.
Perhaps most illuminating, is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s discussion of the director, the film, and its follow-up Le Ciel est a Vous, over at his blog:
Trained as a musician and composer, Grémillonfirst came into contact with films professionally when he played in a small orchestra that accompanied silent pictures, and many critics have noted that he tended to structure his films in movements, as if they were pieces of music. (He was also especially creative when it came to his sound tracks; one striking “flashback” in Lumière d’été is created exclusively through sounds while the camera remains firmly anchored in the present.) He started out making documentaries and experimental films; aspects of them can be found in his subsequent features, which were always populist by design.
Godard accuses cinema of having responded inadequately to World War II. Yet Lumière d’été and Le ciel est à vous were both made and released in France during the occupation, in 1943 and 1944 respectively, and they are both exceptional responses to the occupation, even to the conditions of their making…This juxtaposition of classes is one of the reasons Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) seems an obvious reference point, and it’s a tribute to Grémillon’s mastery that his film never crumples in comparison with Renoir’s supreme masterpiece.
The Telluride Film Festival program notes:
Good and Evil in Provence. A deserted hotel in the lunar landscape of the Hauts de Provence houses a motley crew of characters raised by utterly French pettiness and self-loathing. Madeleine Robinson plays a naif who wanders into the vipers’ nest during a visit to her fiance, a failed artists. Like all innocents, she will bring the storm. The masked ball that concludes the film seals Grémillion’s mastery. Lumière d’Été holds its own next to Rules of the Game, Renoir’s masterpiece: more vitriolic in its criticism of the upper classes, it features Grémillion’s trademark visual lyricism, his uncanny sense of the fragility of human relations and an unmatched ability to choreograph them.
Films de France stresses the film’s importance as a relic of the war era (it was suppressed by the government for some time):
Lumière d’été is certainly one of the most important films made in France during World War II. It allowed its director, Jean Grémillion, to get away with his most vehement assault on the Haute-Bourgeoisie (as Jean Renoir had attempted to do with his 1939 film La Règle du jeu), whilst extolling the nobility of the ordinary hard-working man in the street.
Pacific Film Archive program notes:
Although it was never released in this country, for many British and French critics Lumière d’été stands alongside Children of Paradise as a masterpiece made during the Nazi Occupation of France. Lumière d’été is a study of two worlds: the working class, pictured as healthy and cohesive, and the rich—idle, self–pitying and debauched. A remote mountain inn is the setting for class–crossed love affair, in a melodrama that climbs to a violent climax on tensions built into Jacques Prévert’s script and echoed in Grémillon’s charged imagery. Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), a beautiful innocent engaged to a dissolute artist (Pierre Brasseur), falls in love with a young construction worker from a nearby dam project (Georges Marchal). She is in turn pursued by an aging playboy (Paul Bernard). French film critic Georges Sadoul writes, “This uneven, but lyrical and courageous, film was banned by the Vichy censors for its polemic (albeit allusive) against the ruling classes. Grémillon allegorically set evil against good [with] mordant humor [that] recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), although Grémillon’s own forceful personality had not been influenced by Renoir.”