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Remorques (1941)

“When two people are quiet, they have a lot to say,” says Catherine to Captain Andre Laurent.  She continues, “They try to guess each other’s thoughts.  It’s very nice.”

Jean Gabin is one of my favorite French actors of all time.  I’ve enjoyed his performances in such French classics like Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Marcel Carne’s Port of Shadows and Le Jour Se Leve, Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, and Claude Autant-Lara’s A Pig Across Paris.  The Museum of the Moving Image recently presented a retrospective on almost forgotten French film director Jean Gremillon.  Among the films shown was Remorques, which starred Gabin and Michele Morgan, his Port of Shadows co-star.  I luckily got the opportunity to attend a screening of the film (which was presented with support from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy) and enjoyed it very much.  It was shown in an old 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Française, but it was just as riveting even if it had been a brand new print.

1941’s Remorques follows a tugboat captain whose job is to rescue ships in distress.  A wedding reception is interrupted when the captain and his crew receive an SOS, and the following rescue mission ends up affecting the captain’s life, especially his marriage.  Jean Gabin turns in a subdued yet powerful performance as Captain Andre Laurent, whose life changes after meeting the miserable wife of the captain of the rescued ship and soon calls his own marriage into question.  Madeleine Renaud co-stars as Yvonne, Laurent’s wife who yearns for her husband to quit so that they could move to Paris (and is also keeping a deadly secret).  Michele Morgan co-stars as Catherine, the wife of the rescued ship’s captain who finally ends her miserable marriage as she starts to fall in love with Laurent.  The terrific cast also includes Charles Blavette (as Gabriel Tanguy), Fernand Ledoux (as Kerlo), and Jean Marchat as the captain of the rescued ship who has the toe rope cut in order to avoid paying for the rescue.

Gremillon’s direction is top-notch, eliciting terrific performances from his cast, making use of some excellent tracking shots (some that perhaps rival those later seen in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), and delivering some incredible storm sequences (the use of miniatures was quite effective and still holds up more than 70 years later).  The superb screenplay by Jacques Prevert (based on the novel by Roger Vercel) balances the sea action with the on-land melodrama and never becomes overbearing.  Yvonne Martin’s editing keeps this tragic love story moving at a good pace and heightens the drama.  Armand Thirard’s black-and-white cinematography works appropriately (I especially liked the shots on the beach; one particular shot has Andre and Catherine walking along on the beach, but because they are far away from the camera they almost look like two black dots on a bright, sandy background.

Gremillon has crafted an impressive film here; what starts off as a simple story with simple characters grows into something much more complex.  While the film may be in black and white, its characters are anything but.  It features Gabin’s last performance before he left for Hollywood (he didn’t want to live in France during the German occupation, but after his relationship with Marlene Dietrich largely ruined his career in Hollywood, he left to join the Free French Forces and would resume his acting career in France after the war).  If you ever get the chance to see Remorques on the big screen, I highly recommend that you do so!

(There’s no suitable trailer currently available on YouTube, but the film is available on the “Jean Gremillon During the Occupation” 3-film DVD set from the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series)

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