Jean Grémillon’s silent symphonies of life, BFI Southbank, July 2013

Maldone (1928)
Maldone (1928)

“Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?” – Jean Grémillon

The name Jean Grémillon may be spoken in hushed tones by French cinephiles, but it is less familiar to our ears. A director many consider in the same ranks as Renoir, Carné and Feyder, Grémillon began as a documentary-maker in the silent era, but switched to fiction in the late 20s and continued to produce intensely beautiful films until the 1950s. In July, the BFI is holding a retrospective season called Symphonies of Life, including Remorques (1941), starring Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud, and Lumière d’été (1942), written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche.

Grémillon espoused a style of film-making that has been called enchanted realism, or poetic realism: the noirish, fatalistic lovechild of French impressionism and surrealism. Grémillon was not interested in what he termed “mechanical naturalism”, but rather: “that subtlety which the human eye does not perceive directly but which must be shown by establishing the harmonies, the unknown relations, between objects and beings; it is a vivifying, inexhaustible source of images that strike our imaginations and enchant our hearts.” Sadly, Grémillon’s artistic ambitions often clashed with demands of studios and producers. At the end of his career, he returned to documentary-making, and he died aged just 58.

Grémillon’s most famous works are those he made during the 30s and and under German occupation, but the silent features on offer in the season are very exciting. Both will be presented with live piano accompaniment and there are two opportunities to see each one. The films are also showing at the Edinburgh film festival this month. Maldone has been recently restored by the CNC in France and screens with Chartres, a silent short made by Grémillon in 1923 about the famous medieval cathedral. Here’s what the BFI has to say about the season:

Maldone (1928)

Beautifully performed and packed with resonant details, this dark drama tells of Olivier Maldone (Dullin), who left his wealthy family’s estate for a free and easy life on the canals only to return to a life of staid respectability when his brother dies. But temptation – in the form of the gypsy Zita, met during his youthful wanderings – still beckons… Even in this early feature, Grémillon had a great crew: the camerawork by Georges Périnal and Christian Matras and designs by André and Léon Barsacq contribute to a magical mood pitched expertly between realism and expressionism.

Maldone screens at BFI Southbank’s NFT2 on 4 and 10 July, with Chartres. Read more and book tickets here.

Gardiens de Phare (1929)

Gardiens de Phare (1929)
Gardiens de Phare (1929)

A father and son go to spend a month tending their remote lighthouse off the Brittany coast, little knowing that a dog which recently bit the latter was rabid… Grémillon’s intense drama combines expressionism and a real feeling for the traditions of the Brittany coastal communities. Not much ‘happens’ in Jacques Feyder’s script, but the skilled use of flashbacks and cutaways, the meticulous pacing and George Périnal’s striking compositions and lighting make for sustained suspense throughout.

Gardiens de Phare screens with Dainah la Métisse at BFI Southbank’s NFT 3 on 6 July and NFT2 on 10 July. Read more and book tickets here.

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