Director: Jean Grémillon
By Roderick Heath
Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing.
He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation. Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport.
Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements. Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works.
Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.
Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.
The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea.
One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.
Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one.
This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.
Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed.
The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor. Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe.
Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation.
Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.”
Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk. Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults.
The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas. The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941).
These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.
Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one.
Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era. But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue.
In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux. Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke.
The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew.
The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged. The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist.
By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.
The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals.
As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and angels dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.