B&W, 1941, 84m.
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, Michele Morgan, Charles Blavette, Jean Machat

B&W, 1943, 110m.
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Starring Madeleine Renaud, Pierre Brasseur, Madeleine Robinson, Paul Bernard, Georges Marchal

B&W, 1944, 107m.
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Starring Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debocourt, Raymonde, Vernay
Criterion (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Metropolitan The cinema of German-occupied France during World War II resulted in several films difficult to make but wholly unique and important in their final form, easily led today by Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise and Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterful crime films like Le corbeau. Very prolific but oddly overlooked today, director Jean Grémillon released three films during the occupation (one begun just before it started), a trilogy collected in Criterion's DVD set under its Eclipse banner.Metropolitan

The first film, Remorques, is (relatively speaking) the most familiar as it received a English-language release (in both subtitled and dubbed prints, both heavily edited) from MGM under the title Stormy Waters. The plot sounds like your average romantic melodrama as tugboat captain André Laurent (Grand Illusion's great Gabin), married to Yvonne (Renaud, who appears in all three films), makes money leading his crew on salvage operations. One job turns into betrayal from a selfish captain whose leaves behind a beautiful wife, Catherine (Morgan, also in Port of Shadows with Gabin), who begins an affair with André. However, Yvonne is secretly suffering from a severe ailment that could erupt under the strain of his new romance...

Extremely atmospheric and featuring some astonishing beach and mid-ocean visuals (some achieved with miniatures for the storm shots), Remorques feels oddly like a French twist on a Michael Powell film with its tightening tensions between human hearts and their natural surroundings. The production began in 1939 but didn't reach completion until two Metropolitanyears later, following the upheaval of France and a few internal creative disruptions along the way as well. The source novel by Roger Vercel went through a few permutations before the final version written by Jacques Prévert (who also penned Children of Paradise), while two of the leads bailed to Hollywood (at least temporarily) shortly after production finally wrapped.

The most visually interesting and definitely obscure of the trio, Lumière d'été ("Summer Light"), could at times easily be mistaken for a lost Max OphülsMetropolitanfilm during its powerhouse third act, a lavish masquerade ball filled with romantic complications, confetti-flinging revelers, ornate camera work, and a dramatic plunge into pure hell. The story itself is essentially a romantic whirligig operating between pampered and wealthy Patrice (Bernard) and low-class miner Julien (Marchal) vying for the heart of Michele (Robinson). She has another suitor in the mix, an artist named Roland (Eyes without a Face's Brasseur), who's complicating things almost as much as Cri-Cri (Renaud), a hotel owner who's still pining for cruel former lover Patrice. Guns, a dam under construction, and mayhem soon come into play. Sort of a social commentary heightened almost to the level of fairy tale surrealism, it's a fascinating film on many levels as well as a showcase for a number of superb French performers.

Last is one of the director's most successful films in his native country, Le ciel est à vous ("The Sky Is Yours"), released in English under the much clunkier title of The Woman Who Dared. An ode to flight as an expression of personal freedom, the story charts the efforts of Thérèse (Renaud, of course) to become a record-breaking female aviator with the aid of her mechanic husband, Pierre (Diabolique's Vanel), a former wartime pilot who understands her infatuation with the heavens all to well. The process forces them to reconfigure their living quarters and put sacrifices on their child. When the time comes for her to finally attempt the longest female-piloted flight on record, the scale of their dream finally begins to dawn upon them. Beautifully acted and surprisingly devoid of the sentimentality that often clogs stories about heroic pilots and their spouses, this is a fine little character study as well as a portrait of a people longing to soar out of their daily confines.

All three films look excellent and about on par with Eclipse's other vintage black-and-white releases; if you've seen their marvelous Raymond Bernard or Sacha Guitry sets, you should have a solid idea of what to expect. A few bits of damage pop up here and there, but it's nothing severe and indicates these were essentially left alone in their original cinematic condition during and after the transfer process. Quite nice all around, and the optional English subtitles seem to be accurate and skillfully written. The only extra is an insert containing liner notes by Michael Koresky outlining the director's remarkable life story and the story behind the making of Remorques, while the other two films have brief one-page essays on the reverse side of their insert sleeves.

Reviewed on August 22, 2012.