Hotel du Nord (1938)

A fine Marcel Carné film from the age of fullest flowering for the poetic-realist movement. But it’s also not of quite the same standard as Carné’s later Les Enfants du Paradis. Where Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prevert maintained, in that film, various near-contradictory stylistic and narrative aspects in perfect equilibrium, Hotel du Nord lacks Prevert’s lighter touch in dancing lithely between poetic discourse and realistic context. The script here, based on a Eugène Dabit novel, was written by Henri Jeanson and Jean Aurenche.

The story is more melodramatic, and the dialogue far more self-consciously poetic and unreal than Prevert’s, especially in the early, crucial sequence where the young lovers, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renee (Annabella) work themselves up to go through with a suicide pact. Their tragedy is interrupted by a gangster on the lam, known, amongst other names, as Edmond (Louis Jouvet). He’s one of those fond French characters, the iron-eyed, cosmically stoic criminal who’s a bit of softy, and entirely aware of his own approaching doom.

He’s trying to slip out of his go-nowhere existence, living with brassy prostitute Raymonde (Arletty), and falls in love with ray-of-light Renee as she recouperates from the bullet her boyfriend puts in her. Arletty, with her no-nonsense line deliveries and rawly sensual manner, walks off with the film, making the other morbidly suffering characters seem hollow. However, many modern directors try for, and fall far short, this kind of mix of romanticism and naturalism, spiced with an art-film variety of noir deshabille. The astonishingly dark themes are balanced with Carné’s impeccably gossamer style, his gently gliding, observant camera as confident here as anywhere, and his bodied sense of everyday life swirling about the central drama is fully evident. As in Les Enfants, the bitter finale plays against a communal celebration – somewhere, everywhere, someone’s dying or having their heart broken, but everyone goes on just the same. In such moments, the film approaches a state of grace.

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