Obscure outside of France, the great director Jean Grémillon is a tantalizing figure even for those Americans who discover him, since most of his films remain difficult to see. Those lucky or determined enough to track them down find works of singular grace and sensitivity, with a vision that is often melancholy but always humane.
The Lighthouse Keepers (Gardiens de phare), his second feature and last silent film, already displays elements that define Grémillon’s art. First, despite their lyrical tone and dreamlike atmosphere, his films remain rooted in documentary clarity—truly deserving the label “poetic realism.” Grémillon frequently shot on location and always distilled a potent sense of place. Many of his films, like The Lighthouse Keepers, are under the spell of the rugged, storm-swept coast of Brittany, and of the sea itself in its ever-changing, never-changing vastness. His documentary methods also convey a love of work and attention to the detailed processes of physical labor. Here, it is the maintenance of a lighthouse; elsewhere it is the threshing of grain, the mechanics of airplanes or ships or printing presses, the meticulous creation of tapestries or performance of surgery. Music and dance also run through these films, shaping their rhythms and structures, and representing the beating heart of communal life. That harmony is always threatened by private obsessions and conflicts, sometimes by outright madness—forces that break the cyclical patterns of daily life and communities.
Born in 1901 in Bayeux, Normandy (home of the famous medieval tapestries depicting the Norman Conquest in storyboard fashion, a milestone in the art of visual narrative), Grémillon had Breton ancestry and grew up partly in Brittany, the area he captured on screen with such vivid and visceral feeling. His first love was music, and he defied his parents’ disapproval by going to Paris to study violin and composition. In the early 1920s, he played in a pit orchestra at a movie theater, a job that married his musical vocation with his burgeoning interest in cinema. Through a friendship with cinematographer Georges Périnal, who shot many of his early movies, including The Lighthouse Keepers, he began working in the film industry, first as a title writer and editor. He got his start directing short documentaries about industrial manufacturing processes then edited footage from these films into an experimental montage called La Photogénie mécanique (1924), his first calling card as a filmmaker. (The theory of photogénie was expounded by his avant-garde peer Jean Epstein in an effort to pinpoint the quality that makes certain moments in movies mysteriously spark with life.) In 1926, Grémillon went to Brittany to make a documentary about a local fisherman and composed his own elaborately synchronized musical score for what he titled Un Tour au large. An irresistibly romantic idiom, large means the open sea, as well as breadth, space, even freedom.
The Lighthouse Keepers opens with surf breaking in long white lines, a boat sailing out, a woman’s hand waving a handkerchief. These images set up a contrast that runs throughout the film between the life of the village, where women in black dresses and curious tall white bonnets wait for the return of their men, and the men’s harsh, isolated existence on a rock-bound lighthouse. Young lovers part in this opening scene, the girl (Genica Athanasiou) staying behind with her mother (Gabrielle Fontan) while the young man, Yvon (Geymond Vital), sets off with his father (Paul Victor Fromet), dreading a month cooped up in the lighthouse that looms up from the sea like a stony and forbidding castle keep. The film’s scenario was adapted by director Jacques Feyder from a Grand Guignol play; it takes a bizarre and cruel turn with the revelation that Yvon is nursing a bite from an attack by rabid dog. Stranded by rough seas, he descends into illness and then madness as his father watches in helpless horror.
The Lighthouse Keepers is almost a companion piece to Jean Epstein’s Finis terrae, released the same year and filmed on the Breton islands that became Epstein’s favorite cinematic territory. That film concerns two boys spending a summer on a barren island collecting seaweed, and what happens when one of them gets an infected cut and sinks into feverish delirium. The films share many images—the churning ocean, drifting plumes of smoke from burning kelp, Breton women watching the sea for returning boats—which distill the mingled beauty, loneliness, poetry, and terror of the region known as Finistère, “the edge of the world.” Storms, peril, and death at sea are woven into the fabric of daily life in this land where houses are built with the wood of wrecked boats and everyone wears black as though in readiness for mourning. Grémillon captured this underlying sadness and strain again in one of his greatest films, Remorques (1941), starring Jean Gabin as the captain of a rescue ship. The director remained drawn to both the obdurate harshness of island life and the otherworldly quality of remote Brittany, in films such as the sinister fairy tale Pattes blanches (1949) and the bracingly feminist L’Amour d’une femme (1953).
The two directors also shared a fascination with lighthouses—“the eyes of the sea” as Epstein calls them in his poetic documentary Mor’vran (The Sea of Ravens, 1931). Grémillon combines the drama of isolation and danger—echoed by films such as Michael Powell’s atmospheric quota- quickie The Phantom Light (1935) and Roy Boulting’s ghostly Thunder Rock (1942)—with the cinematic possibilities of the light itself, and the prismatic patterns cast by the revolving, ribbed-glass lens. It is the job of the lighthouse keepers to continually tend and polish this mechanism, and as Yvon’s condition deteriorates, the lamp becomes a focal point of his sickness. His growing madness is compounded by grinding routine and claustrophobia; in one scene he paces back and forth like an animal in a cage, watched by his father who seems stricken into passivity. They are trapped in André Barsacq’s subtly menacing circular sets, in the relentless, percussive rhythm of shifting shadows and swirling roundels of light.
In Yvon’s feverish brain these lights become dizzying psychedelic patterns, framing a dream sequence that devolves from delicate images of a girl on a beach holding a nautilus, and the shadows of hands clasping on rippling sand, to a replay of the dog’s attack, the beast multiplied into a kaleidoscopic Cerberus. This nightmare is followed by a lovely but also enigmatic daydream of the father, Bréan, starting with a procession outside a cathedral on a sunny day with the wind whipping the women’s skirts and hair ribbons. The villagers dance on the beach, the farandole (chain dance) that in Grémillon’s films always represents communal festivities. This idyllic vision is shattered by a startling shot of Yvon screaming, his face shot from below filling the screen and his hand blocking part of the camera lens. He gazes down at the waves frothing and seething around the rocks like boiling milk.
With its cryptic, elemental quality, the film is a mood piece rather than a traditional drama, but its strange intensity is gripping. It builds like a long, slow crescendo or a wave gathering force, cresting in a final section that cuts back and forth between the two women sewing by lamplight in their cottage, listening anxiously to a rising storm; a boat floundering in the gale, doomed without the lighthouse’s saving beam; and the climactic showdown between father and son, the latter having metamorphosed into a disheveled, terrifying madman.
After The Lighthouse Keepers, Grémillon made La Petite Lise (1930), a stunning, pitilessly bleak drama that showcases perhaps the most innovative and sophisticated soundscape of any early talkie. Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, cited it as the film that made him stop regretting the passing of silent movies. But the musicality that helped Grémillon to instinctively understand how sound could be cinematic also shapes his silent films. He uses images like notes, weaves them together like instrumental lines, to paint a vision of life as a perpetual struggle between dissonance and harmony.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius