Remorques (1941)

by Paul on October 5, 2012

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Occasionally there comes a movie that takes me completely by surprise. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does IRemorques feel the need to share that movie with everyone. Recently I purchased a set of movies from the Criterion Collections Eclipse Series entitled: “Jean Gremillon During The Occupation”. Inside this set there are three films from French director Jean Gremillon, all released between 1941 and 1944. The first movie I choose to watch was Remorques (1941). (It carries the American title: Stormy Weather.) I had never heard of this film prior to watching it, and I was completely blown away but what I saw. Since my first viewing, just three weeks ago, I have watched Remorques four other times and now I love it even more.

It is the story of Andre Laurent (Jean Gabin), who is the Captain of a rescue tugboat. As the movie opens, there is a wedding reception Remorqueswhere all the guests appear to be part of the tugboats crew. Andre is there with his wife, Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud). As they dance she admits that she hates him going out to sea, and wants him to retire. Just moments before in a speech, one of the other guests talks about the relationship between a sailor and the sea, but Yvonne is tired of her husband spending so much time away and being involved in such a dangerous profession.

The wedding is interrupted due to a S.O.S. and the crew is called out on a rescue mission. While they are rescuing the ship, some of the crew from the distressed ship, including the Captain’s wife, Catherine (Michele Morgan), take a small row boat over to Andre’s tugboat. They have grown tired of their Captain and fear for their safety aboard his ship. Although Andre is curt and frustrated with Catherine for her reckless behavior, she admires him because Remorquesof his power and assertive attitude toward life.

After the ship is towed back in, Andre and his wife continue to have marital problems based on her desire for him to retire. He isn’t ready to give up the sea, and their inability to come together drives Andre toward Catherine, now that she has left her husband. Andre is torn between the wife he loves, the girl with whom he recently has become attracted, and his life long mistress, the sea, who keeps calling for him to come home.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down to watch Remorques, but all of my expectations were blown away. To start with, based on just this one film it is hard to say much about Gremillon and his directorial abilities, however RemorquesI noticed an undeniable quality to his camera movement that is hard to replicate. The camera seems to move about as if it were an inside observer, and it makes this a more intimate story. Some of the shots were so great I found myself going back just to watch these moments of genius again.

The story itself might not be considered fresh even in its day, but the way it unfolds here is truly masterful. It actually reminds my of The Deer Hunter (1978), in how the story is told in three acts. Act one in both films gives the viewer an opportunity to learn about the characters and see them in their safe, comfortable home lives. (Both movies even pick a wedding reception as a setting.) Act two takes the men away from theirRemorques families and throws everyone into danger. (The Deer Hunter choose Vietnam; Remorques choose stormy waters.) Act three shows the main characters back in their comfortable setting, only now they have been tainted by the outside world. Unfolding the story in this way helps give the audience a personal attachment to the characters, and also the want and desire for things to return to the way they were before.

The actors in Remorques are truly passionate about their work. The three leads play out their love triangle in a way that was reminiscent of the later Doctor Zhivago (1965). All three characters truly live their roles, and their brilliant portrayals leave nothing to be desired. Jean Gabin will always be considered one of the greatest French actors, and this performance is just another example of his pure talent and raw abilities. Michele Morgan, soon after Remorques, Remorqueswent to Hollywood. She was considered for the role of Ilsa in Casablanca, and then starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in Passage To Marseilles (1944). Her career did not flourish in America and she return to France where she had a long and successful career. Although I haven’t seen much of her work, she stood out in Remorques, and it is easy to see why her career lasted so long.

Remorques was a subtly beautiful film that would be a welcomed addition to any movie fan’s collection. While researching more about this great film, I found a list of the “100 greatest films of the French cinema” from Time Out Paris, and they listed Remorques as number 98. Although 98 might not seem that impressive at first, I was comforted to know that other people had seen this rare movie and enjoyed it as much as myself.

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