Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Life of the Lifless: Gueule d'amour


Today’s “Image(s)” is from two sequences of Gueule d'amour, known in English as The Lady Killer. This story of a tragic love (a central theme for many poetic realist films of the 1930s) articulates Grémillon’s visual thinking, his style and his very peculiar way of representing the reality on screen. Two segments discussed here are from the short opening sequence, and a key sequence toward the end of the film which carry many similar spatial elements of the first.

The opening sequence: a text appears on the image and reveals the time of the story (1936) and the place (Orange). The music played on the credits, a string section flowing over a staccato-like orchestration of reeds, stops as the actual film begins. Still the duration of the shots and their juxtaposition follows the rhythmic pattern of the early score. The sense of unity within fragmented reality of the world arises from what has established during the credit and the very particular mood it has delivered.

A low-angle shot of a tree is followed by a low-angle shot of the shadow of that tree on the wall. Shadows and silhouettes become a complementary to the very existence of very element in the film. Grémillon intends to pay more attention to the signs of life rather than life as a direct, fixed state of things. He keeps the atmosphere quiet and even the diegetic sound underlines the silence or peacefulness of the place.

Sound gives a sense of depth and density to the image. Colin Crisp argues that Grémillon, as a professional musician, “was particularly sensitive to the potential for contrapuntal uses of sound, and to some extent he composed his films as symphonies, using a musical format to organize the decoupage. He was one of those most outspoken concerning the potential for sound to be used not contrapuntally so much as in symphonic ways as an alternative to realistic narrative. Instead of motivated sound and tight causal links, he saw films, or at least segments of films, as potentially organized like symphonic movements in which, while not openly contrapuntal, the various sonorous elements interwove in the manner of musical lines of melody.” [1]

The last shot of the village is a pan from a stone fountain to the dropping water. A cut abruptly puts it next to a close-up of the bottles in a bar. The vibration of outside world, light, stone, water and wind are suddenly replaced by stillness and artificiality of a fragile world. It also signifies the transition from nature to the inner universe of the main character, Lucien Bourrache (played by Jean Gabin) who comes to the picture in the following scene.

The film draws a matrix in which the nature, objects and characters are in a harmonious correlation, and the camera movements establish the inner relation between these elements. Geneviève Sellier believes that Grémillon learned the balance between inner and outer forces from Balzac and Zola whose “aesthetics precedent allowed him to sculpt a sophisticated model of subjectivity.”  [2]

As the shot continues it shows the second character coming out of the trap door and breaking the horizontal arrangement of the image, giving the impression of a new dimension added to the film. Then camera gently moves back to explore more of the space.

Second sequence:

Near the end, after depicting the distressful relationship between Lucien and his lover Madeleine (Mireille Balin) and their bitter break up, the film shows the lover’s last encounter. In terms of mise-en-scène and spatial exploration this scene is mirroring the sequence discussed above.

The sequence opens with a shot of an old lady behind the counter. Again a series of crystal objects, bottles and glasses are set under a low-key lighting. Later on, Grémillon uses the setting to mark a sudden shift in Lucien’s behavior, as he learns Madeleine is there and the reflection of light in the glass gives him a threatening look.

The shot from the lady is followed by a 270 degree pan from counter to a table with two customers playing a song on mouth harmonica, their shadows on the wall, the door, a chair with a pair of white gloves on it which assumes Madeleine is there, and finally, a shot of Madeleine in the room next to where the camera is originally set up. Cut to a shot of outside the cafe, where unlike the dark and grim looking indoor space, everything is filled with light.

Lucien enters the bar in three different visual stages: first, he puts his bicycle next to the wall and walks in the sunlight; then he enters the medial shot which is noticeably darker and abstract; he enters the cafe, walks toward the bar, talks to customers, and now the lighting is as dark as night. Inside the bar, the camera remains static, objective and in medium-long-shot. When Lucien stares at Madeleine, the shot is cut to a medium shot with Lucien in front of glasses. Cut to Madeleine sitting in the dark. Cut back to Lucien and this time a closer shot of him with a frenetic look.

Lucien enters the room in which Madeleine is sitting.  Through their conversation, shots and reverse shots become tighter and tighter till the scene reaches its climax and Lucien, caught in absolute madness and despair, strangles Madeleine.

The last shot of the sequence is a close-up of Madeleine’s bag on the floor with objects dropped out on the floor. Comparing to the first sequence, this time the transition between objects and nature occurs in reverse. The shot of the objects dissolves into a shot of a calm river. Camera tilts to a bridge over the water and frames two vagabonds from the previous scene singing the same song and playing harmonica. The dropping water of the fountain now has become a river.

In a Grémillon film, spatial elements and the representation of time and space which tenuously is tied to nature and its contrast with urban life distincts the results from most of the other Poetic Realist films of the 1930s.

In this regard sound serves as a conductor of the visual orchestration in order to achieve a highly realist, but at the same time poetic, narrative.

The exploration of space happens from the micro to the macro, from lifeless object to the living characters, and Grémillon’s most outstanding cinematic practice is to show how our lives is interconnected with the seemingly insignificant objects and the small incidents forced by hidden powers of the nature, i.e. the fate.

Crisp, Colin, Classic French Cinema, (Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 137
Sellier, Geneviève, Jean Grémillon: Le cinéma est à vous, 1989, quoted/translated in of, Mist of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Dudley Andrew , (Princeton University Press, 1995), p.17

For the last sequence of the film see this older post on the blog.
A comparison between Grémillon, Giacomelli and Rossellini.
More about Grémillon on Notebook.


  1. Thanks Ehsan,

    I just bought Criterion's Grémillon series. "Gueule d'amour" is not included there (LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ is though!), I'll watch them all soon. I'm to discover Grémillon!

    1. All three films included in the Criterion's boxed-set are great films, if nor masterpieces. I think a second box from 1930s period is highly needed.


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