May 31, 2019
Remorques (Stormy Waters) – France, 1941
By the time of the release of Jean Gremillon’s Remorques, France had been under German occupation for about a year. When a film is made under such conditions, there can be a tendency to look at it and search for hidden messages or for characters that seem like stand-ins for real and much more controversial figures. However, to do this with Remorques would be a mistake. At the very least, it would be to see the film for what it isn’t rather than what it is, and what it is not is a social yarn in which an villainous force is wrecking havoc upon a powerless or manipulated public. In fact, it is difficult to say for sure what kind of film Remorques actually is. It begins with scenes that resemble those more commonly attributed to an action film, pivots toward one about a man in search of justice, and then veers into classic melodrama. In other words, there’s ample opportunity for the film to veer off course, and the fact that it doesn’t, I suspect, has a lot to do with the storytelling ability of its director, as well as the star power of its lead actor, Jean Gabin.
The film takes place in a seaside part of France, where Captain Andre Laurent (Gabin) commands a rescue ship known as the Cyclone. It’s the kind of job that demands that he always be on call, even on the day of a crew member’s wedding. From there, we get an action packed scene, filled with shots of sweaty shipmates working feverishly in steam filled compartments, as the sea rages all around them. It is as if Neptune himself were standing there willing the full force of the ocean onto the hopelessly overmatched vessel. And yet, it indeed survives, making its way to a damaged ship whose captain is surprisingly less than grateful to see them.
Before I go on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of the wedding scene that opens the film and whose participants the film frequently cuts back to. Often, in films whose leads characters do dangerous jobs – be they fly fishermen, soldiers, or police officers – wives are portrayed as being the rocks that hold their husbands up, their support and courage utterly unwavering. Remorques begins this way, yet very quickly, we begin to see another side of the sailors’ wives. These are traumatized women, emotionally spent after so many nights spent waiting for their husbands to return alive, and while they may want to play the role that society expects of them, there comes a time when they simply can’t anymore, at least not in the same way as they used to.
Also, during that opening scene, a crew member offers a toast that includes the observation that a seaman has two loves. This is spoken of as if it were an everyday truth, yet throughout the film it is this dual loyalty that is at the heart of so much of the drama that transpires, pitting crew against family and blinding men to the depths of the emotions underlying their wives’ words. In a way, the film is less about rescues or ungrateful captains who need to be rescued than it is about what happens when what two people need in order to carry on are no longer identical.
The film’s primary drama comes after the Cyclone is dispatched to rescue a ship captioned by a man who makes the rescuers waits simply because the help didn’t arrive quick enough. On board the stranded ship are a crew of nearly mutinous sailors – and for good reason – and the captain’s bitter wife, Catherine (Michele Morgan), who can’t wait for an opportunity to get as far away from her selfish husband as she can. The extent of her loathing of him can be seen in her willingness to get into a raft in the middle of a ferocious storm and take her chances at survival. Catherine eventually plays a big role in the film.
Around the same time, Andre’s wife, Yvonne (Madeline Renaud), finally makes her unhappiness known and in a pivital scene, pleads with her husband to give up his life on the sea. Left unsaid is the physical toll his job is taking on her, and the film is intentionally ambivalent about the source of her health problems. Yvonne’s scenes with Andre are the kind that stay with you long after the film ends, for they are an array of conflicted feelings and steadfast expressions of loyalty, sometimes to more than one thing. There’s a sense that this is the last hurrah for the two of them, the last chance to rekindle the sparks of love that have begun to flicker and to steady the mind that has steadily begun to wander. And all the while, the sea, that inconsistent entity that has no qualms about disrupting critical moments or postponing vital exchanges, is out there, its winds picking up, its mythical sirens sounding their resolve-bending voices.
Remorques is a fascinating film, with moving characters in relatable situations. It is anchored by great performances and helmed by a director who trusts his actors to make their own memorable moments. His direction is minimal during critical conversations, yet he captures side glances, eye movements, and subtle gestures that tell more than any long-winded speech could. Later, in the film, Gremillon focuses on a character whose has just realized that she has lost in the game of love, and instead of beginning one of those standard tear-filled expressions of remorse, she simply summons the strength to ask for her bags to be packed. Nothing else needs to be said, and what follows is a one of those perfect cinematic partings, one in which the character speaks of what she’ll never have again in a such a way that we all understand the depths of her sacrifice. It really is a quite a moment. In truth, Remorques is a film filled with so many of them. Sure, the film has a predictle third act, but up until that point, it is absolutely spellbinding, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to discover it. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Series 34: Jean Gremillon During the Occupation)
3 and a half stars