October 26, 2019
Le Ciel Est A Vous – France, 1944
I’m not a huge fan of montages. They’ve always seemed to me to be a cheap narrative technique used whenever a writer knows he has to get his characters from point A to point B but isn’t really up to the task. Thus, he simply advances time through a series of brief scenes which, taken together, are meant to convey maturity or advanced skills. The problem with them is that they “tell” instead of “show.” They’re the equivalent of a character looking at the audience and running off a laundry list of events that, taken together, give the impression of growth. (Then I passed the test, after that, I graduated, soon I became a success, and now we can get back to our main story.) Why not just let a character reveal all that’s changed in a conversation? Have said all that, Jean Gremillon’s well acted, but uneven Le Ciel Est A Vous is in desperate need of a montage. Or two or three for that matter.
This is a matter of perspective, though, and that necessity may depend on when one saw the film. I’m sure that audiences in 1944 needed far less introduction to the tale of Pierre (Charles Vanel) and Teresa Gauthier (Madeline Renaud), which is said to be based on a true story; thus, what seem like gaps in the narrative to me likely posed no problem for audiences upon the film’s initial release. After all, 1937, the year in which the events the film is based on are said to have taken place, was not that far away; audiences could be trusted to fill in any left out details on their own. And while it is possible that audience in present-day France may be familiar enough with the story present in the film, I suspect that today’s moviegoers will not be so lucky; therefore, when a woman whose never been in a airplane before in her life suddenly decides to take a brash pilot up on his offer to take her on a death-defying joyride and then comes out telling her pilot husband that she’ll never tell him not to fly again, it’s quite a jolt that in the very next scene, she’s an experienced pilot with an interest in flying that borders on an addiction. So, yes, a montage would have been appreciated. It’s the least Gremillon could have done, and the lack of one – or any other form of explanation – hurts the film.
Le Ciel Est a Vous is primarily the story of a young woman who finds her calling in the cockpit and sets out to make a name for herself. Her journey begins as a wife and mother of two children, a role that she is not entirely unhappy in. It’s just that she seems to want more. Perhaps that is why she jumps at the chance to run a company in spite of the fact that doing so takes her away from her family for weeks at a time. Sure, the family needs the money, but we can tell that it’s more than that even if she can’t at first.
The film essentially has two parts. First, there’s the set-up. We watch as the family embarks on a new life after the government informs them that the land their home is on is needed for an aerial station. Some might grumble in such a situation, but the Gauthiers take it in stride. As a former World War I pilot, Pierre seems quite happy to make the sacrifice. We then see their early struggles to establish themselves in a new area and the success they find after a wealthy client stumbles their way and gives them a big neon sign as a token of his appreciation. Soon their finances are stable, yet there are lingering insecurities, and soon Teresa accepts the job mentioned earlier.
I liked this part of the film, as I generally like movies about ordinary people and everyday situations. They are easy to relate to. In the second half, Teresa falls in love with flying, and we have a different film. Gone is the talk of sacrificing for family, in its place an obsession with taking to the air. This part of the film focuses less on the family, so much so that their children practically disappear from the film. On the other hand, this part also asks the audience some rather complex questions about what parents priority should be. For example, is it acceptable for them to pursue their own passions at the expense of their children’s security? After all, one accident could leave them without one or both parents. At one point, Pierre openly ponders what the truer expression of love is: protecting what you have or allowing someone to chase a dream even if it could end in tragedy.
Gremillon’s film has its fair share of memorable moments. Principal among them are Pierre’s passionate narration of the maneuvers performed during an aerial demonstration; Teresa’s emotional homecoming after being separated from the family for a while; Pierre’s reassuring rationalization for missing a chance at greatness; and his pained defense of his and his and his wife’s actions during a moment of great uncertainty and sorrow. There’s also a challenging scene in which Pierre explains to his daughter that they have to sell her cherished piano. In doing so, he is selling her dream to ensure that Teresa can fulfill hers. When the criticism comes toward the end of the film, I could see both sides.
That said, I must confess to being less interested in the film as it went along. There are too many jumps in time and circumstance to remain completely engaged, and since the film focuses so little on the kids in the second half, their experiences are made to seem trivial. Sure, the film gets more challenging at the end, especially when it comes to Pierre and a key decision of his, but it proves to be a red herring. The film ends not in realism, but in the land of forced happy endings. This is a place in which characters act in a way that is the polar opposite of how rationale human beings would, especially given the emotional connection that the two lead characters are supposed to have. And so the film is a tale of two halves, of majestic steps forward followed by unfortunate retreats, of great leaps ahead and narrative choices that diminish what came before. It’s the kind of film that infuriates because so much of it is praise-worthy. I really wanted to like it, yet the memory of the film’s frequent missteps is so strong that I find myself split. I suppose, then, there’s only one course of action - 2 and a half stars. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Jean Gremillon During the Occupation box set)
2 and a half stars
*Le Ciel Est A Vous is in French with English subtitles.