nthposition online magazine

Made to disappear

by Douglas Messerli

[ filmreviews ]

Although Grémillon’s emotive soap-opera Remorques was begun in 1939 in pre-war France, by the time it was released the south, under Vichy control, was divided from the north and west of France - the site of this movie’s action, Brest - which was controlled by the German army. When audiences began attending this film in November 1941, the Atlantic sea, as critic Dave Kehr points out, was a military zone, with no operating civilian vessels, while in the movie, the focus is on the crew and operations of a tugboat, The Cyclone, which comes to the rescue of endangered vessels. The entire movie, moreover, was done in the style of French poetic realism common of the 1930s films such as Quai des Brumes (also starring Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan) and Le Jour se lève, which suddenly had little meaning for a war-torn culture. As the critic for my Time Out film guide, Bob Baker, notes: “Sometimes, as when Morgan contemplates the dead starfish which Gabin has given her, it [Remorques] feels precisely like the last European movie of the 1930s.”

Perhaps its fantasy-like quality was the very thing that allowed this film to be released without censorship and why it found its audience of the day. A moody film about storms and inexpressible, illicit love, Remorques might almost be said to symbolize the emotions of the period. The film begins with a wedding, where locals briefly speechify before the large hall is given over to dancing. One of Captain André Laurent’s (Gabin) sailors is being wed, and the whole town, so it seems, is in attendance. As the banquet is abandoned for the dancing floor surrounding it, Grémillon’s camera creates an deep perspective featuring a kind of inside-outside dichotomy, as servants begin clearing tables, while outside and surrounding the open-pillared wall the dancers spin, the camera following them. This stunning swirl of motion suddenly ends, after a long pan back through the hall, following a messenger as he enters to report an SOS: the freighter, the Mirva, is floundering offshore. Suddenly the whole festival world - a world surely of another time - is shattered, as the dancers cease, the bride is separated from the new groom, and Laurent’s wife, Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud) - who has already revealed that she stops “living” when her husband goes to sea - is terrified of again having to wait out the night alone.

Like soldiers off to war, the sailors gather, moving to their boat under the leadership of their highly decorated captain. From the deep alterations of black and white of the first scene, Grémillion’s film turns into a gritty study in dark black and fading lights as The Cyclone goes speeding off in search of the sinking vessel (scenes clearly shot with miniatures). On board that vessel are frightened sailors who refuse even to help toss a tow-line and a greedy captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), who hopes the boat will sink so that he claim the cost of the goods aboard. Only a few independent-minded sailors and Marc’s thoroughly disgusted wife, Catherine (Morgan) have the courage to embark on a small rescue boat in order the reach the saving tug.

They are rescued and a toe is attached to the Mirva, which mysteriously is cut; another toe is attached and it too, this time under the orders of the captain, is cut. Since the vessel is no longer in danger, the sailors and Marc’s wife (who has found temporary refuge in Laurent’s cabin), are returned to their vessel, Laurent and his crew unable to claim the payment due them for their salvage attempts.

Despite his numerous commendations, accordingly, Laurent is demeaned by his company’s representatives and he threatens, to his wife’s approval, to resign. Unbeknownst to him, Madame Laurent has been having heart flutters, which her doctor seems to ignore, and she is terrified, as she admits to the new bride, of “dying alone.”

Meanwhile, Catherine has left her husband, moving into a town hotel. A chance meeting with Laurent develops into a near obsession, and before long, while he checks out a possible new home by the sea, they wander together, he offering her the starfish mentioned above, and she proffering him her deep kisses. In contrast to the sea scenes, their seaside romance is played out in almost blindingly bright white, which can only remind us of the previous wedding and the comments of Laurent’s own ten-year bride at home, who at the wedding quipped: “What’s like a bride? Another bride.”

The sensuous and brooding Catherine, however, is anything but a bride. She, as she herself recognizes, is unlike Laurent’s wife - “Faithful women must exist” - another kind being. As she expresses it: “Girls like me were made to disappear.” Against the bright white of the set, she is dressed primarily in black. Of course, that very fact makes her beauty all the more blinding, as Laurent’s vision becomes blurred, his head literally whirling in the turn away from his fidelity.

Throughout most of the film, Laurent has been proud to have his friends and fellow-sailors know his whereabouts at all times, but in the last scenes, as he secretively embraces Catherine, it takes some time for his cohorts to discover his whereabouts, and their boat misses the opportunity to answer an SOS, their competitors on The Dutch having already set out for the rescue.

Soon after, he is sought out again; his wife has had a serious attack, and he hurries off to her, while Catherine, realizing it is time for her disappearance once again, begins to pack.

Laurent rushes back into the arms of his wife, she ecstatically embracing him before she dies. But even death is not strong enough to hold him when he is told that The Dutch itself is now floundering. He speeds away as Grémillon, who began his life as a composer, builds up a chorus of rising chords and prayers to every biblical figure from Daniel to Mary, both in a prayer for Laurent and his crew and a lamentation for Yvonne’s death.

By film’s end we sense the death not only his Laurent’s wife and all she has come to symbolize, but we observe the destined disappearance of Catherine and the romantic world she potentialized. Laurent is left only his battles and the bravery with which he encounters them. If there was ever a requiem to a lost world, Remorques < is it. The past and everything that it represents has been, so it seems, “made to disappear.”