Welcome to the world of Jean Grémillon, where adult characters work through adult problems without benefit of melodramatic excess. The impressively directed experiences of Micheline Presle’s lady doctor on a storm-swept island opts for a progressive point of view, not sentimentality.
The Love of a Woman
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video USA
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min. / Street Date August 22, 2017 / L’amour d’une femme / Available from Arrow Video 39.95
Starring: Micheline Presle, Massimo Girotti, Gaby Morlay, Paolo Stoppa, Marc Cassot, Marius David, Yvette Etiévant, Roland Lesaffre, Robert Naly, Madeleine Geoffroy.
Cinematography: Louis Page
Film Editor: Louisette Hautecoeur, Marguerite Renoir
Production Design: Robert Clavel
Original Music: Elsa Barraine, Henrie Dutilleux
Written by René Fallet, Jean Grémillon, René Wheeler
Produced by Mario Gabrielli, Pierre Géin
Directed by Jean Grémillon
Film critics that pride themselves on rediscovering older directors haven’t done very well by France’s Jean Grémillon, at least not in this country. Until Eclipse’s DVD set Jean Gremillón During the Occupation, I don’t think I had access to any of his films. [That reminds me, I hope we haven’t seen the last of Eclipse disc sets. . . ] The New Wave critic-directors did their best to demolish the established French directors of their time, and may have ignored Grémillon on the principle that he made his last feature in 1953. Unlike active directors, he wasn’t in their way.
Jean Grémillon’s final feature The Love of a Woman (L’amour d’une femme) is definitely worthwhile. It’s a romantic drama that might remind some of a Douglas Sirk movie, without the overt women’s magazine social subversion. It’s very much in the rural romance tradition of say, Philip Leacock’s High Tide at Noon, where a woman returns to amorous complications in her remote Nova Scotia island hometown. Gremillón’s generically titled The Love of a Woman uses the dramatic conventions of the ’40s, but takes an unsentimental approach that was way ahead of its time. If it’s true that the show wasn’t successful, it’s easy to see why — it’s too truthful about human relationships.
The story takes place way out at the West End of the English Channel on the channel island of Ushant (Ile d’Ouessant), which is not shared with England but fully French. Fresh from her internship, young Dr. Marie Prieur (Micheline Presle) arrives to become the island’s new doctor, as the old Dr. Morel is eager to retire. It’s a rough, rural place where the people are suspicious of strangers, and the idea of a lady doctor is a hard sell. A funeral is in progress on the day Marie arrives; it involves a full traditional procession through the streets. Despite some initial hostility, Marie proves tough enough for the job. She helps a child pull through a bad fever, and doesn’t fold up when some foreign workmen give her a hard time. She keeps the peace with the local schoolteacher, a somewhat bitter woman who gave up her own chance for a husband and family to be independent. Marie also meets and has an affair with Andé Lorenzi, an Italian engineer working on a new shipping facility. Marie is summoned one stormy night to perform an operation on a lighthouse keeper; they have to ferry her to the lighthouse in high seas. She operates on a table, using simple instruments from her bag. She performs beautifully, and the islanders’ acceptance is such that the pub stays open most of the night to celebrate. But the second trial isn’t as easy. The previously undemanding André is as eager as she to marry, but he wants her to give up her profession, come back with him to Naples and be an ordinary housewife. The lonely schoolteacher is resentful of her life, but Marie feels fulfilled to be part of a community that accepts her and values her talent.
In its own quiet way The Love of a Woman is more progressive than more obvious ‘issue’ pictures. The daytime scenes in Ouessant could be from a documentary. This is not a quaint Utopia for tourists, like the Scottish island getaway in The Archers’ I Know Where I’m Going! Everybody has a job and is hard at work at it. There is one lone drunk, and he isn’t played for laughs — the locals watch out for him with firm refusals of drink. When Marie comes off the boat from the mainland she must carry her own bags. She must project authority and self-assurance at all times, even when some rowdy sailors play a prank on her.
The story refuses to develop its drama in expected ways. We expect a scandalous reaction to Marie and André’s nights spent together, but their long walks in the dark only generate some talk, and a sour face or two. Even the local priest (Paolo Stoppa) leaves her alone. Traditionally speaking, many conventional movies of this kind contrive to have the heroine succumb to some sentimental problem or another, from which a stand-up guy helps her extricate herself. In Marie’s case, she’s the most educated and self-possessed person around. Once her credentials as a competent doctor are accepted, she’s no longer treated as a rogue (read: unattached) female — the wolves stop harassing her and the wives no longer worry that she’ll take their men. But the romantic promise of André proves a letdown. When push comes to shove, he subscribes to all the conventions that Marie educated herself to avoid.
Night in Ouessant is a different place — some scenes appear taken on location but other night exteriors are beautifully designed studio interiors, reminiscent of the poetic realism movement of the 1930s. The light from the lighthouse swings around, over walls and into barns, as André and Marie keep to the shadows. These romantic settings make us wonder how Marie will choose – plenty of movies from the 1950s, both domestic and foreign, present ‘independent’ women that in the last reel choose the protection of a man.
The Love of a Woman remains a women’s problem picture and not a documentary. Marie is given a choice to make, and she is in an exceptional situation because she has the power to think of her own desires, not just those imposed by the patriarchal society. On one level The Love of a Woman reminds me of John Ford’s 7 Women, which for all its faults is still a strikingly powerful portrait of a female doctor frustrated by discrimination. I presume that one reason Marie has come to Ouessant, is that it’s the only place so in need of a doctor that they’ll accept a woman — here she can establish a practice of her own, not be somebody’s glorified nurse. That’s the point that separates the film from decades’ worth of Hollywood garbage, where even when professional women prove their mettle, they throw away their calling as soon as some guy proposes.
Grémillon’s movie is no thesis of liberation. It displays all the trappings of the genre, including a raging sea storm to remind the heroine that, you know, nature is more powerful than anything, and that a good man refused is an opportunity unlikely to come back (especially with a proud Neopolitan). A modern viewer might ask what the problem is — Marie has the potential to attract any number of men; if she almost found one so quickly, perhaps a better opportunity will arrive in due time.
The show is beautifully directed, with sense of place and time and local culture. It begins and ends with funerals that stress the structured society on Ouessant. I can see how The Love of a Woman might be rejected by audiences wanting a more upbeat story; I should think that a less forgettable title might have helped a little. Jean Gremillón’s direction has an ease and grace that soon have us forgetting about what camera angles he’s using, etc. When the storm sequence comes, with its effects and rear-projection, we’re reminded of the director’s sea-related wartime movies. The theme of women’s independence seems an extension of Grémillon’s Le ciel est à vous, about a French aviatrix. In sticking to its naturalistic aims, the show doesn’t go in for overblown dramatics, miracles or ‘transformative’ revelations, all things that are expected in escapist women’s fantasies of the day.
It looks as if Grémillon’s producers were courting the Italian market, with the presence of handsome star Massimo Girotti. Paolo Stoppi’s role is not big at all, so maybe he was part of a package deal. The show belongs firmly to Micheline Presle, who I’ve followed as best I could ever since John Kirk at MGM told me that she was his favorite actress. I’d seen Presle’s few Hollywood pictures (Under My Skin, America Guerilla in the Philippines). I’ve always wanted to see her in William Dieterle’s 2-part Herrin der Welt (1960), a round-the-world science fiction spy chase that seems a forerunner of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World.
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of The Love of a Woman is a classy release of a French film we didn’t expect to see, not even from Criterion — as good as it is, there isn’t sizeable Jean Grémillon cult awaiting his full filmography. The image is as clean as could be, in an HD transfer supervised by Gaumont.
Especially important is a long-form docu on Grémillon, from French television in 1969. Ms. Presle is interviewed along with a long list of greats, including Pierre Brasseur, René Clair, Pierre Kast, Charles Vanel and the Cinematheque archivist Henri Langlois. It’s not like there are inexhaustible references for Gremillón in English, so this disc is an important document in itself.
An illustrated insert pamphlet carries a good essay by Ginette Vincendeau. She asks outright if Dr. Marie Prieur is a proto- feminist, and lauds the ways in which the director adds complexity to the question.
A reversible insert gives us disc art either new, or the original poster (pictured).
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Love of a Woman Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: In Search of Jean Grémillon, a feature-length documentary on the filmmaker from 1969, containing interviews with director René Clair, archivist Henri Langlois, actors Micheline Presle and Pierre Brasseur; On the first pressing only is an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Ginette Vincendeau.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (extras as well)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson