Jean Grémillon’s L’Étrange Monsieur Victor (1938) tells the story of a Toulon shopkeeper living a double life. Grémillon started his career as a musician and came to Paris to study. He began performing in orchestras that accompanied silent movies only for the purpose of making money: “This initial contact with the cinema cultivated an interest in filmmaking, which in turn ultimately led him to a career in the cinema.” (1)
In the early 1920s, Grémillon began his new career directing documentaries, centred primarily on workers and issues of work. He made his first feature in 1927. His third, La Petite Lise (1930), was a commercial failure that caused French studios to turn their backs on him and forced the director to pursue his career in Spain and then Germany, which is where he made L’Étrange Monsieur Victor, a movie that examines the strange dual nature of men.
The film begins with scenes of the pretty but busy port of Toulon in southern France. A close-up of the morning paper tells the viewer that a burglary took place at a nearby chateau. Soon afterwards we meet Monsieur Victor (Raimu), a sweet elderly man who is quite agitated about the arrival of his baby. Being well liked all over town, people congratulate him on his first-born. At home his mother and wife adore him. On his way to work we witness Monsieur Victor being nice to a neighbour’s child, inviting him into his store to choose a toy in celebration of his son’s day of birth. So, all in all, a loving father, husband and son.
It’s not long though until we see his other self: Victor secretly operates as a fence for local thieves. Even though he is exposed as a shady character, one still feels somewhat sympathetic for him. He scolds the gang of thieves for attacking a gardener and warns them that if they can’t rob a house without shedding blood, they shouldn’t be in the business. The movie keeps this ambivalence up until the very end; it provides a constant vacillation between a good-natured character and a rotten man. It does this not only via Raimu’s extraordinary performance that turns Monsieur Victor from an adorable and proud father into a dark and coldblooded murder, reinforcing the ongoing play of good and evil, but also through the mise en scène of the port town. The town’s constantly changing climate and narrow, shadow-laden dark alleyways allow for unseen menace after nightfall and evoke a sense of Monsieur Victor’s darker persona.
Despite all the darkness that comes to light, one can’t help but feel compassion for the protagonist; after all he murdered a villain who threatened his family. Monsieur Victor did what he thought he had to, in order to protect the lives of his loved ones. Raimu excels at showing us the two faces of Victor. He truly masters the balancing act between the rather confused but very caring family man and the cruel slayer.
Watching Grémillon’s 1938 movie in today’s context of lovable anti-heroes, one can’t help but see Monsieur Victor as belonging to that same group. The director forces an image of this affable character onto us, by portraying him through the eyes of those around him – his family sees him as a good and generous man who wants nothing more in life than to take care of them. He himself shows remorse for what he did, telling his wife he feels all tender-hearted and happy, although knowing he has no right to those emotions. Grémillon doesn’t allow the good Monsieur Victor to prevail for long though, as soon as one feels compassionate towards the nice shopkeeper, his façade starts to crumble.
Raimu once again shines at subtly conveying the conflicting emotions that overtake the protagonist in the film’s dramatic moments, showing us a now moody and angry Victor who is on the verge of losing the love of his wife and the respect of his customers. The movie gives us an indirect sign that things are about to change for Monsieur Victor: once the rain sets in, Victor’s downfall starts.
Grémillon’s movie, although sometimes referred to as a proto film noir, strikes one more as a prime example of poetic realism, if not for its highly stylised and studio-bound production, or Victor’s persona living on the margins of society, then for the subtle message we receive:
We must come to an agreement on the meaning of the word realism. I propose that in general it is the discovery of that subtlety which the human eye does not perceive directly but which must be shown by establishing the harmonies, the unknown relations, between objects and beings; it is a vivifying inexhaustible source of images that strike our imaginations and enchant our hearts. (2)
This is precisely what the director accomplished with this movie. It is the respect Victor’s wife and Bastien, the man falsely accused for the murder Victor himself committed, accord him that causes one to doubt the protagonist’s dark side and hope he does what he does for redemption, not self-gain. The director eschews the clear distinctions between hero and villain until the end of the movie, and paired with Raimu’s multi-faceted portrayal, it is hard to establish whether Monsieur Victor truly is nothing but a cold-hearted and strange man.
L’Étrange Monsieur Victor (1938 France/Germany 113 mins)
Prod Co: L’Alliance Cinématographique Européenne/Universum Film Prod: Raoul Ploquin Dir: Jean Grémillon Scr: Phot: Werner Krien Art Dir: Otto Hunte, Willy Schiller Mus: Roland Manuel
Cast: Raimu, Pierre Blachar, Madeleine Renaud, Marcelle Géniat. Andrex, Georges Flamant