The legendary collaboration with radical poet and supremely gifted scenarist Jacques Prévert, who was associated with the broad Leftist Popular Front coalition in the decade leading up to the abject betrayal of the Vichy-led government, places director Marcel Carné at the centre of so-called poetic realism. Film historian John L. Fell’s definition of the term raises more questions than it answers: “poetic because the mood is reinforced by characters with symbolic resonance, realism because the mode is working class 19th century naturalism” (1). Conventional film history and criticism condition us to believe that Carné/Prévert were co-dependent to the point of being artistically inseparable, the yin and yang that balance the romantic fatalism and seedy realistic details of the films they made together in a flawless contropposto.
This is a feat all the more remarkable for being achieved in the period 1935-1945, years of unprecedented turmoil in European history. In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, editor Richard Roud contributed with an entry with a telling but not quite fair title: “Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert”. Roud writes: “In some ways Carné was more of a producer than a director, for he had a genius for assembling talent” (2). But this is true of all truly great filmmakers with long and consistent careers, at least those working in a narrative mode; what we, with a reference to the silent avant-garde might call impure cinema, wherein actors, characters, story and dramatic action are essential.
Making a slightly venomous, backhanded compliment to Carné, Roud goes on to claim that Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938) is “delightful but unimportant” (3). As if delight is ever unimportant! If anything, it is fair to say that the neatly symmetrical plot (where the fateful resolution is played against the festivities of Bastille Day) has counted heavier in the film’s disfavour among filmmakers and critics who have preferred an airier and looser plot-structure as a criterion for film realism, than Carné’s expert direction.
Hôtel du Nord has thus been left in something of a critical lurch, not only because Prévert was not directly involved in the screenplay, but also because the film was sandwiched between the two Carné/Prévert masterpieces that are paragons of the type and only a short step away from American film noir: Le Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939).
Because Prévert was unavailable, Carné turned instead to Jean Eurenche (with whom he had done commercials in the past) and Henri Jeanson for an adaptation of Eugene Dabit’s 1928 novel of the same name. Eurenche and Jeanson wrote story and dialogue respectively, and the talented pair managed an uncanny balance between heightened emotionalism and a pessimism aided no end by the wistful dialogue that compliments the film’s grim social content and largely studio-bound naturalistic veneer. Neither dialogue nor delivery is merely expository. Hôtel du Nord strikes out of this path along with the very different American screwball comedies; poetic realism was the first kind of film to fully exploit dialogue as an end in itself.
American gangster films earlier in the 1930s, though motivated by similarly “realistic” impulses in terms of focusing on social problems, were more concerned with the sound of screeching tyres, gunfire and the ritualistic flipping of coins. Even in the Hollywood dream factory studio heads sensed there was an audience for what Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer termed “the raw meat of reality” (4). It is important to stress the continuity between American gangster films and poetic realism, simply because the link is downplayed nowadays. But no American gangster suffered the existential-self doubt of his French counterparts until Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle in the proto-noir High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941).
Hôtel du Nord’s symmetrical, indeed almost circular plot and doubling up of interactions with a double set of male and female leads, slots neatly together in a way that resembles the crisscrossing patterns of behaviour found in the glossily upper-class, but in every way inferior, MGM all-star hit Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932). The last sequence of Hôtel du Nord even has an elegant tracking shot pregnant with meaning that would have made a superlative stylist like Max Ophuls (who always married camera movement with profound mise en scène) proud.
Central to the highly emotional story of drift and loneliness the film features two couples beset by existential problems. As the mode requires, they are presented in situ in a less than hospitable low-rent Paris setting – the hotel of the title being the hub of their habitat at the edge of Canal Saint-Martin. Set designer Alexandre Trauner evocatively created an entire city block. Not since Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith, 1919; the strongest precursor to poetic realism from the silent era, much more so than any French film of the period) had set design been so instrumental in successfully integrating rather hapless, yet intensely self-aware, characters into a completely believable and objectively concrete social environment, all the more beguiling for being heavily tinged by cinematic artifice, romantic decay and disillusionment.
Less than a decade later, Trauner would surpass himself (again working with Carné) with the much more fantastical, epic-sized whimsy of Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). By that time the dark pessimism of the 1930s films had given way to a much more subjective melancholy and a much less gloomy view of interpersonal relationships and of the world.
In Hôtel du Nord we meet two young lovers who are vaguely unhappy. Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renèe (Annabella). They set the plot in motion with a botched attempt at double suicide while a teenage girl’s First Communion goes on downstairs. This obviously calls to mind the rituals of Catholicism and its elaborate liturgy steeped in blood, flesh, and memento mori, but even more forcefully the sombre aspects of modern French intellectual life, from Durkheim’s key sociological texts on suicide and religion to Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. (Sartre published his first novel, La Nausèe, in the same year Hôtel du Nord debuted in cinemas.)
Pierre shoots his girlfriend but flees the scene when overcome with self-doubt and panic, and is discovered by Edmond (Louis Jouvet), a pimp staying in a neighbouring room with his mistress, the prostitute Raymonde (Arletty). Edmond lets Pierre escape to wander the streets and ponder his existence. Meanwhile Renèe has survived, waking up in hospital after an operation and a blood transfusion. From here on complications, pathological longings and romantic entanglements ensue, while the expertly crafted plot is, quite wisely, subordinated to character and an overall mood of romantic fatalism that is both reinforced and counterpointed by Maurice Jaubert’s jazz-flavoured score. The dingy, beautifully decaying and slightly suffocating atmosphere becomes a source of startlingly self-reflexive humour in the film’s funniest scene, involving some comic relief that belongs to a wonderful scenery-chewing Arletty.
Edmond and Raymonde belong squarely in the gallery of archetypal social undesirables we have learned to love more at the movies and in art than in real life. They dominate the film somewhat at the expense of the nominal leads: Raymonde is as pragmatic and disdainful as Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Edmond is a closet romantic beneath a tough-guy exterior, living under assumed names and running away from the very real possibility of violent reprisals from former associates.
The end result is a kind of French melodrama in which the abiding tone is resigned futility, albeit with an irresistible glow of poetry in sound and image that leaves one exhilarated rather than drained. The ending is one of cautious optimism for our suicidal lovers, while the past finally catches up with Edmond. That neither we nor the protagonists themselves quite dare believe in Pierre and Renèe’s prospective happiness merely adds to the film’s resonance and makes it linger in the mind of the viewer.
Alan Casty has rightly noted that “the subdued artifice and toned transparency”, with an emphasis on mise en scène over editing, are defining aspects of poetic realism (5). Rich in surface detail and melodramatic incident, poetic realism, of which Hôtel du Nord is such an underrated but shining example, has been very influential. Its nachleben was essential for filmmakers like Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville, who only partly transposed masculine American genres in the postwar era, as they indeed did have a local Gallic tradition to draw on as well. Actual revivals of poetic realism, however, have hardly been attempted since Cinèma du look director Jean-Jacques Beneix’s dazzling, deliberately postmodern homage and circumspect fictional film historical essay, Le Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter, 1983), proved a commercial flop and was met with undeserved critical scorn.
Hôtel du Nord is the most lavishly expensive period example of a very French type of film. That director Carné served his apprenticeship with Jacques Feyder and Renè Clair, after a stint as a critic, confirms his deep roots as well as his prominence in French national cinema. These early influences may be just as important as his later literary collaborators in explaining why his best films are very self-contained.
More satirically-oriented delights from the 1930s that deal not in resignation but social revolt, like Boudu sauvè des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, Jean Renoir, 1932) and Zèro de conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933), do seem more modern in their openness and much looser in style, but lack, in the words of Swedish film historian Rune Waldekranz, the “attractive 1930s patina” that Carné’s films have by now acquired (6).
Postwar film realism in France and elsewhere drew on Italian neo-realism and tended more towards lyrical location shooting with less deterministic narratives, often in the shape of a sensitive if problematic coming-of-age story like Les Quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959) or L’enfance nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968). Herein lies a vital difference: in the most important Norwegian reference book for film and theatre it is duly noted that Carné’s reliance on the studio contempt for location shooting soon belonged to the past (7). It is in keeping with the melancholy nature of his films to note that Carné was only 36 years old when the World War II ended. Yet, for all their sceptical, largely unsentimental empathy towards human behaviour, these newer postwar films that nail “realism” to their ideological and aesthetic mast lack the countervailing forces of seedy realism and sublimely heightened poetry, injected into theatrical melodrama, that make a film like Hôtel du Nord grow in stature as the years pass. A critical reappraisal is as long overdue as a new and sympathetic audience is deserved.
- John L. Fell, A History of Films, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1979, p. 269.
- Richard Roud, “Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert”, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol. I: Aldrich to King, ed. Roud, The Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 191.
- Roud, p.191.
- Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, The Movies: The Sixty Year-Story of the World of Hollywood. From Pre-Nickelodeon Days to the Present, Spring Books, London, 1957, p. 268.
- Alan Casty, Development of the Film: An Interpretive History, Harcourt Brace Jovanovic, New York, 1973, p. 125.
- Rune Waldekranz, Filmens historia de första hundra åren: Från zoopraxiscope till video. Del 2. Gullalder 1920-1940, Norstedts, Stockholm, 1986, p. 760.
- Knut Ove Arntzen, Trond Olav Svendsen and Morten Moi (eds.), Kunnskapsforlagets Teater og Filmleksikon, Kunnskapsforlaget, Oslo, 1991, p. 92.
Hôtel du Nord (1938 France 83 mins)
Prod Co: SEDIF/Impérial Film Prod: Jacques Lucachevitch Dir: Marcel Carné Scr: Jean Aurenche, Henri Jeanson, based on Eugène Daubit’s novel Phot: Armand Thirard Ed: Marthe Gottie, René Le Hénaff [uncredited] Prod Des: Alexandre Trauner Mus: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: Annabella, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Arletty, Louis Jouvet, Paulette Dubost, Bernard Blier, Jane Marken, Andrex