Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 27, 2023 7:46 pm 
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A gem from a little known French director of the thirties

Coming to Metrograph in a 4K restoration from Grasshopper Fimls Friday, August 4, 2023, this is a hidden masterpiece, a work of noiresque genre with elements of local charm and deep psychological portraiture by the relatively lesser known master of French black and white film Jean Grémillon, whose failure to sustain a career to later decades caused him to be much less remembered than Renoir, Pagnol, or Carnet. "M. Victor," Victor Agardanne, is a big, complicated, histrionic figure, a double nature, a portrait of psychological depth. To embody him the filmmaker found one of the great actors of the time, Raimu - a literal giant, big and full of gestures. But even if you don't appreciate the cynical, dark picture Grémillon paints in the film, or find as I do the ending a little underwhelming and rushed, it is a feast for the eye, its rich monochrome panorama like a succession of paintings. "Each shot is skillfully composed," writes François Bonini in his CinéDweller essay, "and each sequence fits perfectly into the overall economy of the film, without ostentation or gratuitous virtuosity." Not surprisingly he concludes, "A little marvel, a jewel for the cinephile."

Raimu made a name for himself with Pagnol's 1929 stage production of Marius, and secured it on celluloid in the same writer's Marseille Trilogy and a number of popular comedies. M. Victor is a great and worthy role for Raimu, providing rich scope for his skill at droll bourgeois comedy, his charm, and his darker side, an explosive moodiness, and beyond: nerves, and guilt prompted by the double life he leads. And always the southern setting is present, for Grémlllon's forte is to blend provincial portraits with studies of psychological complexity.

The setting is the warm southern coastal French town of Toulon: everyone speaks French with the accents of the south. Daytimes it is bright, at night the narrow streets are streaked with shadows. We meet M. Victor on a morning when his wife give's birth to a child, a boy. A great day. But also a sinister and heavily loaded one . On the surface he is a respectable shopkeeper, evidently a successful one. But he also receives stolen goods. The headlines of the paper are full of the invasion of a chateau, a robbery. The robbers immediately meet with M. Victor, who's also a fence. They bargain over the silverware and other objects of beauty they have brought from the chateau.

And more: M. Victor by evening is assailed by one of the thieves who threatens to expose his secrets if he doesn't give him a bigger cut of the spoils, and he kills the potential blackmailer, stabbing him with a shoemaker's awl. As a result of this murder weapon Bastien Robineau (Pierre Blanchar), a local shoemaker, is tried and sentenced to twenty years of forced labor. We visit Bastien seven years later, eating the Guiana prison's unsavory soup and telling fellow inmates of his desire to escape. New headline: The shoemaker condemned for murder has escaped from prison, and is reported to be back in the area. His wife has divorced him and married another man. That doesn't interest him, but he deeply longs to see his son, Maurice. So passes the first hour.

Now, surprisingly a relationship grows up between M.Victor and Bastien. It already exists because Mr. Victor has been supporting Bastien's wife and paying for his son's education. Now he helps Bastien hide in his own home, as he must because he's an escaped prisoner. Then, with Bastien hidden in M. Victor's house, the plot thickens. . .

The crowded ending is a disappointment but one remembers with great pleasure the lights and darks, the vistas and closed places of the first half, the wonderful images and the seamless leaps through time.

The Strange Mister Victor/L'étrange Monsieur Victor, 104 mins., debuted in France May 4, 1938, opening in the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Denmark and Japan in 1939. US version opened in Dec. 2001. 4K restoration released by Grasshopper opens at the Metrograph in New York in a "Jean Grémillon x2" series from Aug. 4, 2023.



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