‘Lumière d’été’ – social decadence in the summer light on Criterion Channel

Jean Grémillon went from the stormy seas of Remorques to a mountain resort for his follow-up Lumière d’été (France, 1943), a romantic drama complicated by the conflicting desires of five people in an isolated town that feels disconnected from the rest of the world.

The Guardian Angel is a luxury hotel so deep in the mountains that the bus doesn’t even stop near it. The hotel manager Cri-Cri (Madeleine Renaud) gave up her career to follow her aristocratic lover Patrice (Paul Bernard), a man with nearby castle and wandering eyes. The employees are taken by surprise with the arrival of the lovely Michèle (Madeleine Robinson) who upsets the complacency of the sleepy town. She’s given up everything for self-involved artist lover Roland (Pierre Brasseur), a man who only loves himself and his drink. While she pursues the indolent Roland, Patrice and the young engineer Julien (Georges Marchal) woo Michèle, stirring the jealous of Cri-Cri.

It’s melodrama by way of social satire, scripted by the great Jacques Prévert (who also wrote Children of Paradise), with a magnificent setting. The decadence of the petty rich in a luxury hotel and an amoral aristocrat’s castle is set against the working class pragmatism of construction crews blasting away in the hills. The explosions echo through the film like romantic land mines (a reminder of the war raging in 1943 Europe?), creating a rarified, unreal existence that could only happen in the movies.

Lumière d’été (which translates to “Summer Light”) is an often dynamic film, visually striking and dramatic, and Grémillon accentuates the contrasts, as with a magnificent long take through the busy cavern (complete with freight car rumbling through) that dissolves from the industry of working men to the frivolity of a costume ball in Patrice’s castle, where the romantic tangles are pulled tight. In one sequence, he carries us into a flashback by audio cues alone while keeping the camera in the present, surveying the mementoes of a past romance.

A portrait of upper-class corruption poisoning the country and the heroic efforts of the working folk to save it, Lumière d’été was made during the German occupation of France and was banned almost immediately for its satire of the corrupt ruling class. It was resurrected only after liberation and restored in 2011.

In French with English subtitles, black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Jean Gremillon During the Occupation (Remorques, Lumiere d’ete, Le ciel est a vous) (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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