‘Remorques’ – Jean Gabin on stormy seas on Criterion Channel

Jean Gabin stars in Remorques (France, 1941) as the captain of a tugboat crew that works for the bounty from saving imperiled ships from the stormy waters off his Brittany shipping town.

Gabin’s weary, stoic Captain Laurent, beloved by his loyal crew, is reminded of his mortality at the wedding of his shipmate and best friend, a wedding interrupted by a distress call that pulls them into choppy waters. He unexpectedly finds himself falling for the beautiful Catherine (Michéle Morgan), the hard-luck woman he saves from the storm. As he attempts to rescue her from a brutal relationship, Laurent’s wife of ten years (Madeleine Renaud) pressures him to retire while boss essentially blackmails him to stay on.

Directed by Jean Grémillon, Remorques recalls the poetic realist dramas of the 1930s that made Gabin’s career, in no small part thanks to a script by Jacques Prevert that turns on the hard lives and romantic torments of its characters. The export title was, in fact, “Stormy Waters,” which refers to the emotional turmoil as well as the physical danger for its heroes.

Some of the maritime scenes are quite impressive, others clearly miniatures in a tanks (but no less fun to watch), but the drama on land is even more engaging, filled with longing and guilt and remorse and redemption. The final few minutes are sublime: a spoken prayer for the sailor turns into a chant-like hymn paying tribute to those who risk their lives and the women who endure the wait.

While the film went into production before the German invasion, was suspended twice during the war, and was finished after the occupation, with the filmmaker working around the fact that its two leads had fled France for the United States. The fact that the disruption is barely noticeable in the final film is a testament to the talents of Grémillon.

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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