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Lady Killer: 1937 Classic Starts Grémillon Retrospective at BFI Southbank

| Cinema, Culture | 09/07/2013

BFI Stills Collection
Balin and Gabin as lovers Madeleine and Lucien. Source: BFI Stills Collection

BFI Southbank begins a celebration of French director, Jean Grémillon, with a screening of arguably his most famous film, Lady Killer (1937). As part of a month long retrospective that will give audiences the opportunity to see over ten different works by the director, Lady Killer proves to be an accomplished start to the festival.

Set in provincial Orange in the South of France, the film stars Jean Gabin as Lucien Bourrache, a returning member of the French cavalry regiment who is adored by all women and jealously looked upon by all men. Somewhat of a local celebrity – he is known simply as the Lady Killer – much of his life involves fielding countless approaches by women and idly chatting to his loyal but constantly overlooked best friend, René (René Lefèvre). Things change however, when Lucien happens upon sultry Parisian Madeleine (Mirelle Balin) whilst in Cannes. Infatuated with both her beauty and cold disposition, Lucien leaves Orange for Paris, hoping to win her affection.

Tracing Lucien and Madeleine’s affair, the film relies on a simple and fairly predictable plot. This by no means is a criticism though. The central pairing enjoys an easy chemistry and the lean script offers genuine moments of wit and drama without ever being overbearing. Gabin excels in a broad role which takes in every emotion from raging lust to sombre regret. Balin too, possesses the requisite ambiguity of a femme fatale to at once enamour the audience and keep them guessing as to her true intentions.

Their relationship unfolds as a rather one-sided power struggle with money central to this dynamic.  Whilst Grémillon’s social commentary could be developed further – arguably at the expense of an economic and well-balanced story – the film deserves considerable praise for refusing to provide an easy answer to whether Madeleine truly loves Lucien or simply loves the idea of possessing him.

Grémillon also deserves credit for a deft touch behind the camera. He takes advantage of the windswept open spaces of Southern France and places his characters within a vivid, bustling and at times, beautiful dustbowl. Whilst the Parisian scenes are stagey in comparison – they were actually filmed in a studio in Berlin – the director’s eye for nature and provincial quirks grounds the story in an unexpected but extremely memorable setting.

Atmosphere is provided by character rather than dramatic framing of scenes. The animosity of Madeleine’s mother towards Lucien and at times, her daughter serves as a stark contrast to the chumminess of the working class figures. Indeed, it is only at the denouement of the film that noir lighting comes into play – a move made all the more effective because of its striking quality.

There are of course some issues with the film. Whilst the peripheral characters are used as comic foils to great effect, René is rooted in a similar treatment despite being elevated within the plot. As a result, Lucien’s sidekick comes across as overly naive and cheery, veering dangerously towards pantomime chump territory. The climax also requires one to overlook certain plot details but modern audiences used to just about any Christopher Nolan film will find such anomalies easy to swallow.

The original French title of Lady Killer, “Gueule d’amour”, can be loosely translated as “Rugged face of love”, an appropriate summary of the film’s qualities. Underpinned by an excellent script and equally as brilliant central performances, Lady Killer questions a familiar romantic trajectory without resorting to contrived, easy answers.

Symphonies of Life: The Films of Jean Grémillon runs at BFI Southbank until the end of July.

Lady Killer will be shown again on July 12.

For more details go to the BFI Southbank website or the South Bank London website.

By Tom Fernandes

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