Saturday, June 02, 2012

Hôtel du Nord

1938, France, directed by Marcel Carné

I hadn't seen Hôtel du Nord for more than a decade and had completely forgotten the tale of youthful amour fou that initially sets the film's plot in motion -- a lapse of memory that I suspect affects many a viewer given that the young couple, played by Annabella and Jean-Pierre Aumont, is so straightforward in comparison to the parallel couple played by Louis Jouvet and Arletty.

Even though neither of the latter pair had yet cracked true stardom, the comparison between the actors seems entirely unfair in retrospect: no audience was very likely to identify with the melodramatic Annabella at the expense of Arletty, incarnating one of the true Parisian heroines, playing a ballsy street urchin of a kind also incarnated around the same time, on the music-hall stage, by Edith Piaf (both women had unapologetic professional personas that seemed, frequently, to mesh with their offscreen lives). Similarly, Jouvet takes such pleasure in the lines provided for him by Henri Jeanson that even a performer as solid as Aumont could only ever come off worse in the comparison; Jouvet's character is very much in the world-weary vein that he made something of a specialty as the decade wore on, but here he has the screen time and the script to flesh the character out in ways that are rather more satisfying than some of his earlier blink-and-miss-it appearances.

Though the film also gained fame -- even infamy -- for its extraordinarily elaborate sets, recreating the Canal Saint-Martin in extraordinary and entirely convincing detail on the studio backlot, the more straightforward interiors of the titular hotel also serve as backdrop to some of the most memorable sequences -- even an apparently simple scene in which Arletty takes her leave from the hotel, wrapping a fur around her neck, is meticulously constructed with actors placed strategically in depth away from the camera, while Carné finds a wonderful warmth in the various mealtimes, whether it's the convivial dinner enjoyed by the hotel residents or the bustle of a noonday meal for local workers, all of them competing for the attentions of Annabella, an unlikely if effective waitress.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States