Many critics acclaim Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game not merely as the greatest French film produced during the German Occupation, but also as one of the finest films ever made. Another French film made only four years later, however, bears a close thematic resemblance to its more famous predecessor, and has been hailed by some as a closely parallel and similarly veiled exploration of wartime France.
Yet it is not the political implications of the 1943 film Lumiere d’Été (which translates as Summer Light) which will be considered here. Rather, I wish to draw attention to the brilliance and subtlety with which the film’s director, Jean Gremillon, uses visual elements to delineate character and deepen the viewer’s understanding of the forces at work in the plot. Although a viewer may come to this film because of its political significance, he will most likely remain because of its artistic excellences.
Two worlds are juxtaposed within the film, both of them located within an isolated and mountainous region of France. The first world is one of mechanization and industry, represented by the construction of a dam in a valley whose surface is strewn with intricate mechanical structures, industrious workers, and dynamite-engineered explosions. Perched high on the mountain, however, is a hotel ambiguously named “The Guardian Angel,” where the opening scenes of the drama unfold, and where the second world–composed of wealth, art, and high passion–meets the first.
Those who have not seen the film should know that it begins with the arrival at this hotel of a young woman named Michele, who expects to be joined shortly by her recent conquest, the painter Roland. The inn’s owner is a slightly older woman, Christine, who appears to live only for the visits of Patrice, a rich and aristocratic gentleman who resides nearby, is slightly tired of her, and shares with her a guilty secret from the past. Roland’s arrival precipitates matters, since by then Patrice has become infatuated with Michele, much to Christine’s distress. Michele, meanwhile, has also aroused the interest of Julien, a young engineer who is working on the dam.
Even from this brief introduction one can sense the melodramatic nature of the plot and its resemblances to The Rules of the Game and Children of Paradise. Yet the film is lifted above mere soap opera by the manner in which Gremillon manages to deepen our understanding of the characters and anticipate their actions through purely cinematic means.
One of the most striking instances occurs near the start of the film, when we are introduced to the innkeeper Christine. She is first seen in her private sitting room at the back of the hotel, a room dominated by an enormous birdcage turreted and ornamented like a castle. She stands before it, one of the birds in her hand, stroking it in a fond but proprietorial manner. We can doubt neither her affection for the bird nor her control over it.
Although we see from Christine’s first conversation with Patrice the jealous and possessive nature of her love for him, the viewer’s understanding of the depths of her obsession is silently confirmed when we are shown his estate, a palatial villa that combines Roman and Medieval architecture with a strong resemblance to the avian palace in the mountainside inn.
Patrice’s own residence, however, also contains damning evidence of his character. While the terraces and gardens of his estate are pleasantly spacious, his recreation of choice is shooting at a miniature mechanical landscape of a medieval castle; when he hits the targets, the figures move while a stuffed rabbit beats a drum. Patrice’s interest in mechanics and his accuracy with a gun demonstrate his distance from any sense of the humanity of others, and his utter ruthlessness in obtaining what he desires.
A close-up of the toy rabbit later in the film emphasizes the combined childishness and perversity of both Patrice and Christine as they plan an illicit rendezvous. Through this simple maneuver, the director conveys the full horror of the arrangement with a marvelous example of how one can give a voice to a camera.
Additionally, the film’s strange mixture of new and old is achieved by its combination of modernity and symbolism. The inn’s glass-enclosed dining terrace is both visually effective and thematically appropriate, as Patrice, Michele, Christine (and as we later discover), Julien gaze through its bars or behind them at their various beloveds. While a glass room may be the height of sophisticated modern architecture, the room’s fanciful structure and adornments repeat those of the birdcage and the castle as though emphasizing not merely Christine’s obsession with Patrice, but also the imprisonment of each character in his own conflicted desires.
An upcoming post will continue to explore the presence and significance of the visual elements in “Lumiere d’Été.”