A Very Dark Light: Imagery and Meaning in Lumiere D’Ete, Part II

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Gremillon makes brilliant use of apparent anachronisms–such as this shot of a car next to costumed partygoers–as he explores the possibilities which the modern world still holds for a Classicist genre of drama.

In our previous look at the 1943 French film Lumiere D`Ete, we discussed how the film`s visuals reinforced and indeed elaborated on the themes and concerns explicitly set forth through dialogue and plot. Yet that examination by no means exhausted the topic, for Lumiere D`Ete boasts a depth and complexity which this reviewer would be delighted to find more frequently in film.

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Gremillon photographs the industrial constructions in the film with the same kind of wonder and admiration he elsewhere allocates to the fanciful (yet more traditional) mansions and castles.

Through the developing romance between Julien and Michele, the aristocratic and artistic world of Patrice, Christine, and Roland is tied to the industrial and science-driven world of Julien. It is worth noting that the film opens with a depiction of the man-made dangers which engineering imposes on nature; a sign reading “Danger” is followed by a warning trumpet call seconds before dynamite is set off and the earth seems to dissolve in a shower of rocks. Clearly, we are meant to draw a parallel between the constructive (in a manner of speaking) explosions which further the building of the dam and the passion-fueled emotional explosions of the artistic and aristocratic characters with whom Michele is involved.

Gremillon proves his keen visual sense by taking full advantage of the striking, almost otherworldly aspects of the construction sites. Indeed, it would be hard to say that the scenes in the glass-fronted inn and the medieval castle are more visually enchanting and memorable than the ones among the rough materials of the dam.

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Julien and Michele take refuge from a dynamite explosion within a giant pipe, creating an image that combines Chaplinesque modern machinery with the traditionally romantic in a novel way.

As we see in the image above, Gremillon is not afraid to set an essentially romantic tale amidst the most blatantly modern of scenes. Indeed, despite the contemporary setting, the plot is filled with incidents which mirror ancient fairytales and romantic myths, one of the best examples being  Julien’s first meeting with Michele (he first arrives at the inn late at night and walks into the wrong room by accident; she awakes and embraces him before realizing he is a stranger and not the long-awaited Roland). Echoes of Sleeping Beauty (a French tale dating from the 17th century) and Greek myths blend in this simple plot device and keep the film’s tone more in line with poetic realism than simple realism.

Later in the film, Gremillon brings together in a visual way the conflict between the past and the present, modernity and romantic myth, history and the immediate moment through an elaborate and beautifully shot costume ball. This, of course, is one of the main resemblances between Lumiere D’Ete and Les Regles du Jeu, and one which no critic ignores; but unlike Renoir, Gremillon uses the masquerade to develop the action in a way which interweaves history and politics with art and literature.

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The contrast between the aristocratic caprice inherent in the very idea of a masquerade and the modern technology which will eventually erode the concept of aristocracy is visually implied in this scene.

The carnival or masquerade is beloved by scriptwriters and directors alike, and with good reason; it presents a splendid setting for dramatic scenes and is an inexhaustible resource for picturesque possibilities. Fellini’s films and artistic creed may be the most famous proof of this statement, but other films have made marvelous use of carnivals, including Gilda, Tom Jones, To Catch a Thief, and of course, any self-respecting version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The greatest charm about masquerades is the ability they give its participants to act and talk with a freedom they could not otherwise use; but Gremillon does not limit himself to this aspect of it. He films the revelers so as to emphasize both the energy and the frivolity of their joy; diverse as their costumes are, the partygoers are united in their enjoyment of the moment and perhaps in their mindlessness as well.

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The line of costumed dancers who weave hand-in-hand through the courtyard and balconies of the castle recall (or foreshadow) the carnivalesque dancers of Fellini’s 8 1/2, albeit with a less joyous significance.

When Julien breaks into the party to see Michele, his workman’s garb forms a marked contrast to the fanciful costumes by which he is surrounded, while his ultra-modern and very sleek leather jacket recalls the existence of the twentieth century to eyes dazzled by period costumes. Michele, who is dressed as Ophelia to Roland’s Hamlet, discards her long blonde wig at Julien’s requet, and immediately her costume loses its theatricality, becoming instead the garb of a bride, a maiden saint, or some other symbolic figure. Thus the simple love scene which takes place between the two in the courtyard in the midst of whirling dancers and showers of streamers makes a sharp visual statement on the existence of hope and new life in a present plagued by frivolity and evil.

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The stylized pose and dialogue of the two young lovers emphasize their function as symbols over their existence as characters, as do, in their own way, the astonishingly clean-cut good looks of Julien. He looks more like an idealized human figure of some future age than an engineer who happens to be working on a dam in the mountains.

It is worth noting that Christine was a dancer, Roland is a painter who has dabbled in set design, and Michele herself is a fashion illustrator; therefore, all three have artistic skill as well as an understanding of the power of the image, although the case can be made that Michele herself functions as an image–an image of innocence, of life, and perhaps of liberty. (If we subscribe to a political reading of the film, it becomes apparent that Michele represents France; this reading, by the way, would explain why she can remain an ultimately innocent figure despite the multiplicity and changeability of her romantic entanglements.)

Julien, in his capacity as engineer, is also an artist after a fashion, although his work is far more practical, useful, and democratic. Yet if we classify him as an artist as well, we can see that the film does not portray traditional artists as part of an outmoded and parasitical class so much as visionaries who may lack the solid principle and practicality that characterize the better members of the working class (such as Julien). Roland’s frequent quoting of Shakespeare and his choice of Hamlet as masquerade costume mark him as a morally upright but weak-willed artist akin to the Prince of Denmark; yet his final scenes confirm his place as one of the moral anchors of the film. It is Roland’s art, as well as his understanding of the relevance poetry bears to both the dilemmas and the texture of daily life, which unite the film’s visual aspects to its literary and conceptual ones.

Many more pages could be devoted to analyzing this film’s visuals, since each rewatching will reveal new elements uniting theme with image. Lumiere D’Ete is truly an extraordinary film, since it boasts a screenplay studded with brilliant dialogue and unforgettable scenes as well as a highly charged political subtext and an engaging love story informed by a reworking of romantic themes. Lesser films have won greater acclaim without offering such a rich and well-integrated texture of word and image to their viewers.

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The darkness–visual and thematic–of the climax is an ironic comment on the “Summer Light” of the film’s title, and perhaps also a reference to the summer lightning to which that title may also refer. Moreover, the scene pictured here very possibly functions as a visual reference to the underworld of the ancients and the Inferno of Dante. The structural and stylistic traditions from classical French drama on which the film’s plot relies render this connection only more likely.

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