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‘Lady Killer’ and ‘The Strange Mister Victor’ Review: A Golden Age


Compared to other heavy hitters from the golden age of French cinema — think Jean Renoir (“The Rules of the Game”) or Marcel Carné (“Children of Paradise”) — history hasn’t been kind to Jean Grémillon. This is especially the case in the United States, where the director’s work continues to be discussed among cinephiles like a special secret. It’s a shame. His films are among the most innovative and expressive from a period stretching roughly from the early 1930s through the ’50s — and in many ways they look ahead to the rule breaking of the French New Wave.

Newly restored in 4K, “Lady Killer” and “The Strange Mister Victor” are essentially Grémillon’s breakthrough films, the midpoints between his early documentaries and experimental dramas and his greatest hits (“Stormy Waters,” “Lumière d’été”), which he made during the German occupation of France.

“Lady Killer” stars the leonine Jean Gabin as Lucien, a womanizing legionnaire. Suave and sexy in his uniform, Lucien attracts the female gaze like moths to the flame. Enter the femme fatale Madeleine (Mireille Balin), a beautiful socialite bound to a wealthy benefactor. Lucien falls hard for Madeleine and takes up a job at a print shop in Paris so that they can be together. Then comes betrayal and murder, though Grémillon supplements the bleak fatalism and noirish intrigue with bursts of quivering melodrama that enrich and expand the story beyond its ostensible fatal-attraction framework.

In his early days, Grémillon was a violinist who played with an orchestra that provided accompaniment for silent films. He applies this musical sensibility to his construction of drama. His films move between small, seemingly uneventful moments and ones that hit like a reverberating gong. What starts out as a placid relationship between Lucien and his meek doctor friend, René (Réne Lefèvre), moves on to new, devastating terrain. Their bond is capped by a startlingly intimate scene of male camaraderie that plays like a fever dream.

Working in the tradition of poetic realism, Grémillon intermingled documentarylike visions of working-class milieus with stylized interludes of psychological tension. “The Strange Mister Victor” begins like a panoramic drama about the socially diverse inhabitants of Toulon, in the south of France, and eventually reveals an ethical crisis about the entanglement of two men. Victor Agardanne (Raimu) is an upstanding businessman with wife and child, though he secretly consorts with a band of crooks. When he kills one of them for threatening to blackmail him, he uses a tool that belongs to his cobbler, Bastien (Pierre Blanchar), as the murder weapon, which leads to that man’s arrest. When Bastien escapes imprisonment, the guilty Victor goes out of his way to harbor the unsuspecting fugitive.

There’s perhaps more to chew on in “Mister Victor,” bolstered by an expert performance from Raimu that straddles genuine moral anxiety and self-interested desperation. Yet one particular scene from “Lady Killer” continues to live in my head rent-free.

Midway through the film, a mirror captures Lucien as he spots Madeleine from a distance and then steps back into the shadows when she meets his gaze. The plots of Grémillon’s films are meaty and sociologically probing, but what sets him apart from the directors of his time — the majority of them narrative-focused artists who came from a theater background — are moments like these: brief, wordless, but throbbing with desire and despair.

Lady Killer
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.

The Strange Mister Victor
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.


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