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Seven more ways to say "Je t'aime Jean Gabin"
PREVIEWING MCP's MAY 15/16 BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE TO FRANCE's ETERNAL CINEMA LEGEND
As you might expect, our birthday celebration for the great Jean Gabin (May 15th/16th, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco) is not a “greatest hits” package.
As iconic as Gabin is in classics such as PEPE LE MOKO, LE QUAI DES BRUMES, LA BETE HUMAINE and LE JOUR SE LEVE, and as tempting as it is in troubled times to replay these brilliant but downbeat exemplars of the first true decade of film noir as it developed in 1930s France, it’s time to expand our horizons.
Our opportunity to explore more of Gabin’s oeuvre in conjunction with our THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT series (twelve films1, only two of which are well known to American audiences) has made it clear that there is more to the indelible actor and enigmatic man—much, much more.
Despite his familiar visage and his characteristic mannerisms, he has layers—particularly in his relationship with his leading ladies. Much of what we hope to do with Gabin’s “third career” in a future FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT installment also centers on that relationship, which went through trying times after World War II and affected his audience’s reception of him.
That’s a bit too heavy a proposition for the times we live in, however. Our show celebrates a man who contains multitudes. We get a taste of him prior to his reign as the superstar of poetic realism with the fascinating ZOU ZOU (1934), where he plays opposite Josephine Baker. It’s a salacious-yet-innocent stew of backstage musical and murder trial, where the interracial attraction is nothing more and nothing less than what you’d see in any other such 30s movie—and, consequently, is mind-blowing.
The key to this film—and much of what follows it in our series—is Gabin’s genuine affection & affinity for women. Unlike the stereotype at the root of his 1954 comeback picture, TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, where his character is an unrepentant misogynist, Gabin manifests a unique form of empathy for women throughout his career.
Even when his feelings for a woman prove to be misplaced, as is the case in GUEULE D’AMOUR (1937, aka LADYKILLER), our second feature, he is not embittered; as he says to Mireille Balin (the love interest who spurns him): “There are more shadings to the laws of attraction than you or I will ever know.”
As Bobo, the Hollywood-ized amalgamation of the characters he’d portrayed previously, Gabin is saved from the twin clouds of doom and unknowing thanks to his emotional connection with Anna (the young Ida Lupino at her most luminous). MOONTIDE (1942) presents love as a tidal force capable of overcoming the insistently expressionistic portrayal of flawed and coercive relationships. (Gabin quickly found Hollywood too constraining, and despite his burgeoning affair with Marlene Dietrich, he returned home to fight in the war—an experience that turned his tousled mane of hair pure white.)
THE centerpiece of our Gabin birthday tribute occurs on Sunday evening with two films in which our hero is a haunted adulterer—a situation that shows the perils for a man with too much empathy for the opposite sex. In STORMY WATERS (1941), Gabin’s character is unaware of the emotional currents that are about to overwhelm him: he and his wife (Jacqueline Laurent) have lived in a state of denial since early in their marriage. Director Jean Gremillon uses the sea as a visceral metaphor that shows the danger of suddenly released passion; Michele Morgan, the only French cinema icon with more “eye power” than Gabin, is again the gentle catalyst for an unexpected reckoning.
But it is perhaps in the criminally overlooked PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE (1956) where we see the encroachments of the modern world as they both dictate and distort sexual politics and the viability of love itself. Torn from his family by an affair with a young woman he met on the road, Gabin’s trucker finds that his empathy for women can achieve little or nothing: his relations with all of them—his wife (the superbly beleaguered Yvette Etiévant), his daughter (Dany Carrel, alternately rebellious and remorseful), and his young, pregnant lover (Françoise Arnoul, luminous even in her terminal disaffection)—are irrevocably strained. A careless moment can undo all of the caring one gives…and there are no eyes more capable of registering this realization than Gabin’s.
AND on Monday the 16th we see the collision of this theme with Gabin’s own offscreen life. In THE ROOM UPSTAIRS (1946, aka MARTIN ROUMAGNAC), we see the arc of Gabin’s tempestuous but ultimately terminated affair with another essential film icon: Marlene Dietrich. Haunted by his experiences in the French Free Navy, Gabin felt the need for children; Dietrich, several years older than him, was not in a position to give them to him.
Sensing that their time together was coming to an end, Gabin pulled them out of a film with Marcel Carné (the early version of his embattled GATES OF THE NIGHT) in search of a story that had more metaphorical weight for the lovers’ real-life circumstances. The resulting film was not really a depiction of the events that had conspired to estrange the two lovers; it reflected a restlessness and unease that would mark Gabin’s on-screen work for nearly a decade after World War II. By painting Dietrich as a femme fatale, the film captures the low ebb of Gabin’s empathy at a time when women around the world were being returned, often forcibly, to traditional roles after their above-and-beyond efforts to sustain the war effort.
But it’s clear Gabin understands that such a stance is beneath contempt, as the closing scenes of THE ROOM UPSTAIRS will indicate. His own self-loathing for abandoning Dietrich for a younger woman who could give him children can be seen in many of the film choices he made in the years to follow.
BY the 1960s, Gabin felt he needed to eliminate the “May-December” romance from his films, and much of his empathy for the fair sex simply evaporated from the screen. With a series of favored directors (Gilles Grangier, Henri Verneuil) he would set aside complex romantic entanglements, focusing on crime comedies and caper films. Only the former really flexed his acting muscles, and we conclude our series with what might be Gabin’s truest commentary on the still-potent hype surrounding his 1950s “comeback” film TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (which arguably represents the absolute low point of Gabin’s attitude toward women).
In THE COUNTERFEITERS OF PARIS (1961, aka LE CAVE SE REBIFFE), acclaimed screenwriter Michel Audiard (never a man to sidestep an opportunity for a sharp retort) followed Gabin’s instructions and turned Albert Simonin’s sequel to GRISBI into a sardonic comedy in which Gabin’s character is lured from retirement to mastermind “one last caper” (a trope that has left rut marks across movies screens over the sixty years).
Gabin was delighted by Audiard’s screenplay, and plays the role with great relish—demonstrating to us that the man who’d awed movie audiences with the fixity of his stare was also expertly acerbic at delivering rapid-fire dialogue. (It’s said that this is one of Gabin’s favorite roles.)
AND so we present those who join us at the Roxie to celebrate Gabin’s 118th birthday (hence GABIN 118, the title of our series) with an unusual, open-ended arc that takes a deeper glimpse into a career containing multitudes (and 98 feature films). You will be enriched, astonished, amused—and heartened by the wisdom and understanding on display when Gabin is on screen in all his restlessness and empathy. These rare films further cement his timeless legacy.
Come see him show you your reflection as he holds a mirror for us all…