Hôtel du Nord (1938, Marcel Carné)

The fabulous, “has to be a set” of a small business district adjacent a canal is not the best thing about Hotel du Nord, but it’s uncomfortably close. The film’s solidly directed, with some nice composition and some nice camera movement, but it’s nowhere near enough to pluck the film from the tub of melodramatic lard it’s submerged in… much less clean it off.

The film starts beautifully, establishing the community of a small residential hotel, opening with a girl’s first communion party. It introduces, among others, a young Spanish boy, adopted by the proprieters, a war orphan. The Spanish boy doesn’t completely disappear like the girl does, but he’s just there to fill space in the frame.

I just discovered, looking on IMDb, the film’s from a novel, which explains everything… why the suggestion of character development is more important to the film then actual character development (presumably the novel dealt with all its characters). Instead of focusing on one of the interesting stories, the film concentrates on a young couple whose suicide pact goes wrong (he shoots her, runs off, she lives). Besides being stupid, the problem with this story being central to the film is Jean-Pierre Aumont. He’s terrible as the cowardly lover and, in her scenes with him, failed murderee Annabella is also terrible. There’s no chemistry between the two and their scenes are so dumb, it’s all very annoying.

More interesting–I had really hoped, when Aumont pulled out the gun, he was going to take the hotel hostage, that turn of events would have made for an interesting movie–is the love triangle between Annabella, Louis Jouvet and Arletty . It’s a little hard to believe–and the film really overlooks the interest possibilites between Jouvet and Annabella–but at least all the principals act well in this storyline. Jouvet’s got a really lame tragic romantic hero role, so he’s fifty-fifty, doing well when the script’s not holding him back and doing less than well when he’s got instructions like, “stare intently at the camera.” Arletty comes off the best.

The rest of the supporting cast does a great job, particularly Bernard Blier as a cuckold. There’s a lot of humor in the film, thanks to the hotel setting and the cast of characters, but it’s so serious, so intent on taking its stupid suicide pact story seriously, no one can help this film too much.

The end is an eye-roll-inducing street fair scene. It pads the running time maybe half of the last ten minutes of the film. There’s no point to it (whether there was one in the novel is inconsequential) and it’s annoying. Jouvet doers get to come off extra creepy because of it though, so maybe that reason’s one the director had.

The French made a lot of good movies in the 1930s and 1940s, a lot of films with innovative techniques. Hotel du Nord is an attempt to copy one of those films and sell it as something different. Something unique and exciting. It’s neither. And the director’s frequent use of soft focus in the first act was really annoying too.



Directed by Marcel Carné; screenplay by Jean Aurenche and Henri Jeanson, based on the novel by Eugène Dabit; directors of photography, Louis Née and Armand Thirard; edited by Marthe Gottie; music by Maurice Jaubert; production designer, Alexandre Trauner; produced by Jean Lévy-Strauss; released by Cocinor.

Starring Annabella (Renée), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Pierre), Louis Jouvet (Monsieur Edmond), Arletty (Raymonde), Paulette Dubost (Ginette), Andrex (Kenel), André Brunot (Emile Lecouvreur), Henri Bosc (Nazarède), Marcel André (Le chirurgien), Bernard Blier (Prosper), Jacques Louvigny (Munar), Armand Lurville (Le commissaire), Jane Marken (Louise Lecouvreur), Génia Vaury (L’ infirmière), François Périer (Adrien) and René Bergeron (Maltaverne).

Toni (1935, Jean Renoir)

In its opening, Toni is established as an immigrant’s story. Foreign workers (Spanish and Italian) go to the south of France to work the quarries. The opening “prologue”–it’s never announced as a prologue, but there’s an “end of prologue” card–shows the workers’ arrival. The end also shows workers arriving, three years later, after the title character, Toni, has had some adventures. Problematically, he only gets a name after the prologue’s over so it’s hard to recognize him once the first part of the film starts. Toni’s present action is three years, split into one section a year after Toni arrives and has found a place (well, a girlfriend–his landlady) and another, two years later. Because of the split, the film mostly concentrates on melodrama–there’s a love triangle (or quartet, it’s reveal is one of the film’s only decent final act moments)–but never on anything interesting. We never see Toni become friends with the other workers, even though these friendships are incredibly important to the first part of the film. There’s one character–who’s in the entire film–who doesn’t even get a name until the last scene. We also never see Toni and his landlady’s romance, which might have been nice, since–by the time we arrive–he’s a jerk and she’s a nag. There are some moments of the second romance, the one leading into the love triangle, but when the film skips two years… well, it’s just hard for them to have any resonance.

Watching the film, I thought it was one of Renoir’s earliest works, but it’s not, it’s ten years into his career. Some of the shots are the regular, wonderful Renoir shots and I was all set with a sentence about how no one composed for black and white like Renoir did. But there’s a raw element to Toni. The focus is soft when it shouldn’t be and, since it’s filmed on location and some of the actors aren’t actors (there’s a great cutaway from some worker looking straight at the camera, followed by a couple kids who can’t keep a straight face), Toni feels amateurish. None of the lead actors–except Max Dalban as the dimensionless villain–are good, which doesn’t help the film either.

The film has an interesting pace. The opening moves, the middle drags, and the end is somewhere in between. Unfortunately, the perception of the end might be affected by how bad the film is getting. When Renoir ties it into the pretty, “immigrant worker story” bow, Toni flattens, losing anything (not much) it might have been doing. Still, since the quality ranges throughout–getting worse and worse, unfortunately–and starts reasonably high, the film’s not an unpleasant experience. By the end, for example, I’d forgotten I had been expecting a lot more from Renoir.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on a story by Jacques Levert; director of photography, Claude Renoir; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; music by Paul Bozzi; released by Films Marcel Pagnol.

Starring Celia Montalván (Josefa), Jenny Helia (Marie), Édouard Delmont (Fernand), Max Dalban (Albert), Andrex (Gabi), Michel Kovachevitch (Sebastian) and Charles Blavette (Toni).

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