Jean Gabin: French Cinema’s Great Tragic Hero

Remorques (1941)   

    When I first envisioned this movie blog, I thought that I would write about movies I have seen before, some of them many times.  I wanted to write about movies I love; I wanted to create a group of essays with a positive tone.  No better way to do that than talk about movies I know are awesome.  But sometimes a movie you haven’t seen has such a good pedigree you know you’re going to love it sight unseen.  Remorques is one of those.  It’s a story of a sea captain and the toughness of his job and the two women who are really into him.

    Jean Gabin, the French Spencer Tracy, plays Captain Laurent.  Jean Gabin is one of my favorite actors.  He’s tough, his face barely ever registers emotion, he gets awesome girls, he punches the bad guys, a lot of times he dies at the end of his movies.  He is so badass.  I wrote one of my shittiest college papers of all time about Jean Gabin.  It was around ten pages or so, and pretty much the only argument it put on the table was “Jean Gabin was a fucking badass.”  Remorques was released in 1941 but was filmed mostly in 1939, which was prime time for Jean Gabin; he was at the height of his popularity and looking back today, it seems like every movie he made during a four year stretch is a bona-fide classic.  Remorques (the movie’s English title is Stormy Waters) was one I hadn’t seen, but watching a Jean Gabin movie made in the late thirties is pretty much like watching Roger Federer play tennis in the mid 2000s; you know it’s going to be incredible because it can’t not be incredible.

    Two women play opposite Gabin in the movie: his wife, played by a little blonde waif called Madeleine Renaud, and the dreamy girl he gets involved with, played by blue eyed super nova Michele Morgan.  The wife is sweet enough, but she is sickly, whines a lot, and isn’t Michele Morgan, so who cares?  Remorques marks the third pairing of Morgan and Gabin in three years, and it seems to work.  Maybe it’s because they both have really blue eyes.  Probably.  Jean Gabin is so tough and cool, when you first see him in a movie, you wonder what kind of girl he’d be with.  Michele Morgan arrives, so beautiful she seems unreal, and there is no doubt: that is the kind of girl for Jean Gabin.

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Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin in Remorques

    Remorques has two main narrative threads, the romantic life of Captain Laurent and his profession, which is rescuing boats from storms and such out in the sea.  The romantic stuff is done in the normal movie way: arguments, tears, walks on the beach, embraces, long kisses, etc.  The scenes at sea are done in normal movie way as well, albeit one that isn’t popular in movies anymore.  The boats are small scale models, being thrown around in a studio sea.  It sounds stupid, but let me tell you, the scenes of the boats are awesome.  The storms are scary and intense, and the simple special effects really work.  It is a bit of movie magic. 

    Remorques is part of one of my all time favorite movie genres, French Poetic Realism.  The movies are great and really atmospheric.  They’re kind of noirish, concern characters who are either part of the working class or the criminal class, and have moody sets and lighting.  It’s almost always cold, or nighttime, or raining, or foggy, or all four combined.  Another reason I love the genre is because it feels like it’s more my own than some of the more popular or well known movements.  I know this is hipsterish bullshit, but people not knowing about it makes me love it more.  Any young punk on the street can like the French New Wave, or the gritty 70s Hollywood thing, or the Neorealist Italians.  But I feel like a real die hard when I get out there and follow Jean Gabin around in the rain.

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Tribute to the “can’t sit heeyah” kid

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The little SOB has one line in the movie and NAILS IT. I’ve never met anybody who has seen Forrest Gump and doesn’t love the “can’t sit heeyah” kid. WTF is that accent? Did he think the movie took place in 1915 Brooklyn? Why didn’t the director tell him to tone it down? He is awesome. I hope to meet him one day. On a bus. And I already know what he’ll say.

Chungking Express (1994)

The 1990s sucked a little bit.  I mean, looking back, a vast majority of the music, movies, books and attitudes spawned by the 90s weren’t that good.  And often, a really great thing from the 90s was tainted by hollow imitators or lesser permutations.  Pulp Fiction gave rise to tons of movies trying and failing miserably to tell disjointed narrative tales of hyper-cool, slightly shady characters.  Nirvana was so good, but somewhere around 97% of the grunge bands that followed in their wake were garbage (including the band Garbage).  At the beginning of the 90s we had Michael Jordan in his prime, by the end, we had Allen fucking Iverson.  I don’t know why, but the 90s just don’t look that awesome to me.  Maybe it’s because that’s when I grew up so I know it well and can scrutinize the hell out of those years.  But the point of this blog is to find the good out there.  And as far as 1990s cinema, there is no more beautiful example that 1994’s Chungking Express.

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Faye Wong stays cool

Chungking Express is a two chapter story of two police officers’ romantic lives.  The first is Cop 223.  He’s had a bad breakup and eats 30 tins of pineapple in one night.  Later, he meets the Woman in the blonde wig, who is a criminal who’s been shooting people and running around all night.  She’s pretty tired, and falls asleep in the hotel with Cop 223.  He kindly removes her shoes, because his mom said that heels can make a woman’s feet swell.  Cop 663 is good with women.  He has a flight attendant girlfriend who is beautiful, and he eats at the same food stand every night.  Faye works at the food stand, and falls in love with Cop 663.  His flight attendant girlfriend dumps him, but 663 doesn’t seem as shattered as 223 was.  He just goes about his business, telling the inanimate objects in his apartment not to be too sad about it.

In Time magazine, Richard Corliss called Wong Kar Wai “the most romantic filmmaker in the world.”  Can’t argue with that.  Wong Kar Wai is preoccupied with narratives of love, of characters who long for one another.  He is also very good at romantic images and moments.  In Chungking Express, there are tons of them:  Cop 663 (Tony Leung, from In the Mood for Love) is seen inside a convenience store reading a rain soaked letter while the storm outside pounds on the glass, Cop 223 cleans the Woman in the blonde wig’s shoes with his tie, because he believes “pretty girls should have clean shoes,” Faye dances over and over and over to “California Dreamin.’”  I can’t describe them all, but Chungking Express is just full of so many unforgettable little scenes.

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Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) with the Woman in the blonde wig (Brigette Lin)

Whenever I read a book, I always want to be reading the love scenes.  Well, not “love scenes” in the Cinemax sense, but the romantic scenes that deal with the relationships.  Love is all I care about; I think it’s the biggest thing there is, and maybe Wong Kar Wai feels the same way.  In Chungking Express, it doesn’t matter that the two main guys are cops, that Faye is an unreliable food stand employee, or that the Woman in the blonde wig has a drug smuggling debacle.  What matters is that the characters are all dealing with love: either falling in it, getting over it, trying to express it, or wondering if it even exists at all.  Chungking Express is unlike any other movie, and it could only be directed by one guy, but it tells the same old tale I will never be tired of: a love story.

Black Narcissus (1947)

I love movies with nuns in them, and I think I know how this started.  When I was little, my sister and I watched The Sound of Music some 50,000 times.  It was one of her favorites, and just this past Christmas I gave it to her on Blu-Ray (because I am the best brother, maybe ever).  After the Von Trapp family performs at the end of the movie, and it’s time for them to escape, a couple of nuns aid their flight by messing with the Nazi’s car so it won’t start.  I always loved that part.  It was surprising to see the nuns, such peaceful, holy women, take a part in automotive shenanigans.  They messed with the Nazis, the scariest, best dressed, most evil sons of bitches ever!  Such sweet nuns.  I think ever since then the sight of a nun in a movie has warmed my heart.

There are a lot of different nun movies that are awesome.  In The Nun’s Story, we have the Audrey Hepburn nun, easily cinema’s most beautiful nun.  In Almodovar’s Dark Habits, there are crazy nuns: a heroin addict, a nun with a pet tiger, even a nun who spends the majority of the movie tripping balls on acid.  Sister Act has Whoopi nun, Doubt has mean principle Meryl Streep nun.  I love these nuns, people.  But one movie stands alone as the undisputed nun movie magnum opus, and that is 1947’s Black Narcissus, from British super team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

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Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh

There’s so much going on in this movie it’s hard to sum it all up.  There is a group of nuns doing mission work in India.  The only ones that matter are the two hot ones, Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, and Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron.  They are both drawn to a roguish Englishman called Mr. Dean.  He helps around the convent and shows some good basic carpentry skills (like some other male somebody who looms large in the lives of the sisters).  Sister Clodagh has a bit of pride and a propensity to fondly recall her life before she entered the order.  This isn’t acceptable nun behavior, but it’s not that bad.  Sister Ruth, on the other hand, is a legitimate bad girl.  She hates the kids she’s supposed to teach, and spends most of her lesson looking wantonly out the classroom window at Mr. Dean.  She’s insanely jealous whenever she sees Mr. Dean talking to Sister Clodagh.

Michael Powell called Black Narcissus “the most erotic movie I ever made.”  All the eroticism is done by suggestion; the movie is sexual, not sexy.  When, late in the movie, Sister Ruth has quit the order and is descending into madness, there is no greater shock than when Sister Clodagh bursts into her room and finds Sister Ruth wearing not her white habit, but a bright red dress.  Deborah Kerr’s expression is priceless, she looks like she’s walked in on somebody completely naked, so scandalizing is that red dress.  It is an awesome scene.  Also, every scene involving Mr. Dean has a particular sexual charge to it; something about the way he looks at the sisters suggests that he knows that beneath their habits are female bodies just like any others.  Sister Clodagh knows that he’s thinking this, and I’m not sure she really minds.

    Black Narcissus is a movie wild with desire and sexuality simmering beneath the surface, and I decided to include a sampling of some of the great lines in the movie.  Some are cheeky, others explosive, they are all reasons I love Black Narcissus:

“You’re objectionable when you’re sober and abominable when you’re drunk.”

“Finish the beating and begin to be a man!”

“They smell!”

“Stop her! She’s gone mad!”

“3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.- physics with the physical sister.”

“I DON’T LOVE ANYONE!”

“Nuns eat sausages!”

It’s got to be the best nun movie of them all.

My Movie Blog

This is where I’m going to write about movies I love.  I don’t want to write reviews or plot summaries or anything like that, but just personal essays on why I love the movies I do.  I thought it would be nice to make a blog with a positive tone.  Movies are a huge part of my life, I don’t know if I ever stop thinking about them.  Now I’ll have a place to concentrate my energies and let my friends know about movies that I recommend very highly.  Every week I will have a new movie to tell you about.