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Arletty, Louis Jouvet, Hôtel du Nord
An amazing treat is available with the UK release on DVD of an exquisite restored print of Marcel Carné’s extraordinary pre-war masterwork, Hôtel du Nord.
This was not Carné’s enduring classic – that was Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). Compared to the later film, Hotel du Nord is flawed in many ways. But this glorious print nevertheless reveals a film in which every frame is masterful.
Hotel du Nord was released in 1938 in a France caught between on the one hand its humanity (the Popular Front, the adoption of Spanish orphans) and the disillusion and cynicism that was an accurate foretaste of what was to come.
So although this film is categorised as “poetic realism,” which is a term I am not certain I understand, it was certainly metaphorical and the grim suicide pact at the heart of this film is about more than the broken dreams of a single couple.
Yet this film has a hard time shaking off a reputation as a slight disappointment. Perhaps because the allegory was too painful to see/admit at the time. Perhaps because the allegory was overwhelmed by the glorious production and the outstanding performance of Arletty against which it was pretty hard for some of the others to make an impact, especially Jean-Pierre Aumont, who is barely in the script.
Perhaps also because the film was rather quickly forgotton – banned during the war, it was afterwards something of a period piece; Arletty’s own reputation was sullied by her behaviour during the occupation. She excused herself later with the memorable line: « J’ai le coeur aussi Francais que le votre, mon cul, lui, est international! »
That most people were subsequently only ever to see knackered versions with poor sound and damaged pictures did not help. Outside France the film has been rather unknown. That’s why the French team that have restored this film deserve great honour.
Looking at it 70 years later, the film is without any doubt revolutionary. This was a film that elevated mis en scene to a new standard, as the artifice of the set achieved unprecedented verisimilitude. There is still a hotel du Nord on the Canal Saint-Martin, but the one everyone knows is the one in the film.
It is not just the hotel but the recreation of the Canal itself with its passerelles and écluses that marks this as one of the greatest sets ever created for the French cinema. It was impossible to turn the film on the actual Canal Saint-Martin in Paris so a replica was built at Billancourt, a set so expensive that the film’s backers said it would have been cheaper to recreate the Place Vendôme. It became a tourist attraction in its own right, attracting Picasso amngst others.
The script has always been somewhat harshly judged against what it might have been had it been written by Carné’s usual writer, Jacques Prévert, who was not available. It could be argued that narratively, the story is pretty improbable. All this can be forgiven for the set pieces and the fluent Parigot.
The British edition has a good introduction by the film historian Paul Ryan and includes English subtitles, which can be switched off if you are very brave. It however lacks the rich extras included on the French edition which is available from the usual French websites.
A good page on Arletty (in French) with a sound file of «atmosphere» is available here.
A good piece by Mark Boydell from DVD Times (in English) is here with background on the film and the release.