Hôtel du Nord (1938)

19 08 2009

Another excellent pre-war effort from the dependable Marcel Carne. He doesn’t have Jacques Prevert’s pen to accompany his sophisticated style, but the story itself is pretty great anyway. In its own special way, this is sort of like the French equivalent to King Vidor’s Street Scene. Like Vidor, Carne places the drama in a centralized location (the titular hotel) and then proceeds to dive into a series of characters. Overall, I’d say Vidor’s film is the better one since it is so straight-forward and perfect in its own theatrical way, but Carne, as I expected, does deliver another powerful portrait of humanity.

The main story, if there is one, concerns a young girl by the name of Renee. Played by the beautiful and far too overlooked, Annabella, Renee barely escapes from the suicide pact that she makes with her boyfriend, Pierre. Pierre is sent to prison for the attempted murder of Renee, who, perhaps unable to move on from the incident, becomes a trustworthy employee at the hotel where the would-be tragedy should have occurred. There are many tiny story lines that Carne’s camera (almost literally) weaves through, and he able to capture these intimate and beautiful moments that do nothing to advance the plot, but do wonders in enriching the atmosphere.

As I have come to expect from Carne, there is a certain visual elegance on display here. There’s no particular shots that brings attention to itself, there are no frames rigorously planned to look beautiful. All the wonderful images that the camera captures (by the way, Louis Nee, an uncredited assistant on Dreyer’s Vampyr and Armand Thirard, a frequent collaborator with Julien Duvivier, are both credited as cinematographers here) seem almost incidental. There’s nothing overwhelmingly picturesque about this film, but I don’t think Carne was ever really that “poetic” (at least visually speaking) of  a director. His strengths instead lie in the attention he devotes to his characters.

This film is no exception to said attentiveness, in fact it is one of Carne’s most strictly observant pictures, with little to no real conventional narrative drive. Things happen, sure, but they don’t happen on the tragic scale of a film like say, Daybreak. No disrespect intended towards that film, as it is absolutely one of my all-time favorites, but where as that film vividly documenting the rise and fall of a romance, this one depicts a period of time in a particular location. The camera swoops into the situation, and then literally, at the very end, tracks back from its origin. It’s a small little touch, but its one of the many things that add up to a universe that is so richly detailed.

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