SUMMER LIGHT (Jean Grémillon, 1943)

Given the title, the enrobing irony is that Lumière d’été is so dark. Much of it unfolds at night, including two major passages outdoors, and the electric light doesn’t work in her room at the mountain resort hotel, The Guardian Angel, where Michèle has just arrived. Initially, this is comical. Michèle is expecting to be joined by Roland; when Julien enters the room by mistake, she kisses him, presuming in the dark that he is her lover. Something else in the lightless room, a vase of sunflowers, completes the joke. By the end of the film, however, the darkness resonates with symbolism about which there is nothing funny.
     Written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche, and brilliantly directed by Jean Grémillon, Lumière d’été revolves around Michèle, whom Roland, drunk, tells that he doesn’t love her enough, that he loves himself more, and that she should leave him for her own sake. Also at the hotel is Patrice, owner Cri-Cri’s bored lover, who instantly falls for Michèle as a lifeline out of his current relationship. (Note how Cri-Cri arranges for Patrice to see the old news clipping she keeps of Patrice’s wife’s “accidental” shooting death—a hint to us what has kept Patrice at Cri-Cri’s side for so long.) Roland, a self-pitying, narcissistic painter (Pierre Brasseur, at full steam), and Patrice, a piece of upper crust who fetishizes guns, are both ten to fifteen years older than Michèle; Julien, a salt-of-the-earth working-class youth, is much the same age as she. Class-contrast is an important element of the film, and a dynamic passage shows the crew of laborers to which Julien belongs hard and intricately at work at night constructing a dam. Unlike indolent, decadent Patrice, these men are active and vital. (An equally dynamic, parallel although contrasting set-piece shows a costume ball, its participants at fastidious play rather than work and modeling themselves on the past rather than building part of the future.) Julien instantly falls in love with Michèle, and the couple they become offers hope for France’s future.
     What is the symbolism of the darkness, which the “light of summer” throws into relief? The Occupation of France, of course, and the similar fate immersing in shadow most of the rest of Europe. Grémillon has made a brave and gripping film, a truly stupendous piece of work watching which stirs the heart afresh in the direction of a hopefully liberated France.

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