blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

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.

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