Every so often I am tempted by seasons featured in the British Film Institute's monthly programme to check out directors with whom I am not overly familiar. This month they have been featuring a series of films directed by Jean Gremillon, a well-respected auteur in France, but not terribly well-known outside. I have one or two of his films on my famous old list, but think I have only seen his "Remorques" (1941) starring the incomparable Jean Gabin. So I researched some of the other films in the season and chose one that sounded among the more interesting, as a taster if you will...and indeed it was a tasty morsel.
One of the criteria by which I measure my enjoyment in the cinema is not looking at my watch. This cross between a noir thriller and a gothic fairy-tale really held my attention and time flew by. The title refers to the mocking name given to the down-at-the-heels local laird by the children of the small fishing village whenever he ventures into town. It refers to the knee-high white leggings he affects and translates literally as 'white paws'. He is a figure of fun and barely tolerated by any of the villagers, a legacy of his late father's overly-free use of the local women in better days long gone. He is played by Paul Bernard who also played a squire in the director's earlier "Lumiere d'ete" (apparently one of his best films), but although I have probably seen him in several other movies, he is not an actor I know. Here he makes a good fist of combining an air of superiority with the lonely hand-to-mouth existence he leads.
The other main characters are Fernand Ledoux playing the local innkeeper who has brought sexpot Odette from the Big City passing her off as his 'niece'. She is played Suzy Delair, who is ready to milk her lover for whatever she can, and who comes across with the air of slightly over-ripe fruit (she was 33 when the film was made). Delair has had a varied career playing Jenny Lamour in the classic "Quai des Orfevres", as well as appearing in the Italian "Rocco and his Brothers" and the late Laurel & Hardy flop "Utopia" (aka" Robinson Crusoeland"). Here she flaunts her fading yet lush charms to seduce not only the stand-offish White Spats but also his illegitimate and jealous half-brother, played by Michel Bouquet -- now a doyen of French cinema but appearing here in one of his earliest roles. The fifth protagonist in the drama is young Mimi, played by the 22-year old Arlette Thomas -- again, not well-known to me but the heart and soul of the film. She is the hunchbacked servant at the inn, charged to wait upon Delair's every whim.
However she alone protects White Spats from the jeering children and secretly nurtures an unrealizable crush on the haughty aristo. When she seeks his friendship, he casually gives her an ancient ball-gown from his castle's mouldering closets, and she is totally smitten, dancing with the wonderful garment in her bare attic room. However she is unable to protect him from the mechanics of desire, as Odette uses her sexual prowess to bring down the brooding Bernard and to assist the intense Bouquet (a far better lover it seems) to reap revenge on his disdainful sibling. Events come to a head on Odette's wedding day to the slobbering Ledoux, and as the assembled guests dance the evening away, the other four play out their tragedy on the cliffs. Poor Mimi is left to sort out the ruins of four lives; however, the feeling that the fairy tale may yet have its happy ending prevails.
The film is adapted from a play by Jean Anouilh who had intended to direct as well before realizing that he was not up to the task. Gremillon was his late choice, picking one of the best-considered directors from France's so-called Golden Age. Lovingly filmed on the Normandy coast by Philippe Agostini, the stark landscapes provide a wonderful contrast to the burning passions that consume the players. Perhaps on another day this movie would have seemed something of a potboiler, but I was seriously absorbed by its brooding romance and the inevitability of disaster that the characters unwittingly bring upon themselves.