This Saturday, Music Box will screen Jean Grémillon's extraordinary silent feature The Lighthouse Keepers (1929) from a rare 35-millimeter print. Films by this inventive French director are hard to come by in this country, particularly the silent ones—only three of Grémillon's films, all made in the 1940s, are available on DVD in the U.S. But even if Grémillon's work were more readily available, he might still have a narrow reputation. Unlike most other major French directors who started out in the silent era (Jean Epstein, Jean Renoir, René Clair), Grémillon resists easy categorization. The films of his I've seen can't be labeled impressionist, expressionist, realist, or surrealist; rather, they move between all these modes, operating in a style all their own.
This is especially true of The Lighthouse Keepers, which seems to change its stylistic approach from scene to scene. Remarkably it doesn't feel at all disjointed: Grémillon shifts fluidly between styles, the film flowing like a piece of music. (The director trained as a musician and composer before going into filmmaking.) The Lighthouse Keepers is, however, consistently surprising—watching it, you're never sure how Grémillon will present any particular event or whether the drama will be subtle or bold. You might say that the emotional timbre rises and falls like the waves, which are a prominent motif in the film.
Adapted from a play of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, The Lighthouse Keepers tells a simple story but considers such large themes as family, professional responsibility, and death. It begins in a small town on the northern French coast, where a father and son operate a lighthouse not far from the shore. After introducing the characters at home, Grémillon shows them sailing to their work site for a month-long shift. Once they arrive, a flashback reveals that the son, Yvon (Geymond Vital), was bitten by a rabid dog earlier that day. Yvon's condition worsens as the shift progresses, but rising tides and stormy weather prevent any doctor from coming to his assistance. His father (Paul Fromet) attempts to care for him, but Yvon, who steadily goes mad as the rabies spreads through his system, resists help. The father is forced to push on alone in maintaining the lighthouse—which is of utmost importance to approaching ships, given the adverse weather conditions—while keeping a safe distance from his increasingly violent son.
Grémillon grounds this interpersonal drama in a rich sense of location. The opening scenes feel documentary-like in their depiction of the coastal town, likely owing to the director's background in documentary shorts and his upbringing in Brittany. Naturalistic views of the town are intercut with shots of waves to communicate the inhabitants' deep connection to the sea. Grémillon also vividly depicts what it's like to work in a lighthouse, with short yet detailed shots of Yvon and his father tending to their duties (bringing in supplies, checking on lights). Later Grémillon returns to a naturalistic mode when he shows a wedding procession in town and the crew of a ship caught in a storm. Such moments conjure up a realistic sense of camaraderie that throws into relief the growing isolation of Yvon and his father.
Grémillon often complicates the film's naturalism by inserting expressionistic low-angle shots of the lighthouse (which grant it a preternatural power) during otherwise straightforward sequences. Likewise, he complicates expressionistic sequences depicting Yvon's madness (which feature rapid montages and layered, kaleidoscopic imagery) by maintaining a naturalistic acting style from his cast. That's not to say that Grémillon dampens the impact of his expressionistic techniques; two montages in particular—one during the flashback to the dog attack, the other during the climax—achieve a vertiginous sense of terror reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Rather, the director employs naturalistic acting to spotlight how his characters struggle to preserve their humanity in the face of certain doom.
Adding to this feeling of foreboding are the numerous images of the ocean at high tide. Often shooting the waves from a low angle, Grémillon makes them seem gigantic and architectural. (This strategy also allows images of waves to flow smoothly into images of the lighthouse.) At times the force of the ocean seems to overwhelm the narrative; the recurring shots of powerful waves make Yvon's madness seem more intense and heighten the disorienting effect of Grémillon's montages. What emerges is a tale of man versus nature in which nature is clearly the more formidable opponent. v