‘En dix ans, douze millions de beaux bébés pour la France.’ With those words Charles de Gaulle ushered in a new era of French ‘politique nataliste’ in 1945, a system of government incentives and social and religious pressures intended to address the country’s low birth rate. Women workers were seen as an inconvenience at best; at worst, an emasculating threat to the self-confidence of French men, not yet recovered from the humiliations of Nazi occupation. It is in this cultural climate that Marie Prieur, the heroine of Jean Grémillon’s The Love of a Woman, dares to be a medical doctor, arriving by ferry to the small island of Ushant, off the north-western tip of Brittany. The locals are skeptical, and do not call on her; her first visitor is not a patient, but the local schoolteacher and dressmaker making a social call, asking for her opinion on different textile patterns. Marie can barely conceal her disappointment.
But Ushant is a place for pragmatists, and the local fishermen don’t have the luxury of prejudice. After some displays of her brusque, no-nonsense bedside manner and modern, straight-out-of-medical-school technical competence, all their passive-aggressive opposition erodes. Grémillon, who started and ended his career directing documentaries that quietly observed people at work, from artists to fishermen, has a keen eye for the procedures and rituals that characterise Marie’s working life, as well as the life of the small coastal community that she finds herself becoming a part of. There’s some impressive location shooting— from a funeral procession snaking downhill through the town, to the film’s standout set piece, Marie’s stormy voyage towards an offshore lighthouse in order to perform emergency surgery.
As Marie weaves herself so inexorably into the fabric of her community, saving lives and cracking open celebratory cold ones with the boys, her love affair with the local engineer, in town to set up a new fog warning system, becomes increasingly fraught; whence the film’s central dramatic question and the source of its Sirkian romantic melodrama. Sirk is an appropriate point of reference, not just because his All That Heaven Allows was released a year later, in 1955; Massimo Girotti, as the cigarette-lighting, motorbike-riding Italian bad-boy André, has some of Sirk regular Rock Hudson’s stolid dependability. And Micheline Presle as Marie delivers a performance worthy of comparison with Jane Wyman, projecting a similar brand of self-consciously feminine vulnerability that attests to, rather than negates, her character’s mental fortitude and emotional maturity. She elicits our sympathy not because she defies André’s demand that she give up her career to marry him and raise their children, but because she painfully attempts to capitulate to that demand, only slowly realising what an unhappy life she would be condemning herself to.
Luckily Grémillon intersperses all the melancholy intensity of this conflict with moments of levity or meditative quiet. There’s an entertaining cast of supporting characters with their own small subplots, most prominently a pair of adorable local children who fawn over, and attempt to keep tabs on, a black lamb from the local flock. More entertaining is the alcoholic verger of the local church played by Julien Carette, who viewers might recognise from his similarly comic turn as the lascivious servant in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. These roles are all caricatures to some extent, but they’re lovingly sketched by an artist with a sentimental attachment to their types. Grémillon was a Breton himself, and some of his most successful films (such as The Lighthouse Keepers, Stormy Waters and Pattes Blanches) had already attempted to capture the ambience and the ups and downs of life on the Breton coast.
Arrow Academy’s newly released, handsome remaster of the film includes a feature-length documentary from French television about Grémillon himself. If you can tolerate the Gallic pseudo-intellectuals that comprise at least half of the talking heads, there’s some interesting insights there, with several commentators attempting to explain why Grémillon, despite his auteur status, his lofty cinematic ambitions, and his numerous commercial successes, has remained such a marginal figure in the history of French cinema. The fact that he did not easily compromise his artistic vision in the face of commercial pressure does not fully explain it; the same could be said of Carné and Renoir. In a way The Love of a Woman, his final feature film, is a swan-song testament to his unachieved goals. Through the character of the local schoolteacher, ‘Maman’ Leblanc, Grémillon explores the sadness of a woman nearing her end, tired from working ceaselessly in return for little material reward. ‘Today I taught them about the revolution. I nearly wept to think I’d never do that again’ she reflects. The director had similar regrets: he’d been planning an ambitious epic exploring the class tensions of the 1848 ‘February Revolution’, but never managed to get the funding for it.
Madame Leblanc is arguably the most compelling character in the film, partly due to how she complicates Marie’s inner conflict between her budding career and a potential family. She is simultaneously the avatar of conventional femininity, having spent her whole life caring for and acting as surrogate mother to her pupils, and a rebel against God’s commandment to go forth and multiply, with no kids of her own. Marie forms a bond of friendship with her, becoming utterly distraught at her eventual funeral; all the more distraught because she becomes convinced that Leblanc’s life was unfulfilling, with no-one to mourn for her as deeply even as Marie, who weeps despite having only known her for a brief time. In fact the romantic scene, set among the ruins of an old church, where André first asks Marie to marry him yet give up her career is sandwiched in the middle of Leblanc’s lengthy, poignant death scene, which occurs during Mass. Later, at the funeral, the priest’s eulogy is a callously targeted slice of conservative propaganda: Leblanc chose the ‘thorny path’ to heaven, but women should be humble and content with the ‘easier way’ that motherhood represents. The irony of a Catholic priest preaching against celibacy and pastoral care is not lost on Grémillon. As the priest speaks, he turns directly towards Marie.
If Grémillon was a marginal director in the history of French cinema, it is perhaps because he enjoyed working on the margins, both figuratively and geographically, and depicting marginal— and marginalised— characters. His empathy and social intelligence reveals itself subtly and incidentally in his oblique depiction of the way that social and religious pressures exert themselves insidiously on even a headstrong woman like Marie. His strengths as a filmmaker aren’t self-conscious or showy; his style is classical and unobtrusive. He gives actors and landscapes space and time to express themselves, without any technically impressive camera-work or daring creative decisions on his part. A film like The Love of a Woman is not going to blow any cinephile minds, but that’s why I appreciate Arrow giving it such a stylish re-release. It’s easy, and clearly rewarding, to pay attention to bombastic landmarks of film history, but sometimes it’s worth having a quiet night in with a modest, forgotten gem like this.