la petite lise

Rarely has a filmmaker loved smoke as much as the French director Jean Grémillon did. His 1930 film La Petite Lise is filled with it: in rooms, prison walls, urban streets, and public spaces; in the hearts and minds of its downtrodden characters. Smoke is the main actor in La Petite Lise, and it’s the film’s major constant, regenerating as quickly as it disappears. Grémillon would continue to use smoke and mist like this throughout his career, especially in 1939’s Remorques, where fog seems to wrap tighter and tighter around the characters until they have no option but to fold into their surroundings. But it’s in La Petite Lise – one of the earliest French sound films – where Grémillon found smoke as his muse, mentor, and mate.

The contours of the scenario for La Petite Lise, by the Belgian screenwriter Charles Spaak, are stock melodrama. An incarcerated criminal, Victor (putty-faced everyman Pierre Alcover), pines for his daughter, Lise (Nadia Sibirskaïa, all suspicious-gleaming eyes and pursed lips). Upon his release from prison in Cayenne, he returns to Paris and reunites with Lise, who – unbeknownst to Victor – has turned to prostitution to support herself. Lise also has plans to elope with her pimp-boyfriend in search of a more comfortable life, and to raise money the couple attempts to pawn a family heirloom. An altercation ensues with the pawnbroker, and Lise ends up doing something she shouldn’t. Most of the rest of the film is taken up with Victor, who – in a beautifully staged final sequence – makes his own fateful decision. For all of the broad, fatalistic strokes in its plot, the film feels unusually committed to its principal characters and it never passes judgment on them; it presents their moral confusion with candor and sympathy. (Grémillon’s influence can be felt in the work of the Dardenne Brothers – filmmakers who never condemn, only observe.)

There was little in the way of an American critical response to La Petite Lise upon its initial release in 1930, partly because the film was a commercial failure even in Grémillon’s native France. Most contemporary reappraisals of the film herald its tentative experimentation with sound, but point out its general similarities to silents of the previous decade. And while some characteristics of La Petite Lise do bear a strong familial resemblance to earlier silents – little dialogue, extended close-ups of pale haunted faces – the film is striking for how confidently it removes itself from the conventions of the silent cinema, and for how delicate and sophisticated its use of synchronized sound is. Unlike urban melodramas from the silent era, in which live music would have been playing incessantly over the action, La Petite Lise is actually silent much of the time. It has a spare musical score; occasionally there is a quiet, eerie a capella voice low in the sound mix, but long stretches of the film are nearly soundless. Grémillon understood early on that the whisper of a dark city street was enough to bathe a scene in suspense, and that silence focuses our attention on the image before us and heightens our engagement with the drama. (It’s notable, too, that La Petite Lise also has a few early uses of non-synchronized sound; in one scene, as we see establishing shots of Paris, we hear Victor telling Lise, “I just wanted to hear your voice.”)

But if Grémillon had mastered the nuances of this kind of atmospheric or psychological sound, he had also mastered the art of using sound to pilot the narrative, to give the stock plot a new momentum. In the scene at the pawnbroker’s, we never see the key action; instead, we hear the noise of a glass vase breaking over someone’s head, while the camera shows us a mundane window on the opposite side of the room. Afterwards, we see still-lifes of the floor: broken glass, trickling blood, a smoking gun. But Grémillon has already subjugated the camera to the microphone, and he denies the image its usual privilege of spurring the plot forwards; the significance of the event is so profound that filming it head-on is not adequate to convey its meaning, and our imagination is tasked with filling the visual gap.

The drama in La Petite Lise is tightly wound and self-contained, and the element that most ties La Petite Lise to the time in which it was made, perhaps, is the broad caricature of the pawnbroker – a long-nosed, wiry, miserly Jew named Monsieur Shalom. The pawnbroker is the most distasteful character in the movie, and, for all of its humanity, the film treats his death more as a strategic conundrum for the central couple than as a flesh-and-blood murder. Besides that unfortunate blemish, the film is not making an explicitly topical or political statement about France or any subset of its population. True, the Great Depression had just begun, and even though it ravaged France less than some other developed countries, the plight of the poor was on everyone’s mind. In La Petite Lise, there are many scenes of people working, and there is a brief sequence that shows Paris in the morning – neon nightclub lights going out, boats crossing the Seine, construction workers, cars and trucks on a tree-lined street. The scene offers a small taste of modern, industrial Paris, and an even smaller taste of its consequences: a vagrant is shown sleeping on a bench. But the poverty of the characters in La Petite Lise is a more eternal, mythical poverty than that of the sleeping vagrant. By the time the final scene comes, one gets the sense that Victor is not a victim of any specific antagonist or even any particular political system. His captors in prison were reasonable enough to let him out, and he quickly found a factory job in Paris with a generous employer. Rather, his downfall is fated, and it seems that his impoverishment and captivity are the fault of nothing and no one; this is simply his station in life.

But despite all of this, Grémillon’s touch is light. There is a sense of wonder that runs through the film, as if the real substance is somehow floating above the pedestrian sequence of actions and events. Perhaps it’s due to the omnipresent, lethal smoke that veils each scene. But Grémillon often seems less interested in whipping the story up into an aggressive dramatic frenzy than he is in attending to characters’ behavioral tics – the boyfriend nervously adjusting his pants when he meets the pawnbroker, Victor’s slight reluctance to put down a photo of Lise after staring at it, Lise’s bony fingers curling as she waves goodbye before closing a door. Perhaps it’s because, unlike the French movies that followed in the 1930s, and unlike even some later Grémillon films, there is little theatricality to La Petite Lise; the engagement with theatrical conventions so prized by filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol, is mostly absent. Instead, Grémillon is more drawn to the vocabulary of a documentarian or a visual anthropologist. This is apparent in an early scene, where Grémillon’s camera simply lingers on Victor’s fellow inmates in prison as they eat, clown, smoke cigarettes, build a fire, paint tattoos on each other, and sing in unison. Graffiti and portraits of faces cover the walls. Smoke fills the room and cloaks the inmates in a kind of angelic haze. Divine sunlight shines on the criminals from a skylight above their heads, and Grémillon keeps looking, his camera panning endlessly across sets of jailed men. There is no intelligible distance or sense of perspective; the camera stays close and doesn’t attempt to sort through the confusion of intimate bodies. The dialogue is not foregrounded on the soundtrack; the energy and texture of the captive’s voices is more important than their words. In its attention to fleeting gestures, the scene recalls some of the French Impressionist cinema of Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, and in its heightened naturalism it also foreshadows the experiments of Altman or Cassavetes by three decades. But what’s most striking about the scene is how peaceful and genial the environment seems; there is little violence in the inmates’ makeshift society compared to the harsh world outside. Even the officers don’t appear viciously threatening, and when a few prisoners start plotting an escape in front of Victor, one can’t help but ask why they would want to leave.

Instead of taking place in a jail, the concluding sequence takes place in a dance hall. Jazz music is blaring; couples are dancing. The scene mirrors the opening of the film in the movement and flow of crowded bodies, and in the sensuous, disorienting camerawork. But this time, Victor is resigning himself to certain doom instead of hoping for escape. There are no more faces painted on the wall, only animals. The dancing men and women are strangers with darker skin than Victor, and he leaves the hall. He takes a last drag on his cigarette outside, and he sinks into the halls of justice. The music, taunting Victor’s psyche, is abruptly cut off by the sound of a bell tolling, and Grémillon’s camera recedes into the smoky distance.

La Petite Lise screens this Saturday, 11/22, at the Museum of the Moving Image at 4:30 pm.