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Pierre Brasseur

Blu-ray: French classics ‘The Love of a Woman’ and ‘Spotlight on a Murderer’ from Arrow

Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.

Arrow Academy

Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Children of Paradise’

Children of Paradise (originally titled Les Enfants du Paradis) is one of the most beloved classics of French cinema. Shot over the course of 18 months in the midst of the German occupation, the film was released in 1945, just two months after the Nazis were driven out, and was received like a celebration of French pride and resilience. Though set in 19th century Paris, far from the reality of the occupation, it was embraced as a proclamation of French identity and culture.

Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty

Its reputation seems somewhat in eclipse in the age where home theater has supplanted repertory cinema. Children of Paradise played continuously in Paris for decades and it was a major arthouse event in the U.S., playing for years in New York City before the heyday of repertory theaters, and then constantly revived on repertory calendars, becoming an annual pilgrimage for many in the big cities. It’s considered by many to be the greatest French film ever made (as one poll of French critics in 1995 proclaimed), yet in the recent Sight and Sound poll, it placed at number 75. Respectable, but behind many other, more critically fashionable greats. Times and tastes change and a new generation has adopted their own canon of classic cult experiences. Which means there is a new generation to discover the beauty, the novelistic density, and the theatrical celebration of this one-of-a-kind tribute to art and artists.

Children of Paradise opens and ends on a stage curtain, which rises to reveal the Boulevard of Crime, the theater district of 1830s Paris, where street performers and pickpockets alike ply their trade amidst the buskers and food vendors and civilians who have come to be entertained. It is an exhilarating sequence, lavishly executed by Marcel Carné with a huge recreation of the Boulevard and hundreds of extras moving through it, and Carné introduces the four central characters of his drama amidst the bustle: Garance (Arletty), the beauty who has no illusions about her talent and makes no excuses for her lifestyle; Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the cold-blooded criminal with the flair of a poet and ambition to become a playwright; Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the actor whose confidence and ego is as large as his talent; and Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the street mime who, without speaking a word, serves as witness to saves an innocent Garance from being arrested as a pickpocket (she, of course, refuses to name the true criminal, Lemaître). The three men all love Garance, each in their own, somewhat imperfect ways. Garance loves only one but lives practically.

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