Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin in Remorques
  • Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin in Remorques

This fall Block Cinema at Northwestern University has been paying tribute to Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Francaise and arguably the greatest repertory programmer of all time, who would have turned 100 years old this year. Appropriately the tribute has taken the form of a repertory film series of roughly a dozen films that Langlois championed in his four-decade programming career. Several of the selections—like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (which screens Fri 12/12, from a hard-to-see 35-millimeter print)—are established classics, while several others remain overlooked, at least in the U.S.

This Friday at 7 PM brings two rare gems by Jean Grémillon, an innovative French filmmaker (and onetime president of the Cinémathèque Francaise) whose work is little known here: the 1932 class-relations comedy Daïnah la Métisse (of which only 39 minutes exist today) and the 1941 feature Remorques, a genre-bending romance starring Jean Gabin as a tugboat captain torn between two women. Both screen from 35-millimeter, and the total program costs just six bucks. It’s likely the best value Chicago moviegoers will find all weekend.

Writing about Grémillon for the Reader in 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced the director thusly:

Trained as a musician and composer, he first came into contact with films professionally when he played in a small orchestra that accompanied silent pictures, and many critics have noted that he tended to structure his films in movements, as if they were pieces of music. . . Judging by his films, he was also protofeminist. . . Part of what’s so remarakable about [actress Madeleine Renaud’s] four Grémillon roles [including the ailing wife she plays in Remorques] is their range and their capacity to undermine patriarchal stereotypes.

Remorques has been praised for its distinctive take on poetic realism, which involves some early special effects. When the Criterion Collection released it as part of a Grémillon set two years ago, Michael Koresky described it as “a remarkably successful work of dark poetry, illustrating both Grémillon’s musicality (with its narrative ebb and flow, its long, stand-alone sequences building to emotional crests) and his unique brand of verisimilitude (the documentary-like focus on the arduous labors of its seafarers, for instance).”