La Belle Michèle

Michèle Morgan, who passed away yesterday at age 96, was one of the great stars of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. For some actresses (and their fans) it might have been enough just to be a beautiful presence onscreen, but Michèle was always much more than a pretty face. She had a remarkable ability to find the passionate depths of any character she was given, whether it was a beret-sporting gamine who casts her spell on an army deserter (Jean Gabin) in Marcel Carné’s proto-noir Port of Shadows (1938), a wide-eyed maid who falls in love with a valet (Jack Haley) in Tim Whelan’s musical comedy Higher and Higher (1943) or the kindhearted mistress of a butler (Ralph Richardson) accused of murdering his wife in Carol Reed’s drama/thriller The Fallen Idol (1948). Michèle knew when to play cool and assured and when to magnify the high-spirited, richly emotional aspects of a role; she owed some of her success to her exceptionally good looks, particularly her striking blue eyes, but the enduring truth of her appeal was in the way she could imbue the women she played with the intelligence and poise that only a genuinely gifted performer can possess.

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Three weeks ago I watched one of Michèle’s classic French films, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (aka Stormy Waters) (1941), which is available via the Criterion Collection in the box set Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During the Occupation. In the film, Michèle plays a cynical young woman whose path crosses with that of an older sea captain (Jean Gabin) who rescues her from a ship stranded during a tempest. The two embark on an affair that ends, like all memorable French dramas must, in tragedy.

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Michèle’s finest scene in Remorques is at the end of the film, when Jean Gabin leaves their hotel room to return home and reunite with his dying wife. Michèle hands Gabin’s first officer a starfish that she found on the beach during one of the couple’s clandestine meetings. It is a quiet, tender moment made bittersweet by the tears in the corners of her eyes even as she insists on smiling through her sorrow – she knows that the romance has ended and that she will never see her beloved again.

Earlier, in September, I watched one of the few American films Michèle made in the 1940s, Joan of Paris (1942), a World War II espionage drama from RKO Pictures in which she plays a penniless Frenchwoman who helps an RAF aviator (Paul Henreid) and his comrades on their mission to get back to England after being shot down over Paris. At the time I saw the film, I was so struck by two particular scenes that I took many screenshots to capture those images; I have gathered some of them here to further pay tribute to Michèle. I implore you to seek out Joan of Paris, which is available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. Although the screenplay has a number of flaws and the film focuses more on action than on character development, the performances by Michèle, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, a young Alan Ladd and John Abbott are well worth seeing.

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In the second half of the film, Michèle goes to a church to pray for Paul Henreid and his fellow aviators as they attempt to carry out their perilous escape plan. I am certain that director Robert Stevenson deliberately sought to evoke the intense close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). There is a dazed, haunted look in Michèle’s face as she begs God to spare Henreid from the Nazi antagonists’ bloody wrath.

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At the film’s end, Michèle and a compassionate local priest (Thomas Mitchell) come to terms with the grim consequences of her assistance to the Allied fliers. Michèle walks toward the camera, solemn and trembling yet certain that she has done the right thing. Cinematographer Russell Metty observes the shifting planes of Michèle’s face, the different reactions made visible depending on the angles of light and shadow. This is a performance which the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described in January 1942 as having “deep poignance and real nobility,” an evaluation which still rings true three-quarters of a century later.

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