Director Jean Gremillon belongs to a select group of WWII era auteurs who were highly revered during their prolific periods (which included the duress of working in Nazi occupied France), but whose reach never swept as vibrantly into the U.S. as strongly as the following generation who formulated the Nouvelle Vague.
Gremillon, alongside the likes of Sacha Guitry, Maurice Tourneur, Julien Duvivier, and many others, remains an influential presence whose major works have only recently been made easily accessible stateside. Arrow Academy lovingly presents the master’s final feature, 1953’s The Love of a Woman, headlined by the stoic Micheline Presle (who was at one point aggressively groomed as a French import for Hollywood).
Hardly as soapy as its title would indicate, Gremillon (whose famous string of films from the 1940s mostly starred Madeleine Renaud) managed to bow out with a progressive version of what was usually termed a ‘women’s picture’ in studio era Hollywood. Presle stars as the newly appointed physician on an island mostly comprised of men who aren’t particularly respectful of a woman usurping an occupation previously held for generations by a respected member of the community. But her ambitions to have it all are tested by social mores concerning gender roles and a woman’s place in the workforce when romance complicates matters.
In her late twenties, Dr. Marie Prieur (Presle) arrives on the secluded island of Ushant, which belongs to Brittany. Taking over for the aged Dr. Morel (Robert Naly), the women of the island are amused by the presence of a female physician, while the mostly working class male population immediately makes plans to put her in her place after she demands a young child be properly treated for pneumonia. Befriending only the local teacher, Germaine Leblanc (Gaby Morlay), Marie witnesses the loneliness of a childless woman on the island, someone who has devoted her life to her profession (and as we come to find, callous self-involved children). When suave engineer Andre (Massimo Girotti) brutishly defends her honor, Marie finds herself falling for his charms, and is soon informed if they are to become husband and wife she must choose her man or her job in order for him to completely accept her.
Of course, the scenario of a new doctor taking over for the role of a respected physician in a leery rural community is nothing new. Either the population or the physician’s acclimation becomes the dramatic crux of the story, such as the recent 2013 Canadian film The Grand Seduction (itself a remake of an earlier French-Canadian title), or even 2016’s Irreplaceable, in which Marianne Denicourt’s doctor must prove she has what it takes to step in for the sickly Francois Clouzot.
As a title, The Love of a Woman ends up being a tragic harbinger, suggesting Marie’s feelings for Andre can transcend expectations but not the other way around. While Andre serves as the conduit for Marie to claim respect from the disparaging blue collar populace, he also serves as an instrument of despair when he forces her to choose profession over a marriage which would demand she regress into the role of a housewife. A sequence which perfectly conveys the double-edged standards of heteronormative gender roles results when Marie celebrates a triumphant success following an emergency procedure. Drinking with the other men in a bar, Andre can only note the happiness upon her face, and how he cannot fathom ever being eclipsed by this passion for her profession.
Presle had recently returned to French cinema after an unsuccessful string of films in Hollywood as Micheline Prelle (courtesy of her producer/director husband William Marshall) and given birth to their daughter (who would become known as director Tonie Marshall). Her determined poise and regal presence transcends her 5’6’’ frame, stealing command of her sequences from her swarthy co-stars.
If her romance with Italian actor Massimo Girotti (known for Visconti’s Ossessione, 1943 and as the father in Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968) is about as believable as every other inevitable romance in a 1950s melodrama, what’s strikingly evident is how her agency muddles the formula.
In several ways, The Love of a Woman plays like the inverse of Humoresque (1946), where John Garfield’s violinist is derailed for his love of the neurotic socialite played by Joan Crawford. Here, it’s Presle who has control of her destiny, and even whilst considering Andre’s proposal to serve as his wife and sacrifice her career, Rene Fallet’s (Fan-Fan the Tulip, 1952) script takes pains to showcase her lack of acquiescence.
Arrow Academy releases Gremillon’s swan song in this two-disc set which includes high definition and standard definition presentations in 1.37:1. Picture and sound quality are superb in this release, a masterful standalone companion to the Eclipse series disc-set of three Gremillon titles released back in 2012.
In Search of Jean Gremillon:
Peter Solange directed this hour-and-a-half French television documentary which examines the life and career of Gremillon. Broadcast in 1969, it includes interviews with director Rene Clair, archivist Henri Langlois, actors Micheline Presle, Pierre Brasseur, and more.
As far as depressing romantic melodramas go, The Love of a Woman may not be a tearjerker, but it’s a consummate portrait of a resilient woman refusing the yoke of an institution which would only force her to be a little less.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆