Blu-ray Review: Hotel du Nord

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Marcel Carné | CAST: Annabella, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Louis Jouvet, Arletty, Paulette Dubost, Andrex, André Brunot, Bernard Blier
8/23/22 | PRICE: DVD $22.99, Blu-ray $25.98
BONUSES: New conversation between filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet and journalist Philippe Morisson; television program from 1972 on the making of the film; documentary from 1994 on the life and career of director Marcel Carné.
SPECS: NR | 96 mins | Foreign language drama-comedy | 1.37:1 | monaural 

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Marcel Carné was a “very demanding” filmmaker, according to cinematographer Henri Alekan (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) in a supplement included in this package. Alekan felt, however, “that his demands were justified,” given the high quality of his work. And since Carné wasn’t given to hitting his actors (as H.G. Clouzot did), one can state with some confidence that his strident behavior on-set did result in some of the most gorgeous and memorable French films of the Thirties and Forties, including Hotel du Nord (1938), his take on two couples in stormy relationships who live in a Parisian hotel.

Carné is most prominently associated with the poet Jacques Prévert, with whom he collaborated on eight films including Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise. Here, working with Henri Jeanson (Pépé le Moko) and Jean Aurenche (a favorite collaborator of Bertrand Tavernier in the Seventies and Eighties), he focused on the lives of a small community.

Most notable is Edmond (Louis Jouvet) and Raymonde (Arletty), a crook and his moll — who will do anything for him, including walking the streets. Counterpointing them are young lovers Renee (Annabella) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who fail at a suicide pact and seem doomed not to be together. But they battle fate, while Renee is romanced by Edmond, who is being sought by crooks he previously worked for. The film’s finale is tragic for some of the characters, while others get a second chance at love. As we follow them, we also get a look into the lives of the other hotel guests, including a cuckolded yet chipper gent (Bernard Blier) who earns his living by selling his blood.

The directors of photography, Louis Née and Armand Thirard (Diabolique), did much to aid Carné in the creation of the haunting visuals. The MVP, though, was production designer Alexander Trauner, who fled Hungary to live in Paris, became a noted designer for French films (Rififi) and later did great work in America for Wilder (on eight films, starting with The Apartment) and other directors (Huston and Tavernier, on The Man Who Would Be King and Round Midnight, respectively).

Trauner’s coup de grâce here is an exquisite set that shows Paris’ Canal Saint-Martin in front of the hotel and various shops. The set is shown at daylight at the beginning of the film and then lit by streetlights as a Bastille Day celebration takes place during the final segment of the film. The latter portion is the most evocative part in the film, as Trauner’s set does much to reflect the joy of the revelers and the suspense that surrounds Edmond’s decision to confront his pursuers.

Hôtel du Nord (1938)

The film’s leads beautifully elevate their characters from being cartoonlike “types” to the level of romantic archetypes. Annabella and Aumont look attractive as they suffer ever so gracefully. In the meantime, Arletty is splendid as Raymonde, whose love is genuine, although her anger toward Edmond is as well. Jouvet is the focus of attention, though, as he is both dapper and dangerous. He delivers Jeanson and Aurenche’s dialogue with a special cadence that conveys the character’s sleaziness as well as his star-crossed love for Renee (not Raymonde, who adores him).

This Criterion release of the film contains three video supplements. A 1994 video documentary about Carné’s work hails him as the “maker of six masterpieces,” from Drole de Drame (1937) to Children of Paradise (1945). An array of his stars (Aumont, Michele Morgan, Annie Girardot, Jean Gabin [in archival footage]) and collaborators (including d.p. Henri Alekan) praise him and excuse his “demanding” ways. Although the spotlight is clearly on his half-dozen masterpieces, we do learn about the rest of his career, including his debut as part of a “new wave” of documentarians in the late 1920s, who made low-budget, silent documentaries focused on cities and their inhabitants. (Jean Vigo is the best-known name in this loose-knit group of filmmakers.)

A 1972 introduction to the film for a TV airing contains interviews with Carné, Aumont, Arletty and Jeanson in archival footage. Arletty praises the roles of Raymonde and Edmond, saying they were “gifts from heaven” for she and Jouvet, who were able to basically upstage Annabella and Aumont.  Carné attributes this to Jeanson’s personally liking Arletty and Jouvet and writing the roles to suit their range as actors, thus “switching things” from what was intended and making the story of the younger lovers “flimsy.”

Aumont acknowledges that he was aware of the fact that the “supporting” players had become the stars of the film, but he felt fine with that, since Jouvet had been a kind of mentor to him in his work onstage and on film. Although Carné is not exactly shy about singing the film’s praises, Arletty surpasses him by noting that he was the key reason it worked so well, as “he could hear an actor’s music” and let them shine in equal measure.

The sole supplement shot for this release is a great one, with journalist Philippe Morisson interviewing filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) about his love for Carné’s films. The conversation starts right off with Jeunet praising the “poetic realism” that Carné and Prévert were known for. He defines those films as “having realistic stories, embellished with a certain poetry by means of lighting, dialogue, sets,  fog and atmosphere.” Jeunet declares that he tried to recreate that style in films like Amélie, with he and his fellow scripter aiming for “Parisian poetry” and encouraging each other to “Carné-cize” the look of the film.

The pair also defend Carné from Francois Truffaut’s famous summation of the director’s work as “Prévert films, shot by Carné.” Jeunet spotlights Carné’s attention to his cast, pointing out that he was “passionate about his supporting actors,” using the same people in film after film.

Jeunet also rhapsodizes about Trauner’s sets and their “forced perspective,” which he describes as the camera being “in a specific spot” with the set getting “gradually smaller in the distance.” The filmmaker’s Trauner-mania is revealed to be quite heartfelt. He shows off his collection of Trauner’s original sketches for various films, including one for Hotel du Nord.

He also owns stills and posters for Carné’s films, and an original typewritten script for Hotel du Nord. The filmmaker says he has watched the film at home, following along with the script to see what was changed by the actors on-set. Of his Carné collectibles, he maintains, “I consider myself their custodian, not their owner,” saying they will most likely end up in the Cinémathèque Française after his death.

Buy or Rent Hotel du Nord

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”