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Hotel du Nord: Criterion Collection
Marcel Carné, the French director known for the "poetic realism" of films like Children of Paradise, is considered a foundational filmmaker in his homeland -- and a relative "deep cut" in the States. His 1938 film Hôtel du Nord is just now seeing its first U.S. disc release, courtesy of The Criterion Collection (DVD Talk reviewed a Region 2 DVD version back in 2006).
Unlike the bookending Carné films, Port of Shadows (1938) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939) -- both of which Criterion previously released on DVD --, Hôtel du Nord was not written by Carné's famous collaborator, Jacques Prévert. In the '50s, the Cahiers du Cinéma crew snarkily posited the theory that Prévert was the true poet (poetry was his day job, after all) and Carné was just his lackey. However, Hôtel du Nord offers ample evidence that Carné was far more sensitive and inventive than Truffaut & co. were willing to admit.
The central story of Hôtel du Nord is the stuff of classic melodrama. A young couple, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renée (Annabella), are down on their luck. They are too broke to get married, so they decide to rent a room at the working-class Hôtel du Nord as their final resting place. Pierre is supposed to shoot Renée and quickly follow suit. When the moment comes, Pierre shoots Renée but chokes when he has to turn the gun on himself. Edmond (Louis Jouvet), a pimp living down the hall, discovers the scene and tells Pierre to split before the cops arrive.
But Renée survives. The self-hating Pierre turns himself in and tries to convince Renée that he's done with her. (Of course, he's actually about as done with her as when little Timmy tells his pet collie Lassie to run away because he doesn't like her anymore.)
Carné counterpoints and entwines Renée and Pierre's story with that of Edmond and his streetwalking girlfriend Raymonde (Arletty). If Renée and Pierre are fresh and romantic (to a fault), Edmond and Raymonde are too familiar, too resentful, and too worn out. It's no surprise that Edmond begins quietly pursuing Renée after the proprietors kindly offer the downtrodden young miss a waitress job at the hotel.
Of course, most of the hotel's male clientele also pursue Renée in their own ways. One of the best features of Hôtel du Nord is the way Carné keeps the main relationship stories fairly intimate, but does an excellent job of placing them firmly within the hustle and bustle of the hotel and the neighborhood in a way that's colorful and earthy. It all feels organic and honest, but elevated just enough.
It's worth noting that one of the few male characters at the hotel who doesn't pursue Renée is played by François Périer (Orpheus) as Adrien, a modest student who is explicitly gay (in an era where it was bold for character to be out, even in European cinema). The character is not the butt of jokes or portrayed as an outsider; Adrien is allowed to just be a normal part of the neighborhood tapestry. (Learning that Carné himself was gay possibly points to why.)
There are some technically daring crane and tracking shots in Hôtel du Nord but they feel appropriate and serve to place the characters in their world. It's a world that might appear rundown and dingy at first glance, but Carné clearly feels a fondness for every corner of what his camera sees. The effect is truly captivating.
Hôtel du Nord is packaged with a fold-out featuring an essay by Edward Baron Turk.
Sourced from a 2K restoration, this AVC-encoded 1080p 1.37:1 presentation is exemplary. Rich atmosphere, strong detail, nuanced contrast, organic grain and texture, and no distracting damage. It's hard to imagine a film of this vintage looking any better in a digital presentation.
The French LPCM mono soundtrack (with optional English subtitles) is a bit limited in range due to its age, but the mixture of dialogue, effects, and musical score by Maurice Jaubert is clean and clear.
(HD, 18:32) - Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and journalist Philippe Morisson discuss Carné's poetic approach to storytelling and its lingering influence, especially upon Amélie.
A belated but greatly worthwhile revival of a lesser-known gem by Children of Paradise director Marcel Carné. It looks stunning in this new presentation. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.