Hotel du Nord (Cert PG)

1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 97 minutes approx.

“This story has no victim nor culprit, only two accomplices”

For the most part this is true, but things have a habit of getting out of hand and drawing others into the mess that has been created. But whilst for some there is the possibility of redemption, not everyone will be so fortunate.

The titular Hotel du Nord stands on the banks of the Canal St. Martin in Paris, run by Emile (André Brunot) and Louise Lecouvreur (Jane Marken). One night, a young couple, Renée (Annabella) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) arrive and take a room, having made a suicide pact with Pierre to shoot Renée first then himself. However, Pierre didn’t have the nerve to shoot himself.

Another guest, photographer Edmond (Louis Jouvet) hears the gunshot and runs into the room, catching Pierre standing over Renée’s body, but he lets Pierre go. The next day Pierre gives himself up to the police, but Renée didn’t die and after recovering returns to the hotel with the Lecouvreurs giving her a job. Edmond then falls in love with Renée and thinks they may have a future together but what is he hiding?

Fawlty Towers may not be the only hotel where a corpse causes problems for the staff and the other guests, but at least for beleaguered Basil and co. their deceased guest had the decency to stay dead. Flippancy aside, this adaption of the novel by Eugene Dabit, whose parents actually owned the real Hotel du Nord, might have some light moments but it is a quiet existential drama at heart.

Director Marcel Carné was a noted exponent of poetic realism in French cinema, making his name with such films as the proto-Noir Port of Shadows, which has been regarded as a classic, yet caused much controversy via the depiction of a deserting French soldier. Thus, Carné decided to avoid making another film with a political theme for the moment, choosing to adapt Dabit’s novel instead for his follow up.

Opening by setting the scene of the tight knit community the hotel is a part of, we find the Lecouvreurs hosting a celebration dinner for the First Communion of the daughter of a local police officer. It’s a typical French affair where everyone displays razor sharp wit in keeping the conversation flowing but the mood is convivial and festive. When it is time for cake, maid Ginette (Paulette Dubost) is told to take some to their guests upstairs, which presently is just Edmond and his feisty prostitute girlfriend Raymonde (Arletty).

When Renée and Pierre arrive, nobody questions the absence of luggage. One has to wonder if it is a wise move to commit suicide by gunshot in a building guaranteed to be populated at all hours of the day, a plot hole that is borderline unforgiveable. Or maybe they wanted to be found out, but this is never discussed – even the reason for the pact is gingerly explored.

The pressing question after Pierre shoots Renée – apart from why only Edmond seemed to hear the gunshot – is why Edmond let Pierre go. When the police come calling, he even denies that he saw Pierre. Since we are supposed to suspect this urbane but insular chap is actually a bad egg, this piles on the suspicion, bolstered by Raymonde’s lack of questioning Edmond’s honesty, as someone who supposedly knows him best.  

At this point, I would normally say “all is revealed eventually” but in fact, it isn’t. We are provided sufficient information to get a better reading on Edmond’s character, but like all good antagonists – for wanting a better term – there needs to be a little room for doubt. Indeed, when Renée returns, Edmond shows flickers of wanting to change but when she  suggests they run away together and start anew elsewhere, we can divine it will be less of what Renée will get from it and more how Edmond can twist it to his advantage.

Where there is a unsatisfactory gap in the story is the suicide pact and what Renée and Pierre are running from. The mystery behind Edmond only carries the film so far, but in understanding why Renée is so forgiving of Pierre, why he tries to hide his guilt by showing no remorse, and Renée’s willingness to partner up with Edmond, the path to the conclusion is left with too many loose cobbles.

In truth, these is the stronger of the two plots and may have been covered in detail in the original novel, but in this telling, Renée and Pierre’s development serves mostly as a punctuation point for framing Renée’s role in Edmond’s journey. Unless it was considered too heavy a subject to discuss on film in 1938, our doomed lovers come across a bit flaky when an exploration into their history, feelings and mindset, would have made for a fascinating study.

Carné may have put his poetic realism approach on old for this film but elements of it are present in many scenes, such as during a busy night in the hotel restaurant, or when Renée is cleaning the rooms. In the prison visit scenes, the shot composition and Pierre’s body language also feels very natural, whilst Carné gives it extra potency by shooting Pierre in a bleak half light, while Renée is lit up to symbolise her hopeful demeanour.

Something else to look out for is the film’s opening and closing shots because they are the same tracking shot! In the opener, the camera swoops down towards a tree standing next to a bridge, then swings round before slowly moving in to the street by the canal where the hotel stands; to end, the camera takes the same path but in reverse, leaving the location behind. Simple but genius.

Hotel Du Nord eventually reveals itself as a tidy noir thriller wrapped around a curious moral quandary with the power still to engage thanks to this superb new HD transfer from Arrow Video.

Extras:

French Language Mono 1.0 PCM

English HOH Subtitles

Au cinéma ce soir – Marcel Carné on Hôtel du Nord

Introduction to Hôtel du Nord by Paul Ryan

Image gallery

Original trailer

Reversible Sleeve

 

Rating – ***

Man In Black