Originally premiering at this year’s Canne Film Festival, the new 4k restoration of Jean Grémillon’s Lady Killer (1937), aka Gueule d’amour (1937), is headed for the US, opening August 4th at Metrograph NYC where it will screen for a one-week engagement alongside the film The Strange Mister Victor (1938), a lesser-known film from Grémillon showing off its 4k restoration.
Set in 1936, the film follows Lucien Bourrache (Jean Gabin, (Grand Illusion, Port of Shadows)), a handsome non-commissioned officer in the French Spahi. His looks, loose speech, and womanizing habits have earned him the roughish local nickname, “Gueule d’amour,” the “Mouth of Love.”
On leave to Mandelieu for a day to receive an unexpected inheritance, Lucien encounters a beautiful vamp by the name of Madeline (Mireille Balin (Pépé le Moko, Threats)). Both beautiful and sought after, Lucien and Madeline find an escape from their pretty privilege in each other, two unattainable objects colliding, fighting to see which one will come out on top. After the two flirts go tit-for-tat all over town, Madeline abandons Lucien on her front step, having stolen his inheritance and his heart.
Parting ways with his best friend René (René Lefèvre (Le Doulos, The Crime of Monsieur Lang), who stays at their station in Orange to start his own private medical practice, Lucien exits military service to pursue Madeline in Paris.
“I’ve had my reckoning”
Upon his arrival, Lucien experiences the short end of a disinterested affair, hanging on Madeline’s every word, running at her beck and call, talking himself in circles rationalizing her hot and cold affections. Once a man of high status in a small town, he finds himself a low man in a big city, enough to tempt his lover, but not to keep her. Rubbing up against other, richer men about town, he must eventually try to weaponize his sexuality against Madeline and her world in order to try and gain a stronger foothold in it. He has become the women he preyed upon.
Balin sells the whole thing as Madeline, a woman accustomed to being used by men for pleasure and using men for money, she thrills in being able to use another, Lucien, for pure pleasure, visiting upon him the same kind of domination and lack of agency that makes up her own life.
As the two battle for each other’s heart, they become entangled in a maze of lies, confrontations, and clandestine meetings on the streets of Paris. Slowly, the fallout of this lovers’ duel begins to spread, affecting the livelihoods and love lives of those around them.
A tale of hubris, misogyny, and queer subtext, Lady Killer flips the convention of the kept woman on its head. Proving to be a foundational noir, the stark lighting and deep shadows gleam in this new restoration. One sequence in particular, a low point for Lucien alone in a café, is particularly breathtaking for its shadows. In one shot, a majestic scene plays out as shadow puppets on the stony street. In the next, Gabin stands isolated in space and in time, momentarily defeated by his own past and by Madeline.
Throughout the picture, the photography oscillates between traditionally covered interiors and grand, operatic exteriors, turning Paris into a claustrophobic trap and Orange into a land of mythic figures, until it all comes crashing down, the mythic hero trapped in the now shadowy walls of Orange.
While the film centers around two people bored by their lives, the audience won’t risk the same sentiment. Snappily paced, helmed by a romantic pair with great on-screen chemistry, the film whizzes by at 90 minutes flat. Between the crisp 4k restoration and a culture more open to director Jean Grémillon’s bisexuality and queer readings, few have had as good an opportunity to enjoy this forgotten French classic as Metrograph NYC’s audience this week. Don’t miss it.
Playing at Metrograph NYC August 4th-10th, 2023.
For more information or to purchase tickets, head to the official Metrograph Lady Killer webpage.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.