Criterion Review: HÔTEL DU NORD

Carné’s 1938 drama depicts working class characters in pre-war Paris.

A troubled young couple interrupts a celebration in a hotel bar to ask for a room. Thus Hôtel du Nord, the 1938 film by Marcel Carné, begins. Although the central story of the movie follows this couple and the repercussions of that night, the characters making up the supporting cast are so fascinating that one finds themselves more intrigued by their storylines instead. Carné and screenwriter Henri Jeanson (along with Jean Aurenche, who receives an adaptation credit) flesh out the ensemble, such as a prostitute and her pimp and other guests and employees of the hotel, and they compel the viewer to keep watching despite the melodramatic leanings of the main couple’s plotline.

Renée (Annabella, Wings of the Morning) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Lili, Day for Night) are ill-fated lovers with little money, feeling so doomed that they have struck a suicide pact. After their plans go awry, Pierre goes on the run and Renée finds a job at the hotel, missing her lover yet taking up with an older man, Edmond (Louis Jouvet). There is not much to Renée besides her beauty — she’s an orphan, she fell for poor artist Pierre as a teen, and that’s about all we are shown. Her character seems more of an excuse for the viewer to learn more about the men who interact with her.

As the drama of the young lovers unfolds, Hôtel du Nord introduces us to prostitute Raymonde (Arletty, who would go on to appear in other films by Carné), who is stuck in a toxic relationship with Edmond, her pimp. Raymonde is gifted the most memorable line in the film, a disgusted comment about “atmosphere” that struck a chord with French audiences at the time.

The film throws in an affair involving a married couple and their friend (all occupants of the hotel) and an appearance from a gay hotel resident, and ends with a crowded Bastille Day fest that lasts through the wee hours of the morning. Knowing how much depth and screen time the ensemble is allowed, it’s pretty easy to see how Renée got short shrift.

While Carné’s film was shot on a studio lot, the crew made full use of the space, especially in the aforementioned Bastille Day party sequence. These working class characters are shot beautifully, whether on a bridge as a steam train passes under, or crossing over the footbridge near the hotel, or standing in a hallway. The forced perspective in Alexandre Trauner’s set design and the carefully considered framing of shots by cinematographers Armand Thirard and Louis Née add to the feeling of poetic realism that Carné would become known for.

Special features on the Criterion release include:

  • A lovely, clear 2K digital restoration with updated English subtitles
  • A 2022 conversation between filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amélie) and writer Philippe Morisson filmed for this Criterion package. Jeunet talks about Carné’s influence on his films and his own attempts at“poetic realism. The discussion also covers the “deceptive lightheartedness” of Hôtel du Nord, the importance of supporting characters in the films of Carné, and Jeunet’s personal collection of Carné memorabilia.
  • A making-of short from 1972 made to introduce the film on French TV. This short provides historical context for the 1938 work, which was filmed during the time of the Munich Agreement, which gave Czechoslovakian borderlands to Germany. The TV special also incorporates interviews from 1969 with director Carné, performers Arletty and Aumont, and screenwriter Jeanson. Carné addresses his choice to film on a set (for logistical reasons, he says), praises the cinematography by Thirard, and speaks to his own “unity of style.”
  • Carné, You Said Carné, a 1994 documentary short on Carné. French film historians talk about the filmmaker’s desire to depict everyday working people and how he learned on the job as an assistant director. Various crew members discuss Carné’s exacting nature, and the short examines the challenges that Carné faced creating films in occupied France, as well as his difficulties adapting to the culture of the 1950s.
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