Hôtel du Nord Review
When Arletty declaims "Atmosphère, atmosphère est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère ???" ("Atmosphere, atmosphere do I have a face of atmosphere ???"), she obviously does not measure the impact that this aftershock will have on the French cinephile. Over time, this famous tirade has metamorphosed into a testimony about the capacity of French Cinema, though directors like Jean Renoir (La Règle du Jeu), Marcel Carné (The Port of Shadows) or Jacques Becker (Touchez Pas au Grisbi), to mix social reality, the picturesque of an era and a certain form of poetry. For a few decades, before the New Wave came to turn everything upside down, these few directors, and many others in their wake, offered audiences many unforgettable films that critics all over the world have put in the pantheon of Cinema.
Hôtel du Nord tells the story of Renée (Annabella) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Day for Night), doomed lovers who plan to end their lives at the humble guesthouse. When Pierre shoots Renée but can’t pull the trigger on himself, he flees with help of a seedy criminal, Edmond (Louis Jouvet, Quai des Orfèvres) and his mistress Raymonde (Arletty, Les Enfants du paradis). Renée makes a surprise recovery and returns to the hotel to work as a maid.
Beyond one of the most famous repartees of French Cinema, there is above all, a fantastic study of characters and the depiction of a time which now seems very far away. Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Eugène Dabit -the son of the proprietors of the real Hôtel du Nord situated on the banks of the Canal St. Martin in Paris - the film offers a great playground for an outstanding ensemble cast made of newcomers and more accomplished actors, on the top of which stand Arletty and Jouvet.
The former plays is a street worker; a resolutely modern loose woman whose Parisian patter and slang can nowadays sound funny, but which is full of poetry. Behind these charming dialogues is hidden a deep and fascinating character. Raymonde is a woman of character. Admittedly she loves Edmond, but she does not hesitate to answer him and tell him what she thinks. In playing Raymonde, Arletty clearly imposed a modern heroine who foreshadows post-war feminist movements.
The latter, on the other hand, has little to envy Arletty for the picturesque: his gray suit, low hat, calm demeanour and well-weighed dialogue make him a strange yet endearing character. The actor, who had interpreted the role of Monsignor Soper in Carné’s previous film, Bizarre, Bizarre, once again demonstrates his talent by imposing his charisma in the film. Throughout the story, Edmond becomes the central character of the story and Jouvet transforms him into the real hero of Hôtel du Nord.
Alongside this duo, a plethora of characters creates the very special atmosphere of the film: the paternalistic boss of the hotel, his tender and protective wife, the young student (played by a young François Périer (Le Samouraï), the racist and suspicious policeman or even the smiling deceived husband (Bernard Blier, Quai des Orfèvres). This varied and endearing troupe gives life to the impressive sets entirely reconstructed by Alexandre Trauner in the Billancourt studios, which coupled with careful editing would make you swear the film has really been shot on the banks of the Canal St. Martin!
However, if the atmosphere works perfectly, Hôtel du Nord frustratingly lacks the dramatic intensity and poetry of Carné's greatest works (as witnessed by the scenes with the young lovers which repeatably threaten to lose the interest of the audience). Unlike The Port of Shadows, Le jour se lève or Les enfants du paradis, the hotel setting ends up prevailing over the story. Carné may strive to give power to his last act, it is ultimately the hotel, its cries, laughter and tears that the audience remembers. Screenwriter Henri Jeanson (Pépé le Moko), in whom Carné had all confidence, unashamedly seized the scenario to make it a backdrop for dialogues.
Therefore, it is not wrong to conclude that what Hôtel du Nord is missing is the imprint of Jacques Prévert. The poet who, alongside Carné, gave birth to The Port of Shadows or Les enfants du paradis, and who nourished his work with dramatic and poetic power which is not prevalent here. However, in spite of this, the film remains an astonishing piece of work which depicts 1930s Paris with true love for its picturesque yet endearing characters. Similarly to Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion or La règle du jeu, Hôtel du Nord remains a fantastic testimony of its time treated with both sobriety and modernity.
The film is presented in a very nice looking 1080p transfer respecting its 1.37:1 original aspect ratio. Although Hôtel du Nord looks really good on this release, it’s quite disappointing that the film didn’t benefit from a proper 4K, or even 2K, restoration to make it look even better. Nonetheless, the image is very clear and devoid of any scratches or imperfections. The level of grain seems fairly adequate whist retaining the feel and look of a 1930s film.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features a decent original 1.0 mono French track with optional English subtitles. The track is, overall, quite pleasing even if it feels relatively subdued throughout the duration of the film, especially in terms of voices, but nothing disturbing for the viewing. I haven’t noticed any scratches or other issues with it either.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray disc contains two extras:
Au cinéma ce soir: Marcel Carné on Hôtel du Nord (26min, French with English subtitles) - In this decently long and insightful archival interview from 1972, the French director explains how he got involved in the film after directing Quai des Brumes, the lead actress Annabella, the scenario and the book it adapts, the choice of the actors (especially the spotlight put on Arletty and Jouvet’s characters), the importance of the sets, the cinematography and the music.
This is a very interesting interview in which the famous director appears very affable and provides insightful information about many aspects of the film.
Introduction to Hôtel du Nord by Paul Ryan (19min, English with no subtitles) - In this very long introduction (in fact, more an analysis than an introduction…), the film historian revisits Carné’s classic film in between excerpts of the film. Ryan covers many similar aspects that are covered in the director’s interview, but he adds to this many interesting anecdotes, making it a very good complement to the other bonus.
Finally, Arrow Academy has added a nice image gallery and the original trailer.
Hotel du Nord (1938)
Dir: Marcel Carné | Cast: Annabella, Arletty, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Louis Jouvet | Writers: Eugène Dabit (novel), Henri Jeanson (adaptation), Henri Jeanson (dialogue), Jean Aurenche (adaptation)