Hôtel Du Nord Review

Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord, made in the years immediately preceding the Nazi invasion of France, is a fine example of the “poetic realism” style that the director would become famous for - often in collaboration with poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert - on films such as Quai des Brumes and Les Enfants du Paradis.

A young man and woman, Pierre and Renée, enter the Hôtel du Nord in a poor working class district of Paris near the St. Martin canal, and take out a room where they plan to commit suicide together. The attempt fails – leaving Renée wounded and Pierre fleeing the room after the intervention of a neighbour, Edmond, who has heard the gunshot.
After her recovery in hospital, Renée is drawn back to the Hôtel du Nord, where she is offered a job as a maid. The romance of her near miss with death in the very same hotel means that the young woman holds a strange fascination for all the hotel’s other clients. Renée however still has a deep attraction for the imprisoned boy who tried to kill her, and her presence and temperament begin to upset the balance of affairs and marriages that up to then had been getting along, if not blissfully, at least tolerantly.

With his regular screenwriter Prévert unavailable to script the adaptation of Eugène Dabit’s novel, Hôtel du Nord was adapted by Jean Aurenche and scripted by Henri Jeanson, but retains a curious blend of poetic observance and social realism. Thus we have grandiloquent words and gestures, romantic double suicides and florid declarations of love, all taking place in the decidedly unromantic setting of a rundown hotel in a rough neighbourhood of Paris, where crime, murder, prostitution, infidelity and battery of women takes place. Even homosexuality is alluded to here, as another of those activities that take place after dark that everyone turns a blind eye to. Any sense of a gritty treatment of social and working class issues is dispelled not only by the romanticised dialogue, but by the remarkable recreation of a large section of the Canal St Martin outside the French film studio at Bilancourt, which also adds to the heightened other-worldly quality of the film.

All this lends the film a deeply romantic, fatal fascination, with great performances from an exceptional cast. And it is in the casting that the film really takes shape, with great actors like Arletty as the prostitute Raymonde and Louis Jouvert’s pimp and gangster Edmond greatly playing up secondary roles that would overshadow the romantic leads of Annabella’s Renée and Jean-Pierre Aumont’s Pierre. In doing so, they help restore balance between the poetic theatricality and the social realism and keep Hôtel du Nord from being more than just a romantic curiosity of early French cinema.

Hôtel du Nord is released on DVD in the UK by Soda Pictures as the first release under their newly established Soda Vintage label, giving releases to classic films as yet unavailable on DVD. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is encoded for Region 2.

The video transfer for the film – a port of the unsubtitled MK2 French edition - is excellent. The image quality of this 70 year film is little short of astonishing, showing remarkable clarity and a full range of greyscale tones. There are a few little skips, jumps and wobbles occasionally, but this is no doubt attributable to the condition of the original source material and the restoration work undertaken on it. Only one very short scene seems to be from a different, lesser quality print, but otherwise there are no extant marks or scratches or damage of any kind. Inevitably with MK2, there are some compression issues, with objects wavering against backgrounds occasionally. This is particularly noticeable in the very last scene of the film. There was also one serious flaw where the image broke-up on my copy of the disc, a DVD-R checkdisc, but I suspect that this will not be an issue on the retail copy of the disc.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is quite basic, but this is as good as it gets for a film that is 70 years old. Like the image, it has also undoubtedly been well restored and dialogue is consequently quite clear, with little in the way of troublesome background noise or crackle.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are always clearly readable. They are optional.

Soda have not carried across the fine extra features on the MK2 release (reviewed here by Mark Boydell), but it does include an excellent Introduction (18:18) to the film by Paul Ryan, who sets the context of Carné’s work in poetic realism and his alignment with the left-wing Popular Front, as well as providing plenty of facts, anecdotes and background information on the writers, the performers and the shooting of the film. It would be relatively spoiler-free and serve as an introduction, except that they include a lot of scenes from the film. The long, unsubtitled Trailer (4:27) is very much a highlights montage. Old and scratchy, it only serves to show how stunning the presentation of the feature is in comparison. A Picture Gallery shows four stills from the film.

Following Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release of Jean Renoir’s Toni earlier this month, it’s great to see Soda Pictures also delving into the back catalogue of classic French cinema, with an equally impressive transfer as the first release on their Soda Vintage label. Hôtel du Nord’s poetic realism could hardly be further removed from Renoir’s early neo-realism, but it’s also an intriguing example of popular French cinema as well as cinema of the people. It’s a rather more romanticised look at the working classes, their lives and their aspirations, but it similarly retains a curious fascination in the fatalistic quality of its storyline.

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