One of Jean Grémillon’s last great films, L’Étrange Madame X transcends the conventional melodrama of its time and contains echoes of the poetic realist style which Grémillon had earlier helped to forge in the 1930s. In common with much of this director’s work, the film is cruelly overlooked and exemplifies a kind of film whose surface impressions are cunningly belied by what lies beneath.
At first sight, L’Étrange Madame X appears to be a simple story about love and deception, of the kind that Hollywood would knock out by the dozen on a good day. Yet it is more than that. It is really a study of the power of love, how true love ennobles the human spirit and can allow an individual not only to survive adversity, but to triumph in a magnificent fashion. In many of his better films, Grémillon takes a familiar melodramatic situation and transforms it into a powerful character piece which exposes, with blistering lucidity, the frailties and strengths of his protagonists.
Whilst this is not quite Grémillon’s greatest film, it is a spellbinding work, intelligently scripted and elegantly crafted. Its main strength lies in the quality of the acting from a high calibre cast. Michèle Morgan’s performance, particularly at the end of the film, is a heart-breaking tour de force, making this one of her most memorable screen appearances. Here, she is cast opposite Henri Vidal, her husband at the time (who died within a decade of the film being made, aged 40). Vidal’s performance is nearly as impressive as Morgan’s and their on-screen romance has a genuine frisson of believability.
Although it is solidly anchored in the dreary, class-ridden aftermath of the Second World War, L’Étrange Madame X has a surprising modernity, which makes it one of Grémillon’s more accessible films. It belongs to a rare category of French film of this period which is equally an auteur piece and a prestige production. The filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague would recognise Grémillon as one of their own and he would escape the drubbing that they meted out to his contemporaries, Julien Duvivier and Jean Delannoy. Today, audiences can appreciate L’Étrange Madame X for what it is - an imaginatively made emotional roller-coaster that is irresistibly compelling, thanks to Grémillon’s masterful direction and the sublime contributions of his leading players. (© James Travers 2010, www.filmsdefrance.com)
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