Jean Grémillon’s first talkie, the 1930 LA PETITE LISE, is anything but talky. While opening
and closing with soulful afro-Latin strains, something just above silence reigns throughout
the film. Grémillon is already orchestrating the auditory menace of nuanced sound sculpting
that would later pervade REMORQUES (1941), setting forth evolving rhythmic figures at an
atmospheric whisper. Grémillon grafts this aural frieze onto smoldering b&w photography.
Truly, the frame is often smoking for purposes of motif.
In truth, this film has the most impressive use of sound I know of, including Bresson’s
MOUCHETTE. It’s up for speculation as to how much technical issues played into his
creative use of sound and off-screen. What is of particular note is that instead of milking the
capability of sync sound dialogue, Grémillon uses it very sparingly, increasing the range of
expressiveness. An abstract score of atmospheric insinuation is always in accompaniment
with the imagery tonally, rhythmically and dynamically. Listening carefully, ambient sound isever at work in a subliminal music score.
The story of LA PETITE LISE belongs to the sandbox of melodrama, but Grémillon grinds it
into expressionistic minimalism. What is this story? Perhaps it will suffice to say that it is
the reunion of a father fresh out of prison with his daughter now grown up, all prepared
under a pressure cooker of lens and mic. Conflagrations arise periodically from the embers
of troubled quiet, with lighting flickering to and from peaks of intensity. Emblazoned
gestures extend from the sustain of affective brood, while conversations flare up before
subsiding back into the simmering cauldron.
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