Actor Appreciation: Jean Gabin

This semester I'm in a French and Italian cinema class since I don't have very many required credits left and I have an unhealthy obsession with film. My favorite thing so far has been the super French, super masculine, yet super subtle Jean Gabin.

I've seen two of his films so far, Daybreak (1939) and
The Grand Illusion (1937). He's got a stoic, yet good-spirited appeal as well as a glorious head of hair.

Daybreak, Gabin (seen center) plays François in one of his classic "casquette" roles where he wears the working man's hat. It begins with him fatally shooting a man and locking himself in his apartment. From there, we see three flashbacks where the story leading up to the murder is told. In the flashbacks, François is pursuing the sweet Françoise. Then things start to get tangled: he starts a relationship with a stage girl named Clara (seen right), but can never excape Valentin (seen left) who not only used to be Clara's boss, but has some sort of relationship with Françoise as well. That tangled mess eventually leads to the murder.

In most of the flashbacks, François is a mellow every man, but a strong character. He's polite to the women in his life and even shows Valentin common courtesy. This is in stark contrast to his morose post-murder self who's on edge and chain smoking. We even see François freak out a few times, but Jean Gabin is never histrionic. Somehow even the most emotionally charged moments are subtle. And while the film itself is simple (despite the form) and fairly commonplace (guy meets and pursues girl), M. Gabin is never dull, but absolutely interesting since every subtle movement tells his character's story.

In The Grand Illusion, Gabin plays Lt. Maréchal (at left), a working man conscripted to the French army in WWI. Maréchal is a prison of war with several other men. They fend off bordom by staging musical numbers, studying obscure languages, or digging a hole to escape depending on their individual talents. The escape angle is where most of the film is focused. We get the idea that they want to escape, not because the conditions are terrible (in fact, the German's in charge of the prison are rather sympathetic), but because they don't have anything else to do. POWs escape because that's what they do.

What makes this such an engaging film is that Gabin is just one of many popular French actors in the film. It feels a little like
The Magnificent Seven* or the Ocean's movies where it's just fun to see all these big name actors interact. I'm not too familiar with French cinema, but all these actors have a strong charisma of their own, making it a delight to see them all together. When ensemble casts work, they're my absolute favorite.

Although Jean Gabin does begin to stand out as the film progresses and the characters thin out. We follow him to a new prison, through a successful escape, and then see him taken in by a kind German woman. For most of the film, he's good-natured, makes jokes about the prison camp and the German officers. But then, just like in
Daybreak, we see him break down a few times: once while he's in solitary confinment and once while having a fight with his fellow escapee. Each of these occasions is quickly followed by a return of his optimistic spirit.

This is in support of the films overall feel that people are inherently good and don't want to fight wars. That nationalism and duty is just a façade (a grand illusion, perhaps) that people follow through without any passion. Jean Gabin's character is respectful of the officers, other prisoners, and of the woman who takes him and his fellow escapee in. It's a lovely vision that could have only been made pre-WWII. The director himself, Jean Renoir, later admitted that his pacifist views might be outdated after Hitler, but the message still rings true for me.

I'll have to investigate more Jean Gabin films in the future. Known as one of the quintessential actors France's golden age, he really is fantastic and a joy to watch.

*Probably The Great Escape is a better comparison, but I haven't seen that one yet.

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