Grémillon's film presents the truth, which is political but rarely correct, if we understand “correct” to be the just order of things.
The French master Jean Grémillon made his second talkie Daïnah la métisse in 1931, at the dawn of the sound age. Yet this tale of the fatal encounter between a mixed-race woman and a ship mechanic on an ocean liner bound for New Caledonia leaves its disturbing themes of racial and class discrimination unspoken. The issues are as in your face and complicated as they are now, but relayed in purely visual, cinematic terms that leave the viewer to sort through the discomfort alone. Today we privilege comfort: to write this appreciation, I researched the politically correct translation of the French term métisse, which refers to a person of mixed black and white parentage. Grémillon did not have Google to give him answers, but I doubt he would have looked. His images presented the truth, which is political but rarely correct, if we understand “correct” to be the just order of things.
In 1931, Grémillon’s truth was uncomfortable enough that producer Gaumont amputated the film and released it in the forty-minute version that survives today. Yet its terrible essence remains: in Daïnah la métisse, the ship’s only woman of color vanishes into the ocean and one of the many mechanics working in the grease and fury of the engine room is killed. Some tuxedoed dandies momentarily miss the beauty Daïnah, then return to the ship’s ballroom. The boat sails on, the dance continues. The message is clear: these two people were dispensable.
The visual electricity of early film still buzzes through Daïnah: seeing an ocean liner cut across the water feels like twentieth-century magic. Grémillon films the ship with a symphonic array of angles, using handrails and grated staircases to create slashing lines and plunging shadows, creating a rhythm that initially feels like communications from another planet, then gradually becomes familiar, until our last sight of the ship leaving its temporary scar across the ocean is as routine as the vanishing of a second class citizen. Calling Grémillon’s direction magical is not film buff mumbo jumbo, but the recognition of a medium that was still a young art, a cutting edge not yet dulled by an industry that did not quite know what it had on its hands. We have lost that raw excitement today—too many films and too many cameras—but the good news is that it is unshakeable, it leaps across the ages and pulls you into the turmoil of young Grémillon’s passion.
Passion was his major theme. He was a director of furious love, death at first sight, passion as frenzied impulse. One night on deck, the tall and melancholy Daïnah meets the robust mechanic Michaux as he comes off his shift. She is a woman fawned over by rich white passengers and severely loved by a black husband who stays in his cabin when he is not performing as the ship’s magician. Michaux is direct, coarse in his friendliness. For a flicker of a moment, she sees past class and race, past marital bonds, and feels the excitement of the unfamiliar, which the viewer has experienced with the initial shock of the film’s quick, harsh angles of a ship tearing into the ocean. It is a flicker, nothing more, a young woman alive to the moment, but it costs them both their lives. Grémillon was not a pamphleteer and Daïnah is not a lynching movie. The protagonists do not die because of who they are—a mixed-race woman and a proletarian—but because of who we all are. Passion transcends class and color lines. It can be ugly and murderous. Michaux kills Daïnah and Daïnah’s husband kills Michaux. But the film resonates because Daïnah and Michaux’s deaths do not resonate among the happy few cruising the ocean.
Like Jean Renoir, Grémillon portrayed a leisure society impervious to everything including its own pleasure. But unlike Renoir, Grémillon made his point with startlingly avant-garde images. We’ll never know what Gaumont did to the film, but it was clearly incapable of squashing the intensity of the sequence in which Daïnah’s husband performs his magic show. Working in silence, with nothing of the ingratiating ringmaster, he summons a dove from a crystal ball. Though there is never a word spoken about a costume party, the audience watches in grotesque masks resembling the caricatures of George Grosz. The horror is not in the distortion of their features but in the permanently unmoving faces, as unresponsive to this magic show bordering on holy mass as they will be to the murders. Only Daïnah stands out, her features visible beneath the sleek cage she wears over her head. But she remains an enigma. Her husband hurtles a dagger through the air and disappears in a column of smoke. Daïnah screams, breaks a glass, runs out of the room. But she remains an enigma, fated to the ocean.
Daïnah la métisse is the opening night film in the Cahiers du Cinéma series French Cinema’s Secret Trove at FIAF. It screens on May 6 at 7:30 PM and will be introduced by filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie and Cahiers du Cinéma deputy editor Jean-Philippe Tessé.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB. He co-programmed the series French Cinema’s Secret Trove with Delphine Selles-Alvarez.