By Daniel Eagan
Largely erased from film history, Louis Valray directed two independent features in France in the early 1930s. La belle de nuit and Escale (aka Thirteen Days of Love] are works of startling originality, hinting at the momentous changes to come with the Nouvelle Vague twenty years later. Both are being showcased with two-week screenings on the Museum of Modern Art’s Virtual Cinema.
Little is known about Valray’s background. Serge Bromberg, who oversaw the restoration of the features through his Lobster Films, first came across a nitrate print of Escale in the early 1990s. He obtained the rights to the movie from Valray’s grandson and released it on VHS.
“It was hardly watchable but that’s all there was,” Bromberg said. “The response was zero. You just spit in the ocean. We lost all our money and maybe sold 50 copies.”
When another print of Escale turned up in 2016, Bromberg asked the archive for any additional Valray material it held. That’s how he encountered La belle de nuit.
Adapted from a story by Pierre Wolff, La belle de nuit is a romantic drama of interlocking love stories that circle from one to another in a style reminiscent of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Valray’s harsh, cynical plotting fits easily into the Depression-fed stories of the time. What’s unexpected is his nimble visual style.
The lighting, composition, and editing in these two features show that Valray was familiar with world cinema: French directors like Renoir and Vigo, city symphonies like Menschen am Sontag, world cinema as well. He brought a fresh perspective to accepted styles, and took risks that were impossible in a studio system. Valray’s camera combs through his sets in strikingly fresh tracking shots, pausing over the detritus of a nightclub tabletop, ogling a line of working women in a bar, connecting characters through framing. He will block scenes from odd corners, find new angles to place the camera, pan in a tight close-up as a cocktail rises to a bored mouth.
Valray’s arsenal includes monumental close-ups, cuts based on sounds, shifting timelines, multiple points of view, tools rarely used in studio projects. What prompted his style?
“We don’t know where he came from,” Bromberg said. “No clue. Maybe he lived in the south of France. His films were shot in the GFFA Studio, Gaumont-Franco Film-Aubert, it was called the Victorine Studios when Gaumont took over. It’s in Nice. Rex Ingram shot his European features there. So maybe Valray was someone who was a Victorine helper or assistant.”
Filmmaking in the 1930s was an expensive, collaborative medium. With the introduction of sound, the process became even more demanding. Without equipment, stages, personnel, it was virtually impossible to make feature films. Doing so independently, without the backing of major studios and financiers, was foolhardy. Those who tried, as King Vidor did with Our Daily Bread, quickly returned to the ease and comfort of studio filmmaking.
And yet Valray and his wife Anne managed to produce, write, direct, and edit not one but two features by themselves. After filming a short, L’homme à la barbiche, they started Le belle de nuit a few months later. Shooting on location was challenging. Valray did not have the facilities for pre-recording tracks. The music in his films was live.
“Maybe he was a natural,” Bromberg mused about Valray’s abilities. “I guess it’s not by pure chance, he knew his business in a way. He invested a lot of money in a few shots, the long tracking shots. At the time equipment was so heavy, it required a crew with many people. Moving the camera took forever, it was very difficult actually.”
Escale elaborates on the themes Valray explored in La belle de nuit. A bored officer on a freighter meets a working woman trying to break free from her pimp. They find happiness on a distant island, only to be separated by chance and need.
It’s a fever-dream of a movie, one filled with liquor and drugs, and yet steeped in poetry. It’s a life of nightclubs, opium dens, tawdry songs, furtive meetings, pledges broken, love betrayed through coarse appetites or neglect or the longing for something new.
“He’s 39 when he does Escale,” Bromberg said. “There’s a strange mix of emotional, documentary, avant garde, poetry. A unique mastering of this. It’s anti-industrial in a way. I watched it and I thought, ‘What story is he telling me?’ Does he want me to believe in this story, or is it like a poem? Suppose this happens, suppose she falls in love, suppose this and suppose that.”
Valray knew the formulas for screenplays, knew how to cover scenes, how to execute transitions, to elicit the performances he wanted from his casts. And it’s clear that he wanted, if not expected, to make money in the cinema marketplace. His movies intersect with commercial film—romantic drama, suspense, musical, comedy—but Valray couldn’t be bothered to play by the rules.
“That’s exactly the same thing that happened with the Nouvelle Vague,” Bromberg said. “Basically what they would do in the late fifties and early sixties was everything that their elders and classic cinema would not do. They wanted to do things differently, but they didn’t really know where they were going. Just wherever their minds brought them.”
Escale has problems, some self-inflicted. An African character is drawn from uncomfortable stereotypes. It’s not always clear where the lead characters are. Some important exposition was either too expensive to film, or simply never written. Bromberg admitted that he didn’t fully understand the movie.
“A poet, someone with his vision, suddenly you have to deal with a story you don’t understand,” he explained. “Valray wants to tell you something, he makes a formally beautiful film, but then what exactly does he mean? When you see L’Atalante, what do you understand about it? When you hear poetry by Rimbaud or Verlaine, sometimes you understand it well, but sometimes you’re just out of it.”
Valray undertook these films without firm distribution plans, convinced that what he had to say was worth our attention. He had trouble finding theaters to screen them. (Remarkably, Dave Kehr, curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, found a November 9, 1942 Film Daily notice that Escale played at New York’s 55th Street Playhouse under the title Thirteen Nights of Love.)
“There are so many ways to sell a film,” Bromberg noted. “If you sold Escale for exploitation, that audience would have been very disappointed. Face it, as an artist Valray was very dark, very cynical. When he writes, he’s daring, he has no fear. You could instantly see that his films would bomb.”
Bromberg’s Lobster Films restored La belle de nuit from the original camera negative. He was surprised that even two prints of Escale could be found. The first was in poor condition, with splices and missing dialogue. The second print, located in 2016, was entered into a database as “incomplete, hardly any sound, image covered with spots.” Lobster Films oversaw 4K scans of both prints, followed by digital restoration, predominantly for sound.
Valray made one more film, the short Voyage de million, in 1947. After that he worked in a radio station in Nice, then in a chemical factory. He passed away in 1972.
La Belle de nuit and Escale are not perfect films, but they are extraordinary ones. On the surface they seem simple, but underneath they resist easy answers. Why do characters perform the way they do? Why do they make bad choices? Why do they hurt those around them? Why do people ruin themselves?