The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Such a Pretty Little Beach.
Pierre, a young and disillusioned man, arrives at a small hotel in a seaside town in northern France. In the cold, driving rain of the resort’s off-season, he wanders its deserted beach haunted by his past. His gloomy demeanor raises the suspicions of the hotel’s staff and guests, including an unsavory and mysterious man who arrives shortly after him and who takes a peculiar interest in Pierre. Yves Allégret’s Such a Pretty Little Beach is a gorgeously melancholic work of film noir aesthetics that evokes the fatalism of French poetic realism, shot by the great cinematographer Henri Alekan and exploring for the first time the dramatic potential of its star Gérard Philipe.
- New 2K digital film restoration, with DTS-HD Master dual-mono soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Gérard Philipe: The Beginnings of a Child Prodigy, a video retrospective featuring interviews with French writers and filmmakers including Gérard Bonal, Alain Ferrari, Olivier Barrot, and Francis Huster
- A 1973 episode of Au cinéma ce soir with interviews of Yves Allégret, Jacques Sigurd, and Jean Servais
- Short, music-only film from the Gaumont Pathé Archives on the children of the state orphanages
- Alternate ending
- Photo gallery
- PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by French film scholar Susan Hayward
In the 1930s, French classical cinema reached new heights with poetic realism, a film style that offered a tragic and fatalistic view of life for the common man with a stylish black and white look that rooted film noir in the decade that followed. The melancholy airs of poetic realism gave way to what Susan Hayward called “cynical pessimism,” as France struggled to recapture its identity in the wake of World War II and its national trauma and guilt. Most cinephiles associate this “new bitterness” with the work of Henri-Georges Clouzot, but Yves Allégret stands as an under-appreciated genius in his own regard. François Truffaut asserted that Allégret and writer Jacques Sigurd “bequeathed the French cinema some of its blackest masterpieces.” Such a Pretty Little Beach (1949) gloomily stands among the best of Allégret’s films, and with Henri Alekan shooting, the film harkens back to the marginal characters, the defeated sentimentality, and the heightened aesthetics of French cinema a decade earlier.
On a rainy night, a young, pleasant-looking man (Gérard Philipe) rides in a bus through the rain to a small seaside resort. The driver chats with an elderly female passenger and a man picking up parcels delivered by the bus. They talk about the day-to-day trivialities of life – bad drivers, sick relatives, delayed packages. The young man smiles, but doesn’t participate. He is caught out of time, running from the present to a haunted past and an uncertain future. When told by the driver as he leaves the bus that he’s “in for bad weather,” he grins and replies, “Certainly.” He knows his fate, aware that sunny days are behind him. Checking into the town’s only open hotel as “Pierre,” he lies about his occupation, skips the broken step on the staircase going up to his room, handles a pistol hidden in suitcase, and cries himself to sleep. The invalid father to the hotel’s proprietor is alarmed at his presence, but his muteness conceals any warning he might offer. Pierre claims his visit is treatment for “nerves” but obviously the cause of his despondent spirit is far darker than the townsfolk might guess. In the days that follow, he spends the majority of his time wandering through the town and across the beach in the rain, his overcoat getting soaked, lost in memory. He develops a languished romance with the unappreciated hotel girl Marthe (Madeleine Robinson) and reaches out to the 15 year-old orphan also working at the hotel in abject servitude (Christian Ferry), but the boy takes an immediate and certain dislike to Pierre.
Such a Pretty Little Beach is too fatigued and too hopeless to resist the encroachment of the past into its seemingly stalled present, and overdetermined details mark that gradual ingress. Pierre reveals to the orphan that he used to work as he did, suffering the same hardships and indignities. The murder of a famous chanteuse in Paris sets the few guests and staff of the hotel abuzz, and the hotel owner (Jane Marken) recounts how the singer had briefly been through the town years ago, taking the 16 year-old orphan worker with her. Pierre, disturbed by the elderly man’s accusing gaze and maddened by the music of the dead singer, lashes out and throws the record-player from atop the hotel’s bar. Fred (Jean Servais), the strange guest that arrived shortly after Pierre and who follows him closely, eventually confronts Pierre, demanding the singer’s jewels. Pierre admits to killing her, saying he “couldn’t take it [his gigolo-life at her beck and call] anymore,” but denies having the precious items. Fred leaves, but contacts the police before departing. Marthe and the garage keeper George (André Valmy) make arrangements for Pierre to escape to Belgium, but Pierre knows he is too haunted by the ghost of his former lover/captor to continue on.
As Vivian Sobchack has noted, film noir relies on liminal spaces and characters. The drifters, lounge singers, and fallen women of noir’s bars, flophouses, bus stations, and all-nite diners seem equally at home with the lonely souls of La bête humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938), Pépé le moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937), Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné, 1938). The resort town nearly abandoned during the off-season, the barely inhabited hotel remaining open, and the few guests that linger in Allégret’s film epitomize the transitory worlds of film noir and poetic realism. Sunnier days feel that much farther away from the vantage point of Such a Pretty Little Beach‘s empty, windswept coast, seeming almost dystopian in its forbidding landscape and decrepit architecture. Allégret’s film was released in the US as Riptide, but the often repeated title Une si jolie petite plage (translated literally as Such a Pretty Little Beach) better conveys the defeated and desperate nature of the film, sounding initially like a quaint, somewhat condescending compliment while quickly assuming an ironic and despairing meaning.
Hayward’s “cynical pessimism” and “new bitterness” is on full display in Such a Pretty Little Beach. The hotel’s owner berates and slaps her orphan worker, and suggests that the town market itself to TB suffers and casino-goers alike. Fred fosters the cynicism of the hotel’s orphan worker, advising him that “Love doesn’t exist. Never believe in it, but make the most of it.” The elderly female hotel guest (who exploits sexual liaisons with the 15 year-old orphan in secret) laments the singer’s murder, saying “Men are monsters … Women only want love … Love pardons all,” unaware of the chanteuse’s harms to Pierre and his deadly inability to forgive her. Fred warns Pierre that killing the singer will torment him – “She’s worse dead than she was alive. You’ll see.” There is a craven and pathetic self-interest and a ruined acquiescence that saturates Such a Pretty Little Beach, but the lovelorn performances of Philipe and Robinson and the luxurious cinematography of Alekan provide the film with a tragically romantic air that is seductive in its austerity. The film longs for a past that never was – when people were kinder, when days were brighter, when the rain stopped falling and the simple pleasures of sand and seawater were enjoyable – and finds hope in the ability to still feel regret.
The near constant rain and the moody, monochromatic visuals of Such a Pretty Little Beach fills the film with an array of gorgeous visuals. It seems so very natural in this instance to let Henri Alekan’s beautiful images stand on their own and provide the material for a cover treatment. Any number of images could be used, but this image of Pierre standing at the cusp of the titular beach seems as good as any. Just looking at Pierre here, being aware of Gérard Philipe’s untimely death just days before turning 37 and leaving only a handful of films to be remembered by, we can’t help but feel the heartache and taste the salt air.
Credits: Such a Pretty Little Beach already has an excellent Blu-ray edition in a region-free format released by Pathé. Most of the special features are unfortunately region-encoded and not subtitled, but we’ve included here the French Blu-ray’s full compliment of extras including the retrospective on Philipe, the TV episode, and the Pathé short film. Susan Hayward is an excellent French film scholar and a friend to the Collection who speaks with high regard for Allégret and the film, and so she was an easy choice to provide a booklet essay.
Big thanks once again to Speakeasy and Silver Screenings for organizing this clever blogathon and letting us participate. This simple topic has resulted in a wonderful variety of films and some excellent posts. Please head over to their blogs and check out some of the great writing being offered in The Beach Party Blogathon!