L'Étrange Madame X (1951)

aka: The Strange Madame X
Romance / Drama


L'Étrange Madame X photo
Étienne, a modest carpenter, believes he has found the perfect partner in Irène, a beautiful young woman who appears to be devoted to him. But Irène is not the simple housemaid she pretends to be. In truth, she is the wife of a wealthy man, living in a grand house where she plays hostess at her frequent soirées to the cream of Parisian society. Irène is content with her double life until the day she discovers she is pregnant with Étienne's child. After the baby is born, Irène promises to marry Étienne, without telling him that she must first persuade her present husband to agree to a divorce. Étienne's hopes for future happiness are dashed when the business he attempts to set up fails and his child falls dangerously ill. The final blow comes when he visits Irène at the house where she claims to work and discovers the truth that she has long concealed from him...
© filmsdefrance.com 2013

Film Review

Film poster
For any true admirer of Jean Grémillon's work, L'Étrange Madame X can hardly fail to come as something of a shock: a contrived, lachrymose melodrama of the kind that Hollywood was mechanically churning out by the cartload at the time. The fault lay lie in Grémillon himself but in prevailing tastes, which prevented him from making the kind of films he was so eager to make but which no production company was willing to back. One of the most gifted and original filmmakers of his generation, Jean Grémillon enjoyed some success from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, with such films as Gueule d'amour (1937), L'Étrange Monsieur Victor (1937), Lumière d'été (1943) and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), but despite being one of the leading lights of the poetic realist tradition he struggled to capitalise on his short-lived popularity and ended his career in bitter frustration.

L'Étrange Madame X is a slick, undemanding production of the kind that would have appealed to a mainstream French cinema audience of the 1950s. It stars Michèle Morgan, the most glamorous French actress of the period, who had previously excelled in Grémillon's earlier Remorques (1941), one of his finest poetic realist films. Here, Morgan plays alongside her real-life husband, Henri Vidal, whom she had met during the making of Alessandro Blasetti's Fabiola (1949) and who would die, tragically young, from a heart attack in 1959. Despite his obvious limitations as an actor, Vidal was blessed with an authentic, likeable personality which, together with his good looks, made him a popular matinee idol of the 1950s. Here, partnered with the woman of his life, Vidal turns in one of his most commendable performances, although his efforts are somewhat undermined by an unconvincing script that makes his character appear foolish, self-pitying and inconsistent. Morgan equally has some difficulty with her character, and for once it is hard to engage with her portrayal of a woman decimated by love.

Compared with Grémillon's previous film, the hauntingly poetic (and vastly underrated) Pattes blanches (1949), L'Étrange Madame X appears to be the work of a completely different director - tepid, detached, anodyne. It is as if Grémillon has lost the enthusiasm for his art and is content merely to pander to populist sentiment. He had the opportunity to make this a scathing social critique, something along the lines of Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939), but his heart just doesn't seem to be in it. The characters are the blandest, most predictable of archetypes, the social divide between the haves and the have nots is merely accepted as an immutable fact of life. The only character with any substance and nobility is Étienne's devoted admirer Jeanette, admirably well played by Arlette Thomas. By contrast, the main protagonists look as if they are set in aspic, weak-willed caricatures who have absolutely no chance of transcending their social milieux. As a result, the catastrophic ending fails to come as a surprise, and the emotional impact it was intended to have is carelessly lost. After this (moderately successful) film, Grémillon made another, similarly lacklustre melodrama, L'Amour d'une femme (1954), after which he gave up commercial filmmaking altogether. He was not the only great auteur to flounder and perish in the arid wasteland that was 1950s French cinema.
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.


The director Jean Grémillon also worked with the actor Michèle Morgan on the film Remorques (1941).

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