Dir: Marcel L'Herbier

France, 135m



The eye in motion, usually emblematic as a subjective shot from a speeding car; this has been at the center of this first great French tradition in film. Which is to say, a fleeting glimpse, the opening-up of the point of view from its fixed, static place in history and time to encompass a new, exciting view of life hitherto impossible; a mobility on the whole in all directions of perception, with finally the visibility of soul as the utmost aim.

Two scenes here really take the breath away, both pertaining to the distinctions, and ultimately the inseparability, of reality and art, performance and life, external and internal image.

The first takes place on the stage. The theater at Champs Elysee is packed full with an audience who have gathered to satisfy their morbid curiosity at the scandalous woman - a singer - who is about to appear; so everyone in the auditorium is at the grip of paroxysm not at the prospect of the anticipated performance, the stylized image, the evocative art, but the flesh and blood woman, the reality behind - again though a reality rumored from mouth to mouth, or read from the gossip column of a newspaper. So even before she has had the chance to sing, at the mere sight of her, the place is already in chaotic uproar - everyone wildly gesticulating, booing, others clapping and cheering on - already deeply affected, but unwittingly by another image - the immoral, scandalous woman - which they have projected upon her. And then she sings, and everyone pipes down.

(a prelude to this image-within-an-image, or behind it, is the opening act of a dancing troupe; we see them dance, while on the backdrop behind them are painted figures of dancers, and when the curtain falls, it’s again painted with dancers).

The other powerful scene, involves the apparition of a young man thought to have died in a horrible car accident. Moments earlier we had been in the crypt with the dead body, a wind rustled the curtains, a gramophone played presumably eerie music. So, again a performance outwitting the performer, with reality - the kind of which you read from the obituaries in a newspaper, and hence the official, public reality - revealed by art as this unreliable facsimile of hearsay and conjecture.

As with more famous American filmmakers - DW Griffith, Chaplin - it is this institutionalized, hypocritically objective ‘humanity’ that threatens to destroy the passionate, living individual who can barely make his own intentions known to himself; here it is the leader of some fund for the betterment of humanity who, having been turned away by the woman at a gala, scornfully turns against her.

Purely in terms of images though, you will want to see a scene where - through the use of a 'scientific’ device - we are quite literally transported on the lives of people by a singing voice. We steal upon them through a screen.

This is how the filmmaker - who permits our vision to wander - was considered at the time then, as is also evident from theoretical writings of the time; a 'wizard’ of science, as the intertitle informs us.

And then the final reel. It is suddenly like Frankenstein’s laboratory - full of mysterious futuristic machinery, whizzing with sparks of electricity - animated by bunraku play puppeteers. Figures dressed in black rushing everywhere, rapid-fire montage of faces, pistons, levers, jolts of energy, chaotic but coordinated movement in all directions. I’ve said it elsewhere about the advent of sound; cinema just wasn’t going to be as adventurous, as audaciously freewheeling, freeform, freejazz and ahead of itself, for the next thirty years - and then only with the American avant-gard filmmakers completely relegated to the obscure wings of what we call art cinema as a quick resolve.

Mostly everything takes place in some fanciful cubist sets, it’s the first thing to note I guess, which you may want to see if you’re interested in carpentry. But with such marvelous cinema on display, it’s merely a footnote.


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L'Herbier French Silent Film L'Argent (1928)