Early & Silent Film

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Ménilmontant, France 1926.

Posted by keith1942 on May 29, 2018

This title was screened at e Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 in ‘The Canon Revisited’. We watched a DCP sourced from a 35mm distribution print. The film had been re-edited by a distributor adding intertitles in the 1928: we saw the original version without intertitles. And alternative title translates as ‘The Hundred Steps’.

The film is an early example of what became known as ‘French impressionist film’. The actual story is conventional and melodramatic. Two sisters who move from a rural town to Paris are the objects of passion by a young ‘Lothario’. This results in one sister becoming pregnant and the other falling into prostitution. Late in the film the two separated sisters meet in the streets, both sad victims.

There is a definite cross-over with D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). In fact some critics compared the performance of the younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaia) to that of Lillian Gish. She also plays in a Griffith-type sequence, when pregnant and starving she is given dry bread by a tramp sharing a park bench.

What made the film stand out was the style, which features many of the techniques that became common in impressionist films.

There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary like impressions …, of classical continuity editing.” (Richard Abel quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The director, Dimitri Kirsanoff, seems to have done much of the hand-held camera work, which is another feature of the film. There are frequent scenes set in actual Paris streets, often after rain, or doused by the production: glistening cobble stones that must have looked great on nitrate.

Kirsanoff was Estonian who migrated to Paris. His father died in the Russian Revolution which seems to have darkened his views. He disliked ‘Potemkin’ but rated Stroheim. His helpmate was the film’s leading actor, Nadia Sibirskaia (originally a Breton Geneviève Lebas). They acted together in an earlier of his films, L’Ironie du destin (1921), now lost. Whilst Ménilmontant was a success after a screening at the avant-garde venue Théâtre du Vieux Colombier Kirsanoff’s career was caught between the conflicting pressures of commercial demands and avant-garde values. He made several more films but failed fine a niche in which to work consistently.

This title was screened in a double bill with Louis Delluc’s Fièvre (1921). The Catalogue offered the legend that Ménilmontant was transferred to digital at 18 fps and looked fine. Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco provided piano accompaniments to the films; both played music that was appropriate and set off the tenor of the titles.

I was able to revisit the film in May when it was screened from a 35mm print. The print was fine but the accompaniment was a problem. There was a piano, which offered sparse accompaniment which suited the film. However the dominant sounds were pre-recorded sounds and live Foley sounds. The pre-recorded sounds including rain and street noises. The live Foley offered aural representation of actions on screen. The nadir of this was when the sound of the munching of bread on the park bench was recreated. It is recorded that some silent screenings used sound machines and similar. But I cannot believe that such literal sound recreation happened for avant-garde films and/or at the Colombier. What made the practice even odder was that the afternoon of films opened with silent Laurel and Hardy titles: a pair of comics where live Foley sound could have been a successful addition.

So this is a rare occasion for me where digital trumps ‘reel’ film.

One Response to “Ménilmontant, France 1926.”

  1. Reblogged this on Kenny Wilson's Blog.

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