Monday, 4 March 2013

Diving for meaning… The Pearl (1929)

Watching this minor surrealist masterwork I was reminded of my English teacher’s response to an attempt I’d made at composing a dada-esque poem (i.e. one without any poetry…), “is this deep - how can I mark it?” I’d been rumbled, but how to judge any work of attempted surrealism – there’s a fine line between the charlatan and the champion (although it was fairly broad in the case of my teenage verse…).

Directed by Henri d' Ursel, The Pearl (1929) owes an obvious debt to Buñuel, Dali and Man Ray… not to mention Louise Feuillade, it’s stylishly done and may well mean something.

Written and starring Georges Hugnet as Le Jeune Homme, The Pearl could signify possession or it could mean love… it may even be just a pearl. I don’t think it matters to any forensic degree, you can overlay your own interpretation according to mood: the key thing is that the film draws you in and makes you think. This properly defies any constraining interpretations and, by the rules, your guess is as good as mine.

All we know for certain is what happens on screen. A pearl is made and extracted from the sea. A young Lulu (Mary Stutz) waits in her garden for her fiancé and he sets off to buy her a pearl necklace.

Waiting for her man...
Here is the films funniest joke as Lulu looks out and we see her man running through woods, rowing across a river then running through town getting distracted by a street game… You expect her to view him directly but he’s far away, initially heroic and then just distracted.

But he has it in mind to buy his girl a pearl necklace.

Georges Hugnet
At the jewellery store, a pretty shop assistant (Kissa Kouprine) steals pearls and carelessly hides them in her stocking top which is all too visible as she sits chatting on a ledge. The girl has no name and is only referenced in the title sequence as La Voleuse – The Thief.

Kissa Kouprine
The young man reports her to the manager and she is fired. He leaves the shop with his pearls and she follows him, hitching a ride on his bike. The man crashes his bike and the string of pearls is broken… the man searches but there is still a pearl missing. It rolled directly to La Voleuse who walks off with it leaving him fatuously pawing the ground...

Georges Hugnet and Kissa Kouprine
As in a dream the young man journeys to a hotel. Here La Voleuse is everywhere, appearing in a tight-fitting silver-grey cat suit – an updated, sleeker version of Irma Vep - from every corridor, pursuing the man and his pearls. She is not alone and there are other women all wearing the same costume. Are all women looking for “The Pearl”?

La Voleuse shares a bath with one of her doppelgangers and the two play dice. Is this a celebration of chance or an actual game to decide a winner?

The man and La Voleuse share a room and clearly more as they wake the next day. Decisions need to be made. Who gets the pearls now?

He's just a boy who can't say no...
Then the Man is disturbed by a sleepwalker (Renée Savoy) who he follows through the building and onto the roof. It feels like leading somewhere but, as Ursel cuts back to Lulu… it’s not clear whether she’ll ever get the intended present…

The man returns to Lulu with a letter explaining his purchase and his sorrow…the somnambulist casually deposits the pearls around Lulu’s neck and she is united with her fiancé… but too much distance is now between them. The young man walks off and spots La Voleuse…giving chase…

Renée Savoy
We’ve all had days like these, distracted from our purpose by random chance and the subsequent emergence of new possibilities.

This is how The Pearl ultimately works well containing enough reality and enough dream to hold together as a narrative: vaguely familiar…

Georges Hugnet looks suitably perturbed throughout whilst Mary Stutz is patiently engaged. Most of the genuine expression comes from the beguiling Kissa Kouprine who offers the only emotionally connected character. She was the only professional actor on show and featured in a number of Marcel L’Herbier’s films.

Kissa Kouprine
Special mention should also be given to the superb cinematography from Marc Bujard who had worked on Gance’s  J’accuse! (1919) as well as Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player (1927) both featured elsewhere on this blog.

I watched the Surrealism and Experiment  in Belgian Cinema  DVD available from Cinematek.


  1. Here is a film that me thinks must see
    Surreal and Dada float on film to view
    As a poem my master wrote before me
    Pearl, Gawain poet, his mind it grew!

  2. You're not wrong Good Knight! Sir Real and his father broke the surface tension and delivered the Pearl to the Poet thereafter.

    Or, as Sir Stanley Unwin said: "Far better to get a pot of paintings, severaload bottles of inkit, scrurp it huffalo-dowder the wall and stand hupside-dowdle and play a skating march. Because in this it would express the idea in the viewer, because everything is in the heart or the eye of the beholder."


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