Saturday, 1 June 2013

L’effet du mélodrame... El Dorado (1921)

Ève Francis
There’s been a spate of L’Herbier in London with showings of Le Vertige, L'Inhumaine and L’Argent as part of the Fashion in Film festival. Carelessly I managed to miss all of these but held a private viewing of one of the director’s earliest triumphs in my front room to compensate.

El Dorado was made just three years after L’Herbier’s first film and is a highly disciplined work with an eerie cohesion. It allowed L’Herbier to further refine his ambition to mix the poetic, artistic and architectural all in one cinematic experience. It also featured the first synchronised, purpose-written soundtrack in French film with Marius-François Gaillard’s score, without which L’Herbier felt the story would be “crippled” (it was lost until 1983 and a full orchestrated version is used for the Gaumont DVD edition).

Club Silencio...
Elsewhere there are daring visual tricks aimed to reflect the interior movements of the characters, not unlike Gance. Sibilla the dancer is shown out of focus amidst a line of fellow performers as she is lost in worry about her sick child, drunks are distorted as they consume and Sibilla’s memory of her sexual assault by Esteria shows his image flex as he becomes twisted by desire.

Painter and model at L'Alhambra
Then there is the ninth century Moorish fortress turned palace, La Alhambra de Granada. L’Herbier’s camera luxuriates in its spaces - exotic, other-wordly and unexpected, it was a gift to mystery and a location that had long fascinated him. The Alhambra is a timeless place and this served to detach the characters from a strictly linear narrative, losing them in their own subjectivity… all good things to do in 1921.

Absence as the heart grows stronger...
The style of Eldorado probably amounts to more than its story-substance, but that doesn’t matter, it remains an immersive experience which combines images and art in an unique way. There’s a clear distinction between such “French” cinema and the harsher expressionism of the "Germans”… even when it is channeled through Spain…

Sibilla dances
El Dorado begins as it will end, with a dance, as the intoxicated clientele of the titular club wait for star performer Sibilla (Ève Francis) to take stage. She holds them spellbound, the men leer and the women bristle… The club chaos is focused for a few minutes as everyone watches the show.

Sibilla seems to embody gypsy freedom but she is bound by her obligations, dancing now whilst upstairs her son lies gravely ill. L’Herbier cuts quickly throughout and here he switches between the warmth of the lively bar and the cold grey sickroom, dominated by a huge black cross on the wall.

After the show, Sibilla writes a letter to the child’s father Esteria (Georges Paulais) who, in a flashback, we see snarling lustfully over the young woman… he’s had his fun and has no intention of paying the price. Esteria is now a very successful man who is about to marry his legitimate daughter off to a nobleman.

Amongst these two unmovable extremes is placed a surprising young couple, Esteria’s daughter Iliana (Marcelle Pradot) and the man she really loves, the young Swedish painter Hedwick (Jaque Catelain).

Hedwick - an old New Romantic...
We first encounter Hedwick looking very much like a member of Haircut 100 circa 1982, as he flounces in his mother’s mountain home. Jaque Catelain wears as much make-up as the women and his character makes for an artfully androgynous hero who finds love through his painting and stays firm in spite of all the odds.

Hedwick’s model is Sibilla but in their afternoon session at the Alhambra he cannot concentrate on her because he is thinking of Iliana. The young couple meet at the palace and there is some stunning composition as they walk through the courtyards…  You feel drenched by the place and the distant views of Granada.

The Alhambra and Granada
Esteria is hosting a party during which he will announce his daughter’s society engagement but Sibilla tries to gatecrash in one last desperate attempt to gain his help. She is repulsed in a remarkable sequence of physical acting as she staggers heart-broken down the steps… Esteria is almost certainly dooming their son to death and there seems nothing she can do about it.

Sibilla spies...
In locking Hedwick and Iliana in the Alhambra overnight she not only breaks Esteria’s engagement plans but drives the young couple together as, in their rejection, they have nowhere left to turn. As Hedwick confronts Esteria, Iliana shelters at Sibilla’s rooms and is introduced to her half-brother: an explanation is given and a bond is made.

Jaque Catelain and Marcelle Pradot
Spoilers ahead: Events pan out with some speed in the last closing stages of the film as Sibila’s son goes off to live with Hedwick and Iliana at his mother’s house which is at an altitude where he can recover to full health. Exhausted by the fight for her son, knowing she'll not see him again and doomed to dance for ever in front of El Dorado’s hollow hearts, Sibila takes her own life… her race is run.

The ending feels like drama for the sake of it but someone had to suffer and, metaphysically, the future is as surely closed off for Sibilla as her suicide suggests. It fits the mood of this moodiest of silent films.

Ève Francis
Ève Francis gives her all and the bruises she undoubtedly gained on the Esteria’s steps show a remarkable commitment. Jaque Catelain is also eye-catching, a strange wide-eyed boy – this was one of many films he was to make with his life-long friend.

It’s L’Herbier’s vision that dominates your thoughts as he pulls so many strands together in the service of his story. There are innovations that work and others that feel over-thought but you can't knock the ambition.

Iliana and her maid as in a photo album...
I watched the Gaumont DVD which also includes L'Homme du large (1920), the transfer is very good quality and is greatly enhanced by the original title cards which intermingle seamlessly with the sights and the sounds.


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