Saturday, 27 July 2013

Keeps on turning… La Roue (1923)

Introducing his documentary on French silent film at the BFI, Kevin Brownlow joked that “cinematic history is bunk!” as he explained his epic fascination with a European film industry every bit as accomplished as Hollywood.

Cinema of Light, an episode from his 1999 series Cinema Europe, whirled through films from André Antoine, Jacques Feyder, Clair, L’Herbier and others, but the major focus was, of course, on Abel Gance.

Not only was this master of montage and rapid-cutting an innovator he was one of the most fearlessly honest and determined of film-makers and with La Roue his cinematic vision was set out against a back-drop of very real tragedy.

Filmed in 1920-21 but only released in 1923, Gance structured the creation of this film around the deteriorating health of his fiancée, Ida Danis, who was fighting tuberculosis.

Sunny Nice...
Relocating to Nice in the hope that the Mediterranean climate would aid recovery, Gance set up his studio at the railway yards and then, when Ida’s health deteriorated still further and they were told to head to the Alps, Gance re-cast his story to accommodate this. Sadly Ida passed on the day Gance finished editing the film.

If this wasn’t enough to add poignancy to La Roue’s tragic tale, then the death of lead actor Séverin-Mars a few months’ later confirmed that mortality and passion were inter-twined. Mars, a bar-room-brawl of an actor, whose energy still fizzles off the screen with frightening intensity, succumbed to heart failure… Gance, who had escaped to New York, cried “like a baby” at the loss of his great friend and collaborator.

The greatest tribute to Gance’s mourning, is to pay this film due respect and, in 273 minutes… I didn’t clock watch once. There are scenes which seem to over-play themselves but these are more than compensated for by the passion of the acting and the relentless imagination on show.

This is about as immersive as cinema gets and it feels like you’re in the grip of an un-put-down-able novel… there’s hard tragedy, love, multiple-miseries and you hold out for some redemption for the tortured family at the heart of the wheel. In the end there is only love when all rage is passed.

Sisif looks on in horror
Written as well as directed and produced by Gance, La Roue takes that ancient metaphor for life’s trajectory and gives it fresh meaning in the stygian dark of the rail yards. These characters are smothered in the immovable soot and grease of their work, parts of the machine themselves “the work comes first”… yet for what reward?

It starts in stunning style as a train crash brings the chaos over which none of us has any control. Gance cuts with swift alacrity between the fire and panic as passengers fight for escape and the rail workers attempt rescue.

Ivy Close with a look later borrowed by Jeanne Moreau...
Even over the impressive length of this film, Gance controls the motion and speed of the narrative with great skill… grimy pastoral interludes between stations, suicidal frustrations balanced against costumed goats and violins…

Séverin-Mars plays First Class Engineer Sisif, who takes a leading role in the rescue, amidst the carnage he finds a small girl, Norma London, a Rose of the Rail. With her parents both lost, decides she’ll make the perfect sister for his son Eli.

This act of charity has enough selfishness behind it to ensure there are consequences…

Gabriel de Gravone
Switching forward in time we find Norma fully grown (played by British actress Ivy Close) and enjoying a wonderful intimacy with her violin-making brother (Gabriel de Gravone)… They live with Sisif in a strange house by the tracks, there are flowers and a well but all is subsumed by the steam and the grime of the railways.

A trackside studio, lit by natural light
Gance’s team constructed the house between the lines and had to employ a watcher to make sure that all were clear when one of these massive locomotives blasted their brutal way past… It’s a memorable location and the movement and power of steam technology is still as fearsomely fascinating as it ever was.

Sisif is highly skilled and dedicated, even breaking off a fight to allow his opponent to get his train on time “work comes first.” The other man had tried to woo Norma and we gradually discover that Sisif has more than a step-fatherly interest in the young woman.

Pierre Magnier
 Sisif is providing a stream of technological innovations to one of the railway managers Jacques de Hersan (Pierre Magnier) who is taking the credit and the cash… He also has an eye on taking Sisif’s daughter.

Georges Térof
Light relief is provided by Machefer (Georges Térof – they broke the mould when they made him!) – Sisif’s stoker and the closest thing he has to a friend.

Sisif passion for Norma forces him to alienate all around as he drinks himself into a stupor. Gradually he starts to make mistakes and reveals all to Hersan who, never one to pass on the opportunity, levers Norma away to Paris and a life of wealth and misery.

Eli fantasizes about a medieval courtship of his "sister"
Sisif and his son both mourn the loss of the woman they love… although it is only later that Eli learns the truth.

Following an accident, Sisif’s eyesight is badly damaged and he starts to go blind. He is relocated to a funicular railway on Mont Blanc – thus allowing for Gance’s relocation to higher altitude.

The depiction of steam and metal grimness is matched by Gance’s amazing alpine camerawork. His cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel, Gaston Brun, Marc Bujard and Maurice Duverger deserve huge credit for the range of shots throughout the film and here at 13,000 feet they had to work in the most hostile of environments. Tribute too must also go to Gance’s leadership for bringing his cast and crew through.

In the Alps Eli discovers the truth and he and his father now know the full extent of their joint suffering. Norma engineers a holiday to the region whilst Eli has a professional breakthrough… the characters are being lined up for the final movements but I’ll say no more.

The scenario is relatively straightforward but it’s the telling that makes La Roue stand out as one of the masterpieces of silent film and beyond in Kevin Brownlow’s mind and many others.

The dance circles high into the mountains
I felt that the techniques were in advance of those used in J’Accuse and it’s not hard to see the influence of Gance and his editor Marguerite Beauge’s montage and rapid cutting on Soviet Cinema and the development of cinematic language in general.

Gance also coaxed superbly committed performances from his cast with Gabriel de Gravone and Ivy Close both giving their all. But it’s Séverin-Mars who holds the film together – he really held nothing back and you can see why Gance linked his style of performance with his untimely death.

Ivy Close and Séverin-Mars
I watched the Flicker Alley restoration which is greatly enhanced by a new score from Robert Israel which mixes some excellent industrial music concrete with mostly orchestral themes.

It’s available from the Edition Filmmuseum Shop online as well all the old familiar Amazons…It's also usually in stock at the BFI Shop.

Abel Gance
J’Accuse, La Roue… these are staging posts on the road to the performance of Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall in November… it’ll really have to be something else to improve on these two. After seeing the snippets in Mr Brownlow's documentary I'm sure that it will.

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