Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Earthy… La Terre (1921)

Germaine Rouer
 “Only the earth is immortal, the mother from whom we all spring and to whom we all return.” Emile Zola

Watching the peasants harvesting the wheat in this film put me in mind of City Girl but, whereas the latter film was set in “modern” America with large-scale, semi-automated farming techniques, here is recreated the near subsistence-level practices of the 1860’s.

Men scythed the crop which was then gathered in lose bundles by the women and piled manually-high on wooden carts. There is a small horse-drawn harvester to separate the wheat from the chaff but this is dwarfed by the 20 horse-power machine in Murnau’s film. This was life on the edge with the slightest shifts in fortune potentially life-altering.

La Terre has a documentary feel and for a film of this vintage it is remarkably naturalistic as well as uncompromising… there’s no point looking for the easy resolutions of most Hollywood fare. I notice from the IMBD reviews that some have found it hard-going but for me it is engrossing: like a good book.

La Terre was filmed in 1919-20 and adapted by director André Antoine from Émile Zola’s novel, the fifteenth in the sprawling Rougon-Macquart series – which also included L’Argent trivia fans! As with many of Zola’s stories it is full of the hap-hazard cruelties of life, whilst its detailed depiction of rural existence in the Second Republic is mixed with violence and sexual frankness that caused a scandal on its publication in 1887 and – watered down in the film – still shock along with man’s routine in-humanity to man (and woman).

Germaine Rouer and René Alexandre
Antoine had an extensive background in theatre and came late to film as “a sixty-year-old beginner”. He was concerned with realism and wanted to pay due credit to Zola’s intentions.

His adaptation takes the main strands of a novel that features dozens of characters… and tries to show the link between life and the land as well as the ruinous impact of the post-revolutionary Civil Code (1804) which provided for the ostensibly equitable division of rural estates amongst farming families which led to imbalance and in-fighting.

Armand Bour
Le père Fouan (Armand Bour) is dividing his land between his family as he and his wife get too old to work the land. It is split three ways between his daughter Fanny and two sons, the wastrel Hyacinthe – also known as Jesus Christ (after his beard, not his good grace) – played by Émile Mylo and the ambitious, aggressive, Louis Buteau (Jean Hervé).

At the same time a young man arrives in the town, Jean Macquart (René Alexandre) –  a member of one of the key families from Zola’s series and featured in two later novels. He saves a young girl who has been dragged off by a skittish cow, Françoise Mouche (the extraordinary Germaine Rouer) who is Fouan’s niece. The two form an instant attraction and Françoise takes him to find work at one of the larger local farms.

La Cognette et La Trouille!
Here he meets La Cognette (Jeanne Grumbach) who effectively manages the farm. Older and more experienced than Françoise – who is under age – she also romances the handsome new arrival…

In exchange for his land Fouan’s children are to pay him a regular pension but, all too quickly, greed diverts their intentions…it’s not difficult to see the links to King Lear here although poor Fouan is badly in need of a Cordelia…

Émile Mylo
Hyacinthe is certainly the Fool but a poisonous one… He lives his life as a poacher, drinking his days into oblivion and using his daughter La Trouille – The Pest – (Berthe Bovy) to help steal anything they can.

Fanny is married to a well-to-do farmer but cannot abide her father’s diminished position whilst Buteau just wants it all and is completely un-restrained by any consideration of his fellows. He marries Françoise’s elder sister Lise (Jeanne Briey) and turns the younger girl into little more than a slave, all the while harassing her sexually.

A wicked brother-in-law
Then there is Fouan’s sister who, left out of his “living will” holds him in disgust and hopes that he will “die in a ditch”.

So far so grim – so Zola – and so it proceeds with the old man being cheated of his agreed payments as his children proceed to abuse him, refuse to pay him and force him to move around between them.

But there are still Antoine’s wonderful shots of the family working their fields, all put together with meticulous attention to detail and on glorious sunny days. There are superb close-ups of Buteau and Françoise as they rest in the hay. He tries to grab hold of her and she escapes, meeting Jean further down the field. When the camera returns Françoise has her hair down and something has clearly “gone on” with Jean, a fact he admits to a friend shortly afterwards…

Hats on
The relationship between Françoise and Jean develops in spite of the Buteau’s disapproval – he knows full well the challenge it poses to his lifestyle.  As she reaches 21 Françoise marries Jean and demands her inheritance leading to the eviction of Buteau and Elise – blood doesn’t get any badder and you know this will not be the end of the matter.

Meanwhile Fouan’s health is deteriorating and he is running out of options as one by one his family disown him.

Bad blood...
I won’t give any more of the plot away as this is a storyline well worth seeing out in your own time. I watched the Milestone DVD which features an excellently sympathetic score from the experienced composer, Adrian Johnston, who treats the story with all the respect due to a new film.

La Terre was long considered lost and this restoration, from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, was made in collaboration with the Royal Belgian Film Archive and the Cinémathèque Française, using the sole surviving copy made available by Gosfilmofond, Moscow.

Germaine Rouer: seventy years between these shots
It also features the text from an excellent interview with Germaine Rouer conducted by Kevin Brownlow in 1991. Her memories are precious: “… he let us be natural. Sometimes he just told me: “Try to look like a peasant girl, go on, look like a peasant girl.” So I did all I could to look like a peasant girl.”

La Terre is a vibrant film from an age of experimentation: magically far closer to the era it recreates than our modern world... so far removed from the land. It is readily available direct from the Milestone site.

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