Saturday, 28 September 2013

Poetry in motion… Menilmontant (1924) & Brumes d'automne (1929)

Nadia Sibirskaïa
 An IRA bomb scare once got me trapped in the BFI’s old library in Charing Cross Road long enough to read a whole book on the surrealists and cinema. There seemed to be a lot of debate about who was a part of the movement and who was just faking it… which I suppose is forever the problem when you divorce art from “reality”: authenticity becomes more and more subjective.

Regarded as a classic of experimental cinema Menilmontant is a visceral mix of extreme violence, sex and sorrow that retains its power. Yet director Dimitri Kirsanoff didn’t consider himself as part of the French “impressionist” cinema in particular or the avant-garde movement in general – maybe you’re all the more so if you don’t claim to be?

Yet, whatever his credentials in Le Deux Maggots or Café Fleur, Kirsanoff made a highly original and enduringly effective film using techniques of the movement and his own invention – along with those of his partner and collaborator, the ethereal Nadia Sibirskaïa.

The two worked up the narrative based around the streets, the characters’ point of viuew and, in particular, Sibirskaïa’s extraordinary face and her equally stunning ability to convey deep emotional states through nuanced facial expression.

Unlike some experimental cinema, there is a clear narrative and one that is largely held together by Sibirskaïa’s intense expressiveness. There were contemporary comparisons with Lillian Gish and you can see why, especially during a scene where her starving character is offered bread by an old man: she crumbles the gift into her mouth whilst shaking with tears... another small step forward in staying alive.

Walkways and doorways
When her character contemplates throwing herself and newborn child into the Seine, there’s a blankness on her face and the viewer searchers for the slightest indication of her choice. The camera shifts from the water to her face and shows her feet slowly walking down the steps, she halts and starts back up.

Kirsanoff seemed to have a fascination with feet and the ground on which they walk, showing all of his protagonists’ shoes at one point or another. Ménilmontant is a neighbourhood of Paris, in a run-down part of the 20th arrondissement and these lives are very much defined by their location.

Childhood's end
After the film’s horrific beginning – a couple murdered by an axe-wielding maniac – we see their two young girls’ childish country games come to an abrupt end. The older is played by Yolande Beaulieu and the younger by Sibirskaïa.

After the funeral the two girls walk away from their innocence towards the city along a dusty road, bordered by poplar trees. They find themselves making a living by making bouquets and sharing a room in Ménilmontant.
Guy Belmont and Nadia Sibirskaïa
Their balance is disturbed by a young man (Guy Belmont) who catches the eye of the younger sister whilst her sibling looks on in concern and jealousy. In the way of such things the young man succeeds in getting what he wants in spite of the girl’s misgivings.

We see her sister’s fevered imaginings as she waits for her to return anxiously glancing at the clock as its mechanism is revealed. The film turns on this point and the imagery and cross-cutting go into over-drive.

Kirsanoff’s technique is very effective enabling the viewer to work out story progression and character emotion quickly and with the minimum of exposition and this seems to have been more his motivation than the deliberate production of an avant-garde work. This is more poetry than play.

The girl cannot return to her sister and we see her waiting anxiously in an alley where she has apparently marked the wall. This doesn’t seem to be the morning after anymore and it becomes clear that she’s waiting for her sister who in turn is waiting for her man… at a wall with an arrow-pierced heart scrawled on it: a place to meet lovers or clients?

The girl recoils in shock – she has nowhere left to turn.

The kindness of strangers
Another shift sees the camera focus on a Maternity Hospital sign… Kirsanoff cuts to the chase again and we understand completely what has happened over the previous nine months…Wandering the streets with her baby she makes the aforementioned visit to the Seine and descends into a misery reflected by distorted point of view shots and the muddy roads she must now trudge.

Finally, crouched in an alley with her baby, she reconnects with her sister who has suffered her own fall, into prostitution. Was she led there by the boy? He is seen with another woman who appears to share this profession and, as the sisters are re-united in hope, he falls into a violent confrontation and meets his end in grissly confusion.

So, as John Peel used to say: “make what you will of that…” In some ways it seems pointless to overlay definitive narrative meaning on a film like Menilmontant and indeed, when you can, the story is a fairly straightforward one… as ever, it’s all about the telling. In this case the economy and dexterity used by Kirsanoff is exceptional. He uses montage worthy of Eisentstein for the bookending violence and more delicate symbolism for the emotional heart of the film and engages the watcher throughout.

But, for all of his technique, Menilmontant wouldn’t work quite so well without the ability of Nadia Sibirskaïa: her close ups paint a thousand words (or just under in this case).

The Kino DVD features an excellent new score from Paul Mercer which is both haunting and jarring, sympathetically twisting along with the film...

Brumes d'automne
Kirsanoff made a number of other films with Sibirskaïa  of which Brumes d'automne (1929) seems to be the best known. This is a self-proclaimed cinematic poem and uses much of the same approach as the earlier film with the addition of a contemporary score from Paul Devred.

Much shorter at only 12 minutes to the above film’s 37, Brumes d'automne is a reflection on the moments of lost love. Sibirskaïa’s character is again the focus as she is shown burning love letters and working her way through the grief of separation.

The Autumn is shown as a reflection of her mood and, she is as grounded in the mood and meaning of place as well as time.

Kirsanoff shows fallen leaves in muddy pools, leafless trees and misty ponds with eroding husks of boats and follows the girl as she leaves her house for a stroll. She emerges like a wraith from the woods, delicate white city-shoes falling on Autumn mulch as she heads to the lake.

Seeing clearly?
There are lengthy close-ups of Sibirskaïa’s face as her character tries to make sense of it all: is she contemplating suicide, will she take him back or is she reaching the point of acceptance? The landscape morphs into distortion: are we seeing the world through her tears or is her inner focus strengthening as she resolves her course of action?

Your guess is as good as mine, but this is a lovely film aided by some magical composition from Devred, who’s insistent score is even more evocative given the tonal challenges of 85 years in the can.

Out of the woods?
Both films are available on the Kino DVD, Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s which is available direct or from Amazons. It’s worth it for these two gems alone.


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