Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Really free… Feu Mathias Pascal (1925)

Can freedom truly exist without responsibility? My politics teacher would have explained the difference between freedom and licence: you need to have some checks and balances otherwise there is nothing to stop half of us being oppressed by the other’s desire to do as they wilt.

The main character in Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Matthias Pascal) is obsessed with the idea of liberty but ultimately finds it limits his freedom to act not so much as anyone else’s. Mathias Pascal spends long hours in his room reading about liberty and theorising… he still lives with his mother and all the while he is stuck in his studies he is failing to protect her estate and her liberty.

Adapted from Luigi Pirandello's 1902 novel Il fu Mattia Pascal by its director, Marcel L'Herbier, Feu Mathias Pascal is a fable filmed against stunning backdrops in San Gimignano, Monte Carlo and Rome. Not many silent directors used location as well as L’Herbier: just check out L’Alhambra in Eldorado…

Michel Simon and Ivan Mosjoukine
The Pascal’s live in the picturesque and many-towered town of Miragno (imagine a smaller version of Bolgna in its heyday…) and have fallen on hard times. The widowed Madame Pascal (Marthe Mellot) is tricked into selling her property for a fraction of its real worth by her wicked attorney and they downsize...

Life takes an unexpected turn as Mathias (the magnetic Ivan Mosjoukine) is persuaded by a love-sick friend Jérôme Pomino (Michel Simon), to tell the object of the latter’s desire, Romilde (Marcelle Pradot), of his affection… But, as readers of Cyrano will know, this can be a potentially hazardous route and thus it proves as Mathias and Romilde (not Roxanne) find that they are the ones in love…

Ivan Mosjoukine and Marcelle Pradot
They marry and soon have a baby in their modest quarters which are shared by Romilde’s harridan of a mother who is gradually recreating herself in her daughter in spite of their seemingly tenuous genetic connections.

Mathias is thus dragged from thoughts of soaring liberty down to the earthy requirements of board and lodging. He takes up a job as an assistant librarian in a former church packed with piles of dust-coated literature, stacked to the rafters and constantly nibbled at by rats… The head librarian sits high above absorbed in his studies. He leaves his new assistant to it and Mathias devises an elaborate mechanism for herding the rats through use of cats tied to carefully measured strings… The set is enormous and expressive: were you watching Tim Burton?

Insert mother-in-law joke here...
It’s one of many light touches in a film that deals in both sides of the music of chance… Mathias’s unhappy home life is soon an irrelevance as his mother becomes seriously ill and, as she calls out to see her grand-daughter one last time, the child too succumbs to life threatening disease.

Romilde and her mother neglect to tell Mathias of his mother’s request and by the time he finds out it is almost too late for both gran and granddaughter: even so in his hysteria of grief he brings the two together one last time…

Marthe Mellot
The story turns now as Mathias travels away to Monte Carlo in order to recuperate… he finds his way to the Casino and, as luck would have it, wins a fortune in the casino. Then, in a moment resembling a Paul Auster narrative, he reads that he is believed dead after a man’s body was identified as him back home: everyone believing him the victim of his grief.

He is elated: now he can be truly free no money or identity worries and he can be whoever he wants to be. He heads off to Rome where he wanders the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and through a Forum yet to be encroached by Il Duce’s arrogant architecture. He spies an exceptionally pretty girl, Adrienne Paléari (Lois Moran, who beguiled F Scott Fitgerald and many others…) and follows her across Rome to her father’s apartment block.

Lois Moran
So far, so free and yet… Mathias discovers that without a passport and without proof of his identify, he cannot rent a room in a hotel, even though he could afford it many times over.

He finds it easier to rent a room from Adrienne’s father and joins the odd community in what look like the most spacious rooms in Rome. The “dead” man is surprised to find that so many of the lodgers are interested in re-incarnation and the practice of séances used to try re-connect with those on the other side.

There’s an obvious poignancy in the “late” Mathias needing to reconnect with himself but this necromancy is also the plot device driving the remainder of the tale. There’s a fraudulent “archaeologist” Terence Papiano (Jean Hervé) who controls his neighbours lives through the promptings of the dead, with the aid of his brother Scipion (Pierre Batcheff - he of Napoleon, The Chess Player, Un Chien Andalou etc…) under cover of the dark.

Pierre Batcheff
Terence has persuaded Adrienne’s father that his dead relatives believe that she should marry him and it seems that nothing will stand in his way. But he pushes his luck too far when brother Scipion robs Mathias during one performance… Mathias realises that he cannot go to the police as he has no identity… returning to the house though he chances his arm by denying that a robbery has taken place, knowing that Terence will realise that his game is up. Thus compromised the trickster has no option but to follow Mathias’ suggestion that he take his brother on an extended vacation…well away from Rome.

Mathias knows that he must regain his identity in order to pursue his love for Adrienne… but he must also return home to settle his account with his wife, friends and the man who robbed his mother: things he can only achieve as himself, emboldened by the realisation that there is no place like your own face…

Les deux Pascal
Feu Mathias Pascal clocks in at just under three hours and feels like an adaptation of a book with its multiple locations and characters, but it is full of invention from L’Herbier and his cast. As well as the exceptional location sequences, the director inserts a number of clever dream sequences showing Mathias encountering himself and wrestling with his conflicted imagination.

Of course, Mosjoukine revels in the drama and is so charismatically intense it’s sometimes difficult to watch the other performers. He had unusual features and a strangely feline countenance set off against huge expressive blue/grey eyes that allowed him to turn his emotional focus at will. It was rumoured that he was bought to Hollywood as a replacement for Valentino but, whilst he has the charisma and acting skill, he conveys a lot more…under-current than the former.

Ivan Mosjoukine
He displays great range and star power in this film given his character’s story arc and the amount of time he has on screen. One of many Russian émigrés to France after the revolution, Mosjoukine directed as well as acted and I shall certainly be seeking out his other films for Albatross specifically Flicker Alley’s recent box set – temptingly available direct.

I watched their Blu-Ray of Feu Mathias Pascal which has no extras save for a brief booklet…but it doesn’t really need anything to add to what is a magnificent restoration of one of the most adventurous French films of the twenties although I should give special mention to Timothy Brock’s excellent new score which trips alongside this dreamy tale with emotional precision.

The film was perhaps more formally disciplined and less experimental than his earlier works such as Eldorado and L’Inhumaine and was unsurprisingly L’Herbier’s most successful release at the time, also going on to play well abroad, where it continues to impress to this day.

Strange corridors...

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