Thursday, 24 July 2014

How I met my mother... Faces of Children (1925)

Never work with animals or children unless, that is, the children are exceptional actors… My cold cynical heart had prepared me for the worst with this tale of childhood anguish but, once again my friends, I was so wrong. Jacques Feyder’s film is a naturalistic marvel and one that at 90 years’ distance, Faces of Children (Visages d'enfants) still rings true with steadfast honesty and Feyder’s iron grip on the dimensions of genuine, emotional, narrative.

A good deal is also attributable to the film’s remarkable lead Jean Forest, who was just 12 at the time and plays with the controlled intensity of a boy twice his age. The director had featured him in his previous film, Crainquebille and probably wrote Faces… with him in mind – you can only make this kind of story work with such a freak of acting nature.

Jean Forest
But Feyder hits hard right from the extraordinary opening showing the funeral of the boy’s mother. In ten minutes or so of potent, economic cinema, the director introduces the main players and the situation against a stunning backdrop of a village nestled high in the Swiss Alps. It is beautifully sad and the worst of all situations: a mother dead leaving her young children all too early.

Victor Vina and Jean Forest
Pierre Amsler (Victor Vina) is the mayor of the remote village of Saint-Luc and his son Jean (Forest) is just.10 years old whilst his sister Pierrette (Pierrette Houyez) is merely five. Amongst the serious adult mourning, Jean looks on in shocked silence as the funeral process unfolds and his mother’s coffin is lowered down the stairs in their chalet. Pierette is too young to understand and is told that Mama has gone away for a while, but Jean is old enough to understand that he’ll never see his mother again.

The procession extends out of the house and through the snow-covered streets to the cemetery at the edge of the town. Jean follows alongside his weeping father whilst we keep cutting to see Pierrette playing with a neighbour… The boy braves the entire ceremony before finally collapsing in sadness… you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved but Feyder isn’t just creating a melancholy drama; these are well-drawn characters showing natural grief.

Rachel Devirys and Victor Vina
The months pass with father and son paying due respect to the departed but Pierre begins to worry about his childrens’ care with no mother. He starts to court a milk maid Jeanne Dutois (Rachel Devirys) but hasn’t the heart to tell Jean of his intentions. There doesn’t appear to be anything calculated in this new relationship as events will bear out…

Jean mourns his loss intensely, saying his prayers in front of a portrait of his mother each night. The portrait comes to life and his mother (Suzy Vernon) smiles down at him.

Jean Forest and Rachel Devirys
The new couple agree to marry but Pierre cannot tell Jean and sends him away with his godfather, Canon Taillier (Henri Duval) who is to break the news as best he can… As Jeanne and Pierre marry the priest tells Jean who resolves to support his father and make the best of things.

Things get off to the worst possible start as Jean returns home to find himself locked out. He cannot convince his new step-sister, Arlette Dutois (Arlette Peyran) that this is his home too and, having got off on the wrong foot, their relationship swiftly deteriorates.

Yes, Michel Hazanavicius has probably seen it...
Jean is relegated to a small back room as his sister shares his old room with Arlette – he resents everything that moves the family on from how they were. Jeanne is unrelentingly kind and fair minded never giving Jean a real reason to dislike her but he doesn’t need one as he works through his anger at the nearest targets: the symptoms of his mother’s absence and not the cause.

If all this sounds like standard emotionalism it’s probably because the subject matter has been done many times before and since but it’s all about the execution. Faces of Children feels like a well-written book, engrossing and never over played.

Pierrette Houyez, Jean Forest and Arlette Peyran
No spoilers… The battle between the children hots up as Arlette tries to  involve herself in the other’s games. She invades their little island where they are trying to roast chestnuts only to be repelled and pushed into the water by Jean: whatever she dishes out he sends back with increasing spite. Jean is tormented a boy trying to process adult grief and lashing out at anyone who even inadvertently increases his sadness.

Through it all his parents remain patient and Arlette – as we grown-ups can see – makes every allowance. Perhaps this only makes things worse as Jean finally begins to push things too far and lives are put at risk.

Arlette Peyran
The closing segments of the film see Feyder rapidly pick up the pace and torture the audience with the prospect of unbearably unhappy endings: you’ll just have to sit through these moments yourself because I can say no more without spoiling things.

As controlled film making, Faces of Children ranks with the best of French (and indeed Belgian) silent cinema. The leads are all superb and whilst the three children are the obvious standouts it’s also worth highlighting the performances form those adults forced to work with them… Rachel Devirys  is especially nuanced as Jeanne.

Searching by lamp light
The cinematography from Léonce-Henri Burel  and Paul Parguel is also superb, especially in the later night time scenes whilst they capture the majesty of the background locations as well as the intimacy of the children’s interior lives. Both had worked with Gance and it shows in the snows…

The film was poorly preserved after a disappointing commercial return and was only recently restored and then given a digital clean-up by Lobster Films as part of its essential Jacques Feyder box set. There’s also an excellent score from Antonio Coppola which perfectly matches the tone and the texture: good work all round team Lobster!

The film is available on its own or as part of the set either direct or from the likes of Amazon. Buy it and be prepared to risk wiping away a tear or two before the film’s end…


  1. Nice post! One of my fav's for a special reason : I spent a good part of my youth in those mountains! By the way some women are still wearing those costumes and hats in some places ...
    Have a great day!

    1. It looks stunning - we don't have mountains like those in the UK! Glad that the folk traditions carry on - there's a real community behind the story - people working together!

      Have a great weekend.