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.
|Victor Vina and Jean Forest|
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|
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|
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...|
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|
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.
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 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…