Saturday, 6 December 2014

Cinematographic-therapy… The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs (1912)

This smart film uses cinema as a therapeutic resource helping to cure one of the key characters of her mania and revealing something of the power the new medium was recognised as having. The woman gazes intensely at the screen as the events that traumatized her are replayed almost as life… in shock she staggers towards the screen and looks around at the back to see if it’s real: how can these images be?

I have had a very boyish fascination with pre-war films that would demonstrate pre-Birth of a Nation innovation but it’s impossible and it’s pointless – largely – the true test is whether or not a film is entertaining. Inevitably this is more likely to be those films whose production values are more aligned to modern tastes but beyond a certain point films begin to resonate as entertainment rather than academic studies… although there are many ways to enjoy watching a film.

Émile Keppens and Suzanne Grandais
The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs shows the advanced state of French cinema in 1912 being slickly made, inventive and still carrying genuine jeopardy and anxious resolution. Directed by Léonce Perret it is not so much a who-dunnit but a how-he-who-dunnit-gets-caught… a bit like Columbo only a bit snappier, with more forensic method and fewer cigars.

Perret uses some great locations, not least the titular cliffs, all of which are captured very well by cinematographer  Georges Specht as well as evocative Bauer-esque sets from Robert-Jules Garnier; rich in detail and depth of focus. There are no short cuts on the budget and there are dozens of different shots in the film which is remarkably well-preserved.

Events begin as the last will and testament of the Marquis de Kéranic are read out to his expectant cousin, Comte Fernand de Kéranic (Léonce Perret no less!) and young niece Suzanne de Lormel (Suzanne Grandais).  It’s the usual troublesome arrangement that can lead to trouble: Suzanne must make it to 18 without going mad or otherwise blotting her copybook or else she will lose all of the inheritance to her other uncle and tutor the Comte.

Now, this is asking for trouble but the Comte seems easy-going enough, surely nothing can disturb his peaceful stewardship of his young ward’s coming of age? Well… turns out the Comte has a gambling problem and is deep in debt. Perret reveals his predicament with the unfolding of a letter rather than through intertitles, the film takes the time to reveal its story and has a well-paced narrative that might well not have been tolerated in say the United States.

Léonce Perret and Suzanne Grandais
The Comte now reveals his true colours as he takes Suzanne for a walk down by the rocky Kandor seashore… the shots here are well made as the couple walk over pebbles past the craggy outcrops. The Comte asks his niece for her hand in marriage but Suzanne recoils, not just in revulsion but also because she loves another.

She runs off leaving her satchel which the Comte opens to find love letters from her beau, Le Capitaine Jean d'Erquy (Max Dhartigny)…  now he knows everything and begins to plot… alone in his darkly-lit study.

But next we see the Comte apologising to Suzanne and trying to make good but then we see him slip a sleeping draught into her drink before the two go for a walk down to the remote cliffs. Suzanne duly feints just in time for another part of the Comte’s plan comes into play. He has written to the Captain pretending to be Suzanne and has organised for them to meet at the rocks… as the soldier’s boat nears the Comte hides in the rocks with a loaded shot gun and lets off a smoke signal to attract the young man.

When he’s close enough the Comte fires two shots and Jean falls to the ground. Presuming him dead the Comte leaves them both to the mercy of the incoming tide… killing two lovebirds with one foul stone.

Lost at sea without a paddle...
Yet, Jean isn’t dead, far from it – he recovers enough to pull Suzanne into his boat and as he feints from loss of blood the two drift off into the uncertain waters. The two are lucky though and float ashore sometime later to be rescued by fisherman… but the experience has cost them: the Captain is too ill to be interviewed by the police whilst Suzanne has been driven catatonic by the near death experience… her mind is closed to all enquiries.

Thinking himself safe from any comeback, the Comte has Suzanne declared mentally unfit and proceeds to reap the benefit of the clause in his brother’s will that means he is the sole heir in such an event. All of his financial problems look at an end…

And yet… Suzanne’s maid writes to the Captain when he has recovered and suggests they contact one Professeur Williams (Émile Keppens) a man who has a reputation for solving the seemingly un-solvable psychiatric cases through revolutionary use of cinematic techniques!

Avoiding the use of intertitles
I must say no more about this fantastical plot other than to urge you to seek out this film and its remarkable closing sequence for yourselves!

Clearly the modern mind may well find few surprises but imagine the impact this would have had at the time when the arts of psychoanalysis and cinematography were still new and developing apace.

Re-creating the crime!
The director doesn’t act quite as well as he directs – Perret’s background was in comedy and it shows; his villainy being merely expressed with a half-smile and a shrug as Suzanne rebuffs his advances – but he gets good performances from his cast, especially Suzanne Grandais who moves from being madly in love to mad with ease. Her scenes with the cinema screen are particularly affecting even now…

I watched the Kino DVD which is part of their excellent Gaumont Treasures collection and comes complete with a super new score from Philippe Dubosson. If you haven’t already got it, it’s available direct from Kino Lorber or from the creative accountants at Amazon.

Léonce Perret

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