Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mean streets… Crainquebille (1922)

How did people view films before video and the chance to rewind, freeze-frame and simply watch again? Do we understand more about the work of silent directors than their contemporary audience or – more likely – are we just bringing additional context to an experience that can never engage to the same extent as when it is “now”?

This film begins and ends with an identical shot of a bridge over the Seine at night indicating the perpetual motion of the life cycle of night and day: individuals may be crushed during this eternal motion but the days carry on.

Paris by night
Would I have spotted this from a single viewing in 1922? Maybe I’d have paid more attention in the first place… does the DVD kill spontaneity and focus? Whatever, watching this film unfold was interesting the first time and fascinating the second: a beautifully structured civilian symphony detailing working man’s Paris in 1922 and the perils of looking “justice” straight in the eye.

It’s told – largely - in almost documentary style by Jacques Feyder but for some reason kept reminding me of the expressionist masterpiece of Murnau’s The Last Laugh: one man taken by surprise by a swift turn of fate and then crushed by the indifference of the powers that be.

Maurice de Féraudy
Where Murnau had Emile Jannings, Feyder has Maurice de Féraudy whose Jérôme Crainquebille clings on in quiet desperation to a simple life of routine and gentle hope and who is ready to accept the comforts of his fate until the one thing that really matters is taken from him: the respect of other people. It is a tremendous performance.

Based on the story by Anatole France, Crainquebille has a screen play from Feyder and superb cinematography from Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster. It unveils itself in measured steps as it shows Paris emerging from another busy night of human weakness.

As the carts of street sellers make their early morning march to the centre of town, Feyder introduces his main players along the course of their journey. The good Doctor Mathieu (Charles Mosnier) is roused from fitful sleep by the clatter of wooden wheels on suburban cobbles…  he checks the time then wearily rejoins the fight for rest.  The carts move onward through the fashionable areas where “people are only thinking about getting home to bed” where we meet Mr Lemerle (René Worms), attorney-at-law, entertaining two young women in a cab, one of whom picks a cabbage off a cart and puts it on her head…

Marguerite Carré and friends, Jean Forest and his best friend
Then the traders move through “disreputable neighbourhoods where people live more by night than by day” where we meet Madame Laure (Marguerite Carré) a street walker who is rounded up in quick measure by a fatuous Police raid. A “war on pleasure” that can never be won…

The girls are released soon after and Mme Laure returns home. She amuses herself by playing cars and dreaming of a better future… meeting her parents and younger sister once a month. Then we meet a young newsboy called Mouse (Jean Forest - impressive here as he would be again in Feyder’s Faces of Children) who lives on his wits, eking out just enough of a living to feed his pet dog.

Madame Laure dreams of good fortune and a quiet pastoral retirement
At dawn, the carts finally arrive at the market area of Les Halles, now the location of a modern shopping precinct but which in 1922 was a bustling trading post with thousands moving along vegetable valleys, between chock-a-block choux-fleurs, an over-flow d'oignons and pomme de terre piles. It’s a superb sequence.

Finally we see Jerome Crainquebille a she sets out his stall and prepares to great his favourite customers, Mme Laure first of all. He rescues young Mouse from a gang of local children before engaging with shoe-shop owner Mme Bayard (Jeanne Cheirel) over the purchase of some onions. She pops into her shop as a policeman, L'agent 64 (Félix Oudart), tells him to move on but he refuses until Mme Bayard – who has become distracted by a customer of her own – gives him his money.

Les Halles
The flustered Policeman thinks he hears Crainquebille say “kill the cops!” and a real argument begins. Dr Mathieu has seen all and tries to tell Officer 64 that he is mistaken but, pushed into a corner he drags the old man off to the station.

Crainquebille is now stuck in the unreality of the judicial system and begins to lose his bearings as the process carries his liberty away. The trial sequence is a tour de force from Feyder – optical effects showing the victim’s inability to comprehend proceedings, as Officer 64 looms as large as the importance of his evidence whilst the Doctor, for all his good intentions, is diminished by his testimony.

Félix Oudart and Maurice de Féraudy
Crainquebille has the misfortune to be represented by lawyer-about-town Lemerle who lazily ignores his client’s testimony in order to portray him merely as a victim of circumstance – a man subjected to 60 years of poverty who is, therefore, literally without responsibility.

As Lady Justice is animated to stare down disapprovingly, the Judge ignores all in his rush to convict, condemning Crainquebille to two weeks inside and a 50 Franc fine he’ll never be able to afford. Luckily the Doctor secretly pays his debt and the old man comes to enjoy his two weeks of bread and board…

Big testimony versus the small truth of the Doctor...
Crainquebille emerges somewhat refreshed by his experience but as he goes back to work, his true punishment begins as his customers are less willing to forgive or forget his “crime”… Has one injustice led to another and will any of the good citizens help their former friend?

I watched the Lobster films Rediscover Jacques Feyder DVD set which comes with a suitably wistful Antonio Coppola score performed by a small ensemble. It’s available from Amazon but at a “collector’s price” – hopefully Lobster will re-release.

D. W. Griffith supposedly described Crainquebille as “…a film which, for me, precisely symbolizes Paris" – spoken like a true Kentuckian! – but you can still recognise the persistent spirit of the city in the film even as it finds it falling short on liberte, egalite and fraternite!

“Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned.” Anatole France

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