Ivan Mozzhukhin wrote, directed and starred in The Burning Crucible (Le brasier ardent) and proves that, actually, pretty much everyone likes a show off. He is such a commander of the screen with huge expressive eyes conveying a unique feline masculinity and here he has full rein to externalise the quicksilver musings that flash across his face in every performance I’ve seen…
Mozzhukhin (also, later, Mosjoukine) had been a leading actor in Tsarist cinema and like many of his compatriots had relocated to Paris after the Revolution, where a thriving ex-pat creative community was to make such an impact on French culture into the Twenties. Cultural discourse had long existed between Europe’s two largest countries and I remember that many of the Russian nobility had spoken French in preference to Russian. Mozzhukhin and co weren’t necessarily nobles of even Tsarists they were just out of fashion and out of time.
It’s also cinema of the exceptionally clever which still grips to this day containing the mix of satire and the surreal that would come to be known as “Pythonesque” only in more adult form. There’s an essay to be written on the influence of dada and early surrealist thought on this film but the end result is entirely its own thing.
|Dream Z pulls on Elle's hair: to save himself or to damn her?|
|Elle runs for safety...then the curtains go up...|
|All a dream from a book...|
|The beggar and the priest: both Ivan|
Elle loves Paris and spends as much time as she can visiting the cabaret of Montmartre and the theatres of the Champs Elise that is, when she’s not luxuriating in her huge bedroom with its impressive array of gadgetry: breakfast descends at the push of a button whilst post and flowers are delivered through sliding panels in the wall… all mod cons and devices which further remove Elle’s every-day from reality.
This is the Find-All Agency, a secret operation that specialises in finding missing spouses and returning their hearts to their husbands who pay their fee purely based on performance. He selects the ugliest-looking agent to help him only to find that it’s the handsome Z with an elastic band contorting his face… “no, not him…” he protests – can he trust his wife to be found by this charismatic sleuth?
|Another part to play... then Z is revealed!|
Then Elle meets Z on the stairs and recognises him instantly; the man of her dream and in her book, both parties are charmed but is this just Z’s method, going deep into the “con” much as Amy Adam’s character in American Hustle?
|Mr and Mrs Mozzhukhin|
|Eyes and Ears...|
The cinematography of Joseph-Louis Mundwiller and Nikolai Toporkoff is also top of the range and helps the Director/Author realise his dreams as well as providing fascinating glimpses of Paris at a time when pedestrians could stroll across the Champs-Élysées without getting mown down by rampaging Renaults and careering Citroens.
|Groups of men and women wait on hand for both the romantic leads...|
For this film there’s a top notch score from Neil Brand which captures the life of the film with dynamic lyricism: it’s not just Elle who loves Paris as Milhaud, Poulenc and the rest of Les Six jam with Cole Porter (perhaps) and George Gershwin (for sure) throwing in the occasional line.
|Paris in the springtime and the night-time...|