Wednesday, 3 June 2015

And it burns, burns, burns… The Burning Crucible (1923)

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.
Ivan Mozzhukhin
Mozzhukhin found his expression unrestricted in France and was successful enough to earn the right to auteur status on this beguilingly un-orthodox film which begins with a dream and never quite manages to earth itself in the viewer’s reality. This - sans doubt – was the intention as Mozzhukhin goes about tearing up the narrative rulebook in re-booting the romantic comedy-fantasy-detective-drama as something based more on the art of the heart.

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?
Now, about that dream… a woman (Nathalie Lissenko, Ivan M’s lover and wife) thrashes about her bed unable to wake herself from the most disturbing of nightmare scenarios. Her long hair is being pulled at by a man tied to a stake (Mozzhukhin); she tries to pull back but he won’t let her, he’s about to be burned alive and she is someone he cannot let go: for his love or his life he clings on as a demonic figure stacks the wood high and fans the flames that will incinerate.

Elle runs for safety...then the curtains go up...
Finally she is free and she runs into the green night only to be haunted by the same man in various guises. A man in top hat and tails calls for her to stop – a phrase repeated throughout the film – and then chases her through darkened streets to a small theatre club where a crowd of women watch first her and then gaze in adoration as her pursuer makes his entrance on stage through burning curtains. Then the man appears a priest in a cathedral who blesses her in what looks like a wedding and then she finds him as a poor beggar outside who pleads for help only to stab himself and leave her to the mercy of his amorous cohorts…

All a dream from a book...
She wakes… and slowly realises that she has drawn all of this from a booklet telling the tales of a detective Z who is, of course, a master of disguise. She flicks through and sees Z as a priest, a member of the underworld and many more… Is this autobiographical from Mozzhukhin: the adoration and the constant disguises: is the only constant his love of Nathalie Lissenko? Her character, simple “Elle” is also in love with and emblematic of Paris… is this also his tribute to the city that saved him?

The beggar and the priest: both Ivan
Now for the closest we get to reality… Elle’s husband. Again, he is simply Le mari (Nicolas Koline) an older man with an awkward moustache who is her polar opposite: a rational passionless older man who is less concerned with love than property and ownership. He loves Elle in his way and has done since he rescued her from an assault by another man that left her almost drowned… a moment when his blood rose to the same level as her’s but, on a day-to-day basis he is more father figure than lover.

Nicolas Koline
Mozzhukhin uses an unusual framing device for the flash-back, showing the action in negative and then positive before revealing Elle looking at the negative film of her early life with her husband. I told you about clever didn’t I – he’s relentlessly inventive.

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.

Celluloid memories...
Now things get complicated… Elle goes out once again and her husband follows – there’s a super scene as he stands holding onto the side of his taxi as it pursues hers along the Champs-Élysées – until eventually they arrive at a secluded large house exactly the same as in her dream. She doubles back leaving him to enter the strangest of societies. He is pushed along moving walkways that show rooms all eyes and all ears before being presented to a panel of twelve weird-looking individuals.

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!
The contract is signed and the husband must trust the detective to remain professional at all times. Z arrives at their house to find there has been a break in and a brief case containing their marriage contract and property deeds has been stolen… the husband’s plan to leave Paris cannot take place until the paperwork is recovered, he asks Z to focus on this before his wife but Z only agrees to work on both cases at the same time as they are surely linked…

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
As ever with such stories the audience expects things to go the way they want but Mozzhukhin doesn’t follow the route you expect as the focus shifts onto Z and his devotion to his Grand Mother (Huguette Delacroix)… come on, did Sherlock Holmes even have a Grand Mother?!

Le brasier ardent still surprises and even though it stretches out a little long – who’s going to tell Mozza to cut one of his own scenes? – it engages. The performances of the three leads are all part of the reason for this and it is not just Ivan that excels with Nathalie proving his match in more ways than one: their weekends must have been an exhausting round of high-energy socialising and “performance” all that Russian wit and bravado: larger in every way than life!

Eyes and Ears...
Rasputin knows how much this all cost but the production design of Boris Bilinsky, Eduardo Gosch and Alexandre Lochakoff is hugely impressive as is Pierre Schild’s art direction.

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...
The Burning Crucible comes as part of the essential box-set French Masterworks: Russian Emigres in Paris 1923-1928 from Flicker Alley. The set also includes two further films involving Mozzhukhin including L’Herbier’s Feu Mathias Pascal (1928) raved about elsewhere on this blog.

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...
The above set is available direct or from those Amazons… it’s a must have, a crucial crucible.


  1. Hey, I just rewatched this the other night! Such a strange and wonderful film. The first act in particular is just such a delight - and the reveal at the Find-All Agency had me gasping the first time I saw it.
    La maison du mystère is fantastic too; Flicker Alley are killing it at the moment.

    1. They are - La maison du mystère is on my birthday list!

      This one is so full of invention and you can tell they were having a ball making it. Can't wait for Kean next!