Friday, 2 October 2015

Go with the flow... L'hirondelle et la mésange (1920)

André Antoine was so successful in injecting realism into this film that it was refused distribution by a producer who no doubt didn’t consider it entertaining enough. We should expect no less from the director of La Terre (1921) and who took not only Emile Zola’s naturalism as his guide but, through his extensive theatrical work, the approaches of Ibsen, Strindberg and even Charles Dickens for whom environment was as key a part of personal journeys as free will.

No stage sets, extensive location work and a rhythm built around the working lives of the protagonists set the context for a drama that emerges only gradually through the routine to explode in a flurry of desperate violence at the end.

This is a film to savour and one that took over 60 years to “complete”… the six hours of rushes lying in storage until finally edited together in 1984 by Henri Colpi with the help of the director’s original notes. The result feels very modern and the contamination of contemporary editorial sensibilities aside, that’s no different from La Terre. Antoine had his way of work and also seems to have been as restless creatively as he was precise, leaving cinema as he had film to focus on writing in 1924.

Why not? He’d already mastered neo-realism and Dogma – insert smiley face - but the mixture of water-slow pacing, travelogue and the most undramatic treatment of a dramatic storyline combine to deliver a narrative that is engaging. It’s a slow-release concoction that plays on the characters’ confinement on board the barges… it’s L'Atalante without the romance and the whimsy.

Well, there is some romance but it’s not open-hearted but conniving and manipulative and inappropriately-aggressive.

Louis Ravet
Pierre Van Groot (Louis Ravet) is the captain of two barges, L'Hirondelle and La Mésange (The Swallow and The Titmouse)which he uses to transport building goods from the port of Antwerp into Northern France. He does a side-line in smuggling including diamonds and lace to bolster cash flow. The former are hidden below the waterline, strapped to one of the rudders whilst the silk is tightly wound around his wife, Griet (Jane Maylianes). Griet’s sister, Marthe (Maguy Deliac) lives and works with them.

Jane Maylianes
At the port in Antwerp, a young man Michel (Pierre Alcover) spots Pierre in deep discussion with a local jeweller. He follows his every move and ends up working with Pierre as a pilot… Pierre likes the fact that he has sailing experience whilst Marthe his youthful twinkle but Griet has her suspicions…

Maguy Deliac
Pierre joins in the rhythms of the family’s life and soon proves his worth earning the trust of Pierre if not his wife whilst young Marthe begins to hero worship. It’s a simple story which passes by a slowly as the buildings and trees on the bankside…but you’re pulled in all the same. We know Pierre’s a wrong ‘un but we begin to forget as he seems so helpful but the cuckoo won’t share the nest forever.

Pierre Alcover
Before departure from port, we catch a glimpse of Antwerp’s Ommegang Festival. There is a giant fish pulled by horses dressed in fish scales and with a cupid sat on top, spraying the cheering crowds in honour of a whale that swam up Scheldt River to be greeted warmly by the local fishermen. Then there are legends such as the giant Druon Antigoon who had his hand chopped off by local hero Brabo and who here towers over his carriers. The ceremony originated in the 14th century and was, at the time, run only every 25 years: a delightful slice of bizarre Belgium life.

The Ommegang Festival
From Antwerp they head up river to Tamise (the French name for Temse) where the railway bridge still survives. They disembark for some sightseeing and shopping offering a fascinating view of the fish market.  Michel makes his move for Marthe and there’s a terrifically tense picnic on the deck as Marthe glows, Michel looks shifty, Griet appraises and Pierre is oblivious. All four characters are so well defined and played - defined almost instantly by director and performer.

Antoine had many years of theatre direction and clearly knew how to get the best out of his actors even when they were not so experienced: without checking I’ve no idea which of the cast was the least experienced so well do they play.

Photo poses
The two couples attend a funfair and there is a precious sequence in which they go to have their photographs taken using a variety of popular props, a horse and cart and an airplane. These shots do indeed feel candid as if the performance veneer fell away when faced with photo formalities. But we know the type of poses as some of us are lucky enough to have our grand and great-grand parents in similar shots: on their best behaviour addressing the new world behind the lens.

They travel on towards Ghent and there is an accident when Michel hurts his hand when lowering one of the barge’s sails, Marthe rushes to bind the wound: did he do this deliberately? He eyes Marthe up and down and clearly has eyes for the elder sister. He sneaks over the boats at dusk and catches sight of Marthe wrapping herself in the lace she bought in Antwerp; the camera lingers and there’s something sensuous about this smuggling…

Pierre and Marthe head off to shore leaving Marthe and Michel alone, he takes plunge in the hold but she pushes him away in disgust: if she didn’t know before she does now.

As they approach the French border… Marthe tells all she knows to Pierre – Michel is not the man he thought he could trust. They make their way past customs but as Michel invites his captain to get drunk at Kruydewier’s Bar will he succeed in his patient robbery…  Antoine handles the drama with the same ease as the documentary and pastoral leaving an ending that is all the more impactful for its simplicity. Like everything else we’ve seen; it is believable.

Cat or should that be Swallow and Mouse...
I watched a video copy of the 1980s restoration which comes with a wistful improvised score on accordion from Marc Perrone. I’m not aware of this being on DVD but it is surely ripe for broader rediscovery and screening – so many superb riverside views. A gem and one of 1920’s best sans doubt!

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