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.
|The Ommegang Festival|
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.
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...|