Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A mighty wind… La Proie du vent (1927)

Lillian Hall-Davis

I watched René Clair’s And Then There Were None over Easter, it’s the kind of film that works with a multi-generational audience and a gentle, detached take on one of Christie’s more… nihilistic works. François Truffaut may have dismissed later Clair as only making films for old ladies but André Bazin, founder of Cahiers, was more constructive in saying that Clair “…has remained in a way a film-maker of the silent cinema.” Which is very much the case for ATTWN… everything bad happens in shadowy silence with wordy Christie expressed succinctly with atmospherics.

Two decades before Clair produced his third feature film, La Proie du vent (The Prey of the Wind) which feels a bit like one of Agatha’s – a group of well-off people trapped in a large country pile with passions aflame, mystery and murder in the air – but which also presents as more modern that his later film. There’s more visual narrative content and the story is told through shots reflecting the players’ thoughts and mood with sparing use of inter-titles.

Timeless silent technique
Maybe Clair never quite got over the restrictions of having dialogue or maybe I watch too many silent films…? Either way La Proie du vent marks Clair’s growing confidence as a film-maker en route to his late silent/early-talkie purple patch.

Oh, and we get to see Lillian Hall-Davis’ shoulders… and more than that, one of the finest British actors of the period shows us a stillness and emotional flexibility that still sets her apart. She is timeless.

Charles Vanel and plane
Events begin in the sky as fearless aviator Pierre Vignal (Charles Vanel) soars through clouded skies before coming in to land. He’s due to fly East to establish a new route for commercial flights to Russia but has to postpone when a newspaper reveals trouble in the Balkans.

We switch to the prisons of Libanie where a daughter, Hélène (Sandra Milowanoff),
fights for her mother’s life whilst her husband (Jean Murat) is released by the military junta. As her fellow prisoners round on her suspecting he may have sold their secrets to save his own skin, Hélène’s mother dies; Clair simply showing her crucifix slipped from her hand. Hélène puts the cross around her own neck, future very uncertain.

From mother to daughter
A year passes and Vignal finally sets out to prepare the company’s new commercial line but before he can reach the Russian border he hits a bank of huge clouds and a merciless storm that forces him to land anywhere he can. He sees only trees until a magnificent castle is revealed below, he comes into land but at the last his plane hits a statue and he crashes.

Hours later he wakes up bandaged in bed and looks across to see a beautiful woman sitting patiently by him, the Countess Catchiez (Lillian Hall-Davis) a vision of peace and hope. They are joined by her brother-in –law, the husband from the Libanie prison. 

Blown off course by the wind and crash-landing at the Castle
He discovers that he is in Styannik Castle in Slovakia. His wounds will take some time to heal but as they are so secluded he must stay until he is healed. Vignal lets his company know he will return as soon as he is able and then relaxes into his daily routine which includes daily visits from the Countess.

One day he hears the sound of hammers on wood but is assured it’s only minor repairs…

The Countess and the Pilot
Clair explains the growing romantic interest between the pair through Vignal’s interest in his ladyship’s cigarette… as she leaves the room he stares at the ash tray and the unfinished cigarette she has left. He lifts the cigarette to his mouth to smell it, to taste it and then pops it in his mouth to savour the taste – racey stuff – before promptly dropping it. Hearing her return and unable to pick it up, he puts his own cigarette in its place and, as she lifts his light into her mouth she picks up and passes back what she thinks is his… It feels almost perverse but is well observed.

Sensual cigarettes
Vignal’s feelings for the Countess grow stronger and at the same time so do his insecurities concerning the exact nature of her relationship with her sister’s husband. He says that his wife died but we saw too much of her grief and struggle to really believe that.

Getting closer?
Clair concocts another superb sequence to illustrate Vignal’s emotional storm; convinced that the Countess is having an affair with her brother-in-law, the pilot daydreams his way into her boudoir to find her undressing – those Hall-Davis shoulders revealed! She is surprised by his appearance and a scuffle follows before her supposed lover comes into the room. A gun falls to the floor but she hands it to her brother-in-law who points it at Vignal: cuckolded in his own reverie the bitter-sweet taste of seeing his love comprehensively betrayed.

The imagined room...
Clair harks back to his surrealist past in these moments but they are pure cinema that express thought through camera, cut and counter-point and do not simply rely on performance but the choreography of imagined action flowing from desire…See... that’s what a glimpse of Lillian’s shoulders (and ankles) has done to me!

Key moments in the daydream
 Meanwhile, back to the narrative…  Vignal comes to realise that he is not alone as a house guest after a visit from a surprisingly very much alive Hélène who reveals that she is being held captive by her husband, sister and the mysterious Doctor Massaski (Jim Gérald). She says that both she and Vignal are in grave danger and must find a way to escape as soon as they can.

Jean Murat
Snapped out of his dreamy funk, Vignal switches into the man of action he usually is and thus begins a desperate game to make an escape from under the noses of their urbane captors… Everybody is hiding something though, even the Countess with the dreamy eyes and yet who can Vignal really trust? Is he recovered enough to make the right choices, what exactly is the reason for Hélène’s luxuriant captivity and why is she still alive if what she knows is so potentially damaging?

Hélène comes out of hiding...
Clair’s plot is maybe not so clever as his realization but he creates an atmosphere that involves the viewer right through until the shock of the dénouement. But I can say no more…

La Proie du vent might not be amongst the very best of Clair but it is a really enjoyable film all the same with substantial performances from the small ensemble led of course by the divine Lillian. As a lapsing Surrealist, Clair has something to say about the male instinct with his adventurer all too willing to play the lover or the rescuer of women and there’s an element of self-deception in both: which cigarette do you chose Pierre? We’re all prey to our emotional storms from time to time.

On the run
The cinematography is superb and Clair uses and array of cross-cuts, overlays and montage to reveal his characterizations and mood. But it’s his choice of action that can be the most impressive with a shot showing Hélène and her husband trying to embrace through the tiny window of her prison cell among the most moving.

The version I watched was the 2009 restoration which comes complete with a specially-written score from Ibrahim Maalouf who plays it with a quintet of himself on trumpet, Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Larry Grenadier on double bass, Clarence Penn on drums and Frank Woeste on piano.

These are jazz songs involving the feel of Miles Davis and which run intermittently along with the narrative. It’s mournfully impressive and whilst occasionally running over the action it works well in matching the overall mood. The soundtrack CD, called simply Wind, is available for download from eMusic or as a CD fromAmazon – likeable as a stand-alone experience. I’m playing my copy as I write!

Annoyingly, the film itseld doesn’t seem to be currently available on commercially and I am indebted to my friend Sandy in Paris for showing me her copy recorded off the television. Surely time for a box set along with Un chapeau de paille d'Italie and Les Deux Timides eh Lobster?

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