Jean Renoir's first feature film was being shown as part of the annual All About Piano! festival of the keyboard at the Institut français and was part of its ciné-concert stream.
It's always good to experience different venues and the Institute provided a superb context for both the film and John Sweeney's expertise on the keys with a well-tuned grand on the stage.
Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Le Ballet Mécanique (1924) was first up, that most metronomic of silents and one which gave John the freedom to play along in the most un-mechanical manner. A classic of Avant cinema this ballet is an accompanists' dream and clashing chords met flashing photography as the rapid-regularity of cuts were matched in some style by close-controlled counter-playing. It's hard to imagine this film without music and it affords so much room for creative overlay - you could play it differently every time... if you were John that is.
Whilst Ballet was an overt Avant Garde statement, La Fille de l’eau (Whirlpool of Fate) uses elements of technique in a remarkable dream sequence that has the film's heroine running in slow motion through dark landscapes and pursued by her two male tormentors as she floats backwards up into a tree. It's a remarkable sequence and one of the highlights in a film that mostly just provides hints of Renoir's later greatness.
Mr Sweeney's playing was certainly in tune today and he repeated themes from Ballet during La Fille's more experimental moments. His playing for Ballet was powerful, fluid and completely in time with this silent cinematic metronome whilst for La Fille he could deploy more conventional support for the narrative ranging from lovely pastoral lines as Gudule's barge floats down peaceful canals to more anxious moods as tragedy strikes and she has to fight for her life. Not perhaps the most surprising of stories but it didn't deliver any off-key moments thanks to the playing which, appropriately enough given the occasion, proved exactly how important a piano played well is to a silent film.
Renoir's film stars his wife Catherine Hessling (who, of course, had modelled for his father Pierre-Auguste...) as the rather Pickford-esque boat-girl with the curls, Gudule Rosaert. She works on a canal boat owned by her papa and run with the help of her brutish Uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez) . The barge is long and is shown in a lovely shot following grumpy uncle Jeff as he walks the full length only hesitating to kick the dog.
Off the water live the Raynal family, well-to-do and slightly eccentric certainly with Raynal Senior (Georges Térof) being attached to his smoke-belching automobile of which variously Mr Ford or Monsieur Citroën would be jealous, depending on which title cards you get. Madame Raynal (Madame Fockenberghe) takes it all in her stride whilst their handsome son Georges (Harold Levingston ) likes to ride his pure white horse and take photographs of pretty barge girls…
|Harold Levingston and Georges Térof|
|Uncle Jeff menaces|
Things escalate and the young scallywag torches Justin’s haystack and makes a run for it with his mother leaving Gudule at the mercy of the vengeful farmer and his drunken friends. They burn the gypsies’ caravan and force her to run for her life. She trips down a quarry bank and is dazed, confused all reason temporarily dislodged.
Left out in the wild barely able to look after herself even with Georges’ help, Gudule falls asleep in the rain and has the most remarkable dream… This is the film’s most interesting passage and features lots of slow motion – forward and reverse – giant lizards, and tricks of perspective. Gudule’s uncle descends from a tree a snake coiled around his neck and then appears alongside her on a branch with her other male abuser Justin. Georges rides to her rescue on a ghostly white steed and, in the waking world he carries her back to his warm house; it’s all a little bit Freudian I shouldn’t wonder.
As Gudule recovers and skips happily along country lanes, the shadow of Uncle Jeff returns to haunt her… will she ever be free of predatory men?
The story’s a mix of pastoral picaresque that meanders up to that remarkable Avant dream… Catherine Hessling leads well with a natural charisma alongside a dancer’s grace. She may not have the subtlety of a Pickford but she has energy and suits her husband’s style.
John Sweeney has a multitudinous reservoir of musical themes all hard-wired in sympathy with his natural appreciation of dramatic storytelling: he manages to achieve the perfect balance between compelling lines and narrative underscoring, always letting the source material breathe.
What better way of celebrating the versatility of le piano than hearing him accompany for this ciné-concert?
The film is available as part of the Jean Renoir Collection which is still just about available onAmazon alongside Nana, Sur un Air de Charleston, The Little Match Girl and some talkies.