Sunday, 4 June 2017

The long game… Monte Cristo (1929) with Costas Fotopoulos, BFI

“It’s a wonderful film, lavish… In the sense of popular cinema, it’s very impressive. The film is sumptuous. The acting is terrific. What else can I say? It’s a good movie. Go see it.” Lenny Borger

As the sun cracked the brutalist flags on the Southbank, we were inside, in the dark and immersed in a gloriously-ambitious silent adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ (and Jacques Peuchet’s) story: real locations… almost in real time (218 minutes…). It isn’t always this sunny in London but how often do you get the chance to see a live screening of Henri Fescourt’s spectacular? This was a UK premier of Lenny Borger’s labour of love restoration and consequentially unmissable if you are the strong and (stable) silent type…

Borger worked on the initial restoration for over six years and constructed a near-complete version which debuted at the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival. For those of us missing this year’s SF spectacle we had something and, of course, London was hotter than the Californian coast.

There’s a fascinating interview with Borger on the SF Gate website in which he explains how he didn’t chose Monte Cristo it chose him after he watched a fragment in a Czech archive – the ends of the distribution chain - and became struck with its opulence and ambition. Now, I can well understand the spell cast by those moments, Bonaparte has Brownlow and the Comte de Monte Cristo has Borger.

Fescourt’s Monte Cristo does indeed have everything as you would expect from the director of the monolithic Les misérables? (1925) (screened last month at the Barbican) he is able to hold these vast stories and translate their key components on screen capturing plot, key sub-plots, mood and character. If, as Hitchcock said, you only need a short story to make a film, condensing massive novels into even four or six hours is some task.

A night at the opera
Fescourt does this through tight scripting, stripping out characters and sub-plots and editorial control but also by cinematic verve; using those sensational locales… and, in the second half especially some judicious on set experimentation.

There’s a sequence in the Paris Opera as high society watches ballet whilst awaiting the arrival of the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo which is chock-full of inventive lensmanship: we’re on stage with the ballerinas, sweeping from box to box as the audience looks on and sweeping through the stalls as they take in the masterful entrance of the new Comte in town. It’s planned to impress as our hero finally re-appears to begin his process of revenge: a signal that we’re entering a more action-oriented conclusion.

Pierre Batcheff takes a trip
This moment is preceded by some dreamy experimentation as the son of the man who wronged our hero, is drugged on a boat trip and wakes up in the Comte’s sumptuous but almost impressionistic palace: it takes a while for the double exposure to fade and it conveys the changed tone and confusion in the young man’s mind. It’s like a superhero movie, a dream of revenge and empowerment, not at all unlike the arrival of Steve Trevor on Themyscira as he finds the Amazons in Wonder Woman (ahem... seriously, a decent movie!).

But I’m getting way off beam. The first two hours of set up feature more conventional story-telling and purposefully so; there’s a lot to fit in and Fescourt lets his scenery do the talking as the ill-starred hero, Edmond Dantès (Jean Angelo) emerges on the good ship Pharaoh arriving in port as stand-in skipper after the ship’s captain had died. He is confirmed as Captain by the shipping company, run by Monsieur Morrel (Ernest Maupain) but this arouses the jealousy of sozzled shipmate, Caderousse (Henri Debain).

Your jealousy is killing me...
For a nice guy, Edmond makes enemies easily and as we see him greet his lover Mercédès (Lil Dagover), we also see her cousin Fernand Mondego (Gaston Modot) pull a face: he wants the one he can’t have and it’s driving him mad… Overhearing Caderousse’s drunken whinging later on Fernand decides to stir up trouble for Edmond over a stop over the ship make on the Isle of Elba. This was during the period of Napoleon’s exile and being on the wrong side of the argument could be fatal.

Of course, Edmond was merely following the orders of the late captain but, when he seeks help from the deputy crown prosecutor in Marseille, Monsieur de Villefort (Jean Toulout), he, realising that the trip would implicate his own father, destroys the evidence and fits Edmond up to take the fall.

de Villefort (Barrymore-look-a-like, Jean Toulout) betrays Edmond
Imprisoned for life, without trial, on the Château on the Isle d’If in the Mediterranean, things look bleak for Edmond. After six years he meets another inmate, L'abbé Faria (German actor Bernhard Goetzke) who had dug an escape tunnel that sadly only led to his cell. Faria is a wise old lag and tutors Edmond over the next eight years, telling him all he knows of science and the arts.

As Faria’s health begins to fade he tells his pal the location of a mound of treasure, hidden on eth Isle of Monte Cristo… Edmonds not sure if it’s true of not but, when fate allows him the chance to escape, he sets off to find out for sure (you’d kick yourself wouldn’t you…?).

I tell ye boy, thar be buried treasure!
Thus, we get to the action-packed second half as the newly-enriched and ennobled Comte de Monte Cristo sets about exacting his revenge on the three men who done him wrong. So much time has passed that there is now a second generation involved: Albert de Morcerf (pretty-boy Pierre Batcheff of The Chess Player), the son of Mercédès and Mondego who is now a bit of a count himself, the Comte de Morcerf, Valentine (striking Marie Glory of L’Argent fame…) daughter of a very over-promoted de Villefort and Benedetto (a completely wicked Robert Mérin) who is presumed son of Caderousse.

Next generation: Pierre Batcheff and Michèle Verly
François Rozet and Mary Glory
All play their part as the present, no matter how complicated by new loves, gets caught up with by the past! But first Edmond adopts a series of disguises to learn more and begin to entrap his prey, starting with Caderousse and his darkly-disfunctional family.

Diane Farèze, Robert Mérin & Henri Debain
Far harder will be his old rival in love who has made himslef rich through playing sides in the Turkish war - more betrayal - an the almost untouchable de Villefort who claims to believe in Justice... well, needless to say all betrayals lead to retribution and Justice only ever serves its own end. All is played out in the most satisfactory of ways... but good must wait a long time to triumph over evil.

Locked away in an impenetrable dungeon on an island with no chance of escape; betrayed completely by enemies and robbed of his true love… is it any wonder that this story continues to hold a fascination for each generation? Sometimes hope is all you have left and once in a while, it is enough to see you through.

Costas Fotopoulos was on the marathon accompaniment and never broke pace for a moment with a classical energy that matched the story’s period of origin as well as its temperament. I particularly liked some of the romantic flourishes towards the film’s conclusion and the grandeur of the playing as Edmond headed for his cruel incarceration in the Chateau d’If.

I really hope this gets the digital release it deserves along with the director’s Les Miserables: two films that show just the strength-in-depth of French silent cinema!

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