Friday, 12 October 2018

Desert song... Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Day Six

There was a repeated refrain of a about a dozen notes made by using a violin bow against blocks on a vibraphone that got hooked in your head and is still with me. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story in which the perfect pop song is written, so catchy it completely takes over all mental function… well, this was close but combined with Jacques Feyder’s mesmerising visuals, this was immersive silent cinema: a three-hour film that felt shorter than some 70-minute ones.

That motif encapsulated the fatal allure of the city lost within the Sahara and its immortal Queen Antinéa from whom there was no release except death and conversion into a metallic mummy in her hall of trophies (we can get into the psycho-sexual details later…). It’s a place so compelling, sexy and the ultimate art nouveau man-trap so well designed by Manuel Orazi – nearly impossible to find and completely impossible to escape… welcome to the Hotel L’Atlantide.

Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale had only been a duo for just one day (force of circumstance) and yet they combined with intuitive improvisations on multiple instruments. I was in the front row and occasionally peaked over to see who was playing what in the orchestra pit as the two followed each other and the film as if they’d had weeks… not a few hours. That this was done for such a lengthy film and one which would be so hard to play for unseen, is remarkable. There are so many great musicians here this week, but this was as good as anything you’d hear.

Manuel Oraz's film poster
This was a world premier of Lobster Film’s new 4K restoration and it has produced an eye-wateringly gorgeous result for a film that maybe long but has such a consistency of tone throughout: it never sags, it moves like the dunes, relentlessly overwhelming (ah, but we’ll get the psycho-sexual later…).

The story was based on Pierre Benoît’s novel of 1919 and resemblance between Queen Antinéa and Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She is purely the subject of legal history. Stacia Napierkowska, a former dancer from the Folies-Bergère, plays the queen and has an earthier allure than you might expect from such a siren. I couldn’t stop comparing her with Brigitte Helm in Pabst’s 1932 version – the early film is better (although I’ve note seen the restored Pabst) but you can really buy into Brigitte’s eternal allure. Plus, she has a pet cheetah. I was also thinking of Hawkwind’s stage dancer, Stacia… and perhaps only certain gentlemen from Bristol might fully appreciate that reference!

Antinéa and a plaything
Anyway… we don’t get to see Antinéa for well over an hour and a half as the film reels out its narrative at walking pace with magnificent desert vistas and some cinematography worthy of a David Lean film. I especially liked the emergence of a gang of raiders as first one then six then dozens emerge silhouetted on the horizon and the flashback showing how a soldier had been kidnapped at a watering hole, the camera moving to the right as the seen reverse fades into view.  

This was Feyder’s first major film and he shot it in the actual locations – and eight-month long shoot in Algeria, on location among the Touaregs in the Sahara and the Ahaggar (Hoggar) Mountains and, just possibly, in the sunken city marooned in the former sea.

The tale is of lost legionnaires and both Jean Angelo as Captain Morhange and Georges Melchior Lieutenant de Saint-Avit are superb as is Marie-Louise Iribe as the Queen’s servant who tries to escape with Saint-Avit. Abd-el-Kader Ben-Ali is also good as the mysterious and principled Cegheïr-ben-Cheik a man of the desert who helps the men but also gets them stoned…

This is a film to relish and I would like to return to that score as well as L’Atlantide

 Husbands and Lovers (1924) with Mauro Colombis

This was the most polished Stahl so far and the first comedy. It features Stahl stalwart (Stahl-wart?) Lewis Stone plays, James Livingston a man taking his wife Grace (Florence Vidor) for granted and the final straw comes when she gets a perm and he doesn’t like it. His pal Rex Phillips (Lew Cody) does though and senses the chance to sneak in and steal the girl from under Jim’s insensitive nose.

We know how it’s going to go but it’s quirky and well-played enough to maintain our interest and the inevitable is eeked out to the last possible moment, Stahl knowing exactly what he is putting us through. Lew Cody though, no way is he ever going to bag Flo’ Vidor. Just saying.

Alice Tissot reading in foreground and Germaine Rouer outstanding...
La Cousine Bette (1928) with Günter Buchwald

This is another one of Balzac’s twisted tales and a film in which there are few innocents, as in life. 
It’s highly stylised by director Max de Rieux and almost grotesquely so but that starts to feel more and more right the longer you watch as bad behaviour gains all the ground. Cousin Betty as played by Alice Tissot is a malevolent watcher of other’s lives motivated by self-interest and the desire to push others lower than her. Germaine Rouer is outstanding – again – as Valérie Marneffe who is so deliciously bad as she breaks men like so many brittle toys and there are some excellent dandies in the form of Christopher Walken look-alike François Rozet as Comte Wenceslas Steinbock and Nell Haroun as Baron Henri Montès de Montejanos who has bizarrely-crafted side-burns to go with his deep eye shadow and excessive foundation: ridicule is nothing to be scared of mon brave!

Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes
The Enemy (1927) with John Sweeney

Fred Niblo’s film is another in the Kevin Brownlow strand and is a powerful anti-war statement based around two Austrian families at the outbreak of the Great War described by Kevin as a “…rarity, a truly pacifist film, almost an M-G-M version of Isn’t Life Wonderful?”

Lillian Gish is curiously playing within herself here – she was distracted off-set by her mother’s illness – but she’s still incredible even though she doesn’t go the whole La bohème for the depravations later in her character’s arc. Lots of close-ups and actually her more “relaxed” performance makes for interesting watching, less draining than say The Wind and her measured intensity gives room for the wider narrative to breathe.

At the start the impact of the declaration of war on university pals, Austrian Carl Behrend (Ralph Forbes) and Englishman Bruce Gordon (Ralph Emerson) makes you expect that they will provide the “enemy” and meet on the battlefield but no, the real enemy is at home. Hatred and unreasoned national pride drive Carl’s father away from his wife Pauli (Gish) and her family and after her grandfather (Frank Currier) is kicked out of university for his pacifist views they struggle to feed each other and Pauli’s baby.

Grandfather swaps his overcoat for an egg, but there’s far worse to come in a stunning closing sequence largely reconstructed using stills but which still kicks you hard.

Make war no more.

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