Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Sweden 3 France 1... "Jenny Hasselqvist Day", Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Day Four

Jenny pirouettes across the stage of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, she’s so strong and graceful, on point and as totally controlled as you would expect from the World-class prima she was. As maestro John Sweeney accompanies, it feels not so much like Jenny’s day more like Christmas Day: the chance to see her performing the “day job” and on her home stage.

I don’t know why it is that you connect more with some performers than others, but I’ve always found Hasselqvist’s combination of movement and expression especially compelling. She is such a naturalistic actor and that’s Swedish style as evidenced by her co-star in Balettprimadonnan (1916) Lars Hanson but also by Victor Sjöström and Hilda Borgström in Körkarlen (1921) also screened today. This is her first film and made four years before Lubitsch’s Sumurun but already she combines effortlessly alongside young Lars. As with Louise Brooks, she’s simply not bound by time or style, and that’s it!

Young Jenny Hasselqvist and young Lars Hanson...
This is a reconstruction with extensive use of stills accompanying the complete title cards for a film long considered lost. Mr Sweeney deserves so much credit for keeping the narrative flowing through these sequences and when the live action starts he makes the most of every second of Julius Jaenzon’s cinematography and Mauritz Stiller’s direction. There are two sequences of Hassel-dance, a rehearsal in which the peasant-girl Anjuta dances in boots and then the full Monty in the Opera a stunning set piece which I’d guess was Swan Lake? There’s studio footage of Jenny performing The White Rose in the German film Wege Zu Kraft und Schonheit (1925) but it’s great to see her on stage.

As for the film, it’s a proto Star is Born in which Anjuta makes it big with the aid of the sneaky Count Orsky (Richard Lund) who sends her true love, Wolo Czawienko (Lars, Lars, Lars…) overseas to perfect his violin playing and otherwise drives a wedge between the two in order to have her all to himself. It’s not just Jenny who dazzles (I’m saying that purely for balance…) and there’s a great face-off between Wolo and the Count at the end, filmed in blue tinted darkness at a lodge house, with the shutters gradually being opened and Jaenzon filming the seemingly impossible as more light gradually beams into the space.

 There was more Jaenzon magic in the Victor Sjöström’s Judaspengar (The Price of Betrayal) (1915) as the film opens with a stunning zoom through a window into a room in which a mother is dying, a child is crying, and a husband finds out the worst for their Doctor: a still life in misery established in seconds of economic direction.

It’s one of only five films from the 30 the director had produced up to 1916 and has similar themes to Ingeborg Holm (1913) – the death of a partner bringing financial ruin to a family in a time before a welfare state. It’s a tense thriller with a gruesomely memorable sequence involving a dead body in a bag…

There was more from the Sjöström/ Jaenzon team with Körkarlen (1921) and this was the first time I’d seen it projected with live accompaniment – in this case from Donald Sosin. The Phantom Carriage has a reputation based on the ghost story part but it’s another socially-aware tale based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf. It’s message that you must hope for emotional maturity before you pass is not necessarily a religious one and Sjöström’s character is surely one of the biggest bastards in film history: he just won’t do a good thing will he? Plus, we could almost smell his dank clothing from the third row… what Astrid Holm’s salvation army worker, Edit, saw in him I’ll never know.

The acting is raw and exhaustingly-convincing, giving a clear win to Sweden on the day and, yes, for me there could be no other result.

Victor Sjöström on the lash
The French did manage to score an impressive consolation goal with Marcel L’Herbier’s adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s L’Homme du Large (1920) which was as aesthetically remote as it’s possible to be from Sjöström’s grit. L’Herbier’s style is his substance (sorry) with, for example, defined colour codes beyond the usual, blue for the sea and red for the city nightclub plus intertitles as an artform, it could all be too much were it not for the brutality of the storyline.Still, it’s interesting to compare with the Swede's treatment of a Henrik Ibsen poem on a similar theme, Terje Vigen.

Baby-faced waster Michel (Jaque Catelain, natch), has grown up spoiled and pointless with his granite-faced father Nolff (Roger Karl) over-indulging him, and ensuring his goal of breeding another man who loves the sea is dashed. Mother (Claire Prélia) knew this would happen and she has made sure that their daughter Djenna (Marcelle Pradot) is made of more substance and spirit.

Michel is led increasingly into the sordid depths of city life by Guenn-la-Taupe (Charles Boyer, oozing class and charm in his first film, watch and learn Jaque, watch and learn…) and further away from the family’s rocky home. Disaster looms as he chases after nightclub performer Lia (Suzanne Doris) and his father and the natural justice of, um, nature await the completion of his fall.

Maud Nelissen's minimalist accompaniment gave space and flavour for the onscreen complexities to breath before a thunderous conclusion of rolling chords that left some feeling storm tossed.

I have previously raved about this film and got lost in the colours after too much tea... it's a film that rewards repeated viewing. 

The Lads (Jaque and Charles on the right) and Les Girls at the club
As we checked to see if our souls still resided in our bodies, it all seemed so far away from the morning in which the USA had established an early lead with the hyper-Hollywood Captain Blood (1924) part of the Kevin Brownlow strand. I heard an American voice behind me say that this was the most polished film so far and that’s so revealing of the difference between the approach between Europe and the States where things tend to be so finely polished and commercialised.

This isn’t a criticism and Cap’n Blood is very entertaining if a tad over-long (phrase of the week?) but what do I know, it was Vitagraph’s most profitable film as reported by Mr Brownlow. Jack Kerrigan was a major player in the pre-studio era and this was his peak as he withdrew from films not long afterwards following much rumour and a car crash. He’s good even though it’s very hard to watch this now without thinking of the Errol Flynn version.

In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, pirate comics are the predominant genre as superheroes are “real” and no one’s impressed anymore… in cinemas, now that the supers are blasting out every few weeks, maybe it’s time for some more pirates? What’s better than the cut and thrust of cutlass and canons blowing up actual ships?

A bit of bother on board...
Philip Carli’s swashbuckling accompaniment was superb, but I couldn’t see if he had a bottle of rum or a parrot on his shoulder.

The second US offering was John Stahl’s Suspicious Wives (Greater Than Love) (1921) which was the strongest of the features shown so far albeit with a very idiosyncratic plot and denouement. Molly King was the star and very impressive she was too as the woman who becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair and runs away to have their baby in secret.

It’s a plea for better marital communication but the case for the mistrust could have been more strongly made and the narrative motivations clearer. This would have prevented perhaps the longest inter-title in history being used to explain the plot at the end…

Daan van den Hurk kept the story grounded with confident lines on the piano; I’d love to listen to his last ten minutes again!

Gallant Mollie King takes it all in...
Two up at the break, Hollywood was blown away by that thrilling Swedish hattrick in the second half… it’s never over till the final whistle, as Sjöström said in the post-match press conference.

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