Sunday, 4 December 2011

Pola energy... Madame Dubarry (1919)

Years ago I used to trade bootleg tapes and would listen to any old hissy C60 so long as it was an interesting part of the artist in question's back story (Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop in London '86... I was there!). In the same way, enthusiasts of vintage film are used to experiencing varying "quality" in pursuit of viewing their interests. Long out of print (and copyright) films could and would be viewed through the blurred fog of multi-generational copying.

But it doesn't have to be this way in the age of digital replication and restoration. Yet watching my copy of Madame Dubarry I felt particularly aggrieved that Grapevine Video, who's version I bought from, hadn't access to a better print.

Maybe that's not entirely their fault but, considering that this is the film that effectively booked both Lubitsch and Negri on their voyages to Hollywood, it's surprising that their's is just about the only copy available. Grapevine are so slapdash they even have a typo in their name on Amazon, but, at least they've released a copy in the first place.

Made just a year after the Great War ended, Madame Dubarry was a lavish costume drama that was the most expensive film yet made in Germany. It led to director Ernst Lubitsch being labelled as the german Griffith and there are certainly parts of the film that show a debt. It's also possible that Orphans of the Storm was in part a response from the master to the younger man's smooth story telling, controlled crowd scenes and subject matter. From different view points, both films questioned the right to rule in an unstable post-war world.

Not too much in common though between Lillian Gish and Pola Negri... with the latter evincing an earthy humanity that convinces you that this humble seamstress could indeed earn the affection of aristocrats and Kings.

Pola plays Jeanne Vaubernier a wild and carefree soul almost unconscious of her affect on men but with a vague, unquenchable ambition. She has a lover, Armand De Foix (an earnest Harry Liedtke) but sets her sights on any man of social standing who can offer her more. Thus does she make her way in society first through the influential Don Diego then Le Comte Jean Dubarry and finally on to King Louis XV (the magnificent Emile Jannings).

The pace of the story is so fast you wonder how things are going to develop beyond this point but life and French politics begin to overtake Jeanne. She gets the king to prevent Armand's execution and he becomes a member of the royal guard. At the same time she comes into range of the scheming Minister Choiseul (a sinister Reinhold Schünzel) who hopes to advance his sister's position with the king. Meanwhile, France is a tinderbox of festering resentment at unfair taxes, food shortages and negligent aristocracy.

Jeanne and Armand meet and he is astonished to learn that she is the hated Dubarry; symbol of royal indifference and whimsy. "It is easy to forgive, " he says, "...but not to forget." Nevertheless, he gives her one last chance as he joins a band of proto-revolutionaries led by his friend Paillet.

The situation is stirred up by both sides and Jeanne blows her chance by ordering Paillet's arrest. She is running out of friends and increasingly dependent on the King's favour. But, as his health begins to fade, the revolution looks ever more certain.

The action explodes in the last half an hour of the film and, having been focused on the individuals, the view is dramatically widened to show the revolt in the streets and the desperate battle of the citizenship against the army. As aristos hang from the lamp-posts, Jeanne is betrayed and sentenced to death: no one gets out of here alive.

Lubitsch shows much subtlety in focusing on character in telling this epic tale. There's a superb moment when Jeanne first arrives at Don Diego's house, her first taste of upper class living, as the curtain behind her pulls away to reveal the opulence of his cabinet. This shows the gap between the lives of the ordinary people and the nobles most effectively; why shouldn't Jeanne want to be part of this?

Madame Dubarry feels less melodramatic than most American film of the same period and you feel sympathy for Jeanne without necessarily condoning her actions - she's not a pure white heroine by any means but she's true to herself even though she can't resist temptation.

Negri gives great energy to the role and, whilst there's the odd moment when she over-reaches, she's mostly naturalistic with a smile of pure unfettered joy. It's her innocent surprise at the benefits her looks bring that ultimately makes her likable. In the end you want her to be given one more chance even if la revolution demands that she must be punished.

Even through the fog and blur of my copy, this was a clear indication of why both Lubitsch and Negri became the stars they were.

The Grapevine video and other similar "boots" are available from Amazon and if you like Ernst and Pola you'll probably not be held back. In the meantime I await a proper reconstruction, as well done as Mania or Sumurun, with no little impatience.

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