Saturday, 7 February 2015

Child in time… The Child of Paris (1913)

This sophisticated slice of pre-War French cinema is split equally between an adventure set in Paris and one filmed extensively in the streets of Nice. In the latter section the young hero, Bosco, stays in the Hotel Suisse, next door to the sometime Hotel Europa in which I stayed for part of my honeymoon but, that’s by the by… although the view is stunning and hardly changed over the century and there was certainly no Irish pub in the old town showing premiership soccer.

A view of la Jetée-Promenade in Nice, demolished during WW II
This film is more than just Fantômas-by-the-seaside though, being an almost unprecedented two hours in length and proving not only worthy of its extensive running time – largely – but chock full of inventive and entertaining composition and narrative drive. You find glimpses of cinema-to-come in many shorter films from the period but there are few that I’ve seen that are as likeable and logical as this one. It helps that director Léonce Perret also wrote and that this is not an attempt to compress a novel or expand a play – it is a composition purely for cinematic exposition.

At some points it appears a little too deliberate – man climbs into house, walks down a shadowy corridor and searches rooms… but this isn’t Liam Neeson chasing down euro-criminals in cut-up cine-short hand, it’s a man going through the steps in real time… well almost: you soon realise the cutting and directoral finesse already involved even if it’s almost invisible to the jaded modern eye. These scenes manage to build a genuine tension aided by the unpredictability of the vintage pacing.

The story opens in the home of Captain Pierre de Valen (Émile Keppens) a well-to-do army reservist who is summoned to duty in North Africa having to leave his contented life with wife (Jeanne Marie-Laurent) and daughter Marie-Laure (Suzanne Privat). He leaves his brother Jacques de Valen (Henri Duval) to look after his family while he is away – all hope for the best.

Jeanne Marie-Laurent and Émile Keppens
The conflict progresses and it seems as if the rebels are in retreat as encouraging reports are read out from newspapers – Perret is very adept at moving his narrative on through “found” objects rather than relying solely on the artifice of title cards. Sadly, the rebellion is far from over and we are shown one desperate engagement in which the Captain’s platoon are overcome.

Suzanne Privat
The news gets worse as a telegram arrives at the household declaring the Captain missing in action and presumed dead… Mother takes the news very hard and is soon seriously unwell, passing away from her grief… Marie, now an apparent orphan is in the care of Uncle Jacques but then he is also drafted and has to head off to war.

Sent to boarding school, Marie hates everything and everyone (who seemingly reciprocate). One night she makes her escape climbing down into the dangerous streets of Paris, where, alone and exhausted she falls asleep. She is spotted by a man we discover is Edmond Talmin aka The Graduate (Louis Leubas) who robs her of any valuables before deciding she’d make good forced labour for a shoemaker he knows called Tiron (Marc Gérard).

Bosco takes pity on young Marie
Tiron accepts the gift with bad grace pushing her into a cupboard where she is to sleep shown side on by Perret as the camera moves from one room to another through the artificial wall, a trick he returns to later. Young Marie’s only saving grace is the cobbler’s hunchbacked assistant, Bosco (Maurice Lagrenée) who immediately becomes very protective of the stolen child.

The Captain in his study
Game over surely… not a bit of it! The Captain is alive: released from imprisonment by the enemies of colonial France and returned to be greeted with gratitude by crowds around the Gare de Lyon. He returns home to discover his family tragedy but, whilst the Police have given up on locating his daughter, he hasn’t and he begins a public search using the media to post pictures of his daughter: surely someone will recognise her?

The Graduate makes off with Marie
Unfortunately for the Captain, that someone is The Graduate who immediately calculates the riches he can extort in exchange for the girl. He extracts 50,000 francs from the Captain and aims to claim more but Bosco comes to the rescue, alerting the Police after the thug removed Marie from the shoe-makers garret…

But The Graduate escapes with the girl and Bosco sets off on a remarkable pursuit that takes him out into the streets of Paris and from there onto the Paris Nice Express…

Perret avoids title cards where he can...
The last section of the film is genuinely fraught and the direction really comes alive in the sunnier climes of Nice: can Bosco locate the missing girl, just how organised is the crime of The Graduate and has the menu changed that much over the last century of Hotel Suisse dinners?

The film is part of the Gaumont Treasures set from Kino Lauber. It's available direct or from Amazon.

The view from the Hotel Suisse

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