Friday, 3 June 2016

Art for art’s sake? L'Homme du Large (1920)

This film is based on a story by Honoré de Balzac and it’s interesting to compare with Victor Sjostrom’s treatment of a poem from Henrik Ibsen on a similar theme, Terje Vigen. There’s only three years between these two films which both have grizzled old sailors and a flashback structure explaining how they came to be so old and cold; locked to the rocks, eyes gazing ever seaward… Yet whereas the Swedish film is action-oriented and rugged, the French story is more mood-driven – the former turning poetry into adventure-narrative and the latter interpreting prose as poetry.

French cinematic impressionism… a loose movement including Gance and Germaine Dulac as well as L’Herbier, who all wanted cinema to make the most of its potential as an art in itself and not rely on literature, art and other disciplines and Marcel’s approach was to take from these others what his cinema needed in order to create something new: something musical.

Roger Karl
L'Homme du Large (Man of the Sea) is reputedly L’Herbier’s first major film – the earliest I’ve seen is his next but one, the splendid Eldorado – and it feels like it with a firm hand on the narrative tiller and elaborate title cards that show his interest in multi-media expression. This is a lot more deliberately artful than Terje Vigen but it’s not the better film, even though it is a very interesting one…

There’s plentiful use of cross-fades and double exposure as the director moves his characters’ thoughts around with measured assurance. He partly covers the lens to highlight a boat or a stroppy teen before revealing the full shot and frames his main performers centre screen as they experience the sea or the joy of a carnival. A split screen emphasises the different upbringings of a brother and sister whilst each has their own title card background – the boy a swirl of turbulent waters and the girl a floral illustration illustrating her qualities of unconditional love.

Siblings (and screen) split by parental expectation
To a polymath such as L’Herbier – trained lawyer, musician, playwright and poet – this all made perfect sense and his willingness to push the figurative boat out still wins over the battle-scared silent film viewer; this being the second time in a month I’ve felt the tears well upwatching a sea song…

The story begins with the dramatic appearance of Nolff (Roger Karl) a man in retreat from the human world, feared by his nearest neighbours and who has built his house on rocks far away from human safety – all the better to look at the sea: a force not of nature but of God in which he has entrusted his life. He speaks to no one, maintaining his unknowable vigil and yet a woman in white – a nun – walks through the village and towards him…

The screen blurs (a device he will use often in Eldorado) and the greying old man is now seen in his youthful vigour returning from a fishing trip to greet his wife (Claire Prélia), daughter and his new baby boy. He takes the boy and holds him up to the sea: a blessing, a baptism and a promise that one day he will work the waves in the same way as his father.

The boy, named Michel, grows up under his father’s guidance to become Jaque Catelain whilst his sister, Djenna, guided by her mother’s more enriching and compassionate hand, is Marcelle Pradot. Michel is a sneak and, given too much credit by his father, has grown with no moral compass – which is, yes, a poor state of affairs for a sailor. But, more than anything, Michel is repulsed by The Sea and recoils from the very thought that he might follow in his father’s footsteps.

"A life on the ocean wave!"
Michel is far more interested in the world of men and longs to explore the adult pleasures of the city encouraged by his ne'er-do-well mate, Guenn-la-Taupe (played by an impressive newcomer, Charles Boyer, who I predict will be a major star).

Matters come to a head at Easter as the family prepares for the service and the fair Michel and his pal plan to hit the town and visit the club at which actress-dancer-escort Lia (Suzanne Doris) will be performing: a faraway look in Michel’s eyes pictures both the lads looking on as Lia reclines…

Pictures of Lia... Guenn-la-Taupe and MIchel imagine...
Djenna arrives to try and persuade Michel to join them but he only turns up later immediately in search of a sub from his tolerant father. At the fair Djenna dances with a handsome sailor whilst mother persuades Michel to dance with her. She has a dizzy turn and falls and yet, as the family care for her, Michel is dragged away by Guenn-la-Taupe – he is weak and the lure of Lia is just too much even if he does sneak a peek from on high to make sure his mother is alright.

Easter Parade
Yet Mother is far from alright and is seriously unwell: the story comes to boiling point over a fraught section in which L’Herbier cuts repeatedly from his mother’s distressed state to Michel’s drunken adventures in the club. It’s a very effective juxtaposition which brings home the enormity of Michel’s betrayal and, as he gets drunker and chaos descends, things are about to get worse…

As she pleads for her son to return Djenna goes to fetch him but as soon as he has agreed to leave and come home he is persuaded by Lia to stay… On a promise Michel chances his hand as Lia’s lover dozes in alcoholic stupor only to be waken as the young man makes his move… there’s a fight and in a flash Michel stabs him.

Michel sees red...

Nolff has also spent the night away and returns from fishing to learn the news – he bails Michel out but by the time they get home, mother has died…

Now, you’d think this would be a sobering lesson to the lad but it’s not long before he’s stealing the money left for his sister in order to buy some time with Lia. Nolff discovers this and after a furious chase… drags his son home to discover the full, devastating depth of his betrayal.

What is there left but to let The Sea decide on Michel’s fate: his father binds him in a net and casts him adrift aboard a small rowing boat soon lost in the waves… Is that the end of things only the woman in white holds the answer as we turn full circle and the beginning is revealed by the ending.


L'Homme du large is full of lovely images and well-constructed visual continuity with cinematographer George Lucas working some intricate contrasts between light and shade as well as capturing the harsh majesty of the Brittany coastline.

Charles Boyer and Jaque Catelain
L’Herbier was to work with both Jaque Catelain and Marcelle Pradot many times: the later becoming his wife and the former a collaborator (co-editing here) as much as a performer. I find Catelain an odd presence sometimes, his boyish features so unusual for a leading man – being in the same frame as Charles Boyer doesn’t help – but he works well in his director’s world.

Roger Karl has an epic face that expresses monumental emotions whilst remaining as enigmatic as the ocean – his character’s masculinity undermined by pride and the inflexibility of those who have seen only their way work. What else could he have done for his son?

The film is available as part of a compelling “twofer” pack from Gaumont including Eldorado and is essential if you like French silent style with its pretentions and careful artistry. It comes with a fresh orchestral score composed Antoine Duhamel that may or may not contain elements of La Mer and which matches the film’s beats impressively throughout.  It’s available direct/via FNAC or from Amazon.

God's in there somewhere
Claire Prélia and  Marcelle Pradot
George Lucas' delicate contrasts
Michel hides from his family
Charles looks cool
Djenna's future is foreshadowed
A den and some rather unusual iniquity...

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