Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Hot media… Figaro (1928), Il Cinema Ritrovato 35 Digital Streaming


As the UK sweats and my new home office warms up over 30 degrees centigrade, the weather is almost Italian and therefore the perfect ambiance for watching restored and rediscovered film in the annual cinematic celebration that is Il Cinema Ritrovato. This year Bologna has a live event but as travelling remains an issue from the UK, some of us have to watch from a far via the festival’s streaming channel, a choice selection from the main programme. Very engaging it is too for withing minutes of clicking play on this film, the 918 miles between my laptop and Bologna disappear and I’m sat in the Cinema Jolly, a cool bottle of iced tea in my hand, rehydrating as I’m lost in this sparkling restoration… Travel is all in the mind, man, and in time as well as space.


Figaro exemplifies the ambition of late silent period French film and of course its director, Gaston Ravel who had twenty years of filmmaking under his belt by this stage as he decided to combine the Beaumarchais trilogy, Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère coupable into one two-hour film. These plays pre-dated the French Revolution and were controversial in their day – the second was banned by Louis XVI after a private reading, although Queen Marie-Antoinette was a fan – for addressing changing attitudes to the ruling classes as well as sexual politics. Naturally enough they were still appealing to later Third Republic viewers not least for their fame as operas from Mozart, Rossini and Milhaud.


Ravel deftly handles these three related narratives and brings out the extraordinary energy of his cast, especially dancer and performer par excellence, Edmond van Duren as Figaro and Marie Bell as his wife Suzanne. Van Duren is full of Fairbanks force and is in near constant flow, free running his way as the catalytic cohesion binding the story and defining the mood throughout. As the finest barber in town, he keeps tabs on every head he’s had the pleasure to know including the great and good such as Count Almaviva (Tony D’Algy, dimpled and handsome) who he helps to romance Rosine (Arlette Marchal, a divine profile...).


Arlette Marchal

Rosine is of noble birth but the ward of Doctor Bartholo (Léon Bélières) and entrapped – sorry – engaged to be married to the old duffer who attempts to keep her under lock and key. Figaro has a plan, he always does, and gets the Count to pretend to be a commoner, Lindor, sent to help Rosine with her piano playing. It almost works as well until Bartholo spots too much close attention from teacher to pupil and after chasing his competitor out, takes advice from the sinister Basile (José Davert with long dank hair and daft hat) to slander the Count’s reputation. There’s a superimposition of snakes as don Basile’s words literally poison Rosine’s mind and she accepts her only refuge with the Doctor.


Cue another plan from Figaro…


Edmond van Duren and Tony D’Algy

The years move on and married life does not suit the Count who, whilst he loves his wife, also loves other women too, if for different reasons. There are lavish and frankly shocking, parties involving all kinds of naked cavorting – checks notes, “blimey, this is French!” – as amorous Almaviva collects conquests much as millennials used to catch Pokemon. Meanwhile Figaro has found love too and met his perfect match in Suzanne (Marie Bell, another fantastic presence from the stage) who he asks permission to marry. The Count agrees on one condition… and the couple must find a way to re-direct his energies.


Plan A involves young Chérubin (Jean Weber), Rosine’s godson, dressing up as the bride to be… which would have been an interesting surprise for the Count had he not interrupted the ruse. But the team of Figaro and Suzanne is irrepressible and there’s so much delight in seeing their eyes light up as yet another plan is hatched! The rhythm of the film is so perfectly judged by Ravel and the pace never drops as invention is uninterrupted by every counter move from the Count.


No social distancing at the Count's party...

The final part of the story moves things on another year or so after Almaviva has sent Chérubin off to serve in the army for being a little too tall and handsome for the life at court… Rosine has had a baby by this point and things seem to have calmed down for the couple. Then we see the noble and promoted Colonel Chérubin in battle – some excellent mobile camera work amongst the charging horses – before, mortally wounded, he passes on a secret to comrade in arms Major Bogaerts (Genica Missirio).


Bogaerts takes the message to Rosine who, in gratitude, has him employed as the Count’s secretary. By this stage Rosine’s child is a toddler enjoying a Punch and Judy show from Figaro and Suzanne – there is no limit to their talents. The two see Bogaerts for what he is and know they must defend the Count and Rosine from whatever mischief he is up to… this calls for not one but two cunning plans… and, as Figaro says: “Suzanne you are so shrewd. Worthy of your husband!”


The film is rich in character as well as cinematography, sets and costume design – from JK Benda who also worked with Jacques Feyder and others. There are sumptuous moments, on location too especially at the Château de Rochefort-en-Yvelines where we see Suzanne spellbinding Bogaerts, supposed sweethearts among the sweet peas.


Marie Bell and Tony D'Algy

It’s hard to understand how Ravel was practically forgotten for decades as Pierre Philippe points out in the catalogue essay, but his success here came just as sound pictures were about to change along with tastes. The director and film are exactly why Il Cinema Ritrovato is essential viewing though, restoring not only the physical results of his work but also his reputation as new memories are created by an audience eager for the delightful shocks and surprises of the old.  


Figaro was restored in 2K in 2020 by Gaumont in collaboration with CNC - Center national du cinéma et de Immagage animée, at Éclair laboratory. It comes with a delightful new score from Alvaro Bello Bodenhöfer, guitarist and composer, who weaves some lovely lines around this comedy of love and light.


The streaming festival continues and there is a lot more to come, all viewable up to 3rd August. Details here!!


She can hear music...


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