Tag Archives: French film

J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

Judex – Feuillade’s caped crusader

judex caveI found myself taken in by the 1916 twelve-part French serial, Judex, created by Louis Feuillade (who also directed the serials Les Vampires and Fantomas.)

The whimsical saga of a caped avenger out to punish an evil banker and right assorted wrongs is enjoyable for its story and fascinating in a number of other ways. I have to admit that I got a lot of twisted joy at seeing a scamming capitalist banker locked up in a room, where he is observed squirming via Judex’s secret viewing screen. These claustrophobic scenes are almost paranoia-inducing, and I felt guilty taking so much pleasure in it. But the banker, after all, was so evil that he ripped off an old man and then ran him over with his car. And that’s just the beginning. — Actually, all the bad guys (including one especially bad woman) in the film are scheming, diabolical, mostly without conscience, and persistent.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

So it is completely necessary that we have Judex and his brother sidekick to lay down some punishment. Judex – rather like Batman – is a brooding, mysterious sort who hides in a secret underground technologically-equipped den and wears a very dapper cape. Unlike the man of the bat, he doesn’t have a dark side. He is, except when suffering from love, cheerful as he balances wrongs. He is so cheerful, in fact, that I’m always aware that director Feuillade is having fun. Judex is full of jokes. The actors play to the camera, sometimes looking directly at it and practically winking. judex diana with gun Never do I feel any real tension or fear, as you might expect in a long serial that wants to bring the audience back to watch the drama unfold. I’m not terribly worried about whether Jacqueline, the banker’s daughter who gives away her father’s ill-gotten gains, is rescued. I’m more enjoying the antics of her kidnappers, particularly the mastermind played by Musidora (who also played Irma Vep in one of Feuillade’s other serials, Les Vampires). Musidora is clearly having a blast being bad, as her character lights up cigarettes and laughs at Judex’s attempts to stop her. Judex may need to save the banker’s daughter, but Musidora’s kidnapping nanny needs no assistance from anyone. If she needs a little hand on occasion, she can always use one of the male saps at her disposal.
Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora and Rene Creste, who plays Judex, play perfectly matched enemies as they both win their days with style. Yet even their ultimate fine looks don’t keep them from always falling into the director’s jokes, as when the kidnappers are chased by Judex’s enormous pack of goofy dogs (an assortment of hound dogs, poodles, and terriers).

The film is often beautifully shot, which is something that takes it beyond the standard serial of the day, or even most films of the day. I’ve watched a lot of short films and serials and they usually appear to have been done quickly and cheaply. If this is the case with Judex, it doesn’t look it. (And given the director’s prodigious output of 700 mostly short movies, Judex couldn’t have been dwelt upon too long.) Shot by shot, the scenes are complex, detailed, and often set in unusual locations. judex seine It’s fascinating just to look at the backgrounds — in fact, the settings, the costumes, even the use of animals and birds are at least as interesting, if not more so, than the story and the acting. While the serial seems like a lark, great care was taken in the details and in providing a certain peculiar atmosphere. The banker’s prison room is not the only claustrophobic space in which a character is trapped. Nearly all of the rooms are traps of a sort, and the only freedom seems to come in the out of doors, whether this be two wayward children hitching a ride on the back of a car in Paris, or a pack of dogs racing through a grove of trees.judex dogs

Judex has what we might now consider a Communistic conscience. Made in 1914, films about the need to wrest control from robber barons and bankers were actually pretty common — or at least a good many of them are available now on DVD. D.W. Griffith built his early career around them. Judex hardly apologizes for the way that the rich are punished and those who give their wealth away are absolved. The banker’s daughter does not exactly receive an instant reward for giving her wealth to charity — she gives away her child to be raised by foster parents so she has time to work; she does it because it is the right thing to do. It’s hard to imagine such a notion appearing in any movie today. Then, in the pre-Soviet era, more European and American artists felt free to consider socialism as a reasonable alternative to the incredible abuses of capitalism (remember, this is before government safety nets), and there was a willing audience for movies that advocated sharing the wealth. Feuillade’s serials Les Vampires and Fantomas have similarly subversive elements and the same touches of surreal humor.

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade himself was the son of a wine merchant; after getting his degree, he served four years in the French army, worked as a journalist, and in 1905 began writing scripts, then directing, for Gaumont Films in Paris.
Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont was one of the leading studios in the 1910’s, experimenting with rudimentary sound (recording to disc, then played back in sync with the film) and colorization (hand painting areas of the frame or tinting certain scenes to elicit a mood). By 1909, Feuillade had already developed his mystical, dreamlike style with its fascinations with codes, letters, mysteries, and the occult.

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

He often used the same actors in his films, having a stable that included Musidora, Rene Poyen (who plays The Licorice Kid), Marcel Levesque, and many others.
Musidora

Musidora

The most interesting characters in the movie (far eclipsing Judex himself) are The Licorice Kid and Diane Monti, the scheming “adventuress” with a “gang.” The Licorice Kid is a moppet street urchin who smokes cigarettes and works for small change (but does not beg). Chaplain uses a similar (but more innocent) kid in The Kid, five years later. Rene Poyen, who plays the Licorice Kid, is a scene stealing ham, but is fun to watch, and he mostly saves us from sentimentality in his scenes with “Little Jean,” the curly-haired, kissy-face son of the always imperiled Josephine. There are some completely casual takes of the Kid stealing rides, smoking, making wisecracks, and lounging around in general adult manner while often saving the day.judex licorice smoking The other scene stealer is Musidora, who plays Diana Monti, the evil governess. Diana Monti (and Musidora, I think) is such an intelligent, observant, wily, smart ass character. While the banker’s daughter is constantly being kidnapped, Diana Monti has endless schemes for kidnapping. Musidora doesn’t play Diana as an over-the-top witchy evil stepmother type; Diana is actually believable, an attractive-but-not-unusually-so woman who can out-think all of the men around her, those bumbling weak idiots. Diana doesn’t use the men just to use them (like a vamp), but uses them to help her execute her grand schemes, which the men fall into mostly out of greed, not out of infatuation. (This isn’t to say that Diana/Musidora doesn’t “work it” by brushing a man’s chin with her hand or leaning over him as if she is oh-so-interested. In fact, she will often do this and then roll her eyes as soon as the fellow is looking away — she does this so subtly and quickly that it feels completely natural; she always lets us know that Diana Monti is never a fool for love.)judex musidora eyeroll
Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Feuillade doesn’t costume Musidora in outlandish or even sexy garb. There’s no fake glamour here. She looks great in black. But she also looks great in white and in a polka-dot tie. Her beauty comes less in her face and body than in her expressions, which are generally snide, impatient, laughing at the act she’s putting on, thoughtful, and happy when coming up with her next scheme. This is a very advanced female character for the period. Mary Pickford had pluck and smarts, but she also wore little girl braids. Lillian Gish had exquisite beauty, but wasn’t allowed to really show off her mind. Even Louise Brooks often had to go through some kind of degradation. Musidora, daughter of feminists, has and keeps the upper hand. I give Feuillade a great deal of credit for never trying to put her in her place.
The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

I’ve read that Judex was wildly popular in its time, but was dismissed by some of the critics then and later for being a popular serial, a casual entertainment. This seems to me quite unfair. Although it’s a serial in twelve parts, it’s superior to most serials I’ve watched from the period and later. (Hate me movie fans, but it’s much better than nearly all serial Westerns and Sherlock Holmes episodes.) It’s stylish, it’s funny, it’s classy, and for some reason even the story suckered me in. Yes, who is Judex, damn it? Why does he hate bankers? (Resolved on disc 2.) Why does he insist on falling in love with the banker’s daughter? What will Musidora try next to get the fortune and is it at all possible that the banker will never escape? Will Musidora’s boy toys survive? Will Judex unleash his pack of dogs again? — The plot is just fun enough, and silly enough, and everyone is on the joke, for me to want to keep watching on to the next episode, just like that guilty pleasure of watching Shameless on Netflix one episode after another. And so Louis Feuillade solves the mystery of the one hundred year time differential by making it not matter at all.

Judex is available, beautifully restored, on a two CD set from Flicker Alley.

Judex's brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

Judex’s brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

judex musidora in car
The banker's daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

The banker’s daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

judex musidora undress
Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.