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DVD SAVANT

Rediscover Jacques Feyder, French Film Master
Queen of Atlantis, Crainquebille, Faces of Children


Image / Blackhawk

Queen of Atlantis, Crainquebille, Faces of Children

Directed by Jacques Feyder

B&W
1:33 flat full frame
Street Date October 24, 2006
49.99

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Probably the first time most of us had seen even a bit of the work of Jacques Feyder was when Kevin Brownlow's Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood illustrated the lost beauties of the French silent period with clips from 1925's Faces of Children. Feyder continued to work until the 1940s, but many American fans have not seen Carnival in Flanders or his Korda film Knight Without Armour. In 2005 a company called Lobster Films finished the restoration of three of Feyder's more famous silents. They're together in this three-disc collection from Blackhawk Films and Image, Rediscover Jacques Feyder, French Film Master.



Queen of Atlantis
1921 / 163 min. / L'atlantide
Starring Jean Angelo, Stacia Napierkowska, Georges Melchior, Marie-Louise Iribe
Cinematography Victor Morin, Amédée Morrin, Georges Specht
Production Design Manuel Orazi
New Music by Eric le Guen
Written by Jacques Feyder from the novel by Pierre Benoît
Produced by Louis Aubert

Published in 1919, Pierre Benoît's original novel L'atlantide attracted both the Grand Prize from the French Academy and a fat plagiarism lawsuit from the publishers of H. Rider Haggard's She. Benoît did not read English and She had not been translated into French; he explained that he had served in North Africa for fifteen years and had dreamed up the story on his own. He lost the suit just the same.

Jacques Feyder had been directing since 1915, and this 1920-21 epic was a big-deal prestige production. Queen of Atlantis was filmed on location in Algeria and cost a pretty penny.

Synopsis (Spoilers):

Lost legionnaire André de Saint-Avit (Georges Melchoir) is rescued from the desert sands. When he recovers, he has an amazing story to tell. Flashback: A year before, Saint-Avit traveled deep into the Sahara with Captain Jean Morhange (Jean Angelo). Finding a strange ancient Greek marking reading "Antinea", they search for more, but are drugged by their native Tarqui guides and transported into a secret cavern kingdom under the desert sands. An ancient Archivist (Paul Franceschi) explains that the strange city has been hidden for centuries; when most of the Sahara was underwater it was the lost continent of Atlantis. Handmaiden Tanit-Zerga (Marie-Louise Aribe) tells (Flashback in Flashback) how her entire town was captured and marched to the hidden city to become Antinea's slaves. (End Flashback in Flashback) The beautiful Queen Antinea (Stacia Napierkowska) is said to have magical powers over men and keeps a gallery of mummified ex-lovers. She falls for Captain Morhange but is frustrated when he shows no interest; to recover her pride, Antinea seduces Saint-Avit and wills him to murder Morhange. With help from a guide, St. Avit and Tanit-Zerga escape, but the handmaiden perishes before he is rescued. (End Flashback). St. Avit's story is not entirely believed but his superiors elect not to pursue an official murder charge. Besides, St. Avit may be mentally unbalanced; he keeps talking about returning to the desert to face his destiny. St. Avit is recalled to France for a rest; after a year he's assigned to command the very same Saharan fort. He finishes his story and then sets off to retrace the Hidden City and take his place beside Antinea.

I detail the plot of Queen of Atlantis because it is derivative of She and similar to James Hilton's later Lost Horizon, another tale of a possibly insane adventurer who falls out of contact with the world and then claims to have visited a fantastic hidden city. In this version of Benoît's story Atlantis has no definite supernatural aspect. Nobody claims outright that Antinea is immortal and her hypnotic will seems to be a fanciful form of sex appeal ... one look and the average guy is a goner. In the original story Morhange resists because he is 'sexually indifferent'; this film makes him into a devout Christian impervious to Antinea's charms. Few details are given of the workings of Atlantis, although we do see the Archivist happily receiving a shipment of books and newspapers from the outside world.

Feyder's film has an authentic look; the explorers traverse a landscape not much different from the dunes and rugged desert valleys of Tattooine in Star Wars. The direction is a mostly static succession of careful compositions. Atlantis amounts to a number of nicely designed tunnels and chambers. Antinea's throne room and bedchamber exhibit more impressive art direction. The kingdom is not entirely a gloomy cave, as Morhange's apartment-prison overlooks a verdant valley oasis. But why does he get the good view, while Antinea rules from a hole in the ground?

The acting overall is quite natural and unforced, a strength traceable to Feyder. His Antinea doesn't exactly cut a figure that would launch a thousand expeditions or inspire men to amorous delirium. We expect an early 20s vamp to be on the plump side but actress Stacia Napierkowska, once a noted dancer, is borderline roly-poly. She had already been a French star for ten years, playing the dancing gypsy Esmerelda in a 1911 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She also had a big role in the famous Feuillade serial Les Vampires. Feyder hired Napierkowska too hastily. To his horror he found that she'd gained thirty pounds since her last film, and when they went on location she continued to gain weight!

G.W. Pabst remade L'Atlantide in English, French and German versions, all starring Brigitte Helm of Metropolis fame. Jean Angelo repeated his Morhange character for the French version. Much later, Edgar Ulmer did a modernized version with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Haya Harareet, known as Journey Beneath the Desert. The original Italian title reads like a poem: Antinea, l'amante della città sepolta.

All of the remakes of L'Atlantide and She are fantastic adventures supernatural trappings like flaming fountains of youth (Ursula! Come back!). Feyder's version is a bare-bones adventure in which everything can be explained by heatstroke, hypnotism or perhaps even the dose of hashish that the Tarquis use to narcotize our heroes. The Frenchmen are soon imagining crazy underground cities. No wonder the Foreign Legion declined to put Saint-Avit on trial.



Crainquebille
1923 / 77 min.
Starring Maurice de Féraudy, Jean Forest
Cinematography Léonce-Henri Burel, Maurice Forster
Art Direction Jacques Feyder
New Music by Antonio Coppola
Written by Jacques Feyder from the novel L'affaire Crainquebille by Anatole France

Crainquebille is a bittersweet, satirical dissection of injustice among the poor of Paris, and quite an advancement for Jacques Feyder. Shooting mostly in real Parisian streets (we're fairly sure) he presents an entirely naturalistic portrait of a way of life that still functioned in 1920 just as it might have in 1860. Using ironic contrasts and special camera effects, director Feyder illustrates author Anatole France's scathing critique of social inequity: His opening quote is, "Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned."

Synopsis (spoilers):

Old Crainquebille (Maurice de Féraudy) sells vegetables from a cart as he's done for forty years. One day he argues with a policeman, who has him arrested. Crainquebille is quite happy with prison, as his cell is clean and warm and the food is prompt. He even gets a free health checkup and is given some cough medicine. In court, the frightened old man doesn't respond at the right times or in the correct manner and is sentenced to a few more days in jail. Crainquebille gets his cart back upon release, but his steady customers shun him; a lady shoe salesman conveniently decides that 'one doesn't owe money to people who have been in jail.' The cough medicine has given Crainquebille a taste for liquor, and he soon adds drunkenness to his problems. Destitute and at the end of his wits, Crainquebille is ready to commit suicide when he's stopped by La Souris (Jean Forest), a young street urchin he once befriended.

Crainquebille is a smartly structured satire that alternates between droll comedy and elements of proto- black humor. Feyder immediately grabs our attention with a "Paris awakens" sequence showing the city coming to life around the open-air markets. Crainquebille is but one of hundreds of cart vendors competing for customers in the city lanes. As the sun rises, we see cops rounding up loitering criminals and herding the streetwalkers into waiting jail wagons. The prostitutes are portrayed in naturalistic, almost documentary terms. One of the girls making bail is Mme Laure (Marguerite Carré. We see her receive her family from the country before going out to buy her salad makings from Crainquebille's cart.

The trouble starts when a cop tells Crainquebille to move his cart. The old man mutters something, which the angry policeman decides is, "Kill the Cops." Crainquebille protests that the cop said, "Kill the Cops" first, but that clumsy explanation doesn't work in the street or the courtroom.

Crainquebille's experience in the justice system is a lot like Ferenc Molnár's critique of bureaucratic oppression in Liliom: The impersonal and unprejudiced courts are nevertheless totally uninterested in real justice. Prison is practically paradise for the old man, with its clean bed and quiet time to rest. But the trial is a nightmare similar in some aspects to Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man: The prosecutor and defender are unconcerned with Crainquebille's situation and everything that happens is confusing. Feyder uses subjective visual distortions: From Crainquebille's point of view the magistrates are warped and distant. His public defender literally shrinks in size to express his ineffectiveness. A statue of Justice comes to life and glares disapprovingly at the defendant.

Freedom brings disaster. Once a favorite of his customers on the street, Crainquebille is now ignored and insulted. He can no longer make a living.

Comic actor Maurice de Féraudy underplays his extremes of emotion and thus keeps our sympathy throughout. When he's wet, cold and has nowhere to sleep, Crainquebille logically tries to get re-arrested by walking up to a cop and saying, "Kill the Cops!" He's told to mind his manners and move on.

Feyder found young Jean Forest on the streets of Paris and gave him the Chaplinesque role of a paperboy with a cute dog. When Crainquebille is at his wit's end on a bridge over the Seine, Forest's character intervenes in a scene that prefigures both It's a Wonderful Life and The Crowd. The film's welcome happy ending doesn't negate author France's sly message.



Faces of Children
1925 / 117 min. / Visages d'enfants
Starring Jean Forest, Victor Vina, Rachel Devirys, Arlette Peyran, Pierrette Houyez, Arthur Porchet
Cinematography Léonce-Henri Burel, Paul Parguel
Art Direction Jacques Feyder
New Music by Antonio Coppola
Written by Jacques Feyder, Françoise Rosay
Produced by Dimitri De Zoubaloff, François Porchet

Blackhawk Films saves the most powerful Feyder film for last. After seeing Faces of Children it is hard to believe it was released in 1925. The perfectly paced picture has universal appeal and is filmed in a beautiful natural locale. Saying that the acting in Faces of Children is not dated doesn't begin to do it justice. The characters are conceived with a maturity we didn't know was possible back then. The tensions in the troubled Amsler family are carried in every expression on every face, including the children. This movie has received glowing notices over the years from critics not given to empty superlatives.

Synopsis (no Spoiler):

Pierre Amsler (Victor Vina) cannot hold back his anguish when his young wife dies. His daughter Pierette (Arlette Houyez) is too young to understand but son Jean (Jean Forest) misses his mother dearly and worships her memory through a photo and a dress she wore. Pierre is soon attracted to a widow, Jeanne Dutois (Rachel Devirys) with a young daughter, Arlette (Arlette Peyran). When Jean returns from a trip to another village, he finds himself the outsider in a new conjoined family, with a new mother. His resentment slowly builds until he's purposely seeking ways to torment Arlette, excluding her from games, etc. Jean's behavior becomes erratic. He cuts up his mother's beloved dress to prevent Jeanne from using it to make clothes for the girls. Finally, Jean pulls a potentially deadly trick, sending Arlette into the snow on a dangerous night to retrieve a lost doll.

Faces of Children hooks us from the start with its sensitive depiction of young Jean's mournful relationship with his dead mother. He visits her grave daily and stares at her photo, imagining that it comes to life and smiles at him. We know trouble is on the way the moment Jean discovers that his home has been turned upside down and his mother's place usurped by a pretender.

A conventional silent movie would envision the new mother as a monster and Jean's new sister as a brat; Jean would stoically submit to unjust punishments, like Cinderella. Jacques Feyder instead expands his naturalistic style. There are no villains. The new mother is sensitive and would understand Jean if the boy could express his feelings. Father isn't perfect but he's doing the best he can. He shows no malice in sending Jean away for the engagement period and wedding. Even when already in hot water for inexplicable minor cruelties to his stepsister, Jean is treated with kindness. The result is that we're pulled further into the drama. We need make no adjustment whatsoever to be enraptured by this eighty year-old drama.

The interaction of Feyder's child actors matches that of acknowledged classics about the inner lives of children: Forbidden Games, Night of the Hunter. Jean teases Arlette by tying her doll to a goat's horn, and the poor girl chases it all over a field in panic. Jean and little Pierette snub Arlette in their little riverside play fort, initiating an escalating series of reprisals. Finally, Jean arranges for Arlette to go wandering in avalanche country to search for her lost doll. When she doesn't return, Jean suddenly realizes that he's gone too far, that it's no longer a joke. He looks to his mother's picture for guidance, and sees that she has become an indistinct blur ...

Faces of Children takes this story much further, and culminates in one of the most powerful 'mother and child reunion' in memory. There's not a drop of false sentimentality in the whole enterprise, making our absorption into the drama seem all the more pure.

Helping enormously is Feyder's choice of filming the entire story on location in the French Alps. The sets and costumes look nothing like standard studio work, and Feyder opens up his canvas to show daily life in the mountain community. Pierre oversees a lumber mill and Jeanne and Arlette work in the high fields. The movie gains an even stronger sense of place when Jean and a friendly priest (Arthur Porchet) hike over a mountain pass to the next village: His town is but a little settlement isolated from the next by miles of beautiful wilderness.


Rediscover Jacques Feyder, French Film Master is this year's most rewarding silent disc offering. All three of the prints look great, with only minor density fluttering and a few splices. One shot in Faces of Children is half-deteriorated but the rest of the footage is in fine condition. Each picture has a newly recorded orchestral score. The disc's brief liner notes mention French, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and Russian Archives contributing to the restoration; the shows were assembled for 2004-2005 theatrical reissue by a French outfit called Lobster Films.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Queen of Atlantis rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Crainquebille rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none

Faces of Children rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
****
Packaging: 3 discs in fat keep case
Reviewed: December 5, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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