The French company Lobster Films has been responsible for some excellent
DVD releases in the past couple of years and I always look forward to the
films that they are involved with. They helped with the restoration
of Criterion's release of Under the Roofs of Paris, were largely
responsible for Kino's Slapstick Symposium series, and they were
the force behind the excellent (and overlooked) Charley
Bowers collection. Lobster has created yet another nice collection
of silent movies, this time released through Image, with Rediscover
Jacques Feyder: French Film Master.
I have to admit that I wasn't familiar with Feyder until I saw this
collection and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the three films
included in this set are all good movies. Each film is in a different
genre, but all of them feature lovely settings, fine acting, and interesting
stories. While I wouldn't consider any of these a masterpiece, they
are all worth watching.
Queen of Atlantis (L'Atlantide, 1921):
This adventure film starts off with a strange mystery. A member
of the French Foreign Legion, Lt. Saint-Avit (Georges Melchior), is found
near death in the Sahara desert and brought back to a fort. In his
delirium he raves about another officer, Capt. Morhange (Jean Angelo),
who has been missing for years, and his rantings seem to imply that he
killed Morhange. Eventually the Lieutenant makes a full recovery
and declares that he's going back out into the desert and will never return.
When one of his fellow officers presses him about what happened and why
he's going off again, Saint Avit tells his story.
While crossing the desert, Saint-Avit encounters Capt. Morhange and
the two decide to travel together. At an oasis they are attacked
by bandits, drugged, and taken to the lost city of Atlantis. There
they meet Queen Antinea (Stacia Napierkowska), a ruler so beautiful that
men instantly fall in love with her. Surrounded but a lush forest
which in turn is in the middle of an inhospitable desert, no one ever escapes
and if they do they soon come crawling back so that they can see the Queen
one more time. Antinea marries frequently, and when she tires of
one of her lovers she has them killed and turned into statues that she
places in her library. Can Saint-Avit and Morhange resist her charms?
If they do, will they ever be able to escape?
(Stacia Napierkowska), a woman so beautiful that men kill themselves when
she rejects them.
This was a classic turn of the century adventure in the spirit of H.
Rider Haggard's She. It has all of the elements; a lost city, a beautiful
and powerful evil woman, and intrepid explorers. I've often found
these types of stories to drag in the beginning, but this film gets over
that by having a mystery unfold right off the bat. Just how Saint-Avit
got to the middle of the Sahara and why he killed his companion, if he
did, jump start the film in a nice way. The film does drag a bit
in the middle, it takes about an hour to get to the city of Atlantis, but
once there things pick up a bit.
One of the interesting things about this picture is the way it's structured.
Most of the story is told in one long flashback, and there are even flashbacks
nestled inside the main flashback the same way the Arabian Nights put stories
inside of stories. This can get confusing at times, especially since
a couple of the actors look similar, but this is a minor problem.
The biggest flaw with this type of storytelling is you know how it is going
to end up, since Saint-Avit obviously lives. Once the mystery of
the silver hammer and what happened to Morhange is revealed the rest of
the film is a bit anticlimactic for that reason.
The acting was generally good. Feyder was able to get good performances
from all of his actors with the exception of Stacia Napierkowska.
She overacted a bit as Queen Antinea, and she was never all that sexy.
I had a hard time swallowing that men would fall madly in love with her.
This movie was actually filmed in the Sahara desert just outside of
Algiers. By all accounts it was a difficult shoot do to the desert
conditions, and it was the most expensive French film made up to that time.
The expense was worth it though. When it was released the production
was met with critical and commercial success and ended up running for an
entire year in Paris. Viewed through today's eyes, the movie is slow
in parts and could be tightened up a bit, but it is still a good solid
early 20th Century Paris, and old man Jérôme Crainquebille
(Maurice de Féraudy), pushes his cart through the streets in the
morning selling vegetables, just as he's done everyday for the past 40
years. He is able to eek out a meager living, barely keeping body
and soul together, but though he works hard he is content. On this
day however he has a run in with the police. While blocking the street
waiting for a customer to return with his payment, an officer tells Crainquebille
to move along. While trying to explain that he'll only be a minute
longer, the officer thinks that the old man has said "Kill the cops."
Even though witnesses say that he's wrong, Crainquebille gets arrested.
The poor street peddler is chewed up by the legal system. His
lawyer advises him to plead guilty, and when Crainquebille says that he
doesn't know what he's done the lawyer only tells him that his attitude
will get him nowhere. The trial is confusing and frightening for
the old man. Not understanding what's going on, Crainquebille is
found guilty and sentenced to a week in jail. Jail, as he soon finds
out, is... rather nice. He has a warm bed, a clean floor, three meals
a day, and even running water! He enjoys his time there and gets
some much needed rest.
When he is released from jail however, Crainquebille discovers that
things have changed. No one is willing to buy vegetables from him
anymore; after all, he's a criminal. No longer able to make a living
doing the only job he's known for his entire life, the man sinks slowly
into debt. Soon he's kicked out of his apartment and spends all of
his time drinking. When the local bar cuts him off because he hasn't
paid his bill, Crainquebille thinks back to the time he's spent in jail
and even tries to get arrested again, to no avail. With no money,
friends, or job, it looks like the poor old man has no hope left in the
was a very good film on several levels. The cinematography of 1920's
Paris was excellent. The opening sequence had some wonderful imagery,
comparing the vegetable peddler going through Paris in the early morning
and the police wagon picking up prostitutes. The streets scenes were
all interesting to watch, especially those that took place during the day
when the avenues were crowded with people.
This films message works well without being too overbearing. Feyder,
and writer Anatole France who wrote the novel that the movie was based
on, warn about the dangers of bureaucracies and also comment on the conditions
of the poor. The scene with the lawyer, where Crainquebille is just
trying to understand why he's been arrested, was comically absurd.
The trial scene was even more surrealistic, with Feyder using different
lenses and camera angles to illustrate Crainquebille's confusion and fear.
This was an excellent segment, one of the highlights of the movie.
(The nightmare scene is also great.)
The only place where this movie falls down is at the end. [spoilers
ahead] The conclusion is very reminiscent of the end of King Vidor's silent
masterpiece The Crowd. The only problem is that none of Crainquebille's
problems have been solved. Though he has passed an emotional crisis,
the underlying problems are still there and nothing has changed.
He's still destitute, has no job or prospects of one, and an alcoholic.
Even if he has a better outlook on life, that's not enough to change his
life around given the circumstances that he's in. [end of spoilers]
Even with a weak ending, this was a fascinating film to watch.
Faces of Children (Visages d'enfants, 1925):
This was easily the best film in the set; a quiet and touching film
that is filled with authentic emotion. The mother of a young
boy, Jean (Jean Forest), dies and this naturally has a deep impact on the
child. He has loves her very much and her death doesn't change that.
He still cherishes her picture and brings flowers to her grave every week.
Things go from bad to worse however when his father, after a time of mourning,
marries again. His new wife has a daughter, and Jean sees the new
additions to the family as interlopers.
though his father's new wife isn't the typical mean stepmother, Jean has
a hard time accepting her. However his relationship with her unfriendly
daughter is even worse. When Jean plays a malicious trick on his
step sister it ends badly, and the poor boy feels that the only way he
can atone for it is by taking his own life.
This was a powerful film, much more so than the other two movies in
this set. It really took me by surprise. While there is a lot
of emotion, the film doesn't become melodramatic or heavy-handed.
Feyder was able to create a film with heart without resorting to cheap
theatrics as often occurred in the silent era.
One of the reasons the movie works so well is because the child actors
give outstanding performances. They really put their heart and soul
into the production, especially young Jean Forest. He seems to be
living the role and give a performance well beyond his years.
This film was shot in the French Alps and the scenery was beautiful.
All three of Feyder's films presented in this set have made great use of
their settings and this one is no different. The mountains are the
perfect background for this story, and could be construed as a metaphor
for the way Jean feels.
These three films prove that Jacques Feyder was a talented director.
While I wouldn't consider any of these forgotten masterpieces, the first
two are solid films and the last one is very good.
These three films are presented on three DVDs which come in a clear
double-width keepcase. When the case is opened one disc is on the
left side and two discs, placed so they partially overlap, are on the right.
There is a two sided cover with cast and crew information as well as stills
on the back.
All three films are accompanied by a very nice orchestral score that
is scene specific. The music enhances the mood of the film without
distracting from the images on the screen. I enjoyed all three scores
and thought that they all worked well. These are recent recordings
so audio defects such as hiss, distortion, and dropouts are not present.
The first film has the original French intertitles and the other two come
with English title cards. (Note: One intertitle card in Queen
of Atlantis did not have a subtitle. This doesn't greatly affect
the story though.)
These films were restored by collaboration between the Cinémathèque
Française, the Netherlands Filmmuseum, the Cinémathèque
Royale in Brussels, and Moscow's Gosfilmofond, and this group did a marvelous
job. The set looks very good and there are only some minor problems
mainly dealing with the way the discs were mastered. On the positive
side the films are very clear with amazing detail. The restored image
is crisp and has a decent amount of contrast. There are a few scenes
where white areas bloom a little and where details are lost, but this is
the exception rather than the rule. The films are also tinted and
these colored scenes look just as good as the black and white segments.
On the down side, Image did not present us with a progressive transfer
and interlacing is a problem. This occurs when two half-screens (one
consisting of the odd numbered lines, the other even numbered ones) are
shown at the same time. During abrupt cuts and scenes with fast motion
this creates a double image that is distracting. See the example
below where it appears that the man has four eyes.
Even with this error (that would have been relatively easy to fix) the
picture is better than I was expecting.
I was very disappointed to discover that there weren't any extras at
all. With a title like Rediscover Jacques Feyder: French Film
Master, you would think that they would include a documentary about
the director or at least a text piece giving details of his life and work.
Nothing of the sort is found on any of the discs. Only the movies
themselves are present.
This was a very good set. I really enjoyed Faces of Children,
and found the other two films to be good solid productions. It is
a bit disappointing that there are no extras or even a text essay about
Feyder included with the set, especially given the price which is a bit
high for what it is. Even taking that into account though, I wouldn't
have any trouble recommending this set to fans of early cinema.