I'm a pretty big silent film buff. I
travel from the East Coast to San
Francisco each year
to attend the SF Silent Film Festival and I have managed to amass a
collection of silent films on DVD which I frequently enjoy. Previous to Flicker Alley's release of The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), I hadn't
encountered French director Marcel L'Herbier or the star of the film,
actor Ivan Mosjoukine, so I wasn't sure what to expect.
As it turns out, I was missing something
special. This film is a wonderful
experience. Part drama and part comedy,
the film can be appreciated as a straight story or as an comment of the
condition and the hazards of getting what you wish for (if you feel
philosophical). This release should put
both Mosjoukine and L'Herbier on the radar of early cinema fans and
more of their work will become available.
Mathias Pascal (Ivan Mosjoukine) is the oldest son in a
well-to-do family. Expected to take over
the family lands, and all the responsibility that entails, he's a
yearns for freedom. He's working on a
book, The History of Liberty, when his father unexpectedly dies and the
falls on hard times. His mother is
forced to sell the ancestral estate and gets swindled in the deal.
As this is happening, Mathias' best friend, Pomino, has
fallen in love with the town beauty, Romilde.
He's too shy to actually speak with her however, so he convinces
to approach her on his behalf and declare his love.
During the harvest celebration Mathias
manages to get Romilde away from the crowds and, a bit awkwardly, tells
that he has a friend who has admired her from afar.
The young lady thinks that Mathias is talking
about himself, and since she's had a crush on him for a long time she's
thrilled. She confesses her love to the
object of her affection, Mathias is taken by surprise but excited, and
thing you know they're married.
Domestic life doesn't quite suit Mathias who only wants to
be free. While he loves his wife, his
mother-in-law is a harsh shrew who lives with them and poisons her
against Mathias. He doesn't have any
skills to speak of, but finally lands a job at the library, a
dusty place. It doesn't pay much, but
he's able to support his wife, her mother, and the baby girl that comes
Mathias loves his daughter dearly. She's
the only person he really loves aside
from his mother, so it's no surprise that's he devastated when a
through the town and takes both his aged mother and his baby girl. It's too much for him to take, so he gets on
a train and runs away to Monte
Still devastated by the loss in his life, Mathias walks
through the streets as if in a dream and ends up in a casino where,
odds, he wins a fortune. With money no longer a worry, he travels back
share the good news with his wife, but on the way back he spies an
article in a
newspaper stating that the decomposed body of Mathias Pascal in a river. It's assumed that he committed suicide over
the grief of his loss and his money worries.
With this news Mathias realizes that he's finally free.
He doesn't have to worry about money, he
doesn't have to worry about his wife and mother-in-law.
He doesn't even have a name anymore. At
last he has total liberty! So he travels
to Rome where he takes a room
at a boarding house and falls in love again, and slowly comes to
being totally free has its disadvantages too.
Writer/director Marcel L'Herbier creates a bravura film that
works on several levels. Running only a
few minutes shy of three-hours long, the director basically looks at
life twice. Once while he's alive and a
second time after he has 'died.' It's
interesting to see how the character behaves before and after he's
and how he handles the pitfalls that life throws in his way in both
By this time in film history directors had discovered how
powerful images could be and worked to construct them. L'Herbier goes
out of his
way to create interesting compositions.
There are a couple of reoccurring themes that work well to both
story and make it visually engaging.
Several times he has an object fill most of the frame in the
while the action was taking place in the background.
It was different, but worked well in the
context. He's also fond of repeating
images, such as several doorways, successively smaller, repeating down
L'Herbier also comes up with some wonderful and unique ways
to solve the problems that he comes across in the course of the film. For example, how do you show the passage of
time between Mathias falling in love with Romide and when they're
living with her mother? That intervening
time isn't important to the story, but you have to let viewers know
has passed and events have occurred that impact the characters. L'Herbier solution is to have Mathias and
Romide dance around when they first fall in love, he then superimposes
over a scene of the pair getting married, and dancing.
This dance scene is then cross-faded with the
pair dancing in their home, no longer wearing fancy wedding garb but
tattered clothes that they a accustomed to.
The movie is filled with interesting visual flourishes, a dream
and a part where Mathias fights with himself spring to mind, that make
incredible visual feast.
Actor Ivan Mosjoukine also gives a magnificent performance
in the title role. He's uses a lot of
very subtle facial expressions to reveal what he's thinking and its
how much he can do with so little movement.
The scene where he realizes that Romilde is in love with him is
example. The camera focuses on him, and
goes from nervousness to surprise to elation with just the smallest
his face. There's no over the top scene
chewing here. He's also at home in the
comic aspects of the character. If
he's more at ease in those scenes.
The only complaint I have is that the ending, while
satisfying, seemed a little too pat given the rest of the film. I wasn't surprised to discover that the book
that the movie is based on had a different conclusion.
The details of the original ending are
included in the booklet that accompanies this disc.
The film comes with a full orchestral score written and
conducted by Timothy Brock and performed by the Orchestra del Teatro
it sounds magnificent. The music
enhances the film greatly, accenting the emotion on screen while never
intrusive, and the orchestra playing the piece is magnificent. The quality of the audio track is equally
impressive, with a large dynamic range and crisp clean sound. It's a very nice sounding disc.
This film was restored in 2009 from various elements, most
notably a nitrate print that was given to La Cinematheque Francais in
director Marcel L'Herbier, and the picture quality is superb. The images have a lot of definition, the
contrast is excellent, and the level of detail is better than I was
hoping. On top of that the movie is
tinted using L'Herbier's print as a guide.
There were multiple prints used to create this three-hour long
and some were weaker than others. Some
short sections look like they come from 16mm dups and there is some
decomposition in a couple of places, but these are all minor problems.
a fantastic job overall and the film looks wonderful.
The only extra is a very informative booklet included with
the dies. This has an essay by film
historian Richard Abel.
With an engaging story, a wonderful cast and a visually
interesting design, The Late Mathias
Pascal is a treasure. Yes, it's a
long film, but it is well worth watching.
Silent film fans should make a point of searching this one out. Highly