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La Terre

La Terre
1921 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 98 min. / Street Date December 9, 2003 / 24.99
Starring Armand Bour, René Alexandre, Germaine Rouer, Jean Hervé, Milo, Berthe Bovy, Jeanne Briey, Jeanne Grumbach, Emile Desjardins
Cinematography René Gaveau, René Guichard
Assistant Directors Georges Denola, Julien Duvuvier
Original Music Adrian Johnston
Based on the novel by Émile Zola
Produced by S.C.A.G.L.
Directed by André Antoine

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A rather good silent movie, La Terre is a faithful adaptation of Zola and for the year 1921 a remarkably sophisticated film for visual and cinematic technique. It's another serious restoration from Milestone.


Père Fouan (Armand Bour) is too old to work his land, so he divides it between his children. Property is stronger than family, for Fouan's sons neglect their father and mother, and squabble among themselves as well. The family thieves, Jesus-Christ and La Trouille (Milo and Berthe Bovy) continue to steal and try to steal from Fouan as well; the romance between young Francoise (Germaine Rouer) and Jean (René Alexandre) is adversely affected. Fouan finally ends up as his older sister predicted, alone and in the street.

La Terre starts and ends with natural elements, the simple physical truths that rule life in the country. An old man is too tired to work the fields he loves. A man wanders in search of work and a roof over his head. A woman is at the mercy of an out-of-control sex drive - actually, the sex drive of a cow in heat.

Zola's work revolves around social determinism, and La Terre portrays the entire depth of his story of unhappy lives in the country. Old Fouan thinks he'll be taken care of by his sons, but they short-change him on his pension and cheat him at every opportunity. Property and the security it brings mean everything, as the inheritance allows one marriage to take place (daringly, with a baby already born) and inhibits another. Poor Fouan is an easy target for relatives who live solely by poaching and laugh at his generosity. Uglier yet, when Fouan has saved some money, both of his sons use hospitality as an excuse to rob him. Fouan ends up cast out by everyone. Even the lonely old shepherd has no sympathy; Fouan had everything and foolishly relinquished control of it to others, simply because they were related by blood.

La Terre is remarkable for its relaxed, perceptive direction, that follows a visual style more in keeping with movies made decades later. By now we've seen European films that were much more artistically progressive than the average American productions of the time. This show uses real exteriors and realistic interiors. Instead of being arranged like paper dolls in a flat diorama, André Antoine's characters move and act in depth. There's a less-rigid distinction between wide shots and closeups. The images are often composed in depth, with the horizon in many shots and relevant action happening in the background.

The framing of many agricultural scenes resemble classic paintings, but much of the interpersonal action is followed by a flexible camera. When Fouan collapses at a table, the camera follows him to the left and down, instead of cutting to a wider angle. The view often shifts to find a new composition as people move. The silents we're most used to had a locked-down, wide angle sameness. Here every scene is composed as if the cameraman were striving for a naturalistic harmony. Even the acting is remarkably restrained.

The production notes on Image/Milestone's DVD of La Terre help explain all this. André Antoine was a theater man who didn't try the movies until late in life. In his case, having no indoctrination in 'accepted' filmic technique was a good thing, as it accounts for La Terre's unique look.

The disc also contains some text files accessible on a DVD-Rom. Savant usually skips this kind of content, but La Terre made me want to learn more. An extended essay on Antoine is followed by a 1991 Kevin Brownlow interview with the film's star, Germaine Rouer. She describes how she won the role at age 18 and worked without a script after reading the Zola book. It was filmed in one summer and not released for almost two years. Famed French director Julien Duvuvier was an assistant director, but she doesn't remember him; her film roles were infrequent as she preferred to concentrate on her theatrical career. She doesn't even remember seeing La Terre on its first release, and she was its star! Ms. Rouer appears in the French episode of Kevin Brownlow's Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood.

Kevin Brownlow is the authority on silent pictures, so when he singles out a title we can guess it's something exceptional. This restoration was done for Ch 4 London by Brownlow's Photoplay Productions, with the print source from the Russian archive Gosfilmofond. Co-producers on the restoration were Patrick Stanbury and David Gill.

The image on the disc is basically in fine shape (it apparently is almost complete) and Adrian Johnston's score is an active, appropriate accompaniment.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, La Terre rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Production notes, text interview (DVD-Rom with actress Germaine Rouer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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