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White Mane

White Mane
1953 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 40 min. / Crin-Blanc / Street Date April 29, 2008 / 14.95
Starring Alain Emery
Cinematography Edmond Séchan
Film Editor Georges Alépée
Original Music Maurice Le Roux
Adaptation by Denys Colomb de Daunant
Written, Produced and Directed by Albert Lamorisse

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A lonely landscape. A boy wins the trust of a magnificent horse. The two play in the surf together and eventually form a strong relationship. This description of Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion also fits a short French feature that won the Grand Prize for the Best Short Film at Cannes in 1953. All but forgotten until its recent restoration, Albert Lamorisse's White Mane (Crin-Blanc) bridges the gap between the documentary, the children's film and cinematic art.

Lamorisse would gain much greater fame with his next effort, the celebrated and widely shown The Red Balloon. Filmed in crisp B&W, White Mane is just as accomplished, a beautiful tale of a boy and a horse. Told with a minimum of dialogue and accompanied by an expressive music score, the movie edges between documentary realism and fantasy.

The story is not complicated. An almost feral French boy named Folco (Alain Emery) fishes for his grandfather and baby sister in the Carmargue region of France, an untouched marshland. Local ranchers round up the region's wild horses just as do American cowboys, the only difference besides language being their wide-topped riding boots, presumably for wading in the shallow waters. The cowboys are intent on capturing a wild stallion named White Mane, while Folco secretly hopes to have the defiant and proud animal for his own. White Mane is captured but breaks free of the ranchers' corral, and reasserts his dominance in the herd by defeating another stallion in combat. Then Folco lassos the animal, and for his effort is dragged halfway across the marsh and onto a muddy beach. White Mane prefers his freedom but responds to Folco's gentle touch; boy and horse become part-time friends.

Filmmaker Lamorisse films all of this with documentary precision, making White Mane's struggles with the cowboys and his fight for supremacy in the herd seem like natural behaviors captured in the wild. We're told that those are the tricks of a former documentary filmmaker and that the horse is actually played by several different animals. We also see Folco at his thatched-roof home, interacting with his grandfather and giving his cute baby sister a turtle to play with. Then it's off to find White Mane again, and the film becomes a western-style chase with the cowboys pursuing the bareback-riding Folco through the marshland.

Alain Emery's Folco is a good-looking kid with long hair that often sweeps down over his face, forming a visual rhyme with the white horse's long, fine mane. The lean story soon develops into a child's fable with occasional naturalistic touches, as when horse and boy pursue a cute rabbit across a dry mudflat. The refreshingly anti-Disney payoff shows the kid roasting the rabbit over a fire; impetuous nature boys get hungry too. The ambiguous and rather disturbing ending leaves the fate of boy and steed unresolved, with an only partially optimistic farewell: They're going to "... that wonderful place where men and horses are friends, always." That desired destination sounds a lot like a fantasy afterlife.

White Mane will appeal to kids interested in movies about animals, and who are willing to accept its relatively sedate pace. The film is just ambiguous enough to encourage metaphorical interpretations: the wild boy and horse choose an uncertain future rather than submit to the will of others. They ultimately take a stand for personal commitment, a sentiment easily accepted at this level of mythmaking. The untamed, proud animal can really fight back, kicking and biting the cowboy tormentors who repeatedly renege on their promise to leave the boy and horse in peace. The theme of a lone boy harassed by hostile forces will be visited again in Lamorisse's The Red Balloon.

The DVD of White Mane says "The Criterion Collection" on its anti-theft sticker but all other markings declare it a direct release of Janus Films, the wonderful distributor of art films from way before the days of home video. A handsome B&W transfer makes the show look as if it were filmed yesterday.

Janus thoughtfully presents the show with two soundtracks. The original French version has removable subtitles and poetic narration read by Jean-Pierre Grenier. A newly recorded English track uses a narration read by actor Peter Strauss. We do not know if this is the same English narration written for the film by the famous critic, author and screenwriter James Agee, as documented in John Wranovics' study of Agee's years dabbling in film work:

"Although Agee is not credited on the surviving film version, sound recordings of him reciting the narration survive, and after his Death, the Omnibus television program broadcast the short film with Agee's version of the commentary."

Critic Michael Koresky contributes informative liner notes. A trailer for the short feature turns out to be a theatrical announcement for the 2007 joint theatrical reissue of this film with Lamorisse's later The Red Balloon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, White Mane (Crin-Blanc) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent; French and English soundtracks
Supplements: Reissue trailer, liner notes by Michael Koresky
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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