[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): a festival of colours.

DeMille takes a real, rather sadistic pleasure in showing disasters. It could be a sinking ship (The Little American, Male and Female, Cleopatra, Reap the Wild Wind), a zeppelin deflating in mid-air (Madam Satan), a train derailment or two trains colliding (The Road to Yesterday, The Greatest Show on Earth, Saturday Night and Union Pacific), a collapsing temple (Samson and Delilah, The Woman God Forgot), the Red Sea drowning the Pharaoh’s army (The Ten Commandments), and I’m certainly forgetting some others. This kind of scene is repeated over thirty-nine years of his career.

It’s like this: a destructive machine (train or any other) moves towards the viewer, breaking through obstacles (scrap metal and wood work, stone walls). It’s direct, unabashed penetration (which doesn’t surprise us in C.B. DeMille’s highly sexual cinema), often in the direction of the viewer, sometimes seen from a distance in a frontal and artificial manner.  The camera sways and the framing goes askew, as masses, beans and iron bars fall in the foreground, momentarily hiding the actors behind. Everything moves, changes places. A fundamental principle with DeMille is to always show falling masses or passing extras in the foreground. In Madam Satan, the effect is further accentuated by the sinking airship’s exasperating squeaking and creaking. Dust rises. Water invades the living room, its furniture and its books (Male and Female). A beautiful disorder is an artistic effect. In a colour film like The Greatest Show on Earth or Reap the Wild Wind, this chaos of iron and steel is enhanced by the intrusion of beautiful clothes or pretty spots of bright colours.

This technique is different from traditional cinematic disaster based on the bluff of numerous brief insert shots (which is obviously less expensive). DeMille works with frontal wide shots, while his colleagues express dramatic shock through aggressive syncopated editing.

Disorder is underlined by very different positions of extras within the shot. It’s almost a catalogue of all possible attitudes, conveyed with the most divergent broken lines of weapons or destructive objects.

The same disorder is found in scenes without disasters, such as the Roman orgy of Manslaughter or the magnificent golden calf sequence of The Ten Commandments of 1956, where extras occupy the entire image, following the tradition of academic painting. On closer inspection, these scenes make reference to famous pictorial models.

These scenes of chaos often conjure one of the four elements, namely fire, which is quite visible in The Woman God Forgot, Joan the Woman (with a very impressive single shot in colour), The Road to Yesterday, Triumph, The Godless Girl, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. The fire at the Parisian hotel in Triumph derives directly from an experience C.B. had at the Ritz on the Place Vendôme.

Along with fire, there is also electricity, natural (the lightning of The Ten Commandments) or more artificial (Madam Satan, The Godless Girl).

There’s also water: we have seen the frequency of shipwrecks and there is even a flood during the Siege of Orléans in Joan the Woman.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Why Change Your Wife? (1919), with Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson: domestic struggle for the use of the bathroom, which inspired Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle)

A certain number of directors, when they film indoors, have their favourite setting: for Wyler, it was the staircase; for Resnais, it was the corridor; for Masamura, it’s the bedroom; for Hitchcock, it’s rather the cellar. For DeMille, it’s bathrooms. An innovative choice since it is a room that is not noble at all, a place to ease oneself, which was hitherto concealed by novels and films.

It begins with Old Wives for New (1918): the husband is angry with his wife, who has left the sink dirty, and he has to scrub it now. He reproaches her of never washing her hair.

And it continues in Why Change Your Wife? (1919): the couple fights over the place, since he is shaving when she wants to take toiletries from the little cupboard in front of him. Disturbed by her arrival, he risks cutting himself. It’s the beginning of the film, and it’s a classic scene since most other films begin with a less trivial sequence. Daily life can be a source of interest, of fun.

The largest element of this room, the bathtub, appears in Male and Female (1919). This one is of a refined luxury: a thermometer to measure the temperature, stylized ornaments on the levers and buttons. It’s a decoration that one expects to find at a king’s place rather than in the bathroom of an individual house.

Of course, eroticism comes into play. We never see Gloria Swanson naked in her bathtub. The foamy water hides her body. But the viewer knows well that she is naked, like anyone who takes a bath. This theoretical presence of nudity excites him. This is a typical reaction of the 1920s that is hard to understand in the 21st century.

Saturday Night (1921) goes even further: there is a shower in the shape of a giant, bright geyser, which will be echoed by the primitive, icy shower of The Godless Girl, which turns into torture. And there is Poppaea’s bath in The Sign of the Cross (1932), filled with donkey milk, whose entire circuit we see, from the milking of the animal to the pipes to the palace, and it’s only then that we understand what the milk is for: sovereign humour, no pun intended.

There is then the shower in the jungle in Four Frightened People (1934), Paulette Goddard’s very dirty tub in Unconquered, Hedy Lamarr’s bath in the small lake in Samson and Delilah (1949) and that of… doctor Wassell, which could be taken as a bit of humour.

It is difficult to imagine a Cecil DeMille film without baths or bathtubs. The viewer looks forward to a bathtub scene because it’s a film by him, just as he looks forward to an ancient interlude (and like he would later look for the shot Alfred Hitchcock appears in). He drools. He is reassured when the scene comes. I have the impression that he might ask for a refund if there was neither a bath nor an ancient interlude in the film.

This presence of baths is evidently linked to Puritanism, which always looks for purification (with its somewhat sectarian deviation: immersion, emphatic baptism). A civilization of bathtubs, which doesn’t exist among Catholics, especially in France: France has always been rather dirty.

DeMille thus accentuated the glorification of bathrooms, which helped the economic expansion of the cleanliness industry in the USA and, as a corollary, in France, during the Americanization of our country after each of the two world wars. DeMille is partly responsible for the contemporary obligation in France to shower, which is nevertheless excessive in character: we had managed very well without it for fifteen centuries. I only shower on Sundays myself.

[On the request of a reader, here is a translation of a text on Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955) written by Jean-Claude Biette in issue no. 281 of Cahiers du cinéma in October 1977. The copy of the article I have seems to be missing a few words towards the end; but with this kind of writing, you never really know.]

The Story

Cowboys are about to enter Wichita with a large quantity of cattle, Wyatt Earp, who is going the same way, joins them. As is their custom, the cattle owner’s employees intend to spend a large part of their pay at saloons and brothels. Earp, on the other hand, wants to deposit his savings and start a business, no matter which one, in Wichita. He likes order. The bigwigs of Wichita like order too, but if they want their town to prosper—not survive, but prosper, as is often mentioned ––(the newly built railroad allows the cattle gathered by the cowboys in Wichita to be shipped and resold at a large profit to all the surrounding states), they have to accept the traditional outbursts, shootings, drinking and debauchery of the cowboys who mark their passage with revels. The mayor, however, asks Wyatt Earp to ensure an order that the town lacks under the current sheriff, who is venal and ineffective. The famous gunman (W.E.), who wants peace and doesn’t want to be used as a target in any case, refuses the sheriff’s job. The death of a five-year-old child by a stray bullet on the first night of revelry persuades Earp to accept the sheriff’s star. He begins by forbidding firearms within the confines of Wichita and expels all those who violate this rule from the town. The bigwigs know that the cowboys wouldn’t want to part with their firearms, and that they might not want to work with Wichita anymore. They decide to force the resignation of the intransigent sheriff who applies the law too harshly. Fresh disturbances interrupt the bigwigs’ demand to Wyatt Earp and force the latter to send for his two brothers, whom one of the bigwigs—like the viewer—mistakes for killers whom he expects to hire. The daughter of a rich landowner has meanwhile fallen in love with Wyatt Earp. The father, fearing that his daughter will be widowed too soon (being a sheriff means being a permanent target), does everything to prevent the affair and the marriage. But it is his own wife who is killed by a bullet intended for Wyatt Earp. After the funeral, the cowboys, who had been driven out of Wichita once, return for a final showdown with the sheriff. Wyatt Earp is victorious and, having imposed his order (the elimination of the two brothers, who are too violent to be a part of the society of Wichita: they put their personal vengeance above the possibility of dealing with things on economic or ideological grounds), regains the confidence of the bigwigs. He can now get married and set out to restore order in another city…

The Film

The invisible thread that links the story, as we can sense it from the script, to the mise en scène, as the film exhibits it today, is constituted by the double opposition of the “two brothers” theme, a theme that is redoubled, multiplied by two or rather multiplied by itself, and thus surreptitiously highlighted, throughout the film. When, at the beginning of the film, Wyatt Earp joins the cowboys, he is, as night falls, robbed of his savings by two brothers who are presented as violent, devious, united in evil, full of hatred for the law which they instinctively feel is embodied in Wyatt Earp. He settles scores with them—humiliates them and takes back his money—in front of other cowboys. And these two brothers will become W.E.’s most relentless enemies—without their perpetual, muted presence, the mise en scène would end up striking a balance between order and violence, a compromise between Wichita and the cowboys’ outbursts with the help of one or more contrivances set up by the script, but without any organic necessity in the film. It is they, these brothers—this is not just the script’s craftiness, but a fundamental theme of the film’s mise en scène—who convince the other cowboys to obey their desire for revenge (which, as it happens, involves the frank acceptance of death).

There comes a moment when the social law (that of a society for which the supreme value is prosperity) and the law of representation (that of the Western) reach their climax: the romantic idyll with the necessary consequence that is marriage (then, of course, family etc.)—namely, the picnic scene where the location of the two characters forces Earp to pull up his fiancée (who has just declared her full acceptance of the role imposed on women) into his shot so that she can place her lips onto his; It is in the few shots that immediately follow this climax—the perfect Hollywood kiss—that two hitherto unseen riders, whose close resemblance in height, facial features and expressions designate them as brothers and as a replica of the two cowboy brothers driven by vengeance, commit a formidable transgression on many levels.

  • They enter Wichita with their guns, blithely crossing the sign on which they have just read the ban.
  • They take the ambiguity about them to an extreme by posing as hitmen in order to catch a bigwig red-handed in the act of hiring hitmen to kill Wyatt Earp, who is none other than their brother (the mise en scène makes you sense the solidity of the institution of law all the more since it excludes the viewer from the knowledge and power of this ruse for a while before revealing it in its unquestionable effect: The police officers’ word cannot be doubted, especially as all three are brothers).
  • These two brothers exude a virility (they are the only ones in the film with really blue eyes, which, as actors know, is a sign of seduction—it registers strongly on the film stock), which seems amplified by their resemblance (the outlaw brothers don’t resemble one another), a virility too radiant to not convey a sense, threatening or stoking the possible homosexuality of the cowboys (which is integrated without fuss into the network of violence, disorder and acts that are uncontrollable and spontaneous, nocturnal and warm, whose vehicle in the film these men are) of the homosexual character of the law, a law that is deceptively clear and icy, which constantly unites the image of what it orders (the Hollywood kiss signifying marriage) to the equally seductive image of what it forbids.

The certainty now that Wyatt Earp is indeed the brother of these two strange riders adds to the threat and the sparkle perfidiously maintained by the law, those of an incest, perhaps even a double incest, the last safeguard of the police word.

What then is the function of these two new brothers in the film?

It consists in amplifying Wyatt Earp’s action on the story level, in multiplying its effects by the unbreakable link of the double (and therefore infinite) brotherhood, but above all in reinforcing the dynamics of the revenge of the two other brothers, the cowboys, wronged by their theft and humiliated, and in compensating for the extreme linearity of the script (which threatens to be mechanical) with lines of force that are secondary at first sight, but which, underneath, revive the struggle between law and order on the one hand (with their bases: the economic interests that enable the prosperity of the city, i.e., of the bigwigs) and disorder and violence on the other (with their bases: hatred, revenge and also greed).

At this point, it is difficult not to see that the script constitutes the foundations of the mise en scène, since the latter seeks nothing other than to go as deep as possible into the social, ideological, moral and semantic content of the script. (Besides, I don’t see what other function the mise en scène of a film could have). Whether or not Jacques Tourneur wanted to achieve this versatility is of little importance. That he is able to find his bearings, after having made this type of cinema, is not, for us, viewers, critics, filmmakers or apprentice filmmakers, essential: he never sought to hide himself or his films behind his mastery, and film historians have not been mistaken in not considering him a master; he is much better than that.

We can limit ourselves to seeing that his mise en scène is based on an equalisation of strong and weak moments which allows everything—characters, settings, camera movements, episodes (the death of a child, the death of a mother as a driving force that makes W.E. act and identify with the law)— to be transformed into signs. Jacques Tourneur sticks to the indispensable minimum of realism: someone galloping or fighting is not filmed according to a criterion of efficiency, as in many Westerns, but according to the function he occupies in the narrative; as a vehicle in a narrative time. To this end, as in Hawks’ films, everything calls for an equal importance. The mise en scène is thus the current that runs through a network of signs—here, the signs of the genre that is the Western—thanks to the vehicles that are the characters and the sequence of events (the causal relationships and the rhythm proper to each action from shot to shot etc.).

One may note, in Wichita, the full use of the widescreen, where the depth of field is provided by the diagonal of the screen, and the countless entries and exits from the frame, which are a legacy of the densest silent cinema.

Finally, as they are, the themes and meanings (the economic and ideological links within the small society of Wichita, and between Wichita and its off-screen zone marked by the boundary sign on which the prohibition of armed entry into the town is nailed—a “historical” fact) are the result of the mise en scène: the script is satisfied with proposing the former in the raw form of absolute truths (the emphasis on the characterization of the hero as being naturally attracted by law and order, just as the cowboys are naturally attracted by “Wine/Women/Wichita”, as it is posted on a stagecoach of whores that crosses the entrance sign to Wichita) and relies on the director’s conventional vitality to soften the latter with the grace of a calming and willingly picturesque illustration. Rather like Hawks, Jacques Tourneur corrects nothing, questions nothing, and doesn’t mount a direct critique through the voice of characters that Hollywood would never fail to break or silence: he accepts everything that a script gives him and is content to carry the logic of the script as far as possible. But then he constructs his own agenda:

  • by filming values (those proposed by Hollywood or any other system of representation firmly rooted in the social) as things.
  • by filming things as signs.
  • by filming characters as individuals who believe in values as much as things (for which the viewer experiences the same illusory faith, since he can see and hear them in the film, and the capacity contained in the film to surprise the metamorphosis) and who live in a social network of signs.

For Jacques Tourneur, the characters in a story are perfect strangers whose mystery does not have to be clarified or explained.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916)

With mistakes come trials. And C.B.’s work accumulates trial scenes, either reconstructions of trials that actually took place (The King of Kings, Joan the Woman) or invented from scratch (The Cheat, The Whispering Chorus, Manslaughter, Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered).

The treatment is realistic most of the time—like the depiction of the place where suspects and convicts remain before or after judgment, I mean prison. Screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson had even spent several days in jail to perfect her documentation for Manslaughter.

DeMille has done a lot of work in the casting of jurors, who should, in principle, for contemporary films, belong to different strata of the society. It’s incidentally in the choice of extras that American cinema has always excelled: a bit typical, but not too much either. And in The Whispering Chorus, we also find those little sketches that journalists make during a trial, since cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.

DeMille doesn’t neglect any of the various stages of the trial and tries to push the suspense to its peak: acquittal or conviction, with multiple variants since he films not only contemporary trials but also those from all places and times, beginning with that of Christ.

When it had the means, American cinema never failed to take advantage from this dramatic setting inaugurated by DeMille. It is an extremely good setting because of its official, almost frozen quality, with the basic elements remaining the same from film to film: defence attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jurors, crowds, defendants, all easily identifiable by the viewer. One actor, Gary Cooper, was even a regular of courtroom dramas, almost always as a defendant. Capra, Preminger and Stanley Kramer would become regulars of courtroom dramas.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Robert Preston in North West Mounted Police (1940).

Many of C.B.’s films turn around the notion of fault: someone, usually quite nice, commits a fault. He redeems himself, either in a more or less heroic death or by confessing his mistake, or by benefitting from the indulgence of a superior.

It begins with The Squaw Man. The squaw kills a man, but it is to protect the one she loves. She confesses her fault and kills herself.

Maggie, the maid of Kindling, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a burglary. Her mistress eventually pardons her.

Edith, a woman of high-society, misappropriates money from a charity, whose treasurer she is, to buy a chic dress she likes, which sets the drama in motion (The Cheat).

The English soldier Eric Trent betrays Joan of Arc, his benefactor, who will be burnt alive because of him. And in 1916, his namesake, also played by Wallace Reid, sacrifices himself deliberately by destroying the German trench posing a danger for French soldiers. Joan, who then appears in a superimposition, is happy. The soldier of 1916 has rehabilitated, in some way, his supposed ancestor.

Marcia, the heroine of The Devil Stone (1917), accidentally kills her husband, who has seized, by dubious manoeuvres, an emerald that brings bad luck. This death and Marcia’s confession ensure that the ill fate no longer works. And the detective chooses to close the case.

The accountant of The Whispering Chorus (1918) commits a forgery. He is tracked down, arrested for a murder he hasn’t committed. But his return home would compromise the future of his wife, who has remarried. And he prefers to atone for his mistake on the electric chair—the “supreme redemption”, according to the film’s French title.

The odious Elizabethan count of The Road to Yesterday is absolved of his crimes when, on his way back to the America of today, he converts to Christianity and rescues his wife from a burning train.

The two protagonists of The Godless Girl inadvertently cause the death of a student, but redeem themselves at the end by saving many lives in a fire accident at the prison.

Ronnie Logan, Madeleine Carroll’s bad brother, deserts his combat outpost, resulting in the death of several other soldiers (North West Mounted Police); he too redeems himself in his death—just like the husband in Union Pacific, responsible for the death of a man during a holdup, and played by the same actor, Robert Preston.

John Wayne (Reap the Wild Wind) is responsible for the sinking of a ship. But in fighting the octopus which threatens the life of his rival, he redeems himself while losing his life.

A jealous Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. To make amends, she helps Samson destroy the temple and the power of the Philistines. She dies during this destruction.

The evil animal trainer of The Greatest Show on Earth organizes the holdup of a train, but he tries to prevent the convoy with his sweetheart from crashing, at the cost of his life.

Here we see Christian ideology come to the surface: crime and purifying repentance, or sacrifice. But this is more of a dramatic contrivance than a real ideological message.

The persistence of this motif across films becomes a bit tiresome.

Does it attest to a certain lack of imagination, or a desire to exploit a formula that works very well with the viewer? Filmmakers from the thirties were not afraid to steal from themselves, as films only had an ephemeral life then, exacerbated by technical progress (advent of talkies, of colour).

Other hobbyhorses: the distant sound of bagpipes or music announcing the arrival of rescue troops (The Plainsman, North West Mounted Police, Wassell, Unconquered), wedding through a go-between object (the sword of The Crusades, the necklace of The Road to Yesterday), the glove, a theatrical prop par excellence (The Crusades, The Godless Girl, Fool’s Paradise).

Also note the omnipresence of animals, dogs and cats in the comedies, monkey (Four Frightened People, The Godless Girl), donkey (The Road to Yesterday), wild animals (Male and Female, The Sign of the Cross, Samson), asp (Cleopatra), sharks (Feet of Clay), octopus (Reap the Wild Wind), zebras (The King of Kings), not to forget Noah’s Ark in the circus film. In contrast, children are almost completely absent. They are mischievous characters, confined to secondary roles (The Road to Yesterday, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife).

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Unconquered (1946), Gary Cooper’s supernatural entrance.

We have seen, with Feet of Clay and The Road to Yesterday, how much DeMille was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation. In her memoirs, Gloria Swanson writes that DeMille was a firm believer in it. It is indeed the only problem for very rich people who have achieved everything in life. Walt Disney even had his body preserved in optimal conditions so that he could be brought back to life the day science would allow it. The problem is certainly less distressing for a Christian like DeMille, who believed in paradise (Paradise was incidentally the name of his pleasure house). But it does exist.

Whence this taste for back-and-forth journeys to the heaven (cf. the unfinished project The Sorrows of Satan and Feet of Clay).

But this motif can be found more discreetly in many of Cecil DeMille’s works, beginning with a play he co-wrote in 1913 called The Return of Peter Grimm. The list is long: the accountant in The Whispering Chorus who was thought dead and who reappears suddenly, just like the “KIA” husband of For Better, for Worse, or the hero of The Plainsman, who miraculously survives all the Indian arrows. In The Story of Dr. Wassell, Gary Cooper believes that his dear Madeline has disappeared forever from his life, that she is even dead, but in the end, we learn that it’s not so. And the same Cooper (Unconquered), decidedly in charge of immortality, plunges with his frail skiff into the furious waters of a frightening Niagara, but miraculously comes out by grasping on to a providential branch (an unbelievable moment, but it is a playful film). He emerges, like a ghost, from a smoke cloud behind an Indian encampment. Victory is then achieved because the English place the bodies of all their dead soldiers in wagons, seated and not lying down, to make the attackers believe that they are outnumbered. A theoretical resurrection which makes them winners.

DeMille wasn’t an exception. Reincarnation—or resurrection—was a frequent motif among great American filmmakers (cf. all of Frank Borzage’s work, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizons and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Cameron’s The Abyss, even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Laura).

“Reincarnation” means “victory over death”, with which one man can help: the doctor.

More than the priest, who is somewhat forgotten in the work of this great Christian, the doctor is very present in For Better, for Worse, throughout Feet of Clay, a little in The Road to Yesterday, and much more in Wassell and The Greatest Show on Earth.

The doctor doesn’t intervene without reason. That’s why there are many cripples, disabled children (For Better, for Worse), blind people (The Ten Commandments, Wassell, Samson, Fool’s Paradise, Something to Think About) with a subjective shot of the person who loses or regains sight, mute persons (The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments of 1956), people who can no longer use their arms or hands (The Road to Yesterday, Wassell, The Greatest Show on Earth), and disfigured heroes (The Whispering Chorus, For Better, for Worse, Fool’s Paradise). Handicaps typical of melodramas.

Prantik Basu’s Bela, which premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyon last week and is headed to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June, is an hour-long documentary about everyday life in the titular village in West Bengal.

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the village. The film, however, conceals the filmmaker’s familiarity with the region and its people. Reserved and self-subtracting, Basu’s digital camera surveys the spaces of the hamlet with a ruminative, bovine gaze. These measured gestures are fitting, for Bela seeks to register the leisurely rhythm of life and work in the village. To this end, the filmmaker assembles footage amassed over several months into a cyclic diurnal-nocturnal pattern, with each “day” unfolding roughly over a quarter hour.

The men of the village are, for the most part, occupied with Chhau performances, a costumed dance form of gyrating, thumping male bodies that blends classical and folk idioms. The women, on the other hand, seem mostly engaged in highly physical, productive work, harvesting crops, gathering firewood or crushing rice. But just as we briefly glimpse men making their living at a timber depot, the women decorate the threshold of their homes with beautiful rice rangolis whose simplicity counterpoints the baroque costumes and movements of the Chhau shows.

These contrasts and continuities in the gendered division of labour are offered for our consideration without a guiding commentary. Compared to Basu’s previous short films, Sakhisona (2017) and Rang Mahal (2019), which are fuelled by Santhali cosmology and myths, Bela is a stripped-down work, presenting no discursive framework to supplement what we see. There is no voiceover, musical score or interviews with its subjects, making the film at once more airy, more austere and more elusive than its predecessors.

In that sense, Bela has more in common with the formalist rural symphony that is Basu’s Hawa Mahal (2015). The filmmaker shoots with an eye for plastic composition: asymmetry, offsetting elements in the foreground, impressionistic effects obtained through frame dropping. His camera would often drift away from a scene to end on a light source or the participants’ feet. Recurring images in his work – electric wires, women carrying wood, twilight skies, rain and thunder, deforestation – become charged with specific meaning, but Basu’s touch remains light, not unlike the women’s rangolis.

We conversed with the filmmaker on his new work.

 

Could you tell us something about your personal and academic background? How did you come to filmmaking?

I grew up in a joint family of eight people, in the suburbs of Calcutta. Films are something that I have always been drawn to. I loved telling stories as a child and would always visualise the short stories and poems from my school curriculum and imagine them as films in my head. While doing my B.A. in English, I wrote the script for a short film and directed it with the help of a few friends back in 2007. That same year, I gave the entrance exam for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and got into its Direction department.

 

How did Bela come about?

After my graduation, I was called back to FTII to direct a film as a guest filmmaker. During the making of Sakhisona, I met the wonderful performing artists, dancers and musicians of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of Sakhisona, visited their village Bela to share with them the final film. I stayed on for a few weeks, without any plans for another film. Over time, I developed great friendship and comradery with them, shooting showreels for their dance group and travelling with them to their dance competitions. And at some point, the seed of a new film germinated.

 

Your previous short films (Sakhisona, Rang Mahal) made imaginative use of Santhali folklore. In comparison, Bela registers as a more sober, fly-on-the-wall documentary. How did you decide on the film’s form?

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed during the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the gender-bending roles they played. Since the Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

 

Could you tell us a little about the Chhau performances?

Like all other dance forms, Chhau involves tremendous discipline, coordination and practice. Etymologically, it is derived from the word Chhaya, meaning shadow, image, or mask. It is said that every other boy in Purulia (where Bela is located) is a Chhau dancer, and that they learn the techniques of somersaulting underwater as they learn how to swim in the ponds at a young age. The songs that accompany Chhau dance are called Jhumur, and they follow the dohar (couplet) form. These are entwined with the landscape of Rarh Bengal and its flora and fauna. For example, the repeated meter of Jhumur songs derive inspiration from the echoes that occur while calling out in this undulating terrain, and that the subtle turn of the neck and torso in the Chhau dance is an imitation of the movements of a peacock. These nuances are usually overlooked by the viewer who is often lost is the grandeur of the performance.

 

There is a sense, towards the end of Bela, that this way of life is under threat of disappearance. Even the Chhau performances seem destined for a town crowd.

Their way of life is under a constant transformation, much like everything around us, maybe a little slower, but isn’t that inevitable? This change is probably much less in the region where I shot Rang Mahal; there is a certain welcome resistance too, in the form of the Pathalgadi Movement, for instance. But the community in Bela is at the threshold. Many of the Chhau dancers move to cities across the country and contribute to the migrant workforce. When the team had come to Pune for a performance at the FTII, two workers from a nearby construction site heard the sounds of the dhol, dhamsa and shahnai, and immediately rushed to the campus where they were performing. It turned out that they were from their neighbouring village. The joy of their reunion in a place so far away from home was a sight to behold.

 

In the film, we see men mostly engaged in the Chhau performances while women are largely responsible for productive labour, both at home and in the village. How did you see the relation between men and women in the village?

It was quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. So the argument of Chhau dance being masculine for its physical rigour fails to hold true after a point. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country.

 

Did you script or storyboard before the shoot? What was the process?

I was making notes every day after shooting, more like production notes and data logging. I shot for a few months, on and off for over two years and had accumulated an enormous amount of rush footage. So I made index cards of the sequences and did a few rounds of paper edits first. I did storyboard for my earlier films, but since I shot the last two myself, I somewhat knew the kind of frames I wanted. Also, both Rang Mahal and Bela are nonfiction films, so there is only so much one could pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were chance and intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off. Turn it on, and they are gone.

 

In a number of shots, your roving camera ends on a light source, almost as if offering a cue to the viewer that the shot is about to end. What is your fascination with light?

That’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. In most cases, it was an instinctive response, as I was mostly working with available/natural light. The night rehearsal sequence is one that I can recall. The entire activity took place around a single light source, a 100-watt tungsten bulb. Earlier, it was a longer sequence, where the bulb was set up, the insects hovering around, and then gradually the people gather. While the dancers practiced in circular motions, their blurred movements appeared like celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun.

 

Did you show the film to the people of Bela?

They have seen parts of the film, but I am yet to share the final film with them. Hopefully that will happen soon.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919): the chaos of shipwreck.

Because of the somewhat constricted nature of the genre, DeMille and Paramount had arrived at a compromise: he would make high-society comedies, but with five minutes of ancient or medieval interludes. This is why, right in the middle of contemporary films like Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Manslaughter, Adam’s Rib, Triumph and even We Can’t Have Everything and The Dream Girl, there are strange parentheses. Paramount had something to keep the ambitious Cecil busy. Five minutes of epic film was less expensive than an hour and a half. This amazes us today, but let us not forget that we too have our commercial breaks on the television, sometimes with movie trailers very different from the film being telecast, and that there were once mid-film intervals, in Italy and sometimes in France, for changing 16mm film reels in rural theatres, to the benefit of ice-cream sales or advertising slides.

It often arrives at the worst possible moment. In the middle of Male and Female, given that the shipwrecked are dressed in makeshift outfits, we no longer even know if it’s an episode from the current story or a prehistoric flashback. Most of the time, the pretext for returning to the past remains feeble. DeMille seeks to show us that nothing has changed since the Neanderthals. The only real reason for the sequence is, of course, kitsch luxury. It’s probably the allusion to the lions of Babylon in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s poem quoted in James Barrie’s play, which Male and Female is based on, which gave DeMille the idea of going back in time.

At best, it could be said that the fragility of the link and the poverty of the trick make us laugh and sustain our interest: the worse it is, the better it is.

This economic motivation seems to have justified the structure of the first The Ten Commandments, only a third of which deals with antiquity.

The link between the present and the past is what comes out in Joan the Woman too. The story of La Pucelle is introduced by a remark by an English soldier fighting in France in 1915. And the preface to The Sign of the Cross, a ten-minute sequence added thirteen years after the shoot, presents us with reflections of American soldiers flying in 1945 over a Rome slightly destroyed by the bombardments and recalling ancient Rome. Apparently, these two scenes seem justified by the ignorance of the American public (passionate only about national, more or less modern events) about the European past. According to DeMille and Paramount, a precise link between the ancient and the modern was absolutely necessary to make these antiquities look less obsolete in the eyes of teenagers and their girlfriends. The same is true for the reintroduction of the ten commandments into the modern family of the eponymous silent film, for the final shot of an ultramodern train in Union Pacific, set in 1870, for the modern city in the last image of the life of Jesus. And not to mention the brief introductions at the beginning of the last three films, which situate them within an eternal cosmic discourse.

It is difficult to say to what extent this present-past relationship, which is the keystone of The Ten Commandments of 1923 and of The Road to Yesterday [1], corresponds to a commercial communication strategy or, on the contrary, to a personal obsession of the filmmaker. There are certainly both, but I’m tempted to favour the second hypothesis. It is too present across time periods, over more than forty years, for it to be simply opportunistic.

For it was a real problem for Americans in the 1920s: what relation can be there between the Christian morality taught in their childhood and the era of jazz, fast luxury cars and normalized breakups and divorces? 1919 and the end of the First World War gave birth to a whole new world—a rupture that is noticeable in the work of a European filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard who has more than one thing in common with Cecil DeMille: he too is a Puritan womanizer, and he frequently contrasts the art of the past with the superficiality of the contemporary world.

With this essential difference that, in Jean-Luc’s case, the opposition seems irremediable, while Cecil tries to build bridges beyond the obvious differences. The ancient interludes tend to tell us that it’s the same thing going on in the time of the Cro-Magnons, the days of Nero and the era of airships, massive bombardments, ultramodern bathtubs and hot dogs. There is certainly an interest in making connections that justify, with more or less success, the apparent incongruity of the intrusion of the ancient into the modern. The Semadar character (Angela Lansbury) in Samson and Delilah is above all reminiscent of the busybodies of Poughkeepsie, just like those chatty women near the atrium (Cleopatra) or that family of ordinary Romans about to enjoy the spectacle of the massacre of Christians (The Sign of the Cross), evoking the weekend outing of an average American family as we see in The Greatest Show on Earth. The present-past relationship doesn’t work as much on the level of moral analysis or as a look into evolution (besides, even in Intolerance, there is hardly any evolution between the Babylonian massacres, St. Bartholomew’s Day and the modern episode, except that the innocent sentenced to death is saved at the last moment by the artifice of a chase). It works more on a formal level: the visual shock of two cultures. It is a superficial shock, but one that affects us strongly. In DeMille’s work, there is a union of all the elements that open up to the universal, the cosmic and the timeless in the same image. DeMille wants to show everything, and show everything together. We have a confirmation of this at the end of Madam Satan.

If one accepts that C.B.’s approach isn’t essentially opportunistic, it remains to be seen what is essential in his work: the description of the past or the present-past relationship.

It is very hard to pin down. In the beginning, everything derived from Cabiria, and so it was all focused on the purely descriptive aspect. It was only afterwards that the comparative aspect made its appearance, for multiple reasons, which became rarer after the commercial failure of The Road to Yesterday.

 

Footnote:

[1] And which is expressed fully with the help of superimpositions and dissolves, the basic figures of style in C.B.’s work.

The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916): first flagellation in DeMille’s work.

One of the most evident, and strangest, characteristics of his work is its sadomasochism—something that is as present as the theme of water in Renoir, the opulent women dear to Fellini, the port towns in Demy or Hitchcock’s suspense. This clearly proves, if proof was ever needed, that DeMille is an auteur.

It all began in 1915, with the first truly interesting films by our filmmaker, and continued without any notable interruption until the last opus in 1956.

Delight Warren (The Unafraid) is threatened with the worst torture if she does not sign a cheque.

The Cheat revolves around a rich Japanese man who brands a socialite guilty of rejecting him after he had lent her a large sum of money. According to him, one doesn’t go without the other. You don’t see this barbaric act in this understated film where everything works on evocation, the unsaid. But we do see what precedes and follows it, and everything around it. This understatement is obviously more powerful than if DeMille had filmed it all. It remains within the limits of good taste, and we can imagine everything…

DeMille shot The Cheat by day, and at night, he directed The Golden Chance, in which young Mary Denby is whipped by her alcoholic husband, who unjustly accuses her of all vices. The film is set in a contemporary America, but the action recalls the melodramatic situations of London-based novels, particularly the work of Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield), where the whipped child constitutes a leitmotif.

It was Joan the Woman the following year, where the heroine is threatened with being interrogated by the English, which is in keeping with historical reality. But there is also this astonishing scene where a French peasant woman, accused of collaborating with French troops resisting the invaders, is suddenly stripped naked by His Majesty’s soldiers and severely flogged. This is a kind of action that has not been recorded in history, and which doesn’t seem very credible. Moreover, the filmed episode has little to do with Joan of Arc. We find no such scene in any of the many films made on the Maiden of Domrémy. It should be noted that, to avoid the charge of indecency, DeMille had taken the precaution of casting a very flat-chested actress in the role.

In Why Change Your Wife (1919), the heroine tries to disfigure her romantic rival with vitriol. It isn’t vitriol, in fact, but eyewash intended to frighten the girl, and to thrill the audience with this unsettling threat.

To this, I would add the paw of the lion on the body of an unconscious Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (same year).

The whip, decidedly a central prop in our auteur’s work, appears again in the two versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), since it was frequently used in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and especially in The Road to Yesterday (1925), where the English lord Ken whips his rival to death, just after the gypsy woman is condemned to the stake.

The Plainsman (1936): Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) never lets go of her whip.

The King of Kings (1927) retraces the martyrdom of Christ in all its stages. There is, of course, a masochist component in the whole of Christian universe. In Jesus’s journey, we can see the itinerary of a man who did everything possible in order to be tortured and crucified. Had Pontius Pilate pardoned him, he would have been really annoyed and couldn’t have justifiably claimed the role of a glorious martyr. And his example led several Christians to try to imitate him. We would be justified in wondering whether it isn’t the Christian impulse that drove DeMille towards sadomasochism.

The Godless Girl (1928) is set in a juvenile prison, where, for more than one minute, the evil guard subjects the handsome, rebellious Hathaway to a powerful jet of ice-cold water. And when the young lovers meet and try to kiss each other from either side of the fence, he unleashes a strong electric current through the barbed wire so that the heroine cannot detach herself from the fence and burns her hand: a shot reveals a smoking cross imprinted on her palm (a cross again).

I almost forgot the Tsarist officer in The Volga Boatman (1926) who orders a young boatman to shine his boots, which he has slightly soiled by accident, and deeming his speech insolent, whips him on the face. Already back in The Little American, there was the German officer who orders poor Mary Pickford to remove his boots, which isn’t an easy job.

The Sign of the Cross is perhaps the one film by our auteur that goes the furthest in this domain. There is firstly the child that the Romans tie to a rope and lower into a pit with hellfire (a torture that Joan of Arc was threatened with too) so that he confesses where the Christians meet.

There is then the pleasure of the viewers in the arena—father, mother and son—who try to get the best seats possible and bet on the surviving gladiator. A pleasure mixed with dread before the martyrdom of Christians (a situation that is repeated, in a minor way, at the temple of the Philistines at the end of Samson and Delilah): we are spared no detail (except in the redacted version at the request of the censors, who nevertheless let go of shots of dykes and boy toys). The highlight is this ravishing starlet in a bikini tied up in front of a menacing crocodile. These are brilliant, very powerful scenes, especially since the visuals are sumptuous, but which make The Sign of the Cross look like a sick film.

All through The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1939), the beautiful Jean Arthur and Akim Tamiroff wield a menacing whip, which attacks objects around people, but never the people themselves. The Hays Code of 1934 was here.

At the beginning of North West Mounted Police (1940), it’s Paulette Goddard, a rather wild young girl, who is spanked by Tamiroff. She will be spanked again, with the relative protection of her pretty rich heiress costume, by the dandy Ray Milland, who finds her too capricious, at the beginning of Reap the Wild Wind (1941). In Unconquered (1946), we witness the preparations for the flogging of the same Paulette Goddard, who is decidedly used to corporal punishment, a torture that is called off at the last second. For the sadomasochistic audience, it’s the cracking of the whip and the concept of flogging that counts (and allows it to imagine the foreseeable consequences with delight) as much as the physical act, just as it was the idea of disfiguration with vitriol (which doesn’t take place) that marks the viewer’s mind (Why Change Your Wife). This avoids the reproach of the censors and the restrictions pertaining to children.

A novelty: at the end of Samson and Delilah (1949), the whipper Delilah and the whipped Samson are fully agreed on the use of the prop. She even apologizes to him for the pain she is about to inflict on him. It is part of the plan laid by Samson, who, as the viewers at the temple are fooled by this stratagem, then seizes the whip from Delilah, the latter leading him to the pillars of the building.

There is a very interesting variation of this in the middle of The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): the animal trainer Lyle Bettger, jealous of the special attention that his sweetheart, the beautiful Gloria Graham, pays to the circus director Charlton Heston, blackmails her during an act, by letting her remain under the elephant’s heavy foot for longer than expected: a guiding gesture from the trainer would be enough for the beast to crush her pretty face. In The Sign of the Cross, the animal brings down its foot for good.

I’ve saved the best for the last: Cleopatra, where the sadistic ritual is intimately linked to sexuality. To seduce Mark Antony, Cleopatra presents him with an astonishing spectacle where seductive nymphs, fished out from the sea in large nets (a woman was already fished out with a bait in Old Wives for New), come out of shells that look like vulvas, to perform lascivious dances, surrounded by the dance master’s whip and circles of fire that he raises around them and through which they move. It’s a delirious spectacle that attests to great virtuosity on the part of our filmmaker, and a rather implausible one at that: it’s hard to imagine a woman who, in order to win the heart of her enemy, organizes such a macho show focused on other women.

In Cleopatra again, during the Battle of Actium sequence, there is this very oppressive shot of a chariot’s cogwheel crushing a soldier’s face.

The reader will perhaps forgive me for forgetting other scenes of the kind, which are often brilliant and rather nauseating, the two adjectives being linked indissolubly.

The Sign of the Cross (1932): gladiators and Christians in the arena.

This psychopathia sexualis is well in line with the image Cecil DeMille fashioned for himself: with jodhpurs and a baton in the hand (like his mentor David Belasco), he had all the makings of the perfect sadistic grandmaster.

We may wonder, is this whole arsenal there to please a public fond of sadomasochistic rituals? Or does it correspond to a personal need? I’m tempted to answer with the latter option. In fact, it all began as early as 1915, at a time when the film viewer’s sadistic needs were neither known nor exploited. One had to wait until the advent of the horror film, Tod Browning and James Whale, in the years 1925-1930, and then the actor Burt Lancaster, the most masochist of all, to find a comparison. In literature, Lovecraft himself comes after DeMille. One would even be justified in thinking that DeMille may have furnished ideas to masters of horror such as Tod Browning or James Whale. It was perhaps also that the public success of these scenes encouraged DeMille to persevere.

Why? Why? It’s not the essayist’s role to discuss this subject. Apart from Christian influence, which I’ve already alluded to, it should be noted that C.B.’s sadism is often exercised on women. And he was a frustrated man, at least during his youth: bald at a young age, he looks like the typical image of a small-time accountant in his photographs. And after 1914 and her miscarriage, his wife, for medical reasons and perhaps because she wasn’t interested in it, refused sex, a situation that seems to have lasted for the last forty-five years of their marriage. To be sure, our man made up for it elsewhere, after he achieved success and fortune. But this situation must have been hard for him. It reminds us of the scene in The Road to Yesterday where Ken tries to axe his way through the door of his wife’s bedroom. It’s a situation that must have left behind a mark, a desire for revenge, a recourse to deviant practices… But frustration can also be very fruitful for an artist: the situation of the DeMille couple is the same as that of the Faulkner couple.

Let us not forget a consistent foot (and shoe) fetish, as evidenced by Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Forbidden Fruit, The Affairs of Anatol, Feet of Clay, The Volga Boatman, Wassell and, of course, The Greatest Show on Earth, among others from 1918 to 1951.