[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Just as tales—which we’ll come back to later, since the genre isn’t foreign to your cinema—begin in French with “Il était une fois…” (once upon a time…), we’d like to begin with “Il était un Foix…,” In 1994, you made a short film that bears this name, a small town in the Pyrenees. Foix is a film representative of your work; it is built on a geographical principle that you are fond of: to sketch a nearly exhaustive portrait of a place, to wander across it and survey it in all directions until its spatial, comic, dramatic and aesthetic possibilities are exhausted. But in general, you film familiar places, places that you have known and loved for a long time. In Foix, it is the opposite, and that is also why we wanted to start there: you present a completely ugly city, its ugliness accentuated by the laconic irony of a tourist-style voice-over. Foix is therefore a film against something, a negative portrait. It is the exception to one of the rules of your work, a contradiction within a work that has no shortage of them. How did the film come to be?

It must have been 17 September 1973, shortly after Allende’s fall. I was walking in the Pyrenees with my wife. When we stayed the night in Foix, we both had the feeling that we had discovered the most backward town in France. For the next twenty years, I travelled around the country to gather several proofs of this stellar backwardness. I didn’t do just that for twenty years, but I did that. I could see that, yes, this town was the champion in this regard. The script had time to mature: more than twenty years of work for a thirteen-minute short film.

Invited by Toulouse for a conference, I made a detour to see Foix again. It was a painful experience. From Toulouse, I wanted to go up to the Montagne Noire, where I hadn’t been before. I had to leave early, at seven o’clock. At the station, I stumbled on the new pavements, which are a bit slanted. I hurt my foot very badly. I travelled for 30 kilometres with a huge abscess on my toe. The right, I think. I delivered my lecture and then I went to the hospital the next morning to have the abscess removed. In the afternoon, I went to Foix. Because of my foot, I could scout it only slowly. The town was almost in the same state that I had left it twenty years earlier. It was really typical, very impressive. I don’t think it’s possible to go this far into degeneration. It’s quite a nice town in itself: there’s a chateau, it’s well situated. But you can sense that there has been no real town planning. It’s a complete mess.

Based on the photos that I had taken, I submitted a project to the CNC [National Centre for Cinema] for support with the short film. In photos with cars, I scratched out the two digits pertaining to Ariège region. Worried about a leak, I rechristened the project Vesoul. I added that the film would not be shot there, without specifying where. I thought that the people at the CNC would be keen to know where I would shoot, and that they would give me the money to find out. That’s what happened. We got the grant. We did a combined shoot, which is very cost-effective: I shot Toujours plus, which ended in Toulouse, and in the evening, we went to Foix to shoot Foix. The shoot went on for about three days. There was only one minor problem: Toujours plus being a TV film, we shot at twenty-five frames; but my sound engineer continued to record at twenty-five frames for Foix, instead of twenty-four, the normal frame rate for a cinema film.

Many people and institutions are thanked in the credits. Did the production actually involve them, or was it out of caution?

Not out of caution. It was to make the viewer laugh. I asked the town hall and the police for some little things so that I could put them in the credits. “I thank the town of Foix very much…” That’s funny.

Did the city respond?

Not directly, except on the day the film was shown on TV. The town hall phoned the production manager, who acted as a buffer. They couldn’t say anything, I hadn’t asked them for money. The town hall had done only one thing: turn on the little geysers on the ground—these “watering limbs” that make the water come out thirty centimetres from the ground—which only work in summer, whereas the shooting took place in winter.

Was the idea of the fake tourist documentary there from the outset?

The idea was inspired by Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides, a film commissioned by the army that made everyone laugh. Well, almost everyone… As it was a short film, Foix was practically written down to the last detail. It’s tiring to draw up a complete découpage for a feature film. On the contrary, for a short documentary, it’s fun to do it, and it pleases the producer, who incidentally hadn’t invested a lot of money, since there was money from the Centre for Cinema. In these towns, everyone is happy when you come to shoot. No one comes to shoot in Foix. One day, I filmed in Toulouse, in the largest supermarket in the world. There were ninety-four counters. I was warmly received; at the end, we were even offered champagne. It’s rather in Paris that one can feel unwelcome. Everybody comes to shoot there; people are suspicious, they have had it up to here.

Did you go back to Foix?

I saw the city from the train. I’ve bought a Ray-Ban since then, so I might try to go back there. My face has changed a bit, I’ve lost hair. I should stop by the town someday.

(more…)

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (“Our Daily Alpinist”, 2009, Capricci). The images are my addition; the original volume contains none.]

Maps and Habitats

Every Law Must Be Bent (Vade Mecum)

Heights and Chances

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s short monograph Luis Buñuel (1957), the fifth volume in the series Les Grands Créateurs du Cinéma, published bimonthly by the Club du Livre de Cinéma in Brussels. I’m extremely grateful to Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of this rare volume.]

 

Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

– Hegel

In our time, in our era of blockbusters and epic films, Luis Buñuel’s work and career stand out. While the vast majority of important filmmakers choose to marry art and commerce, with varying degrees of success, Buñuel confines himself to low-budget ventures, just like Roberto Rossellini. He thus enjoys a great deal of freedom: producers’ interference is limited to the choice of subject, which is generally very banal, and to the development of the script. The filmmaker imposes the expression of a highly distinct personality on such weak material. El río y la muerte (The River and the Death) was completed in fourteen days; technically it is superior to many French films, and in terms of quality, it has nothing to envy most of Buñuel’s great works. Like a novelist, the maker of L’Âge d’Or and El (This Strange Passion) works for his own pleasure; that is why the most mediocre of his offspring, the most industrial of his films, still bear his mark. This is a kind of miracle that cinema is not familiar with.

 

The Surrealist Experiment

One of the main constants in Buñuel’s work has often been explained using his Spanish origin. I’m referring to his taste for cruelty and violence, which also throw light on the inclinations of his personality. He was born at the dawn of this century, on 22 February 1900, in a small town in Aragon, Calanda, located on the edge of the famous Sierra de Teruel. After spending ten years at a Jesuit school, he left his provincial bourgeois parents for the University of Madrid, where he studied science, particularly neurology: physiological phenomena had always captivated him, as had the life of animals. But the Castilian capital attracted him towards less studious pursuits. He enjoyed idleness and led a merry and dissipated life. This is how he became friends with two of the greatest creators of twentieth-century Spain, Federico García Lorca, the poet, and Salvador Dali, the painter, who were then young unruly students. Buñuel’s films retain some of Lorca’s tragic lyricism and, above all, Dalí’s phantasmagoria.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Our young man was soon to be found in Paris, where he worked as a scientific attaché. But he was interested in many other things. Dali, who lived on the banks of the Seine, introduced him to the Surrealist Movement, in which Buñuel discovered an equivalent to his taste for the unusual. Cinema seemed to him to be the best means of expression, one that allows one to show the most amazing aspects of reality. After a first script, written from a surrealist perspective, which he could never shoot for lack of means, he took technical lessons, a trial run for Un Chien Andalou (1928). This small, fifteen-minute silent film made a great impression at the time and is still the biggest hit at film clubs today. The story, written by Dali and Buñuel, doesn’t follow any logical rule; underlying the main plot, a love story, are a series of extraordinary visuals of the purest surrealist tradition: the enormous living room piano stained with the blood of rotting donkeys, to which two seminarians are attached. The virtuosity, the unbridled inventiveness belonged as much to Buñuel as to Dali. And yet the director parted ways with his friend, whom he accused of seeking scandal for the sake of scandal. The next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which Buñuel made for a patron, continued the experiments of Un Chien Andalou while respecting factual logic more closely. This time, the scandal was huge: the precision and realism highlighted the filmmaker’s multiple attacks on society and religion, which he said impeded the power of love. Buñuel went from surrealism to documentary with Land Without Bread (1932), a poignant account of the region in Spain called Las Hurdes, one of the most backward and poorest parts of Europe after the Grésivaudan, Slovakia and Haute-Provence. Buñuel went ahead with the same talent, the same critical eye towards modern civilisation, whose most ignoble aspects he unveiled. At first sight, the rigour and honesty of the work contrasted with the fanatic Manichaeism of L’Âge d’Or: but in many beautiful visuals (the donkey devoured by flies, the portrait of idiots), there is that astonishing sensitivity partly inherited from his contact with surrealism.

But the time of patrons and small productions that one could finance oneself was soon over. For fifteen years, Luis Buñuel worked in cinema without making any films. This period of silence was important in its own right: faced with life and its difficulties, the maker of Land Without Bread evolved markedly; with maturity, he moved from revolt to reflection. That is how he was able to resume a body of work that was thought to be prematurely finished: recent films such as Los Olvidados or El are even considered to be of a much higher quality than those of the surrealist period. In charge of dubbing films in Paris, Madrid — where he moved on to production — and Hollywood, a bureaucrat, then a speaker in the United States, Buñuel finally left Los Angeles in 1947 for Mexico City with a very ambitious project in the bag: The House of Bernarda Alba, based on Lorca’s play, which he didn’t finally shoot.

 

(more…)

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

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949): the delicacy of colours in a new bath scene.

A curious film, which seems to have been made only for its ending. A bit like Vidor and Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946), whose title evokes only the final scene, and which is also one of the few American films of the time to be marked by the final death of the couple, who were also played by stars. A death that both protagonists, here, desire or consent to.

The scene is the only one in the film that exhibits great richness. A temple with an overloaded architecture, like Cabiria or Salammbô, with a sort of embankment at the centre, more reminiscent of the Roman arena and its circus games. There are hundreds of spectators.

The American public were 1949 was quite familiar with the Bible and the story of Samson, and knew that Samson dies as a result of the temple’s collapse, which he triggers with the strength of his arms and … his hair. If, by extraordinary chance, they did not know the Old Testament, they were informed of the ending by word of mouth and by the massive publicity around the film’s release.

The Bible does not mention the presence of Delilah at the temple (in DeMille’s film, she takes the place of the young boy mentioned in the Bible). An earlier scene establishes Samson and Delilah’s connivance, and we understand that they will meet the same fate. Shortly before the collapse, Delilah refuses when Samson asks her to run away: she thus atones for her fault, her treachery.

So here we have a spectacle whose outcome everyone knows, but which is filmed like a suspenseful episode, with preparations and a very elaborate staging. In fact, there is really no suspense. The viewer is therefore one step ahead of the other viewers, those sitting in the temple. He feels superior to them. The suspense, here, has to do only with the “how” of the action. How will Delilah manage to put Samson in such a position that he can destroy the temple? In front of two hundred people who have no desire to be crushed under the rubble, this is far from obvious. There are a series of miraculous coincidences that make the outcome possible and, paradoxically, the film viewer fears that the soldiers’ intervention on behalf of the Saran of Gaza will not allow for the final disaster.

We get the impression of a fatal, irremediable chain of events, and that is what fascinates us.

There is a very great cinematic moment, based essentially on sound, which may seem surprising in such a visual finale: we realize that Samson will succeed when we hear the faint sound of the stone starting to crumble. This noise is followed by complete silence, the silence of the dazed and worried audience (a bit implausible, since they are too far away to hear what we and Samson can hear) and an artificial silence produced by an intelligent sound mix, underlining the gravity of the action. It is all the more impressive because the beginning of the sequence was extremely noisy, with reactions of the crowd and music. The power of the scene lies in the fact that it is based on everything (big spectacle, gigantic set, numerous extras), but it is the nothing (faint noise and silence) that produces the greatest emotion.

This idea was taken up by Howard Hawks with the sealing of the corridor of the pyramid of Cheops in Land of the Pharaohs, produced by Warner. And the film will have a lot of imitators: another famous couple, David and Bathsheba, concocted by Fox, a new Quo Vadis? financed by MGM, a Salome produced by Columbia. Everyone was doing it.

The scene has been reproached for its theatrical quality, although that is quite logical since this temple is a theatrical place, and the theatrical rigidity accentuates the inexorable quality of the action. The cardboard cut-out quality of the collapsing stone blocks has also been criticised: they bounce with a slenderness impossible for such heavy material. That is the DeMille system, which neglects realism in favour of convention.

Only the idea of the collapse matters. In any case, Samson’s story was probably exaggerated by rumour before the biblical text was written.

To describe these bravura sequences, I preferred the chronological order.

That made it possible to establish precise relationships between films from the same period. For example, the four films from the period of eccentricities (1924-1930).

But I could have chosen other scenes, the murder of the Eurasian mistress (the silent version of The Ten Commandments), the shaving scene in Why Change Your Wife, the sequence with Satan Synne (The Affairs of Anatol), the staircase scene in The Godless Girl, the suspenseful finale in the mine in Dynamite, the couple stuck at the top of the broken-down roller coaster (Saturday Night), the scene with the Indians and the compass (Unconquered), and I know how arbitrary this selection can be. I am also aware that a scene from a masterpiece like Kindling could not have served our purpose as everything in it is very smooth and homogenous.

In my classification are a few very different choices, which has perhaps allowed a more logical classification: either the sequence appears within a mediocre (Cleopatra) or a modest (The Volga Boatman) movie, or it remains the most striking scene of a high-calibre work, surfacing in the middle (The Golden Bed) or the end (Wassell), or it is the conclusion of an ever-changing film (The Road to Yesterday, Madam Satan, Samson and Delilah) whose beginning is disappointing but which, little by little, expands in scope until the final apotheosis.

The principle of the brilliant final scene that floors the viewer, who will remember it for eternity, eclipsing the mediocrity of the beginning, is an excellent principle which can be found in many good films (Alexander Nevsky, Griffith’s Way Down East, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer, Ismael Ferroukhi’s The Great Journey). It is certainly more exemplary than the principle of the opening sequence towering over the rest of the film (Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, Almodóvar’s Volver, Ruy Guerra’s The Unscrupulous Ones, Welles’ Othello, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel), but it is now outmoded by the evolution of cinema, which now depends on television broadcast to a great extent. Now, if the viewer doesn’t find the beginning of a film exciting, he is going to change channels. Television channels know this and make their choice partly on this criterion.

It should be noted that, often, a film’s big scene is not the one expected. The crossing of Red Sea, the tussle with the octopus (Reap the Wild Wind) and the sugar garden of The Golden Bed are less striking than other scenes in these films.

A rare case: a filmmaker who is better known for his not-so-good, but more expensive films, but whose best work, as with Jean-Pierre Melville, is to be often found in projects that are nevertheless more modest in appearance. Adjusting for inflation, Kindling cost 489 times less than The Ten Commandments, but is much more accomplished.

This book is dedicated to Vidéosphère.

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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): a young mother (Edith Barrett) succumbs to gunfire from the boat before her child’s eyes.

A work of a consistent quality, inspired by real events, describing the life of a physician who became a military doctor in Java during the war against Japan. He manages to safely lead a dozen crippled soldiers through the jungle to a ship to America.

It starts with a highly stylised introduction, with snow falling behind a small statuette, and it continues in a comedic tone: Dr. Wassell is paid by his poor clients of Arkansas… with pigs, which run away from the pigsty. Without any resources, he becomes a doctor abroad.

The first highlight of the film is its depiction of the daily life of a group of wounded soldiers lying on their stretchers, in rather wide shots without the hero. And the doctor has a hard time putting on his cufflinks, disturbed as he is by his servant, who tries to tie his tie at the same time. But we quickly move on to the dramatic, or even the lyrical, part. Guessing that the army is not going to repatriate the invalids, a disabled soldier stands up on his legs before collapsing. Driven to depression in the heart of the jungle, Hoppy takes the bandages off his hands so he can shoot the approaching Japs. He is massacred…

But the peak of the film is the end, where multiple effects add up as various characters behave, like before, in very different ways within the frame. The Japs bomb the ship that Wassell and his disabled crew are on. On the same ship, fat cats play chess unperturbed. A lady protests, “Will you stop pushing me?”—the same kind of unusual reactions there were towards the end of Madam Satan. A machine gun kills the mother of a four-year-old child, who doesn’t understand the situation and asks her mother to get up. A soldier, who is busy shooting, asks him: “How about joining the navy, big boy? Try this bonnet on.” And the kid is delighted to collaborate with soldiers, “I’m going to show mummy my new hat.” A blind man, with a very sensitive ear like any blind person, is the only one who can identify the noise of the American Flying Fortresses coming from afar to protect them.

Among the wounded, Wassell suddenly finds the doctor who had stolen the woman of his life, Madeline, from him. The colleague informs him that his wife is going to join him. Wonderful surprise, it’s not Madeline! Mad with joy, Wassell kisses the doctor’s wife, whom he has never seen before.

He learns that Madeline is on another boat, the Pecos. A few seconds later, he is told that the Pecos has been sunk. But it soon is known that there is a boat of survivors, which includes Madeline, whom he will join in the last shots of the film.

Wassell expects to be court-martialled since he has violated an order from his higher-ups. But he finds himself decorated by the president (played by an actor, which is exceptional in cinema, especially as Roosevelt was alive when the film was shot).

After the credits, we are told that Hoppy, the soldier with the bandages, is safe and sound. We then have the impression that all this is true. For, if this ending had been invented, DeMille could have included it in the continuity of the narrative. But it is probably a ruse on C.B.’s part to better validate the progression of his film.

We see that everything works on a constant succession of unusual contradictions, reversals of situations, like this kid who is all joyful just after his mother’s death.

So the viewer is suffocated, as it were, by this rush of strange, miracle-like facts. This is what makes for the power of this masterpiece.

This richness was not appreciated by French critics, turned off as they were by the nationalist side of C.B., who often opens his films with a shot of a coat of arms, or a military or institutional emblem. This preaching is also evident at the end of The Greatest Show on Earth, Kindling and Male and Female. But this naive and almost tacked-on hymn to America works well since it comes at the end of a high-quality work. We are then ready to accept anything. And it is presented so directly, so implausibly, that it becomes a form of private joke.

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

Cleopatra (1934): the bewildering ballet of the nymphs.

It is a rather mediocre movie, undermined by the pompous, conventional and declamatory quality of the dialogue, which provokes unintentional laughter. The last scene—Cleopatra and the asp—which should have been the highlight of the show, turns out to be of no interest.

But there are three unforgettable sequences: the ballet of the nymphs, which I already mentioned, the tracking shot depicting the intrigue; the montage sequence narrating the battle.

The latter (the principle of which is taken up again, albeit less well, in The Crusades) is astonishing: it comes just after a series of rather soporific scenes.

In four minutes and four seconds, there are about two hundred shots (I couldn’t count exactly, it was too fast, especially because there are shots with two superimpositions). This means one shot for every 1.22 seconds on an average, including many shots shorter than this.

The subjects depicted are: the preparation of arms and armies for the battle, the charge of the cavalry on the beach; ground warfare; naval warfare.

Note the total contradiction with history: the battle of Actium between the Romans and the Egyptians, who were in league with Mark Antony, took place only on the sea and lasted two hours.

Here, it also extends over land, with the siege of a fortress, and takes place over two days and a night. Anyway, that’s not the most important thing.

The film accumulates tight shots of soldiers in action, of weapons being manufactured, shots with canted framing, effects featuring a marked horizon line, often at the top of the frame, and very pointed, academic interplay of blacks and whites bordering on pompousness, but fortunately very brief.

Everything is intermingled: with short and sometimes very tight shots, the viewer does not have time to ask questions. In the middle of this battle set in 31 BC, he accepts shots stolen from The Ten Commandments (1230 BC)—the chariots on the beach—and from the Siege of Orléans of Joan the Woman (set in 1429) without batting an eyelid. He is overwhelmed by the accumulation of some violent images. It’s a massive patchwork (there is even an underwater shot), unified by continuous martial music.

Why this directorial choice? One could suppose that the filmed naval battle was deemed a failure by DeMille, or that he had no money left to shoot the rest of the scene, or that there had been a total strike, or that C.B. was jealous of S.M. (Eisenstein), whose latest film he had just seen while shooting Cleopatra. It appears that he entrusted the responsibility for the sequence to a great specialist (I think I can sense the handiwork of William Cameron Menzies), who evidently acted on the instructions of our filmmaker.

The problem is that after this virtuoso sequence, the film plummets from a great height back to the monotonous routine which is that of almost the whole film.

A sequence which today registers as an exercise in style, a good film school assignment, the crown jewel of an outdated academicism, but which still makes an impression, especially since it comes after the mediocrity of the earlier sequences.

Alongside this bit of rapid montage, there is a scene conceived around a sequence shot, the one in which we successively learn about the state of affairs between Caesar and Cleopatra, the hardships of Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, and the existence of a plot to assassinate Caesar and its motivations. Another filmmaker may have lazily settled for a discussion scene between two or three characters in static shots. Well, DeMille goes around the difficulty brilliantly.

There are two consecutive shots, with a total duration of two minutes and twenty-one seconds, the second one continuing the first, which is moreover tighter: these are tracking shots from left to right. The transition between them goes almost unnoticed within the continuous movement. DeMille frames six small groups in discussion successively, first a slightly caricatural set of five characters involved in gossip, then duos, and finally the meeting of the conspirators. All the pieces of information the viewer needs are here, but it is supplied by very different people with spaces between them. It doesn’t feel like a didactic exposition at all. First of all, because the tracking shot seems to be the only fundamental basis of the shot, because the different groups are at different distances from the camera, and because the camera is going through obstacles—especially columns—which seem to indicate that all this is filmed on the spot, like a television report on ancient Rome, all the more so because, at the very beginning, the first group is masked by a character walking across the frame. The best part is that at the end, behind Brutus and his friends, we suddenly see the bust of Caesar, whose laurel wreath is removed and tossed away by a conspirator: everything is conveyed in almost no time.

It’s a very modern, veritable lesson in cinema, which seems to me to be of a much higher level than the thundering montage sequence. These are some of the longest shots in C.B. DeMille’s cinema.

Rapid montage, sequence shot: here is a filmmaker who tries to express himself in the most contrasting ways, just as he jumps from the awesome compositions of Joan the Woman to the small objects of his intimate films (Don’t Change Your Husband or Old Wives for New) with great verve.

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

Madam Satan (1930): one of the showgirls has problems with the headwind.

At the beginning, it’s domestic vaudeville, which turns into a musical, and then a fashion show on a zeppelin during a party with a hundred guests. But that’s not all. Suddenly, twenty minutes before the end of the film, a storm damages the airship, which careens dangerously. So does the camera. It is decided to evacuate passengers by parachute. The orchestra continues to play, as it did during the Titanic disaster, but it’s the most complete mess. One can constantly hear the irritating creaking of the aircraft’s structures that are beginning to crack, the thunder that rumbles, the lightning, the music that doesn’t stop and the frightened screams of the costumed party guests. Debris and iron bars fall in the foreground. A woman complains that she isn’t able to put her parachute on. Another says she doesn’t want to take it because she wants to see the rest of the evening. A very fat gentleman asks for two parachutes. The bimbo-like mistress asks the wife for one, who is willing to give it to her on condition that she doesn’t see her husband again. In a studio sky that doesn’t hide its artificial nature, showgirls jump one by one, following strange trajectories, sometimes horizontal when pushed by the wind, which strips their bodies bare. They move their legs in every direction, with a burlesque frenzy. They seem to be pedalling. One of them goes back and forth in the air in contradictory syncopated rhythms (these are some of the most extraordinary shots in American cinema). A man dressed as Henry VIII, thus representing the past, jumps with a parachute (symbol of the future in 1930) and falls on Blacks playing dice on the pavement (the present): a synthesis of the multi-temporal approach dear to DeMille. The master of ceremonies lands in the lion’s den of a zoo just before feeding time. In contrast to the danger posed by this escape in parachutes, people remain very polite. “I beg your pardon”, says the wife when she lands in the back of a convertible in which two lovers are making out. Her husband falls, without a parachute, into an artificial lake. The bimbo lands straight on a high-altitude weather vane and asks for help from a parachuter. He replies that he is just passing by and continues to descend. She finally crashes through the glass roof of a club where masculine, misogynist gymnasts are exercising in their underwear. And so on…

We are in the middle of the sky, and of a fever dream. It calls to mind the work of Busby Berkeley, and a famous sequence from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Eddie Cline and W.C. Fields, 1941). A hilarious, surreal universe. But the surrealists hated DeMille because of his Christian label.

This bravura sequence, in contrast to the films mentioned earlier, plays very little on dialogue. These are above all ideas of movements, gestures and situations. A skilful mix of heterogeneous elements. An atmosphere that is in every way contrary to the conventional and limited quality of the first part of the film. A classic scene. The swan song of our auteur’s extravagant period.

After this scene comes the epilogue, the return home, which is a little longish—three minutes—and disappointing, breaking the spell of this aerial festival.

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

The Volga Boatman (1926).

Our sequence is located towards the middle of this film, which was made just after The Road to Yesterday. Bolsheviks have taken over the large house of an aristocratic family. Following a small incident caused by the young Princess Vera, a revolutionary is killed by a gunshot fired by one of the squires, who flees. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Red Army demands the death of one of the aristocrats. So Vera decides to sacrifice herself. A rope is put around her neck, but one of the leaders of the revolutionaries, the boatman Feodor, contests the principle of this public execution, which risks looking like a lynching. A firing squad of six soldiers is formed to carry out the sentence in an isolated room. Vera taunts them, “Does it take a whole army to shoot one woman? A man could do it alone.” Mariusha the gypsy, who is in love with Feodor, moreover points out that, this way, they won’t need to use six cartridges. It’s that cartridges are expensive. And so Feodor is assigned for the job. He goes with Vera into the adjacent room. Suspicious and jealous, Mariusha warns him: “We’ll give you five minutes, if you don’t shoot her by then, we’ll come in and do it for you.”

A small clock allows us to observe the countdown. Vera advances the hands of the clock: “I am not used to waiting.” Feodor sets the hands back: “We’ve waited five hundred years for liberty, you can wait five minutes for death.” Next door, the revolutionaries make merry, while Vera plays the ballad Song of the Volga Boatmen on piano, singing it. Feodor stops her, “You are singing to give yourself courage.” [1] The hands of the clock advance mercilessly. Vera pours rosewater into the room to die in a pleasant environment. He serves her a glass of wine to “steady her nerves”. She drinks to the health of Old Russia, and invites Feodor to finish the glass. He drops it on the floor. Mariusha, still in the big room next door, threatens to come. Vera takes out a jewel box. “You can’t bribe me”, he takes offence. She takes a beautiful decoration out of the box and hangs on Feodor’s chest, “I’m going to reward you for shooting a defenceless woman.” He tears off the decoration. She draws a cross on her breast to make the job easier for him. The five minutes are up. In fact, it lasts eight minutes in the film (even more, as I saw the film at a higher speed) to keep the suspense going…

Moved by her courage, Feodor begins to kiss Vera passionately. He pours lots of wine on our heroine’s chest, fires a shot in the air and returns to the large hall carrying Vera’s body.

“Let’s throw her in the Volga”, suggests Mariusha. “I’ll throw her in the Volga”, replies Feodor. As he steps forward, Mariusha steals Vera’s ring. But it smells like wine. She puts the ring on, her fingers are full of red. She licks her fingers and realizes the trick. But Feodor has already left, with Vera in his arms, and locks the door behind him. They run away.

This is the big scene of Act IV, an impression confirmed by the theatrical atmosphere of the sole set. We are not far from romantic drama, from the Hugo of Angelo or Ruy Blas, or even Elizabethan theatre. You can feel that it is a game, not some kind of reality, but you go along. DeMille has put all the ingredients, all possible twists and turns in this sequence.

And there are even some elements from The Road to Yesterday: the gypsy woman, the clock, replacing the hourglass.

This is the bravura sequence of the film, which remains on a good level in the other scenes, but is more banal, more conventional, infinitely less flamboyant. A sort of oasis in the sticks.

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s note: the line is, in fact, by Vera: “You sang it to give you courage, why shouldn’t I? Are we not both Russians?”

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

The Road to Yesterday (1925): the splendour of the swashbuckling film: Vera Reynolds, Joseph Schildkraut, William Boyd.

This is the film made just after The Golden Bed. The six main characters, after the physical and mental shock caused by a very serious train collision in Arizona, find themselves in 1625 in the heart of England, in obviously quite different roles. Everything was relatively quiet in the first hour of runtime, but now it becomes an increasingly unbridled cloak-and-dagger story, and we are stunned by this unexpected and accelerated development.

The film is halfway between Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and Victor Hugo’s Les Burgraves. Ken, the ruined lord, absolutely wants to marry the young and rich Lady Elizabeth, who is in love with handsome Jack. Ken kidnaps Elizabeth, and Jack comes to the castle to save her. But Ken has Jack arrested, whom he accuses of having come to the castle to steal. And he blackmails Elizabeth: either I kill Jack (who already has the noose around his neck) or you marry me. You have three minutes to choose… He starts the hourglass. Then comes Malena, the gypsy who pretends to be already married to Ken, who decides to have her burned for witchcraft. Elizabeth agrees to the marriage if Ken lets Jack live. But (like the Saran of Gaza would later with Delilah and Samson, who is blinded on order of the Saran) Ken plays on words: he doesn’t kill Jack, but has him whipped to death behind a curtain, which he soon opens to Elizabeth’s grieving eyes. She unties Jack, who, before dying, kills Ken with a stab near his left shoulder, while Malena’s body burns at the stake.

We are two hours and five minutes into the film.

Devoured by the flames, Malena screams in anger and curses Ken. She moves in vain from right to left and left to right in an attempt to loosen her bonds, and this movement in the flames merges—with the help of an admirable dissolve (the most beautiful in the history of cinema)—with the flames of the train and the movements of the four heroes trapped in the debris of the American Express of 1925.

Ken is unable to pull Malena from under debris of the coach as his left shoulder is paralysed by his earlier injury. She is about to die. He, the inveterate atheist, is reduced to praying to God. God delivers him from his infirmity right away. Malena is rescued. They then join the Jack-Beth couple (Beth is short for Elizabeth). Beth, who has always fiercely denied the existence of God, tells Jack, who is a priest: “Oh, Jack, we’ve been in love for hundreds of years, and I’ll marry you with a noose round your neck, or a Prayer Book in your hand, just so you keep on loving me!

And Ken, in the face of his miraculous cure, exclaims: “Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever!” The film ends on a shot of a cross, this famous omnipresent cross (The Godless Girl, The Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman).

Obviously, this soap opera is totally unbelievable, and there is something eminently ridiculous about the filmmaker’s proselytising, just like this hollow-ringing instant miracle: a simple little bandage that Ken removes in two seconds. This religious kitsch is so mediocre that it imparts a new dynamic, staggering in every way, to the most absolute playful gratuity. The audacity of tackling the most total implausibility and the most complete ridiculousness astounds us, leaves us dumbfounded with admiration. A bit like with Abel Gance. It is true that all this happens after more than two hours, and after a long, bland initial section centred on an almost banal everyday life that has allowed us to get used to the film, its characters and the plot. I don’t think any other film has given us such a provocative, mind-boggling ending. We don’t believe it, but we still go with it. We are won over, I think, by the very fact that we can’t believe it, and that DeMille has had the nerve nonetheless… It remains to be seen whether DeMille believed it. But that is perhaps a superfluous question. Cinema rediscovers its essential nature here, that of a pure game.

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

Lillian Rich on The Golden Bed (1924).

Before coming to the most striking sequence, I need to describe the context.

The Peake family, despite the golden bed that adorns one of its rooms, is on the verge of ruin. One of the daughters, Margaret, is reduced to working for the poor neighbour, young Holtz, a candy seller with whom she falls in love.

Her sister Flora returns home penniless. As the sweets sell very well, she seduces Holtz and marries him. But her frivolous spending risks bankrupting the Holtz Company. And so, the wife of Holtz’s banker is chosen over Flora to organise the Hunters Association party. She is furious and convinces her husband to throw another party on the same day in a décor entirely made of sugar. To finance this madness, where guests will lick the “furniture”, the trees and the necklaces on beautiful girls, Holtz has to buy sugar substitute and misuses his company’s assets. Flora even invites the banker and his wife, who have almost no one at their party.

Holtz asks for a loan from the banker, who will agree if Flora gives his wife her beautiful jewellery. Flora refuses, and leaves with a new lover.

Holtz does five years of prison for his fraud. When he is released, he stumbles into the Peake home, where Flora, dumped by her boyfriend and ruined, has just died in the golden bed. Holtz unites with the faithful Margaret, who, in his absence, has successfully opened a new Holtz candy shop.

Another film about a company, just like The Ten Commandments (building construction), Triumph (can factory), Reap the Wild Wind (shipowners’ company). A saga with a sinuous, loose, unpredictable course, full of charisma and excitement. It always returns to the house and the central bed—at times it looks like a brothel in disguise. A fairly harmonious outline, so it may not be a very good example that I chose. One could moreover argue that this is our filmmaker’s masterpiece.

There is a wonderful sequence. I haven’t seen the film for a quarter-century, but I remember it very well; that tells you something. Oh, it is not, as you might think, the party scene where everything is made of sugar. That is certainly amazing, but it goes on for a bit too long, remains very repetitive (as often with DeMille) and ends up being very predictable.

The real bravura sequence is the Swiss episode (shot, of course, on a Californian glacier) in the middle of the film. We arrive there from America, without any transition whatsoever: Flora, whom we haven’t practically seen so far, has just married a Spanish marquis. While he is out climbing a mountain, Flora cheats on him with a lover. But suddenly she hears his heavy footsteps on the stairs. He has come back early… Heavens! What to do? The husband enters the bedroom. We expect the worst. But we see our two lovebirds talking like respectable middle-class folks with no ulterior motive: they have had the time to put everything back in place… The next day, the husband, who has eventually realized, provokes his rival on the edge of a crevasse as they are competing to pluck a beautiful flower that Flora was asking for. And they fall one after the other into the abyss. A scene reminiscent of the mountaineering interlude of the first Squaw Man. We learn that the Marquis was without a penny, and Flora returns home ruined, in a few seconds of film. So the emotion arises from the bewildering accumulation of dramatic twists—no less than six—in a very short time.

There is an echo of this scene in Richard Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.