Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Carmen (Feyder 1926)

Carmen. FR 1926. PC: Films Albatros. P: Alexandre Kaminka. D: Jacques Feyder; asst: Marcel Silver, Charles Barrois; SC: Jacques Feyder, - based on the tale by Prosper Mérimée (1847); DP: Maurice Desfassiaux, Paul Parguel, Roger Forster; ED: Jacques Feyder, Henriette Caire; AD: Lazare Meerson; COST: Vassili Choukaeff (executed by Maison Édouard Souplet), Jeanne Lanvin (Raquel Meller’s costumes); make-up: Nicolas Maltzeff; filmed: Sevilla, Córdoba, Ronda, Bayonne, Nice, Studio des Réservoirs (Joinville), Studio Montreuil; CAST: Raquel Meller (Carmen), Louis Lerch (Don José), Gaston Modot (García, "the one-eyed"), Victor Vina (Le Dancaïre), Charles Barrois (Lillas Pastia), Andrée Canti (mother of Don José), Jean Murat (Lieutenant), Guerrero de Xandoval (Lucas, the picador), Raymond Guérin-Catelain (Duc d’El Chorro), Georges Lampin, Luis Buñuel (smugglers); 3408 m /18 fps/ 164 min, col. (tinted); from: La Cinémathèque française. Restored in 2001. E-subtitles in English + Italian, grand piano: Touve Ratovondrahety. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 5 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "Carmen has inspired over a hundred screen manifestations of one kind or another, including a film of the title directed by Nikolai Larin for Ermoliev in Yalta in 1918, en route to emigration. Feyder’s version is of all the most authentic, in its fidelity both to Prosper Mérimée’s original narrative, and to his ethnographical curiosity.

Carmen was one of Albatros’ most elaborate productions and was one of the biggest national productions of the 1920s, at a time when French cinema was struggling to compete in prestige with Hollywood and Germany. François de la Bretèque (in an article on BIFI’s website) has traced the continuing excitement in the French press between Autumn 1925 and Spring 1926, as production progressed from locations in Spain and the Côte d’Azur to studio work at Montreuil and Joinville, and critics looked to Feyder for another production to emulate L’Atlantide.

Feyder’s scenario very closely follows Don José’s own account of his story and his fatal relation with the gypsy Carmen in the third chapter of Mérimée’s short novel. The principal interpolations suggested by Bizet’s opera are the use of Lillas Pastia’s tavern for two extended scenes (the place is only mentioned in passing in the novella) and Carmen’s reading of her fortune. Feyder’s own principal contribution to the story is in developing the other two men in Carmen’s life. Her gypsy "rom" is, again, only a line in the novella, but Feyder gives a central place to the dominant and sinister character of Le Borgne, magnificently interpreted by Gaston Modot, with an extraordinary scene where he writhes, half-naked and beast-like, in the gaol cell. Mérimée’s Lucas the picador, played by the ascetic-featured real-life toreador Guerrero de Xandoval, is also a fully-rounded character, who is able to perform the bullfight in the Ronda arena without doubles. His varied professional skills permit Feyder – passionate in his search for period and ethnographic authenticity – to stage the fight according to the rules of the 1830s, the period recorded by Goya as well as by Mérimée, when the toreador performed on horseback. Journalists reported that these scenes took a week to shoot, with two bulls a day.

Carmen is a role for divas (Geraldine Farrar, Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Dolores del Rio, Viviane Romance, Rita Hayworth): Feyder is quoted as saying ironically that he was "not asked to make a film of Carmen with Raquel Meller, but to do something with Raquel Meller using Carmen". Director and star did not see eye to eye on the character. In Feyder’s words, "This talented Spanish artist was perfect as Carmen but ... because of her moral principles she wanted to play only pure and kind-hearted women. I was worried because I saw the passionate and capricious gypsy becoming more and more like a dull and virtuous young girl whose love for Don José was strictly platonic. One morning, while filming in the Plaza de Toros of Ronda, Miss Meller and I began an argument about a scene where she did not want to be kissed. It was a very hot day, six hundred extras were waiting and sweating under the burning sun, so I lost my patience and yelled that it was impossible to change the story written by Mérimée. She raised her arms in a tinkling of bracelets and screamed: ‘I don’t care a fig for this M. Mérimée! Where does he live, this Mérimée? I’ll give him a call!’"

In the long run Feyder’s fears seem unfounded. Meller has irresistible erotic charisma, and the conflict between her misdemeanours and dangerous associations and her beaming good nature is potent. She is skilfully complemented by the eager, innocent, and glamorous Don José of the 23-year-old Louis Lerch (1902-1985). Apart from his appearances with Meller in Carmen and Nocturne, the Austrian-born actor’s career was confined to Germany, where his later films included Richard Eichberg’s Rutschbahn (1928), shown at the Giornate in 2007. He retired from acting at 29, and thereafter worked as a production manager. Their scenes together provide models of silent screen acting. They converse, totally comprensibly to the viewer, with practically no need of intertitles: in fact Carmen has overall astonishingly few intertitles for a film of its length and narrative complexity.
Carmen was above all the revelation of its 29-year-old designer Lazare Meerson (1897-1938), who in the next decade was to prove a fundamental influence on the French cinema of "poetic realism". Born in Warsaw, he emigrated to Germany in 1917 and enrolled in art school in Berlin two years later. Although he designed for the stage, there is no evidence for claims that he worked in the German studios before arriving in Paris in 1923 and joining Albatros the following year. On his first films he assisted Bilinsky, Kéfer, and (on the incomparable Feu Mathias Pascal) Cavalcanti, and in 1926 succeeded the departing Lochakoff as Albatros’ head scenic designer. His approach to Carmen was unprecedented for those years. In pre-production he scouted the Spanish locations with Feyder, making volumes of meticulous drawings (many now conserved in the Cinémathèque Française) of architecture and local detail, which served in matching the studio sets to the location filming. The masterpiece of reconstruction (as of camerawork) was the 80-metre set of Seville’s winding Calle Sierpes (Street of the Serpent), which serves for the 3-minute sequence of Carmen’s arrest and escape.

Among the members of the Spanish colony in Paris recruited as extras was the young Luis Buñuel, who is the smuggler who approaches Carmen’s table in the first scene in Lillas Pastia’s tavern (and can be seen in a few subsequent shots). It is nice to suppose that Carmen was the first encounter of the future director of L’Age d’Or with its star, Gaston Modot. It was a demonstration of the film’s independence from Bizet that for the premiere an orchestral score was commissioned from the young Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter(-Escriche) (1905-1989), a dedicated disciple of Manuel de Falla.
The film was restored in 2001, using an original nitrate negative acquired in 1958 by the Cinémathèque Française, and missing titles supplied in 1985 from a safety print. The tinting was replaced thanks to a tinted nitrate print deposited with the Cinémathèque Française in 1950 by the producer Alexandre Kamenka. – David Robinson."

Having seen this film and print and blogged about them not too long ago I revisited it for some 40 minutes to find out about the music of Ernesto Halffter, interpreted by Touve Ratovondrahety on the grand piano, but one could not make much sense of the original music from this performance. The print still looks great, and Raquel Meller is one of the best Carmens.

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