Saturday, October 10, 2009

J'accuse! (1919)

FR 1919. PC: Pathé. D, SC: Abel Gance; asst: Blaise Cendrars; DP: L. H. Burel, Maurice Forster, Marc Bujard; ED: Marguerite Beaugé; CAST: Romuald Joubé (Jean Diaz), Séverin-Mars (François Laurin), Marise [Maryse] Dauvray (Edith Laurin), Maxime Desjardins (Maria Lazare), Mme Mancini (Mother Diaz), Angèle Guys (Angèle), Angèle Decori (Marie, the servant), Nader (the army cook); orig: 5250 m (4 pts.); 3550 m /16 fps/ [192 min announced] actual duration 181 min
Original tinting and toning reproduced using the Desmet method); from: NFM. Digital restoration (2K) (c) 2009 NFM / Lobster Films. E-subtitles in English + Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 9 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "I first viewed Abel Gance’s J’accuse 30 years ago in a public screening, without musical accompaniment, at the Cinémathèque française. The experience was by turns astonishing, baffling, and dismaying. Even if slightly reduced in length from the original version released in roughly equal parts over 4 consecutive weeks in March-April 1919, that surviving print offered clear evidence of Gance’s ambition at a time when the French film industry, like much of the country, was struggling to recover from the Great War. Yet the film also seemed strikingly uneven, marred by “faults” later critics and historians attributed to the filmmaker. Literary pretension, particularly in Jean Diaz’s poetry, illustrated by a rather simplistic “visual poem.” Highly emotive acting, especially from Séverin-Mars as François and Romauld Joubé as Jean. An overly schematic conflict that pits the brutish François against the gentle, caring Jean, who both love Edith (Maryse Dauvray), inexplicably the wife of François. Overt symbolism in the many shots of superimposed dancing skeletons, a Gallic warrior patriotically inciting the French troops at Verdun, and a “martyred” Edith, arms widespread before a “cross” of windows. And excessive length. Yet, 90 years later, one can still admire J’Accuse through the work of recovery and re-contextualization.
Much has been made of Gance’s stylistic choices, his “avant-garde” flourishes within a commercial fiction film: e.g., his experiment with relatively rapid montage in the climactic battle scenes; his camera tracks and dollies accentuating the desperate movements of Jean, Edith, and the French soldiers who rise from the dead and march to confront the villagers of Provence; his use of huge shadows on a barn wall to represent Edith’s abduction and later rape by Germans; his split-screen effects (through double exposure), as when the dead soldiers seem to march in parallel above the survivors parading through the Arc de Triomphe. Yet especially striking now is what Léon Moussinac recalled in his 1921 review of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms: the virtuosity of the film’s lighting. In Mater Dolorosa (1917), Gance and his cameraman, L. H. Burel, already had made extensive use of side-lighting and low-key spot-lighting on faces and bodies against dark backgrounds and back-lighting that turned figures into silhouettes. In J’accuse, such lighting not only creates unusually deep interior spaces but also gives a strongly three-dimensional cast to characters, heightening their emotional expressions in close shots: e.g., scenes pairing or triangulating the characters of Jean, Edith, his mother, and her father. It also distinguishes village night scenes and produces stark silhouette effects in certain battle scenes. Equally striking is the motif of recurring close shots of hands, marking particularly poignant moments. The village men’s departure for war is conveyed in a slow montage of hands – packing a bag, clasped together, raising a last cup of wine, praying before candles, an old man’s grasping a child’s. The motif returns at midpoint for another departure, when François blesses Jean and Edith’s clasped hands, and again after the climactic battle when (with the two men hospitalized side by side) the dying François reaches out to grasp Jean’s hand, a final gesture of reconciliation.
Perhaps most important, from our position nearly a decade into another century marked by continued large-scale violence and suffering, is to re-see J’accuse in the context of the Great War’s devastation, imagining the experience of audiences in France and Britain, where it was immensely successful. The war’s later years provoked responses ranging from despair and outrage to renewed dreams and revolutionary fervor. Gance personally felt what many others must have at the time, a desperate rage at the wasteful loss of so many men, accentuated by the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic. Although in 1919 J’accuse may have seemed to promote pacifism, it hardly shares the utopian fantasies of a film like Nordisk’s Himmelskibet (1918), shown at the 2006 Giornate. Instead, intense mood swings between despair and outrage mark Gance’s film. Especially grim are the many shots in Part III of rain-filled trenches, fatigued freezing soldiers, muddy corpses, and bodies piled inside a ruined cathedral. Yet no less gripping are those of personal suffering in the domestic scenes so prominent in Part II: Jean’s return home, after being discharged for (strongly implied) shell shock, to find his mother on her deathbed (with a menorah guttering out); Edith’s return soon after in the rain to Jean’s home, where she hesitantly reveals to him and her father the child of her own violation, Angèle. The film’s outrage is perhaps most explicit in Jean’s repeated cries of “J’accuse,” echoing Émile Zola’s famous polemic 20 years before in the Dreyfus Affair. Initially aimed, however vaguely, at the blind patriotism responsible for so much devastation, his outcry eventually becomes localized, accusing his own villagers who have profited from the war, and finally evades any sense of historical causality and responsibility to blame the sun, even nature itself. The blurred Christ figure concluding the film, consequently, seems less a redeemer than an impotent observer or even a final emblem of the Great War’s human suffering. – Richard Abel".

I have seen this film twice before, and the last time was in Bologna in 2005 in a version of 2989 m /20 fps/ 131 min, with the intertitles flashing by too fast. The first time I found the film somewhat embarrassing, the second time much more impressive. - The third time impressed less, partly due to festival fatigue. But I find also that there is not enough substance in the film for three hours. Two hours works better for its central concepts (for example the silence of art: there is a connection with Ingmar Bergman's Persona). - 16 fps seemed fine for the speed, though. - The restoration is magnificent, state-of-the-art, and although it's from a digital intermediate (2K) I don't find it annoying. The sources are difficult, but especially the sequences that emulate toning are often ravishing. - The cinematography is masterful. - The film is terrible, naive, and a work of a genius. - There are embarrassing lapses of taste and over-the-top simplifications. In the next moment there are genuinely moving passages, such as "les canons sont silencieux", "the first French lesson: J'accuse", "they knew their luck would turn", the children's war games, "lettres d'un soldat". - Stephen Horne did a magnificent job at the piano, and he had strong ideas for instance when Jean goes mad. - Frankly, I was too tired to appreciate fairly this version of J'accuse.

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