Monday, October 04, 2010

Le Miracle des loups

(Il miracolo dei lupi / Miracle of the Wolves) (Société des Films Historiques, FR 1924) D: Raymond Bernard; SC: André-Paul Antoine, dal romanzo di/from the novel by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel; DP: Maurice Forster, Marc Bujard, Robert Batton; AD: Robert Mallet-Stevens (designs), Jean Perrier; cost: Job [Jacques Onfroy de Bréville]; wolf wrangler: Louis MacDonald; cast: Vanni Marcoux (Charles le Téméraire [Charles the Bold]), Charles Dullin (Louis XI), Romuald Joubé (Robert Cottereau), Yvonne Sergyl (Jeanne Fouquet), Gaston Modot (Comte du Lau), Fernand Mailly (Philippe Le Bon [Philip the Good]), Ernest Maupain (Fouquet), Armand Bernard (Bische), Philippe Hériat (Tristan l’Ermite); filmed: 1.11.1923-30.9.1924 (Studio Levinsky-Joinville; Carcassonne; Grenoble; Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse; Château de Pierrefonds); 35mm, 2770 m., 134' (18 fps), from: Archives françaises du film (CNC), Bois d’Arcy. Sous-titres français. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in English and Italian, 4 Oct 2010

Original score: Henri Rabaud, piano transcription: Noël Gallon, performed by: Touve R. Ratovondrahety.

Richard Abel in the GCM Catalogue: "Scholars and cinéphiles of 1920s French cinema have long hoped that Le Miracle des loups could be lured out of the archive into the light for large public audiences. It happened to 1927 historical epics like Napoléon, Casanova, and Le Joueur d’échecs, so why not Le Miracle des loups, one of the biggest, most prestigious, most popular of the French genre? Fortunately, that “miraculous” moment is here, thanks to a long and complex restoration by Gaumont and the Archives françaises du film (CNC).
After filming half a dozen comedies and bourgeois melodramas with his famous dramatist father Tristan Bernard, the director of Le Miracle des loups, Raymond Bernard, who only two years earlier had turned down an offer to direct Pathé’s serial adaptation of The Three Musketeers) confessed to being awed by the film’s scope and budget, the first of several projects produced by the Société des Films Historiques (with Russian émigré financing), whose aim was “to render visually the whole history of France.” Le Miracle des loups became the first film to premiere at the Paris Opéra, on 13 November 1924, followed by an exclusive three-month run at the nearby Salle Marivaux and widespread distribution across Europe. (It even reached American shores.) Cinéa-Ciné-pour-tous readers capped its success by voting it the best film of 1925 (ahead of American imports like Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad and DeMille’s The Ten Commandments).
The subject: the historic decade of conflict, 1461-1472, between Louis XI (an unusually passive, meditative Charles Dullin, here seen in the final fadeout contemplating a chessboard, as if
anticipating his next film, The Chess Player) and his brother, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who lusts after Louis’ crown. This conflict has a parallel in the rivalry of Charles’ noblemen, Robert Cottereau (stage and screen romantic lead Romuald Joubé) and Count du Lau (Gaston Modot at his most villainous), both in love with Jeanne Fouquet, who becomes indebted to Louis. While du Lau remains loyal to Charles (to a fault), Robert’s love for Jeanne leads him to save Louis (and later his beloved) from death. Ultimately, according to legend, the conflict is resolved first by “the miracle of the wolves” and then by Jeanne’s heroic action rallying the peasants and townspeople of Beauvais to resist a siege by Charles’ army. Here, dubbed “Jeanne Hachette” (“Joan of the Hatchet”) by her fellow citizens, she bears a striking resemblance to Jeanne d’Arc, incarnating the spirit of France at a time when a sense of French national unity was being forged.
As a lavish historical epic, Le Miracle des loups showcases spectacle yet integrates it effectively into the narrative. The initial battle of Montlhéry anticipates later films from Gance’s Napoléon to Welles’ Chimes at Midnight: a quick succession of graphic shots catalogue a dozen different ways that armored horsemen and foot soldiers are wounded or killed. Although slightly extended, the wolves’ attack has similar realistic detail: in close shots, the wolves tear at du Lau and his men’s bloody necks and faces (one familiar visage is that of stuntman Albert Préjean, still a few years away from chasing straw hats for René Clair). A set-piece of spectacular action, the climactic siege of Beauvais was shot on location around the fortified town of Carcassonne and staged on a scale rivaling the Babylon sequence in Griffith’s Intolerance. Clearly, vividly orchestrated, the sequence deploys an unusual variety of shots and smoothly shifts narrative focus, from defenders on the town walls watching massed attackers swarming over a small hill to close shots of a cannon firing or a woman protecting her child. Eliminating unnecessary details, set designers Robert Mallet-Stevens and Jean Perrier (at the start of a superb two-decade collaboration with the director) create in the Beauvais castle keep a magical emblem near the end: a long shot of two armored knights poised over the wounded Jeanne in a high-ceilinged, shimmering, debris-filled hall.
Perhaps the most intriguing sequence comes during an elaborately staged medieval mystery play, “The Game of Adam” (reminiscent of a Méliès féerie). As the stage serpent seduces Eve and Adam with the apple, in a side room Charles sends du Lau outside to bring Jeanne to him. Nimble, cavorting devils push the couple to the huge dragon mouth of hell on stage, and Charles orders Jeanne to go with du Lau. As she struggles to resist, the film cuts to the royal crown falling to the floor, suddenly followed by Louis (he too is watching the play) as he enters the side room. After an economical, dramatically charged montage of glances, Louis seizes the crown before his brother can reach it. One of his retinue pulls back a curtain, and the crowd rises to face this side stage drama, displacing the mystery play. Pointedly, Louis taunts his antagonist: “Crowns are like women.” As Charles kneels obediently before him, Louis mischievously raises the crown to his brother’s head, only to grab it back. Thoughtfully, he rubs one of its jewels and laughs: “It’s cracked!” Charles stares, and everyone knows war is at hand. It’s a marvelous moment, worthy of the Shakespeare it echoes –´Richard II (Act IV, Scene 1) – and suggests just how effectively Le Miracle des loups works, nearly a century after its premiere. – RICHARD ABEL."

A beautiful restoration from the AFF / CNC with the colour solutions in good taste. (Thomas Christensen commented that this restoration is "too digital", in the meaning of "too good", but I have no complaints.) I love Raymond Bernard and Henri Rabaud's next collaboration Le Joueur d'échecs. Le Miracle des loups which I now saw for the first time does not have the same irresistible drive and magnificent sweep of history, but it is also an impressive historical spectacle full of romance and not flinching from the gruesome reality of war. Le Miracle des loups may also be a film that is more exciting for Frenchmen than for foreigners not so well educated in French history. I'm very grateful for the chance to see this gorgeous film and look forward to experience the full orchestral arrangement of Henri Rabaud's score. One of the themes is the medieval song L'Amour de moy, its lyrics beyond the jump break:

L'AMOUR DE MOY (trad.)

L'amour de moy s'y est enclose
Dedans un joli jardinet
Oí croit la rose et le muguet
Et aussi fait la passerose

Ce jardin est bel et plaisant
Il est garni de toutes fleurs
On y prend son ébattement
Autant la nuit comme le jour

Hélas! il n'est si douce chose
Que ce doux rossignolet
Qui chante au soir, au matinet
Quand il est las, il se repose

L'amour de moy s'y est enclose

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