Wednesday, June 29, 2016

La Maternelle / Children of Montmartre

La Maternelle: Rose (Madeleine Renaud) with babies.

Äidin kädet / Moders händer. FR 1933. D: Marie Epstein, Jean Benoît-Levy. Based on: dal romanzo omonimo (1904) di Léon Frapié. SC: Marie Epstein, Jean Benoît-Levy. Cinematography: Georges Asselin. AD: Robert Bassi. M: Édouard Flament, Alice Verlay. C: Madeleine Renaud (Rose), Paulette Élambert (Marie Coeuret), Henri Debain (il dottor Libois), Mady Berry (Madame Paulin), Edmond van Daële (papà Paulin), Alice Tissot (la direttrice), Sylvette Fillacier (Madame Coeuret), Aman Maistre (Monsieur Antoine). P: Jean Benoît- Levy. 35 mm. 98’. B&w.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna
    Print from CNC AFF
    Marie Epstein, Cinéaste
    Original version with simultaneous translation through headphones
    Introduce Mariann Lewinsky and XXX (a Frenchwoman speaking in Italian)
    Cinema Lumiere – Sala Officinema/Mastroianni, 29 June 2016

Chiara Tognolotti (Bologna catalog): "La Maternelle, co-directed with Jean Benoît-Levy, is the best-known film of Marie Epstein’s directorial work. The movie explores the relationship between a young woman, Rose (Madeleine Renaud), and a little girl, Marie, a child at the kindergarten where Rose works who is emotionally scarred by her mother’s abandonment. Like the films she worked on with her brother Jean, Marie Epstein plays with the themes of femininity and motherhood in contrast with erotic passion; even if she was not a declared feminist, her work is marked by a special attention and sensitivity to female characters and, as a result, by a feminine point of view not common in French film at that time."

"There are two core aspects of the film. The first is the focus on a desire other than an erotic desire, which normally characterize narrative film storylines: the explosion of a child’s and feminine point of view within the picture constituted something new in comparison to the tenets of classic narrative film and an attempt to break away from the leading themes of mainstream European cinema of the 1930s. The second is the embryonic ‘architecture of vision’ established by Marie Epstein. Embryonic because posing vision as an explicit issue is missing in her work. There is, however, an emergence of the moment of vision as such, which can be seen in the documentary-pedagogical tendencies of much French cinema of the 1930s and comes to light, on the one hand, with the use of stylistic devices developed by the première garde and, on the other, is shaped by the original forms of representing a unique subjectivity and desire. In this sense, we can recognize in La Maternelle a pervasive attention to the movement of looking and the construction of the ‘vision that makes the film’, which undoubtedly is not an insignificant part of reflection on cinematic vision."
– Chiara Tognolotti

AA:  Like every cinephile I follow checklists of recommended films because it is not possible to see everything. A very special checklist is the one by Henry Miller in his essay "The Golden Age" in 1939. His list is a mix of well-known classics and little known titles, all worth checking out. A recent discovery for me has been Three Comrades and an Invention, a Soviet comedy screened last year in Pordenone. Miller was right about it. I still need to see, among others, Of What Are the Young Films Dreaming (À quoi rêvent les jeunes films, directed by Henri Chomette and Man Ray). Not to speak of The Tower of Lies, the Lon Chaney - Norma Shearer - Selma Lagerlöf film he mentions, but alas! a film believed lost. Today I saw for the first time La Maternelle, a deeply moving and unique film that has really been worth waiting for.

The film is based on a distinguished novel by Léon Frapié which I have not read but the film adaptation by Marie Epstein and Jean Benoît-Levy is evidently one of the happy instances of a fine novel being adapted into a successful film. Frapié's novel belongs to the realistic and even naturalistic tradition of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. Sources say that it is based on the true experiences of the author's wife Léonie Mouillefert. The novel takes place in Ménilmontant; the film is set in Montmartre. (Or is it?)

La Maternelle is the story of Rose, a young academic woman from a well-off family. When the family goes bankrupt and the father dies Rose's fiancé vanishes. Facing hunger Rose seeks work but is considered over-educated. Thus she decides to hide her degrees and seek a humble servant's position at a Maternelle (a preparatory district school and day care center for children from two to six) in the poor Ménilmontant district. Rose is the one who is closest to the children, a surrogate mother to the children who are neglected at home.

The group scenes with children are excellent and convincing. Even more extraordinary are single major performances, especially by the uncredited performer of Marie, the daughter of a prostitute. The scene of Marie observing her mother at work at a saloon is heart-breaking. At school Marie is traumatized. Rose takes special care of Marie but is disciplined by the management for that. By accidentally displaying her expertise in a test arranged by a visiting researcher Marie is exposed and threatened by a move but the children want her to stay. Marie's mother has disappeared, and Marie has seen the man who took her away.

Rose and the school doctor Libois are attracted to each other, and there is a proposal: "voulez-vous... ?" Their moment of "privacy" is observed by everybody. Marie is jealous, and her feeling of solitude and marginalization is powerfully conveyed. She attempts suicide by drowning, and is rescued by a sailor. Rose and the doctor take steps to adopt Marie. Her smile reappears.

La Maternelle follows the structure of the classical narrative but its realistic and even frankly naturalistic texture of life is a world apart from the sanitized approach of mainstream cinema.

The narrative is about forming a couple and a family, but the romantic aspect of the couple is secondary. The primary themes are about childhood, helping neglected ones, and professionalism. The main love affair is between Rose and the children at la Maternelle.

The camerawork by Georges Asselin is dynamic with close-ups of the main characters and group views of the children of the Maternelle, expressively conveyed by forward and backward tracking shots.

This is an early French sound film, and sometimes it is difficult to make sense of the dialogue. La Maternelle is one of those films in which people are constantly singing which for me is believably realistic.

The visual quality of the print is good.

No comments: