Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Monte-Cristo I–II (Henri Fescourt 1929) (2006 reconstruction, Lenny Borger, ZZ Productions, ARTE)

Evento del mercoledi / Midweek Event
Monte-Cristo I–II. FR 1929. PC: Films Louis Nalpas. D+SC: Henri Fescourt – based on the novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1845) by Alexandre Dumas père. 5230 m /21 fps/ 218 min
   Lenny Borger: "Monte-Cristo is being shown at Pordenone in the 2006 reconstruction produced by ZZ Productions for the Franco–German culture channel ARTE. This is based on an incomplete black & white French distribution print preserved by Gosfilmofond of Russia and a nitrate Dutch distribution print salvaged by the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek. This version corresponds to the 15 reel prints shown in Paris in October 1929. A few shots were blown up from a 17.5mm print in a private collection."
    "An earlier restoration of Monte-Cristo was done by the Czech film archive in 1993 and was shown at Pordenone that year. It was based on two incomplete nitrate prints from the film’s Czech release. Despite the excellent reconstitution, that version is missing some key episodes, notably that of Mr. Morrel’s thwarted suicide.
" – Lenny Borger
    2K DCP from ZZ Productions (Paris).
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: (Ri)scopriamo / (Re)Discovering Henri Fescourt.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, alla batteria: Frank Bockius, 22 Oct 2016

AA: For me the story of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo is special.

I was already seven years old when I started to read, but I then jumped right into great novels. Les trois mousquetaires and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père were the first books I read. They also inspired me to learn to write. The names of the heroes I copied from these books were the first words I wrote.

From Les trois mousquetaires I learned the ideal of "one for all – all for one". And also: "vive l'amour, vive la compagnie"!

To learn from Le Comte de Monte-Cristo is more complex. It is about the revenge mentality but also, and more importantly, about transcending that mentality. How to deal with injustice? The only solid answer is to fight for justice. Revenge would mean succumbing to the level of injustice. Instead, we should think like Michelle Obama: "When they go low, we go high".

From the 1910s to the 1930s Frenchmen had a blessed touch in the genre of the epic film. Albert Capellani, Abel Gance, Henri Fescourt, and Raymond Bernard directed several epics of lasting value. Capellani, Fescourt, and Bernard each even directed multi-volume adaptations of Les Misérables, all great. Pordenone's midweek event last year was Fescourt's version of Les Misérables which I skipped since I know pretty well the previous restoration, equal in length, which we screened in our tribute series to the grand restorations of La Cinémathèque française in the 1980s. I studied it thoroughly at the time. Those films were the ones where I learned the name of Lenny Borger who was covering them for Variety.

Fescourt's Monte-Cristo is a much less well known epic, a true discovery, one of the late great silents which never received the attention they deserved since they became victims of the transition to sound film. I have seen other adaptations of Dumas's story, but none of them have been particularly memorable.

Fescourt's version is the exception. It is a masterpiece. Fescourt understands the fairy-tale aspect of the narrative and even emphasizes it with allusions to One Thousand and One Nights. On the other hand Fescourt firmly grounds the tale in physical reality. It has been very important for him to shoot on location, and, as in Les Misérables, there is a special poetic approach to the real historical landscape. The physical becomes metaphysical as the landscape is seen as soulscape. In the 1920s modernization was rapid, but it was still possible to discover landscapes in France that looked like they had done a hundred years ago. One might say that Fescourt's Les Misérables and Monte-Cristo have documentary value in their revelation of the landscapes that were about to disappear.

Even more: they share the special quality to which Andrei Tarkovsky dedicated his book Sculpting in Time (Запечатлённое время / Le Temps scellé / Die versiegelte Zeit / Scolpire il tempo / Vangittu aika / Den förseglade tiden). Tarkovsky found such locations, buildings, objects, and landscapes especially cinematic in which time had imprinted itself. In his Les Misérables and Monte-Cristo Fescourt displayed an innate instinct for such Tarkovskyan qualities.

Other strengths of Fescourt's Monte-Cristo include a joy of storytelling, a rousing sense of adventure, a flair of cinematography in the high spirit of late silent cinema, a mastery of flashbacks and memory flash montages, and a powerful screenplay condensing a complex story into less than four hours.

The ensemble of actors is wonderful, and the German colleagues (Lil Dagover as Mércèdes and Bernhard Goetzke as Abbé Faria) fit in very well. (As did Werner Krauss and Valeska Gert in Jean Renoir's Nana which we saw yesterday). Because the film is otherwise so great it can even endure the fact that there might be reservations about Jean Angelo's interpretation as Edmond Dantès. Angelo was almost 55 years old, and he is wearing pancake makeup and lipstick (as he did in Nana yesterday). There is a certain discrepancy in the heavily made-up hero appearing in ruggedly authentic landscapes.

By the way Les Misérables and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo tell the same basic story. The hero is unfairly condemned to a long and harsh prison sentence. The rest of his life he keeps changing names, disguises and identities while fighting for justice.

Thanks to Lenny Borger for "the full Monte". I look forward to more great discoveries from Mr. Borger who has done much to bring back to general awareness forgotten treasures of the French cinema.

A heroic and engrossing music interpretation by Donald Sosin at the grand piano, with Frank Bockius alla batteria.

A splendid work of reconstruction. This DCP has a digital look of ten years ago.

The last words of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo belong to the most memorable in world literature, but they are not included in Fescourt's film. Walking out of the screening with distinguished Hungarian friends we found them topical in the age of Brexit, Trump, and Orbán. "All human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope'".

— Mon ami, dit Valentine, le comte ne vient-il pas de nous dire que l’humaine sagesse était tout entière dans ces deux mots:

— Attendre et espérer!

1 comment:

Rob said...

Hi Antti
I had the pleasure of seeing Fescourt's Les Miserables at the Barbican Theatre yesterday. It was a digital copy of the recent restoration. 397 minutes. I really enjoyed it. The musical score by Neil Brand was exceptional and made me realise how important music to silent cinema. The film just wouldn't be the same without it. It is certainly one of the best adaptations of the novel even though it is still missing some scenes from the book.

I was a little bit less impress with Monte Cristo. It is a good movie but I don't like that they left out the character of Danglars and merged him with Caderousse (all the French movie versions that followed this did the same). Also missing is the serial poisoner subplot, which was crucial to Dantes realising that his quest for revenge had gone too far.

You are right that Les Miserables and Monte Cristo have a similar plot but both owe their existence to another classic French melodrama: The Mysteries of Paris (Mysteres de Paris) by Eugene Sue. I believe there have been quite a few film versions of this too.