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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 7

 I had posted a review for this film a few days ago, and I know many of you read it and such, but blogger erased it during it's troubles and as I had not backed-up, all that was restored to me was a basic draft of the post. I'll try my best to rewrite it, but I don't want to spend to much time on it as I have already reviewed this before and it's starting to get a bit repetitive, plus I just want to get in with the marathon.

Aha! We come to a film by often overlooked French Director Abel Gance. I have championed this directors work ever since I saw his amazing Silent Epic Napoleon.
That film played a large part in my ever growing admiration for Silent films. In fact if I hadn't of watched that film I probably wouldn't be doing this marathon.

So naturally I was looking forward to this film a lot. I was expecting it to be one of the highlights of the marathon, as some of the things Gance achieves on film were greatly ahead of their time and marvellous to watch.
It is also the longest film of the marathon, at near on 5 hours, but when a film is great, then I usually have no problem with the length.

While watching this film, I thought to myself "these kind of epic tragedies are really rarely made these days, and when they are they often disappoint". Sure there are tragedies made, but often they are disguised as black comedies, or are ruined by a happy ending or even worse, they are overly disturbing and wallow in their dark and depressing atmosphere.
None of them are like this film, a straightforward tragedy told on an large scale that is simply beautiful in many ways.

The director himself, shown in the opening credits as he often did.
As I've said before, Gance is one of my inspirations. He achieved things with his camera that others weren't even dreaming of at the time. I won't go into all the details of why he is such an amazing director, but I will mention that he practically invented the rapid cuts, hand-held camera and Panavision style wide screen filming (several years before it was officially "invented") furthermore, La Roue is the first film in history to end with a freeze frame. So that should give you an idea of his influence as a director.

La Roue is a tragedy set on a epic scale, yet it is actually quite an "intimate" affair. By this I mean that while it is filmed in such stunning locations as The Mont Blanc itself, it still remains a family story which a cast made up of only a handful of actors.
One of these actors is Severin Mars, who plays Sisif. I had previously seen him in Gance's J'Accuse, and had been rather impressed by his heartfelt performance. Sadly he died before La Roue was released, and quickly became forgotten. Yet here he gives a wonderfully expressive performance that fully belongs in Silent Film.

The cinematography in this film is extraordinary. I won't go into detail, as I've done in my previous review. But here are some screenshots.

 Gance used lighting techniques that were revolutionary for their time.
His use of superimposition was also quite remarkable, even if it's a relatively simple technique he manages to create some extraordinary images using it.

Observe for example this image to the left, of Sisif's hand being examined by a soothsayer type, he sees images from Sisif's life displayed on his palm.

 As much of the film revolves around obsession in a way, unhealthy obsession in fact. Gance's ghostly superimposed images fit in very nicely. Take for example these scene in the cabin in the Alps, Elie is haunted by the face of Norma, who refuses to disappear despite Elie efforts to dispel the apparition.

Yet despite all these positive aspects, I did not like the film as much as I had expected beforehand for a few reasons.
One of the them was the length, I have no problem watching a film that last several hours as long as I'm really gripped by the content, here though that wasn't exactly the case. I wasn't exactly bored as Gance's camerawork and the tragic story were enough to keep me interested, but I felt that many scenes went on for longer than necessary and that on the whole the film could have had about an hour to an hour and a half cut off and would have been a more entertaining if perhaps less impressive watch.
Another reason was the rather strange themes the film touches on. I won't elaborate on them much, but it can be quite disturbing to some as the thoughts expressed are at times semi-incestuous. Nothing particularly shocking happens, but there is an underlying current of improper material.I can imagine that it must have been quite shocking at the time.

La Roue literally means The Wheel. This wheel shows up in many shapes and forms throughout the film, either as the wheel of a steam engine, or as a circle of people dancing. I think it symbolises the continuous nature of life, which despite all the tragedies, just keeps on going.
I can also imagine that making this film was Gance's way of dealing with his wife's early death. She died at the age of 27 and Gance immediately commenced work on this film afterwards, so when watchign it I think it is best to keep this in mind as the state of mind of the director affects the film considerably in my opinion.  

All in all La Roue is the long and detailed tale of a love story than seems drawn straight from Classical literature yet through Gance's many personal touches it takes on a form of it's own, which makes it hard to pin down in any one genre.
Despite it flaws, it's still a great achievement in Cinema. I can't say I particularly enjoyed watching it, but I'm glad I did.
For those interested in Gance's work, I would recommend J'Accuse or Napoleon first as they are both better films in my opinion.

As always comments are appreciated and will be answered. 

Coming Up Next is Murnau's innovative The Last Laugh!

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