The first Pierre Chenal I’ve seen, apart from his little documentaries in the Gaumont Pathe Archive (always recognizable as his because of the superior compositions), is LA FOIRE AUX CHIMERES (THE FAIR OF ILLUSIONS).
Quite a loopy piece of work — Erich Von Stroheim stars as a disfigured war vet whose job is printing money. He prides himself that the banknotes he supervises are impossible to forge. He falls in love with a blind knife-thrower’s assistant and tries to treat her like a queen — stretched beyond his financial resources, he starts printing his own money. The description of this called it a “fantasy”, which is about right, even though there’s no overt magic or supernatural element. The whole melodrama is pitched so far outwith the acceptable bounds of naturalism, we just have to accept it as a fairy tale.
Some say Chenal basically invented poetic realism, but this movie is something else — although it’s nominally set in our “real” world, it behaves like a fairy tale, with a few gangster movie moments thrown in. The plot gets into a particular fankle when the heroine has her eyes fixed in a miracle operation. Warned against showing any sign of pity towards Erich, she pretends that the operation is a failure — how she expects to pull off this deception ad infinitum is beyond any rational analysis. Never mind.
It’s all gorgeous and dancing on the precipice of absurdity. Erich is rather magnificent — his slightly leaden French adds vulnerability, and he seems like a real human being, which is a little unusual for him. His final decline has the operatic pathos of a Ray Harryhausen monster, and there can be no higher praise than that.
Based on the tiny bit I’ve seen, Chenal should probably be the next Old Wave director to get some kind of English-language-compatible DVD treatment, either after we’ve done right by Duvivier, or even before, if the Duvivier estate’s legal dispute continues to be intractable.