The Monday Intertitle: Slow Feyder

Thanks to Shona Thomson of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, I got to write the programme notes for their closing film, VISAGES DE L’ENFANTS (FACES OF CHILDREN) by Jacques Feyder. If this seems like a bold choice for a closing gala, that’s because the festival has been gaining confidence each year, building on the trust it has established with its audience — the crowds turn up for things they might never have heard of, confident that if it’s been scheduled, it must be worthwhile. 

Here’s what I wrote ~

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-15h16m12s68

One pleasure of silent cinema can be submerging in an antique world of strange mannerisms, alien artifice and antique craft. That’s not to be underrated. But discovering an apparently ancient film that speaks clearly across the decades in completely modern tones is another, more startling pleasure.

Having learned his craft in the teens on scores of smaller pictures, Jacques Feyder graduated to epics, sophisticated dramas, swooning romances, and helped train the next generation of directors, several of whom worked as his assistants. During short spells in Hollywood he directed Garbo twice, making her first talkie, Anna Christie, and worked with Marlene Dietrich in the British production Knight Without Armour. A versatile chap, he was equally at home with exotic romances and gritty, down-to-earth dramas. What unites his work is the sheer photographic beauty he imparts to it, regardless of subject.

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-15h19m12s60

In the twenties, Feyder was at the pinnacle of the French industry. In 1923 he directed Crainquebille, a slice of working-class realism, and discovered a child actor of amazing intensity and maturity, Jean Forest. Realizing he had caught lightning in a bottle, Feyder immediately cast young Forest in another picture, Faces of Children, which he co-wrote with his wife, the great actress Francoise Rosay.

In a tiny, elevated Alpine town, a boy has lost his mother. Feyder films the funeral procession as a series of electrified details, onlookers and the slow advance of the coffin and the boy’s shell-shocked expression. At the cemetery, under a jutting, almost expressionist crucifix, the lad collapses in a paroxysm of angst. Feyder, editing his own film as was the custom, frenziedly cross-cuts a burst of subliminal images to suggest Jean’s overloaded emotions.

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-15h19m27s223

Throughout this extraordinary film, Feyder alternates sweeping vistas of Swiss scenery, in which figures can loom over valleys like gods, or vanish into landscapes where the skyline towers to the very top of the frame; and in a single breath he can take us into the mind of a character through a captured expression, a tightly focussed viewpoint, or a striking subjective effect. He had absorbed the innovations of the impressionist filmmakers who aspired to capture internal states using the cinema. This was the time when theorist-filmmakers like Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac and Jean and Marie Epstein were pioneering techniques which evoked the sensations of delirium, giddiness, inebriation and dream. Feyder, meanwhile, had his other eye on the spectacle afforded by the natural world and by the possibilities of his troupe of actors.

Jean Forest, with his watchful expression and dramatic, strikingly adult postures, is a true prodigy, a child of twelve with both a flair for the dramatic—he can fling himself into attitudes of angst with the bravura of Lon Chaney—but also with an inherent truthfulness and a believable solemnity. He’s joined by two equally impressive youngsters; little Pierette Houyez plays his sister, too young to register their mother’s death, and Arlette Peyran is the new stepsister, upon whom all of Jean’s anxieties and resentment fall. Of the three, you may find Houyez the most appealing of all, since she never seems to be acting at, just behaving. She’s certainly not acting when her stepmother aggressively scrubs her dirty face. Feyder could be a little ruthless with his stars, I fear.

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-15h19m34s51

Kino’s Feyder box set is well worth buying, but I regret the faux-twenties English intertitles they’ve spliced in.

What’s most impressive about this scenario is that it produces intense drama without a villain: Jean’s new stepmother is a well-meaning woman, his father is aware of his son’s sensitivity (spoken of as a condition it is hoped he’ll grow out of) and tries his best to allow for it, and Arlette is just a kid, no more selfish or wilful than Jean. The trauma of bereavement throws life off kilter and the result could end in tragedy. It’s both agonizingly tense and all too credible. Exhilarating experimentation, quietly powerful performances, a touching story, and a setting that takes the breath away.

Rediscover Jacques Feyder French Film Master: Queen of Atlantis/Crainquebille/Faces of Children

5 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Slow Feyder”

  1. Feyder + Sturges: One degree of separation.

  2. “La Kermesse Heroique” by Jacques Feyder was called “Carnival in Flanders” stateside. Preston Sturges wrote and directed a musical version “Carnival in Flanders” that was a major flop. It produced however, this great “standard” — here sung by she who did so in the original production. I adore this song.

  3. That’s right, I’d forgotten about Sturges’ foray into the musical. The Feyder movie, released by the BFI, is a bizarre and perverse treat.

  4. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    I didn’t realize that Dolores Gray connection either, thanks, David. I’ve always felt a special bond with Feyder (pronounced FAY-DARE) as he died on May 24th, 1948, the same day I was born.l

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: