Dimitri Kirsanoff’s MENILMONTANT is the product of no school, no recognized form of cinema. Though there are resemblances to the impressionists — Dulluc, Dulac, Epstein.

Kirsanoff’s wife, Nadia Sibirskaïa, is his star, with one of the great expressive faces of cinema. His real name was David Kaplan, hers was Germaine Lebas, so I think they believed that more Russian-sounding names would be more inherently cinematic.

I’m inviting my ECA students to watch and comment, but please, let’s hear from everyone else. This is one of the great films that time forgot. Also, by all means play your own music, then let me know what you chose and where it worked best.


19 Responses to “Menilmontant”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    This little masterpiece was made part of the permanent collection of the “Anthology Film Archives” in New York and was screened as part of its season of classics for a great many years.

  2. Deservedly so! It occupies an unusual space in between experimental cinema (no intertitles! unclear narrative!) and the storytelling commercial cinema, and it’s simply beautiful.

  3. I have no idea which interview provoked it, but somewhere in the annals, Pauline Kael essentially called this her favorite film. That stuck because at the time I had never heard of it.

  4. The scenes of ancient streets made me think of Atget. Thanks for posting.

  5. Most of that Paris is gone now: when Paul Duane & I went to Menilmontant to film a shot for the documentary Natan, a street sign was the main thing we found, the rest was all too nice and upscale.

    Interesting and commendable choice by Kael: I wonder if she broke her own rule and saw it more than once?

  6. Jeff Gee Says:

    This was screened at least a half dozen times in various classes during my time at NYU (73-77), by among others P. Adams Sitney (of the Anthology Film Archives) and William K. Everson. It was never not dazzling. In one class Sitney said that we would notice a great many things done 10 and 20 and 40 years later by very great directors were done here first, and better. One of my classmates noted that the opening ax murder looked like it was edited by Russ Meyer, and Sitney, after the very briefest pause, said it was possible that Mr. Meyer had arrived at his effects independently.

  7. really like the claustrophobic effect of the alley / street shots — they’re all walled inside of the neighborhood. especially when juxtaposed with the nature / water scenes.

  8. I have a faint suspicion that the strange opening scene may be the way it is partly because of a lack of actual people to appear on camera at once, so that it’s super-fragmented.

    But Meyer is also a good analogy because he always preferred to cut rather than reframe, even with the smallest movement of the camera.

    Stella, yes! It’s one of the great city films. I suspect that for viewers at the time, any shot of the Seine would have an implication of suicide, since the river was always the most available method for poor people. So the water represents freedom from the oppression of the streets in a very direct and tragic way.

  9. Jeff Gee Says:

    In his memorial piece “Dimitri Kirsanov, A Neglected Master,” Walter Michel says ‘ “knowing nothing about the technique of filmmaking,” he [Kirsanov] hired an old cameraman, Leonce Crouen, then out of a job. Crouen only shot the beginning of Ménilmontant, “everything which is in two dimensions.” Then Kirsanov “took the camera off the tripod” and “shot the rest himself.”’ [The phrases in quotations are attributed to Kirsanov, and appear as I’ve transcribed them]

    With successive viewings, that initially baffling ‘everything which is in two dimensions’ starts seeming not just true but precise.

  10. I think I might have mentioned this on Shadowplay before, so apologies if I’m being redundant, but Kirsanoff’s RAPT, also starring Sibirskaia (with a bonus Dita Parlo), is also very good. It’s a feature, and perhaps as a result doesn’t feel like as concentrated a dose of experimental technique, but it is wonderfully poetic and inventive. There’s an upside-down shot that knocked me sidewise (if I’m allowed to be perpendicular about it). Malick is more likely to be a student of Kirsanoff than Meyer was, and there are passages in RAPT that make me think it’s the film Malick keeps trying to remake.

  11. Seconding the praise for Rapt. Sibirskaïa was also a vibrant standout in her brief scenes in 1938’s overlong La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir).

  12. […] Twitter, where lots of people are sharing film recommendations, clips and watch parties, such as this Ménilmontant commentalong hosted by David Cairns. And don’t forget to follow the BFI’s brilliant Miranda Gower-Qian, who has been […]

  13. Harry DeWitt, via email, reacts:
    Dimitri Kirsanoff: Ménilmontant (1926)


    Confusingly eerie and dark, done with incoherent cuts
    contrast vastly to innocence of next scene (cat in tree)
    Cross dissolve creates idea that characters are the same/extremely similar
    Cross dissolve shows overlapping thoughts and confusion of character
    Often cannot see other individuals faces (aside from the two girls and man)
    Isolated from rest of world
    Strong sense of chaos with fast pan, handheld, shakey camera style
    Dead/dying trees throughout ? Can be seen when unsure/unease about something
    Conflict of soft sound and eerie music
    Use of white/ pale colours (and lighting) for happiness and blacks (darkness) for unease, death, conflict
    Use of dark and light dresses to show characters emotion
    Lightly lit room companion to dark alley
    Reoccurring cats
    Loss off innocence?
    Bond between two girls?

    The psychology of the two girls is constantly referenced with the use of camera work and chaotic visual nature of the film.

    The shot of the mother contemplating killing the baby is the most impactful and interesting (both visually and emotionally) of the film, with use of double exposure.

    Close ups of facial expressions is also quintessential to this film in showing both and emotion

  14. It’s crazy that I haven’t watched Rapt yet.

    Kirsaniff’s short music films are also quite Malick-like (Malickian?)

  15. Adam Ryan Says:

    I’m on a Bergman spree at the moment and couldn’t help but notice how touch orientated this film is. I think it surprises you in the way that you, or rather I, think about early cinema as having austere and violent physical interaction and being otherwise touch averse. Here we get the full spectrum. Also on the Bergman-o-meter: two female leads.

    The other thing of note was that it was book-ended by two bouts of extreme violence. This kind of containment made me feel as if I was watching a late 50s American Teen melodrama played out over hot summer’s weekend. A chaotically fast pace to match a chaotically modernising Paris.

  16. Nicely put! I’m struck by the fact that Bergman’s characters are rarely impoverished. I guess, as Woody Allen says in Stardust Memories, when you have enough to eat you can start worrying about other things.

    Of the Bergman films currently on MUBI, The Silence may be the most wondrous…

  17. The opening scene as many have noted is very quick and jaring, and I’d say that audiences at the time must have been very shocked. Although it took me twice to view this scene to completely understand it, the potential influence on Psycho and The Shining sprung to my mind.

    The relationship for me feels quite eerie for me, perhaps the frame rate adds to that but I think the make-up or at least what I think is makeup for the male character often made me very uncomfortable. The dark shadowy eyes added an demonic dimensionality to their scenes together that I couldn’t quite get out of my head.

    The locations feel very timely I suppose and I really, really enjoyed the editing style of the tram travelling through the city. All the camera pans, fast cutting and prolific shots of clocks, people, buildings and vehicles added to a sense of chaos that the characters had began to suffer from. It reminded me of visiting Paris last summer and the overwhelming sense of business and constant motion of people and vehicles nearing a Metro station. It slightly also had the type of pace one might expect to see of a Vlog on Youtube in this day age. Did Kirsanoff predict the rise of Vlogging culture 85 years before it became mainstream? We’ll never know but that definitely made me think of one.

    I think it is overall a great piece of early dark cinema that helps add to the reality and depiction of violence and relationships on-screen particularly for the 1920s.

  18. also, made me want to watch meshes of the afternoon

  19. Oh. it would pair up nicely with that one.

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