Archive for April 5, 2020

The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Small Praise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 5, 2020 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2020-04-05-15h16m50s056I have often had cause to reflect that life is like Herve Villechaize: too short, and often hard to understand.

LE NAIN (THE DWARF), however, directed in 1912 by Louis Fieullade, is just the right length at fifteen minutes. It tells the affecting story of Paul Dancourt (played by the little actor Delphin), who is the anonymous actor of a theatrical smash hit, but doesn’t admit authorship for fear of ridicule. Fieullade begins by showing his hero standing on a chair to kiss his mother, sitting on her lap, etc, but all played quite straight. He’s daring us to laugh, or encouraging us to get the laughter over with, or something. It feels quite clever. The jokes, if they are jokes, are very cheap, and the actors are totally sincere, so it quietly shames us out of any humorous response (and I assume audiences in 1912 were more prone to the kind of cheesy comedy illustrated by my first sentence here).

Paul falls in love with his lead actress (Suzanne Grandais), or her image, allowing Fieulliade to demonstrate how to interpolate a closeup:


On the other hand, this is the period/style of cinema where each room has one master shot, which we return to whenever a scene is played there. The idea of varying the master shot for dramatic purposes, or hell, just for variety, is not pervasive yet.

Two different days, two different scenes, the same angle.

Paul writes to the woman of his dreams and explains that for compelling personal reasons he can’t meet her, but he’s like to phone her. This allows Fieullade to do a high-tech remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, only much, much shorter (no pun intended, we’re past that stage), and also to present a novel split screen. The middle panel in his triptych adds lustre, but is also naive and quaint: Fieullade feels the need to demonstrate the physical distance between his characters with a shot of Paris — or else he’s afraid of the PILLOW TALK effect, where things get a bit spicy as the splitscreen makes it look like the characters are sharing the same intimate space.


But I guess the distance between them is part of the poignancy, too.

And what does Paul say to his love? I know this is a silent film, M. Fieullade, but we need to know. As John Sayles put it, describing his frustration at romantic montages where we see the couple walk on the beach but don’t get to overhear their conversation, “This is the kind of stuff that’s useful.”

Thank the good Lord for intertitles!


Well, that’s… odd. But it becomes clear that these are romantic lyrics, and Paul is reciting to his amour. There’s probably some hot stuff in there, too, since the girls at The Phone Company are all a-flutter:


It’s a very affecting film. Fieullade, in his journalist days, had worked alongside a little guy called Leonardo Val, which may have given him added insight and compassion.

Delphin, who would later play the headmaster in Vigo’s ZERO DE CONDUITE, is an excellent actor.