Archive for Croix des Bois

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by dcairns

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To the newly-opened, lushly-appointed Fondation Seydoux, a museum/cinema commemorating the history of Pathe and Gaumont. Phoebe Green and Christine Leteux introduced me to the exhibition of old movie cameras and projectors, and posters currently themed around WWI. There was Abel Gance’s J’ACCUSE and Raymond Bernard’s CROIX DES BOIS, currently screening elsewhere in its new 4K restoration. Naturally, there were a few stills on display I wish we’d had copies of for our documentary on that movie’s producer.

The screenings are similarly slanted towards the Great War, so we experienced one of Leonce Perret’s relatively few American films, UNKNOWN LOVE, a kind of epistolary war romance in which a society lady falls in love by mail with a soldier in the trenches, one of Perret’s few American films (produced by Pathe’s American wing).

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Stunning cinematography: Perret stages nearly all his interiors by open windows and exposes for outdoors, so the characters are backlit, their faces boldly modelled by the light. A scene at a shrine to the war dead, with silhouetted woman, flowers and cross against the setting sun, which is also reflected in a lake, was almost too beautiful. All those elements are traditionally photogenic, so slapping them altogether could have gotten tacky, but it certainly didn’t. Christine, who has written the first book on Perret’s long and fascinating career (from the early 1900s to the early 30s making operetta-films at Pathe-Natan), pointed out that he wasn’t working with his usual DP on this film, so the consistency with the rest of his work shows how much of the visual style was his own doing.

The Fondation hire in students from the Conservatoire to act as accompanists, a policy which has proved so successful that the Cinematheque has followed suite. No longer, I am told, do silents unfold to the solo whirring of a projector at M. Langlois’ palais de cinema.

Afterwards, I toyed with the idea of a Charley Chase retrospective, but my energy is flagging and my feet hurt, so I retired early and am typing this instead. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the big day: Bernard Natan returns home, honoured at the studio he built, which is now France’s national film school.

Mud and Blood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by dcairns

WOODEN CROSSES (CROIX DES BOIS) still impresses. Raymond Bernard’s big WWI film — the French equivalent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — has many of the expected elements, but quite a few unexpected ones.

There are the double exposures that show phantom soldiers trudging off to heaven, which seem to have been a staple of WWI cinema since Gance’s J’ACCUSE (see also ALL QUIET, or Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WIRE), but they’re really the only obvious element of sentimentality. The battles are colossal, easily matching anything in Hollywood films on the subject, and with the explosions going off in the sky, they surpass PATHS OF GLORY in sense of scale and spectacle.

But the more surprising elements make all the difference. Bernard, as in his enormous LES MISERABLES, lets the camera run handheld through the action, evoking the panic, flurry and chaos of battle, not only long before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but long before the WWII documentaries of John Huston which inspired that look. There must surely be WWI footage with a similar look, but I haven’t seen it. The stuff you see in war docs from that era always looks very stable. It would be amazing if Bernard latched onto the effect purely as a stylistic choice, rather than to mimic documentaries.

The narrative is extremely loose, driven by a series of situations, some short (picking the lice out of uniforms), some protracted (the anxious wait as Germans dig under the trench to plant a mine and blow everybody to blazes — they can’t leave unless ordered) which butt up against one another without the usual cartilaginous connections. And the ending is so devastatingly horrible you can’t quite believe it. The simplicity of ALL QUIET’s famous ending comes with poetic melancholy, but that’s largely obscured here by the sheer grueling brutality. Bernard’s intent is to make the audience actually feel gutshot. Strong stuff.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)