Introducing Jacques Feyder and Visage d’enfants

jacques-feyder-e1437775008775I was asked to introduce a screening of Visages d’enfants (1925). Here, more or less, is what I said.

 

I first encountered Jacques Feyder in 1992 when doing my Masters. He was lurking in the final footnote of François Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinéma essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ (1954), which savages the staid-and-not-very-cinematic ‘tradition of quality’ represented by such directors as Claude Autant-Lara.[1] (more of him later). The footnote reads:

In fact, ‘psychological realism’ was created parallel to ‘poetic realism’, which had the tandem Spaak–Feyder. It really will be necessary, one day, to start an ultimate quarrel with Feyder, before he has dropped definitively into oblivion.

I remember not being very clear what it means, or who Feyder was or why he was destined to obscurity even if Truffaut didn’t stick the boot in.

The second time I encountered Feyder was when I was rewatching French poetic realist films in order to write that part of Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Feyder’s name kept cropping up as the director of two less well known but significant early films in the cycle. But I could find no substantial critical engagement with his work (in English, since I am pathetically monolingual), and of course neither Le Grand Jeu (1934) nor Pension Mimosas (1935) were available on video or DVD.

The third time was when I was writing Science Fiction: The Routledge Film Guidebook, and I discovered the DVD boxset that included L’Atlantide (1919). But still no Anglophone critical work. Indeed, unless my google fu and library database kata have utterly deserted me, the couple of pages I wrote about L’Atlantide constitute one of the most sustained Anglophone treatments of any of his films, and especially of his silent films.

(Surely I am wrong about this? There must be more. Also, this is why there are no screening notes for the tonight’s film – we couldn’t find anything to use.)

So I have pulled together an overview of his career, silent and sound, from a couple of online bios, fleeting mentions in about twenty different books, and the half dozen or so of his films I have seen. And I will end with some comments about tonight’s film, Visage d’enfants (1925).

Jacques Feyder was the pseudonym of Jacques Frédérix, adopted when his father discovered he wanted to be an actor and forbade him to use the family name. He was born in Ixelles, Belgium in 1885 to a grande bourgeois family, well-known patrons of the arts with a strong military heritage. He was destined for a career in the army but he failed the entrance exam to officers’ school – and went to work in a canon foundry instead (which is a military career of sorts, I guess). He began appearing on stage in 1908 and became a drama critic, before moving to Paris in 1911 to become an actor.

Cendrillon_ou_la_pantoufle_merveilleuseAfter several small stage roles, he was cast in Georges Méliès’s Cendrillon ou La pantoufle merveilleuseCinderella or The Glass Slipper (1912), which was followed by more film roles, including episode 5 of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1916). He became an assistant director at Gaumont in 1914, working with Gaston Ravel, who had directed him in Autour d’une bague/Around a Ring (1915); they co-directed Monsieur Pinson Policier (1916), in which Feyder also appeared.

However, it was World War One that gave Feyder his big break into directing – because so many French directors were called up. In 1916-1917, Feyder directed 18 shorts; the only commentary I have found on them is limited to the phrase ‘nondescript little comedies’.[2]

7742240_1060269378In 1917, he married the actress Françoise Rosay, who became a major collaborator on his later films, and was himself then called up by the Belgian army, in which he served until 1919 – as an actor in a military troupe.

After demobbing, he returned to Paris to make his first feature film: L’Atlantide (1919). Feyder paid 10,000 francs for the rights to Pierre Benoît’s recently published novel of the same name, a highly regarded[3] and popular foreign legion knock-off of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886).[4]

The film, with a pretty much unprecedented budget of 2 million francs, was shot over eight months in Algiers, including 50 days in the Sahara. Apparently, this mad folly gained a lot of coverage – aka free publicity – in the French press,[5] and as the costs spiralled out of control, the original backers pulled out, selling the rights to the three-and-a-quarter hour film to distributor Louis Aubert. The film was a massive hit, the first of postwar French cinema; and it had a successful reissue in 1928. The contemporary film critic Louis Delluc said of it, ‘There is one great actor in this film, and that is the sand’. I have no idea whether he meant this as insult to the human actors, but it is an astute observation about Feyder’s use of vast desert spaces to render humans insignificant, and to present the desert as an object of desire in itself, as well as a metaphor for the Queen of Atlantis.

81d92da8b9089ea208b078db4c865657Feyder followed this with Crainquebille (1922), an adaptation of Anatole France’s 1901 short novel. A costermonger is wrongfully arrested and imprisoned; after his release, he declines into bitterness and alcoholism, and becomes suicidal – until he is redeemed by the intervention of a young street street urchin, played by Jean Forest, who plays the boy Jean in Visages d’enfants (he was, or so the story goes, a Les Halles street urchin discovered by Feyder to play a Les Halles street urchin).

Crainquebille demonstrates one of the things that perhaps led to the high regard in which Feyder was once held, and perhaps also to the precipitous decline of his reputation since the 1950s. He does not have the distinct or idiosyncratic personal style one might associate with an auteur, but instead has tremendous facility with multiple styles of filmmaking, often combining them in a single film. Crainquebille, shot largely in Les Halles, is dominated by the kind of street level realism one might associate with, say, De Sica’s neo-realist Bicycle Thieves (1948) or even Truffaut’s own neo-realist New Wave debut Quatre cent coups (1959). But it also has an extended expressionistic trial sequence, all nightmarish distortions of scale and perspective; and it dallies with the Chaplinesque, both in the character of the protagonist and in his not-quite-sentimental relationship with the urchin who saves him.

His next film is the one we will watch tonight, Visage d’enfants. Co-written and co-directed with his wife, Françoise Rosay, it was filmed on location in southern Switzerland in 1923, but not released until 1925. Despite favourable reviews, it was not a big hit, and was long thought lost. It was reassembled in the 1990s from various archives and reissued in 1993. I will say more about it in a while.

In 1923, Feyder relocated to Vienna to become artistic director of Vita Film in Vienna, and to direct three films for them; but he made only one L’Image/Das Bildnis (1923), before they went broke.

The opportunity represented by this venture perhaps tells us quite a bit about Feyder. Probably the main critical debate about film in 1920s France was whether film could be an art form. Avant-garde directors, such as Germaine Dulac (who I adore) and Maurice L’Herbier (about whom I am rather ambivalent), would say – and I am paraphrasing here or, more accurately, putting words in their mouths – that films were and industrial product not art (except, of course, for their own films, which proved it was technically possible films to be art). Feyder himself argued that one should not think in terms of art vs. popular culture, but instead set out to mark art as popular film (or popular film as art). Now the greater relative autonomy that a director might enjoy if he were also the company’s artistic director might enable such a project. In a similar vein, Feyder, like like Dulac, L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Julien Duvivier, innovated the director-package system of production. Rather than being employed by a studio, the filmmaker would form a company (of which he would be the director) to produce a specific film, which he himself would direct. The company would obtain funds from various sources, including wealthy patrons, bring together the script, cast and crew, and hire a studio if necessary (or if the budget permitted). This system afforded the director greater control – for example, Feyder liked to rehearse his cast, but would only make decisions about how to shoot a scene once they were all on set or location at the start of the day – but also required a commercial sensibility to ensure the company’s success. Thus, combining the roles of company director and film director produced a distinctive combination of art and the popular.

gribicheAfter his Viennese diversion, Feyder made Gribiche (1926), again starring Jean Forest, this time as a working class boy adopted by a philanthropic American heiress, with reputedly amusing consequences. He then returned to literary adaptations, with a location-shot, neo-realist-ish adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen in 1926, and – in Germany in 1928 – an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The latter was considered a masterpiece, and brought Feyder to the attention of MGM, but it is now lost, so we cannot tell.

48577-1Before relocating to Los Angeles, Feyder took out French nationality, and made his last silent film in France, Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). A political satire in which a theatre electrician and trades unionist who plays a central role in a major strike is subsequently appointed to a ministerial post (cos, y’know, that happens). There, he comes into conflict with a wealthy minister who is the third point of a love triangle involving a not-too-talented ballerina. There were calls for it to be banned for ‘insulting the dignity of parliament and its ministers’ (cos, y’know, parliaments and dignity used to be a thing).

From January to March 1929 Mon Ciné ran a feature asking filmmakers ‘Do you believe that the sound film has a future?’ Jean Renoir was ambivalent, seeing it as a mixed blessing; Marcel L’Herbier said ‘It’s of little interest to me. The faithful reproduction of the words of an actor or the arrival of a locomotive in a station have no real artistic value’; Feyder replied, ‘I believe in the talking picture’. And he went to Hollywood to make them.

Although Hollywood was importing a lot of continental talent – Paramount and MGM had recently gone toe-to-toe over Maurice Chevalier – they did not really consider French directors that important (and should they need a director who understood French, Robert Florey and Jacques Tourneur were already well established there). Indeed, Feyder was one of just two French directors invited to Hollywood in the period – the other being, of course, Claude Autant-Lara, who among other things directed Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay, in the Francophone version of Buster Keaton’s Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). During the transition to sound, it was not uncommon for film’s to be shot in multiple language versions, usually on the same sets at night, with a different director and entirely different or perhaps overlapping cast. That wasn’t why MGM brought Feyder to Hollywood, though.

His first Hollywood movie was The Kiss (1929) – his, Greta Garbo’s and MGM’s last silent film.[6]

But then he did find himself directing alternate-language versions: the French versions of The Unholy Night (1929) and His Glorious Night (1929), both directed by Lionel Barrymore,[7] and of Chester Morris’s The Big House, from which he was removed partway through; and the German language versions of Chester M. Franklin’s Olympia (1930) and Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie (1930), starring Garbo again – in both language versions.

Arguably adding insult to injury, he then found himself directing a pair of Roman Novarro exotic-ish romances, Daybreak (1931) and Son of India (1931).

He returned to France.

His first three French talkies are the films on which his reputation now stands – all feature Françoise Rosay, all were written by Charles Spaak, and have as Feyder’s assistant director Marcel Carné, who would become the major poetic realist director.[8]

hqdefaultThe doom-laden foreign legion melodrama Le Grand Jeu (1934) and crime melodrama Pension Mimosas (1935) are the early examples of poetic realism I spent ages trying to track down (the former is now readily available). La Kermesse héroïque (1935), which Feyder shot photo-de-tournage-la-kermesse-heroique-jacques-feyder-1935in French and German versions, is an elaborately staged historical comedy-drama. It includes an open-air set representing a Flemish town in the style of the Dutch masters that is so massive that it is hard to believe it is a set. In 1936, La Kermesse héroïque won the first New York Film Critics award for best foreign film, and Feyder best director at the Venice Film festival. A story of a Flemish town briefly occupied by Spanish troops in 1616, it seems, from one angle, to advocate peaceful collaboration rather than violent resistance, which might explain why the Nazis loved it. However, from another angle, it seems to advocate subtle resistance to and manipulation of occupying forces, which might explain why, after the invasion of France, Goebbels banned it.

Feyder came to the UK to make Knight without Armour (1937) for Korda, a lumbering pudding of a film starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat, unhampered by a single trace of chemistry.[9] Back on the continent, he made the French and German versions of Fahrendes Volk/Les gens du voyage (1938), and the French melodrama La loi du nord (1939).

Feyder and Rosay fled from the Nazi invasion to Switzerland, where Feyder directed one last film, Une femme disparaît (1942),[10] and with Françoise Rosay published a memoir, Le Cinéma, notre metier (1944). In it, Feyder describes himself as an artisan or craftsman, not an artist; but perhaps it was the high degree of relative autonomy he often enjoyed that allowed him to see his work as collaborative – and surely the popular artist, freed from all that guff about solitary genius, is an artisan, and the artisan is not something to be looked down upon.

Feyder died in 1948; Rosay kept working in film until her death twenty-five years later.[11]

His reputation has steadily declined ever since. André Bazin respected his work, but much preferred the kind of realist filmmaking he associated with Renoir, Jean Vigo and Maurice Pagnol (who, he argued, were able to find some kind of spiritual truth in the real just by looking at it long enough and hard enough) to the ‘synthetic décor’ (faked or heightened reality) of Carné, Duvivier, René Clair and Feyder. In 1970, Clair himself observed that ‘Jacques Feyder does not occupy today the place his work and his example should have earned him’. And David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film says,

There was a time when Feyder was claimed as a great realist director, when Kermesse héroïque was thought of as an important French film. … Feyder may be unfairly neglected today just as once he was injudiciously acclaimed.

Visage d’enfants
Perhaps the greatest achievements of Visage d’enfants are inventing the youtube cat video and giving an origin story to needing to raise funds to repair the church roof…

vFACES_OF_THE_CHILDREN-5
our town from that hill

It is more commonly praised for its location shooting, which captures stunning alpine landscapes through various seasons, creating a vast natural arena for what is actually a small story its small story of human relationships, of grief and love, of coming to terms and growing up. This is an intriguing contrast to the use of the Sahara in L’Atlantide. There are now-fascinating views of labour – farming, waterwheels, logging tools – and tumble down barn architecture.

18886164.jpg-r_1280_720-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxThe film is also praised for the performance of Jean Forest, former Les Halles street urchin, who plays he film’s young protagonist, Jean. Pierette Houyez, as his little sister Pierette, is also good – adorable, and absolutely fearless when herding livestock twenty times her size.[12] Arlette Peyran, as their step-sister Arlette, is easily the weakest of the three child actors, but her failings of her perfomance also highlight the flaws in the other two – whenever they are required to signify something specific through gesture, they become mannered: you can almost hear Feyder and/or Rosay instructing them off-camera.

The opening of the film fluently contrasts the young Jeans’s attempts to be older than he is, and the younger Pierette as someone playful and full of wonder, and uses her relationship with her cat to model a mother/child relationship. Later, both Arlette and Jean will pray to the exemplary mother, the Virgin Mary. In English, the film is often called Mother – which I think should probably be cried out in your best Anthony Perkins voice. The location realism modulates such melodrama staples as unpayable rent coming due, insurance not paying out, a mother’s death, a distant father, a step-mother and step-sister, a child in peril, another child in peril, avalanches, deadly waterfalls, desperate searches. Indeed, the whole film can be seen as a Freudian case study of bourgeois family formation, but mostly without the foregrounded Freudianism of, say, Hitchcock. Although there are some potentially Hitchcockian fetish moments around a portrait, a broach, a particular dress arranged, far more creepily than the film seems to think, in a mannequin pose (hell, it’s halfway to Vertigo by that point). There is also an important contrast between the image of mother pouring milk and the stepmother milking cattle and bringing milk home.[13] This contrast is picked up on by shots of the waterfall that, thanks to the step-mother’s intervention, goes from perilous to mere bountiful nature.

photo-Visages-d-enfants-1925-11-912x460

The film also demonstrates Feyder’s technical mastery of missed styles. There is an expressionism to the design of the graveyard, dominated by a cross that looks like it belongs in a James Whale Frankenstein movie,[14] and to the rapid cutting that leads up to Jean’s collapse. There are inverted shots and superimpositions and an intriguing use of subjective shots: Jean looks at the villagers feet, not exactly Caravaggio exactly, but focused on peasant footwear,[15] and we see his mother’s coffin from his point of view as he follows it at the head of the procession to the graveyard. We see his mother’s portrait come to life, and later to fade – and the portrait is given a reverse shot of him, not as dramatic as Paul Leni’s potrait pov a couple of years later in The Cat and the Canary (1927) but a brilliant key to young Jean’s emotions at that moment. (And, a couple of years before Lang gave pov shots to explosions in Metropolis, Feyder gives them to the avalanche.)

And there are relatively few intertitles. Feyder used over 200 in L’Atlantide, he grew rapidly to hate them; like Murnau, he thought that you should be able to convey a story visually. That said, there are several which strike me as unnecessary and, late in the film, a pair that really annoy me. The latter of the two explains that Jean, realising the enormity of what he has done, begins to regret what he has done. It is utterly superfluous – all of this is conveyed by Forest’s acting, shot construction, and so on. The former of the pair exonerates Jean from the worst of intentions, disrupting a far more compelling ambiguity about his potential for murderous intentions.

And on that bombshell, the film.

Oh, I should warn you, Antonio Coppola’s score completely misreads the film – chirpy in all the wrong places, and determined to make it more sentimental than it is.

Oh, and the hats. Watch out for the hats. Not Tom Hardy insane, but crazy nonetheless.

 

Notes
[1] More of Autant-Lara later. I can’t vouch for Truffaut’s assessment of his work since the only film of his I can swear that I have seen (because we watched it for that class) is the Bourvil/Jean Gabin comedy, La traversée de Paris/Pig Across Paris (1956), which, as the title suggests, is about transporting a pig across (Nazi-occupied) Paris.

[2] Though James tells me he has seen one of them, La faute d’orthographe (1918), which has a brilliant premise and execution. A man applies for a job in a bank, but that night worries he has misspelt something in his application – so breaks into the bank to correct it. He then begins to suspect he has made other spelling errors, and while he pores over the papers, someone else breaks into the bank for exactly the same reason! And then … the final reel has been lost.

[3] It won the Grand Prize of the Académie française.

[4] It is better than I just made it sound.

[5] The newspapers, not the cafètiere.

[6] Actually, it does have a synchronised soundtrack, mostly music from Tristan and Isolde, and a few sound effects, including a pair of narratively vital gunshots.

[7] The fate of the latter was the inspiration for the disastrous Laughing Cavalier movie in Singin’ in the Rain (Donen and Kelly 1952).

[8] Le Quai des brumes (1938), Hôtel du Nord (1938), Le jour se lève (1939), Les enfants du paradis (1945).

[9] It is, however, worth seeing for her ill-advised gowns in the middle of the civil war, and for Miles Malleson’s turn as an inebriated proletarian commissar.

[10] He had co-director and supervisor credits one two films just after the war.

[11] And, I discovered by freak earlier this month, she does have an extraordinarily tenuous Bristol connection. She made a couple of films in the UK late in the second world war, The Halfway House (Dearden and Cavalcanti 1944) and Johnny Frenchman (Frend 1945). In the former, there is a wide establishing shot of Bristol Temple Meads station, labelled as such, and an interior shot of the station back when there was footbridge (rather than a tunnel) connecting platforms. Who knows when it was actually shot or for what purpose? And even if it was shot specifically for this film there was certainly no reason for her to be in Bristol. So, yeah, tenuous.

[12] She always reminds me of Willa Vy McAbee in Stingray Sam (McAbee 2009), but I don’t think the reference will mean anything to tonight’s audience, which is why it’s down here in the notes.

[13] Though rather less sexualised than the pornographic montage celebrating automated cream separation in Eisenstein’s Old and New aka The General Line (1929).

[14] Later, the cross on the roof a church buried by an avalanche will protrude from the snow like a gravestone.

[15] We also see a lot of shoe soles, which is unusual.

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