Wednesday, 15 May 2013

La Vertige (1926)

Among the somewhat specialised film festivals that come and go over the year is one aimed at the fashion industry and called rather pointedly 'The Fashion in Film Festival'. Since one of their venues is the National Film Theatre, I do receive details of their offerings in the monthly film programme, and have over the last few years been able to view some of their more obscure selections -- particularly as they are very keen on modernist trends in silent movies from the 1920s. The organisers have occasionally more or less spoiled their film choices by interrupting the proceedings with strutting dancers or models. Fortunately this was not the case with the above movie from the prolific but generally overlooked French director Marcel l'Herbier.

In fact he is the star turn at this year's festival which features five of his films from the late 20s/early 30s and attempts to showcase his obsessions with stylised interiors and costuming. He called upon the talents of many of the foremost architects, artists, designers, and couturiers of his day, aiming to synthesise all of these arts and make cinema a showcase for his aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed this film is a feast for the eye. It is, however, also extremely long and tedious; despite being described in the programme as being 90 minutes long, it ran for a full 130!  Ouch! I have seen and reviewed some of L'Herbier's other silents, and looking back on my comments I note that I really liked his "Living Dead Man" (also 1926) but hated his "L'Inhumaine" (1924) which is also being featured in this festival.

The director himself, when asked to base this film on a popular melodramatic play by Charles Mere, protested that the plot was' boring'; he therefore decided to overcome this handicap by creating (in his words) a 'visual sauce' that would counteract the trite action. Unfortunately unless one is au fait with the now largely forgotten creative figures of that period, this is not enough. The rather skimpy plot starts in Russia in 1917 at the height of the revolution. The family of General Count Svirsky cower in their palatial rooms expecting to be eaten alive by the angry peasants. However he does seize this opportunity to murder the dashing young officer Dimitri who has become his younger wife's paramour. Regardless, she stands by her husband and they escape to a louche and luxurious life on the French Riviera. There she catches sight of Henri de Cassel who is the living image (le vertige) of her lost lover. Both roles are taken by the director's muse Jaque Catelain, whom the director treats as the focus and the real star of the movie. I don't know why, but in so many silents the stars look far too old for their roles and in fact Emmy Lynn who plays the Countess Svirska was in her late thirties here and rather stout with it.. It is also something of a problem when the leading man is far prettier than his would-be love. This was the case in spades in the earlier "L'Inhumaine in which Catelain also starred, and it is unavoidedly noticeable here too.

Lynn serves as an adequate clothes-horse for some of the more eye-popping costumes, but it is Catelain who really shines in his double-breasted suits and geometric dressing gown, a beautiful knight out to rescue the fair damsel. However a 'visual symphony' or 'visual poetry' as the film was described on its release are unfortunately insufficient reasons to sit through more than two hours of stilted acting and unrewarding action from some basically unsympathetic characters.

I'm off to the States tomorrow, but will return with some in-flight movie reviews (now that's something I've not done for a while) on my return. See you then...   
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