Ménilmontant (1926)

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*. It’s a bit sad, but this movie may be best known today for Pauline Kael’s claim, made in an interview, that it was her favourite film.
*. Despite the fact that almost everyone who has seen it loves it, you won’t find very much discussion or even information about it.
*. I can remember seeing it for the first time. I had never heard of it before so I got to enjoy a very pleasant surprise. Still, you have to wonder why this film isn’t more widely recognized.
*. It is, for one thing, a very modern looking film. What movie before this began in such a wrenching and abrupt manner? The curtain is literally torn aside. What explanation are we given for the brutal axe murder of the couple? Is there any explanation? One thinks of the fiction of Zola, and we’re definitely entering Zola territory here with this sociological study of a descent into the lower depths.

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*. And then there is the photography. It’s so beautiful, haunting, and perhaps above all animate. Now this is editing! Even the jump cuts into the girl’s face when she sees the aftermath of her parents’ slaughter (there are five of them!) feels like an improvisation. The consecutive shots don’t quite line up. It’s not editing being practised as an invisible art but as very visible technique. Yet it never seems overdone.
*. I think the secret is in Dimitri Kirsanoff’s sense of visual rhythm. He’s constantly shifting from composed, formal shots (some of which are held for less than a second, making almost subliminal appearances), to more subjective, fragmentary, out of focus, chaotic montages of what seem to be both point of view and interior visions. In literary terms this is called “free indirect discourse,” and I can’t think of another filmmaker who has handled it as naturally and assuredly as Kirsanoff does here.
*. The label of impressionism is sometimes applied to some of the French cinema of this period, and I think it works pretty well here though it doesn’t capture the psychology behind what is happening. These aren’t just perceptions but thoughts as well.
*. Look, for example, at the scene where the one girl is lying alone in bed while her sister is being seduced and made love to. We cut to a montage of vehicles and naked bodies. Does this represent what is happening, or what the sister is imagining happening? (She’s just been reading a novel, after all.) Or is it both? Or is it a pure flight into symbolism?

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*. Or take the way Kirsanoff dissolves a scene only to move the action ahead slightly, as though gently skipping forward in time. I’m thinking of the scene where the two girls walk together down the tree-lined road, disappearing and the re-appearing again further ahead. Or the scene where the one sister is almost magically transported across the room into her lover’s bed. Of course we know they had to cross the space from A to get to B, but psychologically this distance has no value. Or rather, the value it has is precisely that it has no value. These are young women adrift, being carried along by powerful unseen forces, like the various liquids that we see running down the cobblestoned streets. The street montages are perhaps only this same conceit put on fast forward. It’s Zola’s naturalism made into visual poetry.
*. There are no title cards, but does the film need them? It’s not easy to follow the first time through, but this isn’t so much a story as the shape of a story, a rhythm, and a structure. Honestly, if you were watching this movie for its dreary story you’d only want to see it once.
*. Sticking with rhythm and structure, I love the way the two scenes of brutal violence bookend the story of the sisters, and the use of leitmotifs like the cats and those jump cuts into the sister’s face that appear again when she sees her sister with her lover.
*. Could you make a film like this today? Even at just over half an hour, you get the feeling it couldn’t be much longer and still work. It’s the sort of movie you have to hold in your head all at once. Once there, however, it sticks.

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