Monday, April 7, 2008

La Roue (The Wheel)

Cocteau: “There is cinema before and after La Roue, just as there is painting before and after Picasso”. Four years before Napoléon, Gance's reputation as the finest director in France, or indeed anywhere, was assured with La Roue. It is a melodramatic tale, the story of a woman loved by three men, mistaken familial identity, and the trials of modern man barely able to control the power of the new machines he has created. Since Zola at least, the train was a symbol of massive and uncontrollable force, helpfully providing a physical equivalent to the unstoppable power of human emotion. It is this last strand – “la poésie des machines” – just as much as the love story(s), that is the source of the poetry, visual and metaphysical, along with Gance’s obviously deeply-felt involvement in the project: his wife was diagnosed with TB on the day he thought up the idea for the film, and she died hours before he completed the editing; the whole third act of the movie was set in the mountains in order to accommodate her vital need for alpine air; and close personal friend and lead Sévrin-Mars was suffering from a heart condition that would kill him two months later. It is Gance’s own curiously set (and unidentified) face that serves as backdrop in the opening sequence, a disorientating superimposed layer of locomotive wheels hurtling left and right, a visual manifestation of technological man’s state of mind, a premonition of the dominance this technology will exert on the characters’ bodies and souls, and a foreshadowing of the emotional confusion and chaotic destruction that will ensue immediately with the horrendous train smash that opens the film proper.

The high-pitched rhythm of the opening does not abate with this first scene, a frenticism rendered more through the total assurance of the rapid cutting than through actual movement onscreen, and as with the snowball fight in Napoléon, it opens the film with a bang. Norma, the Rose of the Railyard, is an infant orphaned by the destruction of the machines. Tragedy remains close at hand 15 years on, the smash-up now being on the rocks of unfettered human emotion. Her adoptive father, engine driver Sisif, and supposed brother, violin maker Elie, both worship her and when she marries her suitor, a dislikable clerk, they are distraight. Blinded by hot engine steam, Sisif exiles himself and his son to the alpine funiculaire. The rush towards modernity may produce its own casualties, but as the bergfilm-makers always knew, left to himself in the wildest and most hostile of barren nature, man is quite capable of creating his own (melo)drama. The smoke and fire of the railyard are far below and the alpine storms and expansive snowscapes throw the action into stark relief. As dark gives way to light, the resolutely modern context of the first half of the film is slightly missed, and the story is more clearly revealed as the age-old one of man, woman and thwarted love. Gance's assured and ever-imaginative technique compensates for the sentimentality of the endplay, his camera at one point even providing the startling subjective viewpoint of a blind man, and the delirious flashing before the eyes of a life too soon cut short.

Down in the valley, the authenticity is exquisite. Gance built his sets in the actual marshalling yards of Nice, a spectacular location with he needed for a hymn to the constant motion and rhythms of the wheels, coupling rods and pistons, whistles and steam, bang on the modernist nose an inspiration to the Russians in the montage game (it was studied by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin et al at the Moscow Academy). Artists of the 1920s, across all media and national boundaries, were drawn to this new machine world, but the wheel of the title is as much that of fate as it is of the locomotive. Kipling tells us via an intertitle that all men are bound to this wheel, and for Hugo, in another, its inexorable forward motion will inevitably crush many of us in its path. There are other wheels too, some of them no less treacherous: the boiler door that traps the engineer Mâchefer; the malignantly grinning signal that malfunctions. Others provide frames or motifs: the constantly emphatic iris framing and the ever-present flywheel of the model in Sisif’s front room. The window of the mountain cabin to which father and son retreat in the second half is a circle broken by a cross; and the circle of revellers at the end turns and turns further up the mountain, individual will once again and finally suppressed by the movement of the whole, spinning inexorably and ever higher towards heaven. Norma’s husband, Hersan, points out that she herself is the hub of a wheel, with the three men constantly circling around her. This last circle makes explicit the contrast between pure idealism and the dirt of the modernist world. Norma is poeticised beyond her corporeal reality, an ideal for the three men that love her, her identity blurring with the impossible trace of floral beauty found between the tracks, the Rose of the Railyard. Elie idealises her as the standard-issue medieval maiden in his daydream, imagining himself a medieval luthier in a simpler and naively happier time of craft, intricacy, delicacy, beauty and art; his obssession with an another unobtainable ideal in the form of ancient musical instruments and the rediscovery of a mythical violin varnish contrasts with the mechanical power, bulk and force of the locomotive. Industrial man has left such a past lost behind him, and created an unbreakable bond with the machines of his age, in which Sisif can treat his locomotive as a friend and as his only confidante. Mâchefer becomes perfectly one with his machine when he gets stuck behind the boiler door, pulling the levers and bringing the engine to life as a grinning face appears on the door itself; and a man can be so much at one with his machine that he can drive his train or operate the signals even when almost entirely blind.

The eyes are the final circles of the film: the signalman cannot see, and the train crashes; Sisif loses his sight (due to the ever-treacherous machinery, of course), a one-eyed man takes notes in the rail yard, and the boiler door and junction signal sprout eyes of their own. And we watch as Gance films, and we see manifestations of human emotion made visible on screen. His camera consistently reaches beyond the dirty realism of the stockyard to essay flights of psychological fantasy, with superimpositions, negative shots, and fantastic editing, as master whose only equal amongst disciples in what remains to us of the silent era is Murnau at his most sublime. The latter's floating words of Faust are presaged by the letters of “Norma”, dividing father and son on either side of the screen; we hear vividly the locomotive’s whistle as Elie, the son, violently covers his ears à la Der Letzte Mann; and Norma’s superimposed visit to Elie anticipates the city girl’s visitation on the man in Sunrise (as well as of the mutually-dreamed reunion of the newlyweds in L’Atalante). The camera constantly reaches through the physical plane to an acute and impossible representation of the psychological state of the protagonist. Yet, Gance’s ultra-modern “poésie des machines” is perfectly interwoven in a kaleidoscope of imagery with the heady nineteenth-century emotionalism of melodrama. Cinema as pure poetry.

d Abel Gance p Abel Gance, Charles Pathé sc Abel Gance ph Gaston Brun ed Marguerite Beaugé, Abel Gance ad Robert Boudrioz m Arthur Honegger cast Séverin-Mars, Ivy Close, Gabriel de Gravone, Pierre Magnier, Max Maxudian, Georges Térof
(1923, Fr, 12 reels [c.273m], b/w)
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