by Allan Fish
(France 1925 160m (orig.369m)) not on DVD
A great imagist with words
p Louis Nalpas, Jean Sapene, Henri Fescourt d Henri Fescourt w Arthur Bernède, Henri Fescourt novel Victor Hugo ph Raoul Aubourdier, Léon Donnot, George Lafont, Karémine Mérobian ed Jean-Louis Bouquet art Mme Castiaux, Louis Nalpas cos Mme Castiaux
Gabriel Gabrio (Jean Valjean), Jean Toulout (Javért), Paul Jorge (Monsigneur Myriel), Sandra Milovanoff (Fantine/Cosette), Andrée Rolane (Cosette as a child), Georges Saillard (Thénardier), Charles Badiole (Gavroche), François Rozet (Marius), Suzanne Nivette (Éponine), Henri Maillard (Gillenormand), Clara Darcey-Roche (Mlle.Baptistine), Paul Guide (Enjolras), Renée Carl (Mme.Thénardier), Victor Dujeu (Fauchelevent), Jeanne Marie-Laurent (Mme.Magloire), Luc Dartagnan (Pontmercy), Émilien Richard (Barnatabois),
It wasn’t the earliest version of Victor Hugo’s tale. There had been a 1912 version by Alberto Cappellani which, despite only being two hours long and little more than a series of tableaux, was feted in its time. But it’s Fescourt’s version which was adopted as the benchmark by French film historians. Georges Sadoul was one of many who compared it favourably with the Raymond Bernard masterpiece on the succeeding page. There was just one problem; it has never been released for home viewing even in its native France, and the only version circulating on the internet, and thus the only one I have seen as I write in January 2013, is a 160m version prepared for American audiences. Originally, it ran for over six hours and was in four parts. One may be forgiven for thinking of it with the same sense of loss as one thinks of certain films by Von Stroheim and Welles, but Fescourt’s full film isn’t lost. The Forum des Images in Paris has a copy, and for several years there have been rumours that Pathé (the original makers of the film) and Gaumont were teaming up to restore the film for DVD. We’re still waiting, but even in this mutilated state, it’s still an hour longer than the best Hollywood version from 1935.
There’s not the pressing need to include the film because of Fescourt, who’s represented by his Monte Cristo, which is available in its entirety. But the fact remains that even in this butchered version, it’s still the only one that comes close to the Bernard as storytelling and is the only one to surpass it in atmosphere. The reason is its greatest strength; for all the mastery of the Bernard version, it was largely studio bound, and when it wasn’t, the locations were stand-ins. Fescourt’s version was actually shot in several of the locations detailed in Hugo’s book, which had largely remained untouched in 1925. The names of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Digne and Toulon from the novel are not just recreated, they’re actually here, and accordingly the photography has a natural quality that echoes André Antoine’s La Terre.
One has to mention the debits, even if just of this print, the English intertitles that lose so much of the flavour, while the Bernard was naturally able to take several scenes line by line from the page. But the direction, even in a print which looks third generation at best and where you can almost literally see the cuts – and if you can’t, you feel them – it’s still a quite remarkably powerful film. All the performances are excellent, at least worthy of comparison to the Bernard if not quite matching them (though who’s to say they don’t in the full version?). Gabrio is a worthy, resolute Valjean, Toulout an excellent Javért with sideburns worthy of Dickens’ Gradgrind, Milovanoff is a very good Fantine (and plays Cosette, too, for good measure) and Saillard is a deliciously rascally Thénardier, Best of all is Nivette as Éponine, who haunts the piece even after she’s taken that bullet for her man. This version is, arguably even more than Bernard’s, a labour of love worthy of the subject. If it ever does get a proper release – what a Blu Ray set it would make with the Bernard – the fractured masterpiece will at last be healed and seen for what it is. Even as is, it’s worthy of Fescourt’s own description of Hugo, as recalled by Sadoul, as “a great imagist with words.”