by Allan Fish
(France 1925 117m) DVD1
Aka. Faces of Children
Portrait of mama
p Dimitri de Zoubaloff, François Porchet d Jacques Feyder w Jacques Feyder, Françoise Rosay ph Leonce-Henri Burel, Paul Parguel ed/art Jacques Feyder
Jean Forest (Jean Amsler), Victor Vina (Pierre Amsler), Rachel Devirys (Jeanne Dutois), Arlette Peyran (Arlette Dutois), Pierrette Houyez (Pierrette Amsler), Henri Duval (Curé of Vissoy), Suzy Vernon (Jean’s mother), Charles Barrois,
My first sighting of this celebrated but long unseen silent drama was, as with many other films of its era, in Brownlow and Gill’s all-encompassing Cinema Europe series back in 1995. Like many of the films seen therein, I little expected to ever get to see them in their entirety, so it was with great pleasure that the announcement of a DVD release of this and other Jacques Feyder silents was greeted in 2006. By some fluky coincidence, I watched it the same day I reviewed Jean Delannoy’s magisterial tragedy La Symphonie Pastorale, for both share one fundamental common factor; the location, namely the snow-covered peaks of the Swiss Alps.
Shot and set in the Upper Valois region of the Alps, the film takes place in the village of Saint-Luc, where we find a house in mourning for the loss of its matriarch. Her widower and their two children witness her coffin bring brought down the stairs for burial, and father and son, Jean, follow the funeral cortege to the burial place. There, Jean faints, overcome with the emotion of the tragic event, and he begins to retreat into a personal form of mourning. His father, however, decides after a suitable bereavement period has passed to marry again, and chooses a woman who had also lost her spouse and in need of a father for her young daughter. From the outset, Jean does not take kindly to his step-mother and especially his step-sister, between whom an animosity develops. This finally comes to head when, after tossing away his step-sister’s favourite doll when on a sleigh journey, he sends her out into the wintry conditions to look for it, only for an avalanche to leave her stranded and Jean guilt-stricken.
There’s a real spiritual intensity to Feyder’s film that is striking from the very outset, and the motif of the crucifix and cruciform symbols in general play a large part in the story. Mourners congregate in front of a mini-altar inside the family home before the funeral leaves for the burial site, and once there, the marked grave is overshadowed – quite literally – by a huge wooden cross, marking time like a reaper of death. All finally coming full circle in the final act, as Jean clings to a crucifix in penitent prayer as his step-sister takes refuge in a wooden shrine buried in the snow, but visible solely by the little cross atop the shrine uncovered by the snow.
The visual symbolism is not only represented by mere motifs, but also in various subconscious allusions, most memorably in a simple shot of father and son taking different paths as they walk from the camera, the former to see his future bride, the latter to lay flowers at the grave of his deceased bride, and in doing so moving quite clearly off camera, as if he himself was no longer foremost in his father’s thoughts and drifting subconsciously away from him. From that point in a chasm develops between father and son that nearly leads to tragedy.
Feyder is undoubtedly helped immensely by the luminous imagery of his D.P. of choice, Burel, whose pictures both remind one of the work of Julius Jaenzon on the Swedish films of the preceding years, yet are also purely his own. Combined with the delicate direction, we are presented with one of the great studies of childhood not as a realm of escapism, but of unutterable loneliness and cruelty; the irony is not lost that in his pain at feeling ignored, Jean treats his actually loving step-sister very cruelly. It would be remiss, however, not to mention the contribution of his three child actors, all of whom are magnificent, but Forest – also immortal as the streetwise kid in his earlier Crainquebille – is heartbreaking as Jean. A gem has lain buried in the avalanche of neglect.