So intense are the narrative thru-line and emotional arc of Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 film Ménilmontant that it is one of the few silent films without intertitles. The opening and closing scenes of graphic murder remain shocking today. Its sometimes frenetic but often poetic evocation of Parisian streets and the ominous waters of the Seine center it both in the 1920s tradition of urban documentary, as in films of Vertov, Ruttman and Siodmak, and in the mythic-poetic visions of Rene Clair, Man Ray and Buñuel.
The cinematography lurches between an almost 19th-century indebtedness to painterly composition à la Gustave Caillebotte and the unhinged handheld camera of Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast. Its deeply moving (some would say melodramatic) narrative of two orphaned sisters who lose and then find each other cuts clean through the non-emotive conceits of other 1920s French avant-garde films. Finally, and most telling, Ménilmontant exudes an almost fetishistic close focus on the many faces of its lead actress, the director’s wife, Nadia Sibirskaia, anticipating many future directors’ obsessions with their leading ladies: Von Sternberg/Dietrich, Pabst/Brooks, Hitchcock/Kelly, Vadim/Bardot, Godard/Karina. That’s a lot of freight for a somewhat obscure 37-minute experimental film made by a largely forgotten filmmaker to carry, but Ménilmontant is a masterpiece of those crazy days of experimental cinema, a film that is rightfully taking its place alongside the canonic titles of the final decade of silent movies.
In 1930, the French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos tried to voice what made experimental cinema of his time different from the more commercial movies:
An exaggerated respect for Art, a mysticism of expression, has led a whole group of producers, actors and audiences to create a kind of cinema called avant-garde, standing out because of its production's speed, its absence of any human emotion and the danger it represents to all the rest of the movie industry.
What makes Ménilmontant stand out from most of that era’s art films is the way in which it defies but simultaneously embraces both avant-garde and commercial narratives. An insightful and detailed examination of the film and its place in the history of film has been written by Spanish scholar Santiago Rubín de Celis in Experimental Conversations, the online journal of the CorkFilm Centre. It’s a compelling introduction to the work.
Critic Richard Prouty has also written a kind of Walter Benjamin-style deconstruction of the film. Now, I don’t consider myself a scholar of 1920s experimental and avant-garde films along socio-political lines, but as a simple movie viewer, I have become mesmerized by how accessible these works are becoming in beautiful new remasterings by companies like Kino Lorber, The Criterion Collection and Milestone. Milestone recently presented a restored version of Edward Curtis’ 1914 dramatic documentary In the Land of the Headhunters, with a new performance of the original score, at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. Also, TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” has opened a world of early 20th-century films to younger fanatic audiences. This is an era that was almost inaccessible before DVDs and the discovery in film archives of movies long thought to be lost.
Howard Davidson first alerted me to Ménilmontant with an email, and I unexpectedly found the film on YouTube. It is a revelation, a film I don’t know at all, but one which embodies almost everything that I find compelling from that heyday of silent cinema, an era that went into steep decline and vanished with the ascendency of dialogue as the principal narrative vehicle.
Ménilmontant is a dramatic tale of two young sisters and their misfortunes, starting with the graphic murder of their parents while the girls are away playing with a treed cat. This opening double-homicide sequence is a study in proto “chaos cinema,” numbering 34 shots in about 40 seconds (according to a deconstruction of the film by Cornell film student Zachary Zahos in his blog).
The film’s plot and time transitions are often elusive, if not elliptical. Simply put, after the murder of their parents, the orphaned girls, now older, are shown in the frenzied life of Paris, where they both work as flower girls. The younger sister meets and is seduced by a narcissistic young man. Abandoned by him, she has a baby. Wandering the streets along the Seine, she contemplates but rejects suicide on the Pont Neuf. She finds her older sister having an affair with the same man. The women have become separated — a part of the storyline not developed and especially elliptical — but now reunite. The man is then murdered by another woman and her consort in a graphic scene that mirrors the film’s opening.
Let’s look at it in five parts:
A curtain is torn and we witness the double homicide.
The sisters try to retrieve the cat and then come upon their parents’ murder scene. The younger sister reacts in a series of bold jump cuts. We then find them in the cemetery, mourning. In several dissolves, the graves exhibit premature overgrowth even as the sisters leave their village along a tree-lined path.
A montage of dizzying shots of Paris street life featuring pedestrians, the metro and cars reintroduces us to the sisters, now working as flower vendors. On a cobbled street, the androgynous lover waits for the younger sister as the older sister spies on them.
Part two opens on Sunday morning as the sisters sleep late, and we see the untended wasteland and hilly streets of the workers’ enclave of Ménilmontant, the 20th Arrondissement. A letter (probably a pneumatique) arrives from the boyfriend, and the younger sister goes to meet him. Here is the first of what will be dozens of beautiful close-ups of Kirsanoff’s wife that constitute an almost separate movie, a fetishistic study of her many moods. (These adoring portraits will become the heart of Kirsanoff’s Brumes d’automne a few years later.)
The lovers frolic until he leads her down a cobbled street toward his apartment in a series of painterly tableaux.
There is an expressive flirtation of hands at the doorway that speaks pages of dialogue as the innocent and reluctant girl is led toward her seduction. It continues in a bold composition in the apartment doorway as the cat-and-mouse encounter plays on into the night.
The older sister and their cat are restlessly waiting for the younger sister’s return. The camera pans from her sister’s still-fluffed pillow as the shot gently irises in. Here is part two:
In the morning’s early light, the younger sister leaves her lover and walks along the Seine embankment. A lovely high angle becomes a mini-montage reverie of her innocent girlhood.
This flashback, running in the woods and stream, frames her conflicted feelings about the previous night, yet another one of the intense close-ups that give the character such haunting sympathy.
In an insert, her feet descend and then retreat down a stairway leading to the Seine, a foretelling of what may soon be her fate. Then, in a narrow street, she scrawls a line on an already marked wall, an ambiguous gesture that leads into what is, for me, the most troubling time transition in the film: finding her older sister now victim to a seduction by her own erstwhile lover. The jilted sister stands in the street below as he shutters his apartment window.
Here is part three:
Part four opens as the younger sister stands outside the maternity door of a charity hospital with her swaddled baby:
She is now without makeup, as plain as she once was beautiful. She wanders along the Pont Neuf, from where she may be contemplating a suicidal leap. Her ex-lover sits at a park bench, then leaves; the scene match-dissolves into her sitting on the same bench.
An old man comes and sits at the other end and begins to eat bread and sausage. In her despair, she fantasizes about a life of comfort. She and the old man exchange steamy breaths in the cold air, as if this were a mingling of their spirits. He slides bread, then sausage, over to her, an almost Christian sacramental gesture.
Here is part four:
Part five opens in a whirl of neon lights. A hotel façade for quick liaisons. A prostitute with large earrings and bobbed hair finishes off abandoned drinks. We’ll see her a bit later. We see the older sister, now a “woman of the night” herself. Her younger sister sits with her baby in the street (it’s a wonder the baby hasn’t died of exposure) and seems to recognize her older sister by her shoes. They reunite and walk away. The ex-boyfriend has watched them, although his shot is in daylight whereas their scene is at night (a possible editorial restructure).
The bobbed-hair prostitute accosts the boyfriend, possibly a client. They fight. Another man jumps in and they beat him to death, dragging him off in a scene eerily reminiscent of the film’s opening. A brief epilogue suggests the two sisters are once again making flower bouquets.
Here is part five:
This last part of the movie has been criticized for its ellipses and confusing continuity. I can’t critique the critique, but in its dramatic performances, this daring film far exceeds what many of its more formalist avant-garde brethren aspired to. It is also auteurist filmmaking at its purest. Kirsanoff is credited as writer, producer, director and editor. He was also the main cinematographer. In the final credits, his name holds and a second cinematographer’s name fades in: Léonce Crouan. Kirsanoff said Crouan was an out-of-work cameraman of mediocre talent whom he fired early on, assuming the photographic duties himself (especially the handheld sequences that thread through the entire film). The only other credit by Crouan I could find is a short from 1927 titled Le Rayon dans la Nuit. Kirsanoff did not assume the cinematographer’s position on his later films, which suggests he was no Steven Soderbergh, a.k.a. Peter Andrews.
There are many things to wonder and puzzle about in this work. The most enduring could well be those haunting close-ups of Sibirskaia, who continued to work with her husband as far as his 1939 short Quartier Sans Soleil. She also performed supporting roles in two 1930s films of Jean Renoir.
Why Sibirskaia never became a major movie star remains an enigma. Her gestural subtlety, powerful emotive range and sheer beauty were formidable. These qualities are even more evident in a much less ambitious film she did with Kirsanoff a few years later, Brumes d’automne. It’s a 12-minute tone poem made in 1929 that looks very much like the Photo-Secessionist photography of Steichen and Stieglitz at the end of the 19th century. A curious thing is that although she closes her eyes once, she never blinks — a haunting, even disquieting, note.
Considered a master of silent cinema, Kirsanoff also became an innovator of early sound. A scene from a nearly lost film of 1934, Rapt (known in the U.S. as Kidnapped), shows his bold use of sound effects and music during a lightning storm. The movie’s daring lighting (credited to three people) evokes German Expressionist cinema.
According to Roger Ebert, fellow critic and sometimes nemesis Pauline Kael once said Ménilmontant was her favorite film — a surprising declaration for a woman who seemed to almost categorically eschew strong character emotion in cinema, even as she crankily aged.