Okay, I thought Silent Steve had gone mad. One cold, dull Sunday, when sugar was low and my nerves were on edge, he suggested the tragic tale of a family wrecked by murder, country girls surviving and heading off to wretched lives en Paris, making sense of it all in a grim suburb: Ménilmontant.
Two minutes in and old Jack here prodded Silent Steve to be sure he wasn’t in a trance. He was lost in a chopsily edited but gripping murder. I was stunned. It’s vicious. So much for thinking silent movies are all lyrical tales of romance and sadness, more like music than stories as they go for your heart not your head. Nope. Ménilmontant starts with two minutes of brutal screen murder, 1920s-style. The relevance to middle-age? A couple are dragged out of their farmhouse by a bouncy-haired maniac, beaten up and axed to death (nice facial close-ups there, celebrated director Dimitri Kirsanoff). So, don’t be in that house, that afternoon…
The style of the thing keeps on coming, showing up how far film artists had come since the 1890s. My prejudices took filmic slaps as the murder is intercut with the couple’s daughters frolicking in a tree somewhere, then coming back to a shocked crowd, and – in the case of one of the daughters – cuts to closer and closer close-ups as the shock of seeing the corpses lays in.
Again. Bloody hell. Where’s Max Linder when you need him? On a side note, it looks like the same actresses play the girls as the women they become. Plainly adult actors, dressed in kids’ dresses and haircuts, with those freakish 1920s eyebrows, they are as weird and unsettling as the crazy film mechanics going on around them.
Jump forward to the main part of the film: modern day Paris. The girls are now grown-up and putting together posies in a sweat shop. The film is chock full of disconcerting close ups of city vehicles, cobbles and the hands making the posies. But the story starts to settle in as we get to know more of the sisters: one is the terrifically pretty, and director’s wife, Nadia Sibirskïa (“Younger Sister”); the other is the more solid Yolande Beaulieu (“Older Sister”). They’re not particularly pantomimy, what with the director doing the auteur thing all over the place, but it’s a stretch to think they’re related. Can’t knock them for the meaningful stares, though, be they pitiable or jealous.
Oh yes – these survivors of an ancient horror get more shit poured on them by life. Whilst the director is busy with lingering shots of rooftops and back alleys (lessons for life: stick to the countryside), the girls meet and fall for the same tosser (Guy Belmont as “Young Man”). The unexpectedly grim happens: jealousy erupts as Nadia goes first, gets pregnant, loses the friendship of her sister…who becomes a prostitute.
Damn it. Old Jack here was rooting for the two of them: modern women, making good after a cruel end to childhood, now fucked over by wretched luck, the powerful attractions of floppy hair and an oddly feminine jawline.
Anyway – the film is less than an hour long and is a short-cut to stunned miserableness. In a good mood? Slap on what is admittedly an absolutely brilliant picture of its time. Talkies were on their way to bugger up the advances of silent films…so jump in and enjoy what could be done with music, ponderous close-ups, the bravery of double-exposures and the freedom to make as much noise as needed to get the shots. Things eventually work out for the girls – sort of – after another murder and no small consideration of suicide, but they needed sugar to get through it as much as old Jack here.
One last thing. Nadia sits on a bench at one point, destitute and hungry, holding her baby close. There’s one of us next to her, all white hair and toothlessly chewing his lunch. No eye-contact is made, but he gradually passes her some things to eat. Old age and kindness to the young, eh? And he isn’t punished for it…
The scene is a sea of close-ups, side glances, unspoken kindness, and rising emotion. Silent Steve wept as Nadia Sibirskïa did the same. She is terrific in that moment, to my mind shifting from a 1920s beauty to a modern character, so natural is the reaction pulled from you as she shakes with grateful tears. This scene – and I appreciate the cinematic advances and smartness on show in all directions – is the absolute best moment of the film and what you should know is coming if the rest is a tad too trying for you.
Give it a go. It’s an easy, grim 5.