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Sunday, 24 June 2007

Faces of Children (1925) Jacques Feyder

We're in Saint-Luc, a picturesque village in the Upper Valais, and everyone is heading to the Mayor's house to commiserate with him as he mourns the death of his wife. The mayor is Pierre Amsler, played by Victor Vina, but the real lead is his young son Jean, portrayed by Jean Forest. Forest had debuted three years earlier in Crainquebille, a decent expose also directed by Feyder who had apparently discovered Forest on the streets of Paris. By this time though, he's a full twelve years old and with four films behind him, so almost an old hand in the business!

His character is old enough to know something about death and what it means, but his younger sister doesn't have a clue. He walks with his father behind the coffin to see her buried, grieves for her and watches his father's tears with sympathy, while young Pierrette plays with her cat and whatever else she can find. Forest is very good here, all young pillar of strength until he collapses at the graveside, but he's ably assisted by some rapid fire montage work by the editors. This was originally released in 1925 so I wonder if it was before or after Battleship Potemkin with its groundbreaking sequence on the Odessa Steps.

Jean is obviously very attached to his mother, to the degree that he visits her grave every Sunday and sees her portrait come to life and smile at him. However his father feels bad that in the absence of a wife his house and children are being neglected, so he marries again, his new wife being Jeanne Dutois, a young widow who can't pay her rent. This impacts Jean not just because he has a stepmother but because he acquires in the process a stepsister, Arlette, and that leads to plenty of conflict.

The story is solid, very much in the European vein of slow and serious stories full of character development, and that's a good thing. There's decent camerawork too, Feyder and his cinematographers also making plenty of use of the gorgeous countryside to frame his story. It's supposedly France but it was shot in the Swiss Alps and you just can't go wrong with the Swiss Alps as a cinematic background! Feyder seems to be always great when filming in crowds or in public and this film is no exception to that rule. The accompanying 2004 soundtrack by Michael Coppola is great if not awesome, and in fact there's very little bad to say.

The only downside to me was pretty minor, and that was in what seemed to be a little clumsiness in the delivery of some of the actors early on: all adults, I should add, as the children are simply superb. I'm not talking about the traditional overacting of the silent era as this would have been seen as an underplayed film on those grounds. I think it just took a half hour or so for everything to get moving properly, because the film, as you'd expect from the title, is about the kids and maybe the adults had a harder time getting into the story when there were no kids around.

I can't fault any of the scenes that have children in, whether they be between Jean and his stepsister, played by Arlette Dutois, or with adults like Henri Duval as his uncle or Rachel Devirys as his stepmother. It's only early scenes between Vina and Duval or Vina and Devirys that don't quite carry the same weight. Thankfully the children are present for almost the entire film and these scenes are hugely impressive and yet very subtle, often without the benefit (or the distraction) of title cards.

I got drawn into this one far more than into Crainquebille and, to be honest, got lost in the magic of it. By the time the end arrived, which seemed far too soon even though the film is nearly two hours long, I'd forgotten about all of that minor downside entirely. What amazed me most is that none of the three children had long careers in the ilm industry, stunning given their performances here. According to IMDb, this was Arlette Peyran's only film, and Pierrette Houyez only made three. Jean Forest, the star of this film, went on to appear in ten in all, but switched to a career in radio. What a shame!

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