Sunday 14 January 2007

La Terre (1921)

Such an obscene percentage of silent movies are lost films and so it's always a joy when one that has been lost turns up found. La Terre has long been thought lost, but it was recently rediscovered in Russia and remastered by the Royal Belgian Film Archive and it has a good picture. It's a groundbreaking film started in 1919 but not released until 1921, by French director André Antoine. He came to the movies late in life from a similar yet vastly different world in the theatre. Perhaps this is why he helped to introduce a naturalistic style into film that wasn't particularly common in the silent era, along with his assistant directors who include Julien Duvivier, who went on to make the wonderful Pépé le Moko.

We're on the plain of Beauce, near Chartres in the Cloyes region of the French countryside where classic French writer Emile Zola had set his source novel. La Terre means the Earth and that's what these people work, long and hard, or at least those who work, that is. Our main character is Jean, who meets Françoise by rescuing her runaway cow. They're both on their way to La Borderie, the home of the Hourdequins: Jean is looking for work and Françoise is taking her cow to their bull. Both are successful and deal with La Cognette, who is really just the maid but who apparently effectively runs the entire show. Naturally both of the ladies fall for Jean, and while Jean responds to La Cognette he wants to marry Françoise, whose father has died and who is thus living with her sister Lise. At least that's what seems to be important at the beginning of the film.

And here are the biggest problems with La Terre in a nutshell. Because this is an Emile Zola novel, there's plenty going on and there are plenty of characters to make it all happen, so we really need to pay attention. A few times I got confused as to who was who, and I don't think that's necessarily the fault of director André Antoine. He just had a huge job on his hand translating what I'm sure is a long and complex novel into not much more than an hour and half of film. Also the focus seems to shift. Halfway through I began to wonder about Jean and Françoise and La Cognette, because everything suddenly seemed to revolve about Pere Fouan.

Fouan is really the catalyst for everything. He is feeling much too old to work his land, and so he splits it up between his three children: Buteau, Jésus-Christ and Fanny. He misses out his elder sister who is a little bitter about it and with good cause too, as we'll discover. She doesn't believe that these three kids will pay him the pension due and provide him with what has been agreed on, and of course she's right because they don't, with the occasional exception of Fanny's husband Delhomme. Jésus-Christ is a poacher and a drunk who looks as old as his dad, Buteau marries one sister for her money but chases the other and Fanny is a clean freak with no kindness in her soul.

This is not a particularly happy story, as Françoise is about the only really sympathetic character in the film, though even she finds some hatred in her heart. Jean isn't bad but seems to have a temper to him and Papa Fouan is kind but dangerously foolish, and the rest aren't worth much at all. There is a little humour in and amongst, but mostly this is a dark tale. Once I caught up with the real players of the piece I saw a lot of the underside of human nature, well depicted with the sort of depth that was starting to creep into the movies in the twenties but which was still far from commonplace.

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