Monday 5 March 2007

Crainquebille (1922) Jacques Feyder

I've seen a surprising number of films directed by Jacques Feyder, given that he was a French filmmaker of the silent era, but this is the earliest of them. He directed a couple of Greta Garbo movies, including her last silent film, The Kiss, with John Gilbert, and the German language version of Anna Christie, which was her first speaking role and notably better than the English language version. He also directed Daybreak, a decent and very European film with Ramon Navarro and Helen Chandler.

This one stars 'Maurice de Féraudy of the Comedie Francaise', which is something of a mouthful, as are the rest of the cast because not one of them follows the French tradition of only being listed by one name. We begin with an excellent quote by Anatole France: 'Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned.' I'll have to remember that one. It refers to the troubles visited upon Jérôme Crainquebille by the system when he's picked up by the police.

At the beginning of the film the authorities are rounding up not just the usual suspects but everyone on the streets at the time, it seems. Once daylight comes they're more selective but they still pick up Crainquebille, who has been selling vegetables on the street from his cart for fifty years. We've watched him on his rounds and he seemed to be an all around good guy, with plenty of regulars and always willing to help out someone in need. However he gets into a contretemps with an inflexible policeman with a hearing problem and ends up spending a few days in jail while awaiting his trial for insulting a cop who he didn't insult.

Feyder shows us some interesting technical ability here, usually perspective shots like views into parabolic mirrors or through keyholes, or camera movements or distortions to denote confusion, along with some surreal visions like moving statues. It all looks very accomplished for 1922. His chief success here by far though is the realism of everything. I haven't seen anything this obviously based on reality as against cinematic art, between the early days of putting a camera on a street corner and filming real life for the length of the reel and the latter movements like the French New Wave a few decades later that aimed specifically to capture this sort of thing. Feyder does it here in 1922 and does a good job of it too. There are real people here, from the streets, all the way down to an orphan looking after a stray dog.

It's also a decent expose of the fallibility of the system, with authority figures either uncaring or not paying attention. The policeman mishears in the first place and presses an issue that wasn't his business, the prison doctor gives him medicine even though he's never been ill, his lawyer advises that he should confess, the prosecuting attorney can't stay awake and the judge leads him into perjuring himself. There's only one witness for the defence, a respectable doctor, but he's ignored along with everyone else, so everything ends up in a really cool slow motion nightmare. So through a complete misunderstanding a man's life is completely changed, everyone thinks that justice has been done and he doesn't really understand what's happened. Very sad, but it's countered joyously by his unexpected salvation.

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