Tuesday 29 April 2008

La Roue (1923)

If J'Accuse wasn't long enough, Abel Gance's follow up film, La Roue or The Wheel, initially ran eight and a half hours long. Gance cut it down though to four and a half, but until now the version available was one cut even more drastically. Now restored to the four and a half hour length, with a new score by Robert Israel, it's being shown on TCM and will be released by Flicker Alley on DVD.

Our story begins with a train crash, a horrific one in which many die but further tragedy is avoided by swift work by railroad employees, including an engineer named Sisif. Sisif also rescues a little girl named Norma, apparently English and who has been orphaned by the crash. He has a son and he takes the initiative and brings Norma up like young Elie's sister. Fifteen years quickly pass. Elie grows up to become a violin maker and Norma grows up to a beautiful young lady.

The problem is that while Sisif and Norma are not blood relatives, for all intents and purposes they are and Sisif gradually falls for her. Knowing that he can't have her, his torment grows to epic proportions. Finally he confesses his love to De Hersan, for whom he's been doing some work, and De Hersan, who loves her too, is morally corrupt enough to use the confession as a means of getting what he wants. To make matters worse, when the truth finally comes out at home and Elie realises that Norma isn't really his sister, he becomes bitter because he loves her himself.

The wheel is everywhere in his film as a reoccurring theme, and it's always turning. An initial quote from Victor Hugo suggests that the wheel is creation, the wheel of life, but it applies just as much to many other things throughout the film, not least the wheels of the trains that are so lovingly shot early on and which carry us inexorably to the various conclusions. Sisif is an engineer and so controls the wheel of his train but not the wheel of his destiny. Gance never fails to put circles and wheels everywhere to remind us of the theme. It's also right there two and a half hours in when we reach the end of part one and switch locations for part two.

Sisif has engineered his own destruction with the rail company, but his many years of loyal service lead him at least to transferral instead of the sack. He's transferred to the funicular railway that travels up and down Mont Blanc, which is shown to us in gorgeous detail but which Sisif mostly misses out on because his eyes have been damaged in a steam accident. Elie is still with him and so is the name of Norma, not spoken aloud because it's forbidden, but in visions that nothing can blot out and, cleverly, in a word that Gance dangles between them in barely visible text.

Sisif is played by someone who is now a very familiar face to me, Séverin-Mars. Even though I've seen him now in two films, J'accuse and La Roue, their combined running time of nigh on seven and a half hours equates to five regular length movies. Elie is played by Gabriel de Gravone and Norma by the English actress Ivy Close. This is yet another benefit of silent movies, which really are cinema in its purest form, that actors from all across the world could appear together without the barrier of language getting in the way. Recently I saw the Hungarian film Mephisto, a superb work but one whose downside is the unavoidable dubbing of Hungarian and Czech actors into German. With silent movies, that problem completely fails to exist.

Ivy Close, incidentally, had a reasonably short career on screen: 23 films from 1912's Dream Paintings, written and directed by her future husband, Elwin Neame, to a couple of German films made after this one in 1927 and 1928. Yet she gave a lot more to film than the films she was in as an actress. She and Elwin began a cinematic dynasty. They had two sons: Ronald and Derek. Derek wrote a few films but Ronald Neame was truly versatile, gaining three Oscar nominations, two as a writer and one for special effects. Yet he was also an notable cinematographer, producer and director, helming such varied films as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Tunes of Glory and The Poseidon Adventure. Ronald's son Christopher Neame was a production manager for Hammer Studios and produced various notable TV series including Soldier Soldier. Christopher's son Gareth Neame is a BBC producer, the fourth generation of his family to work in the industry. I wonder what he would think of La Roue.

I thought it was a powerful film. Like J'accuse it was carefully directed and compellingly acted, but unlike J'accuse, it didn't have a message to drive it on and the melodrama runs very long indeed. It's not boring, and the length does contain a huge amount of subtle character development, but there are long sections where I couldn't help but wonder what I would have missed had they been cut out entirely.

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