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Friday, July 10, 2015

Dimitri Kirsanoff | Ménilmontant and Arrière-saison (Backward Season)



highly artificed melodramas
by Douglas Messerli

Dimitri Kirsanoff (director) Ménilmontant / 1926
Dimitri Kirsanoff (director) Arrière-saison (Backward Season) / 1950

Estonian born Dimitri Kirsanoff has been generally classified as an experimental filmmaker, and, indeed, his films do present a great many images that remind one of the Expressionist techniques and the later multiple and prismatic images that one discovers in such filmmaking. Yet I might simply describe his as a phenomenal cinematic artist who, like other great directors of the day, used original and often previously unexplored techniques to enhance his tales.
2.    If his work often displays the tensions between image and storytelling that one finds in more experimental works, it is because, despite the refined artistry of his images and even a ability through them to convey his tale, the stories he chooses are often basically naturalistic melodramas, as a director like Renoir, for example, had joined forces with Theodore Dreiser. The gritty stories he tells seem so elegantly told that Kirsanoff appears, at moments, to be a director akin to what the films of Douglas Sirk later in the century, remarkably crafted works based on overtly melodramatic scenarios. Ed Howard, in his on-line Only the Cinema blog, expressed this tension in yet another way: “The cinematography [of Kirsanoff] lurches between an almost 19th-century indebtedness to painter composition á la Gustave Caillebotte and the unhinged handheld camera Hans Richter’s Ghost Before Breakfast.
3.     The very first scenes of Ménilmontant, for example, could not be more operatic, as a curtain is torn from its doorway, as woman staggers out followed by a man attacking her. She falls to the ground dying, while another man kills her murderer, who, we quickly learn was her husband. The double homicide is followed immediately with the appearance of two beautiful young girls, sisters, one of whom is determined to bring down her cat, caught high above in the branches of a tree. Moments later these innocents come upon the scene of their parent’s murder.
6.      The scene at the cemetery follows, and soon after the film cuts again to the same cemetery where time has fallen some of the wreaths. The girls, now grown up, are soon on their way to the extremely busy streets of Paris, where we suddenly see the two working as flower girls, a series of ring alarms awakening them to work each morning. 
      Within a matter of moments, Kirsanoff presents us with a scene where a young man is waiting for a girl, who turns out to be the younger of the sisters (Kirsanoff’s photogenic wife, Nadia Sibirskaia.. A second encounter leads to the handsome young man luring her into his apartment, where gradually and carefully, he attempts to seduce her, while she, allured, attempts nonetheless to refuse while gradually being drawn further and further into his arms. 
      A cut to her elder sister, lying alone and unable to sleep, in their bed, reveals what we might have guessed. The younger of them, won over by her lover, has not returned home. In the same lovely lane where he first waited for her, she now awaits him, as we are made privy to his drunken wanderings and, eventually, his abandonment of her. Brilliantly, the director makes her condition clear by having her chalk up the weeks on the alley wall that have apparently passed since her last period. Soon after, she accidentally witnesses her former lover with another woman about to enter his apartment: it is her elder sister. 
     Obviously pregnant, the young girl is soon revealed leaving the maternity ward with a baby in her arms, no longer the young sophisticate, shown without makeup and obvious scared.
15.     For one of the longest scenes of the film, she wanders the Paris streets, pondering suicide on the Pont Neuf, or, perhaps even more ghoulishly, throwing the child into the waters to die. Starving, with no place to go, she sits on a park bench. A worker, taking his dinner break, sits next to her beginning to eat his sausage of baguette. Perceiving her next to him, he gradually breaks a chunk of the bread and, in what has to be one of the most gentle gestures in all of cinema, places it on the bench between them. She gazes at it with obvious hunger, but resists the bread; soon after, he cuts off a piece of sausage and places in beside the crust. Unable to resist any longer, she eagerly eats.
     While the new mother still sits on the bench late into the night, the director takes us to a bar frequented by prostitutes, one, almost like gypsy, with large earrings and bobbed hair, finishing up other’s abandoned drinks. Suddenly the elder sister appears, clearly also now a successful streetwalker, since she appears somewhat stylishly in a fur coat. Nearby, the younger girl recognizes her sister and approaches her, clearly offering up her baby since she clearly cannot care for her. The elder takes the babe into her arms at the very moment when the drunken ex-boyfriend appears at the doorway, impatient for the elder, apparently, to join him. Suddenly the other gypsy-like prostitute appears, evidently bitter about his rejection of her, and accosts him. Another man joins in the assault and together they kill the man, dragging him away in a manner that can only call up the first scene of this drama. 
      In describing this plot, I realize the true beauty of this film absolutely disappears in the naturalistic detail; one simply has to see it to comprehend its remarkable power. I often disagree with the observations and judgments of the powerful critic Pauline Kael, but, evidentially, she once revealed to Roger Ebert that Ménilmontant was her favorite film, which almost makes the cranky anti-sentimentalist human.
      24 years later, in 1950, Kirsanoff was still making stunningly beautiful and innovative films, as apparent in his Arrière-saison (Backward Season; I prefer to call it Late Season), a far less plotted work, and much more poetic in nature. Indeed, Backward Season is a kind of Chekhovian tone-poem with Ibsen thematics. 
      A woman is poised at the window staring into the woods outside her cottage where her husband and others are chopping down birch trees. He is, obviously, a woodcutter, who spends his day destroying the beautiful landscape wherein this couple lives. And his wife, quite obviously, is distressed, if nothing else, isolated and lonely, just as the dog they have locked up in a small-wired cage, who keeps circling in the pattern of a psychologically disturbed beast (I might mention that in both films, Kirsanoff is remarkably able to demonstrate human frustrations by observing the animals surrounding them). 
      A stew simmers on the burner, and, slowly returning to her chores, brings out bread, wine, and cutlery to serve her husband. He returns home for lunch, and she serves him, hardly able to eat anything herself. He dons his coat, once again, and leaves. She quickly washes the dishes,  and pulls out her already packed suitcase, obviously about the leave. A written message attests to the boredom of her life. She is sorry, she proclaims, but she is leaving for ever. She puts on her coat, drags the suitcase to the door and sadly accessing the simple elements of their life, exits, placing her key, as the couple apparently do routinely, into the nearby flower pot.
     She has left a match for the lamp, and when her husband again returns, he lights it, finding her note and reading it with dismay and consternation. The stew remains on the stove, and he serves himself before sadly retiring all alone.
     The next morning he returns to his forest of beautiful birches, slowly axing down other tree. Some neighbors have gathered about the house, obviously having observed the wife’s departure, but he hardly notices them, leaving the key in its usual spot.
      Soon after, we observe the wife returning, suitcase in tow, to retrieve the key and reenter the cottage. Like Ibsen’s Nora, perhaps, she had needed to leave, but has had nowhere to go. This painfully silent film ends there. But the torture she must endure is obviously just beginning, or, at least, about to be continued. As in Bella Tarr’s more recent powerful tale of despair, The Turin Horse, nothing in her world can possibly be altered. The window, the trees and their falling, the stew, wine, and bread, the silence is all our heroine might possibly experience in this idyll of a cottage in the woods. 
      But once more, Kirsanoff’s film itself, despite its despairing figures, is so beautifully realized in its images and quiet expressiveness that the audience might feel a great illumination out of the stark emptiness of its character’s lives.

Los Angeles, July 10, 2015

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