Monday, April 06, 2009

Movie Review: Visages d'enfants

What gets forgotten in a discussion of the late silent era are the surprising variety of quality French directors producing work during the period. Any worthy list would have to include Abel Gance, best known his series of art films packed full of experimental techniques, high production values, and substantial running times. Gance was perhaps even better known for his sweeping epic, Napoléon, which was, in typical fashion, six hours long upon first release. One shouldn't forget Andre Antoine, an actor by trade, who dabbled in film making before retiring from the screen altogether to become a film and theater critic. And, the list would be wise to pause to mention the director of Visages d'enfants, Jacques Feyder. Though technically a Belgian, Feyder worked as both an actor and director in his adopted home country of France.

Upon viewing, a contemporary audience might make the connection to a more recent foreign film. To wit, Ingmar Bergman used Visages d'enfants as a major plot influence in his 1982 goodbye to feature film making, Fanny and Alexander. The differences between the two films are that in Feyder's work, the father of the sensitive young boy (Jean) who serves as the film's protagonist remarries a widowed female, primarily to provide his two children with a second parent. While in Visages d'enfants, the stepmother is callous, firm, and primarily unemotional in nature, in Fanny and Alexander, by contrast, the sensitive young boy's (Alexander) father dies instead. Though his new stepfather, a Bishop, metes out discipline with a similarly firm hand, the clergyman also possesses a deep sadism, the likes of which is not present in the former film. Additionally, Feyder's film differs from Bergman's because includes a bratty step-sister suspicious of Jean and fiercely loyal to her birth mother.

A major similarity between the two films, of course, is that Jean is devoted to his younger sister,
Pierrette, in the same way that Alexander is devoted to Fanny. Both sets of siblings band together against changes in their environment and face adversity with defiance. The film's conclusion, however, is decidedly more optimistic and affirming than in the Swedish director's work. In Visages d'enfants, having nearly caused the death of his cursed stepsister through deliberate perfidy, Jean, plagued with guilt, throws himself into a river. He is saved by his stepmother, who has had a change of heart. As he regains consciousness in her arms, he refers to her at long last as his own mother, not a stranger in the place of his birth mother. By contrast, in Fanny and Alexander, Alexander's mother comes to realize the evil that lurks within her new husband. The clergyman has no redeeming qualities, much less any desire to change his cold heart. Alexander will never see him as a Father and the Bishop will never make anything more than the feeblest of overtures to be liked and trusted by his stepson.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for ushering me into terra incognita. Six hours of silent film? All I've ever really learned about the history of film has been Hollywood-centered.

Westcoast Walker said...

ditto to alarob's comment - my cinematic tastes are too narrow for my liking, and I also appreciate being enlightened to something I hadn't considered before.