La Roue (1922), or Mommy, Why Aren’t There Any Words Coming Out Of The Man’s Mouth While He Speaks?

27 03 2009

Note: I will not be doing J’accuse today because of procurement issues (i.e. my bit torrent died on me). And, seeing as I cannot afford the $40 DVD right now, we’ll just have to make due with another film by Abel Gance today. I hope I haven’t lost ALL of your respect. Sincerely, Eric.

It has occurred to me that I have not watched ONE silent movie so far this year. What is my problem, my major malfunction? I don’t know. It’s just been such a crazy time for films with audio that I had almost forgotten about those plucky little films that exist without. Calling today’s film “little”, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. You see, my film today, La Roue (The Wheel), is about 270 minutes long. That’s right, you heard me. 270 minutes. Four and a half hours of one movie (I took bits here and there throughout the day to watch it all). That doesn’t even seem feasible in today’s world, where a 90 minute film can cost about $100 million, and a movie can barely keep an audience for three hours before their need to do other unimportant things overwhelms them. I would love to see more long films in the three to four hour range after watching this one. It gives time for ideas to ruminate and elaborate themselves in your head. If they made films like La Roue today, I would watch them voraciously. Considering the public’s attention span and their love of sound and color, though, I don’t think that this will be a possibility anytime soon. Sigh…

Surprisingly, the story is incredibly simple despite the length. Sisif is an engineer for a French railroad. One day, he rescues a young girl from a locomotive crash. The girl’s name is Norma, and she is orphaned by the crash. Sisif decides to raise her as his daughter and considers her a sister to his son Elie (the mother died during birth, of course, considering this is the early 20’th century). So flash-forward to years later, where Norma has grown to be a wonderful, vivacious young lady, and Elie makes hand-crafted violins. Sisif finds misfortune in his cards with Norma, to his dismay, when he realizes one day that he is falling in love with her (!!!). He doesn’t know what to do, besides NOT wanting to sex up his adopted daughter, so he asks the advice of one of his railway partners, Hersan. Hersan uses this nasty little bit of info to blackmail his friend into giving up Norma’s hand in marriage to him. Aghast but resigned, poor Sisif agrees, driving Norma to him on his own train. Will Sisif seek revenge? Will anyone else in Norma’s skeevy family profess their love for her? And what would Norma think of all this?

Director Abel Gance was light years ahead of his time. He made a movie that was more engaging than a number of dramas today that have color and sound. He can really keep your attention with his flat-out breath-taking visuals that take you away to 1922 in an instant. He keeps his talent on a level that makes them seem superhuman, picturesque. The world of La Roue is essentially a moving work of art that could easily be disturbed by the slightest tinkering, but manages to keep its head still even in the final moments.

This is, honestly, an over-long movie, but not because of its length (confusing, eh?). I find it is very appropriate for a movie like this to be at the size it is, but Gance is at a crossroads here between genius and melodrama. This epic spends half its time coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like the use of edits to create mood or freeze frames, and the other half fawning over poetic musings about flowers and children or simply unnecessarily long shots of characters. There are so many good scenes here, and when they are good they are unbelievably good. But Gance falls prey too often to repetition and theatrical stand-bys. It could have filled out the running time by introducing new characters, inserting more subtleties into the main plot, or even adding subplots! But, as it stands, there are about five characters (really only four, but there is one side character named Kalatikascopoulos, and his name was so good that I thought he deserved some main character recognition) and too many shots of trains and flowers as metaphors.

The cast is very fine. Sisif is a sympathetic character despite his dubious intent, and you really pull for the guy considering how much of a drag his job is and how the rest of his life is unbearable besides his children. Severin Mars plays the character, and this was his last film before he died, so this was certainly a good note to go out on. Norma, played by Ivy Close, is beautiful and elegant, but essentially a victim, a character that has things happen to them rather than a character who makes a real impact in any way. And while being the damsel was common for women in 1922, it still nagged at me a little. Pierre Magnier is Hersan, and he is great as the dastardly character who forces his marriage on Sisif’s daughter fantasies. He acts like the locomotives his character worked on; they’re both built on momentum.

It is truly a unique experience to watch a silent movie. One becomes accustomed to the barrage of sounds and the saturation of colors that accompanies our modern day films, so watching this was a pleasant experience I plan on repeating sometime soon. La Roue itself is a great movie that could have been better had its running time been filled with more character development and less repetition. I would definitely watch it again if given the chance, and despite the maudlin subject matter I found myself with a warm sensation and a pleased smile at the end (and no, I had not relieved myself waiting for an intermission). I give La Roue 8 father-daughter love affairs out of 10.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Hayley Mills in The Chalk Garden!