"Le Duel d'Hamlet" is a milestone in many respects. It has a reputation of being the first movie screened with a synchronized soundtrack. (The sound of swords striking one another were recorded on a now-lost cylinder recording.) Also, this is the first fiction film with a major star in the lead role.
There are various surviving prints of this film. I've seen a 45 second version with titles, and a nearly 2 minute version without titles.
The movie consists solely of a saber fight. Bernhardt plays a cross-gender Hamlet, and Pierre Magnier is her fellow duelist, Laertes. A few bystanders, in Rennaissance dress, stand off to the right of the screen, and in the background, next to a painted backdrop.
The filming style is very 'Lumiere-esque.' Single, stationary camera shot. Brief running time. All action is clearly presented on a stage. A documentary of one scene from a theater production.
Near the end of the film, Bernhardt is slashed by Laertes' poisoned-tipped knife. She staggers, and in a daze, gives her most restrained death scene on film. She falls backwards in a faint. The bystanders catch her before she hits the floor. Hoisting her horizontal body up in the air, they act as pall bearers, somberly carrying her offstage.
On a historical note, this is the only footage taken of Sarah Bernhardt before her disastrous knee injury - which occurred in 1905, when she jumped off a parapet in the final scene in a production of La Tosca, during a South American tour.
She's very nimble in this film. She's 56 years old in this film, and is more buoyant than anyone else on the screen. There's no leaning on other actors, or clutching to sturdy furniture for support - as she tends to do in later films. "Le Duel d'Hamlet" is the closest we can get to see what Bernhardt was like in her prime. In 'Hamlet', she has the grace of a dancer.
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