"Monsieur, you have put me in pickle forever!" said the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt to a film producer, after she saw herself on a movie screen. Her starring vehicle "Mères françaises" (literally, "French mothers") was filmed in France during the Great War, late in Bernhardt's life. But the remnants of her faded beauty are still there, and this film gives some glimpses of the talent that had dazzled theatregoers thirty years earlier,
Madame Sarah plays a nurse in an army hospital at Rheims. Her son is a poilu (French infantryman) who has been wounded in action, Sarah locates him in a first-aid station just in time for an emotional scene at his deathbed. Then her husband, an army major, is killed in action. Eventually she ends up in the front-line trenches, where she delivers some powerful lines (via silent-film titles) such as "France never dies." She also refers to France as "our mother".
Even more interesting than Bernhardt's performance is the location footage. This movie was filmed in wartime France, and there are many views of actual trenches, munition depots, infantry revetments. The peasant women and the provincial chateaux are astonishingly real: this France is gone forever. Bernhardt plays her climactic scene standing before the statue of Joan of Arc in the Cathedral of Rheims: in the background, we can see the actual damage to the cathedral that was caused by German artillery fire.
Bernhardt injured one knee during her adolescence, and the injury became steadily worse through the long years of her stardom. Eventually the leg was amputated above the knee, a few years before this film was made. Wearing a long frock to conceal her amputation, Madame Sarah plays this entire film by turns either sitting down or carefully standing near something to lean on. We never see her walking.
Most modern viewers will find "Mères françaises" a dull film, but its views of wartime France and Bernhardt's performance make this film required viewing for Francophiles. I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10.
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