2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating wartime footage
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
31 August 2002
"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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