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Nolff, a tough Breton fisherman is happy: his wife has just given birth to a son, Michel. His only wish is to make him a fisherman like him. But when he becomes a man, Michel becomes a good-for-nothing who spends his time in taverns with his evil genius friend Gwenn la Taupe. The sea will be his judge. Written by
L'Herbier sets up a conflict at the very beginning of Man of the Sea, when Nolff the sailor moves his small family to a remote seaside area in order to shun society. To Nolff, the sea is sacred and the company of others is a corrupting distraction. Unlike Nolff, his son Michel is interested in the worldly things of the city the family has moved away from, which causes conflict within the family. If the infinite, unfathomable sea represents divinity, the city represents the simple profanity that L'Herbier posits as man's natural state. Notably, Nolff only visits the city socially once a year during Easter, the most holy of Christian holidays.
So what we have here is a conflict between Nolff, who seeks the purification of isolation within a sea that he treats as a place of worship, and Michel, who is interested only in the immediate pleasure of the palaces of sin that come to life in the city at night, decadent places where homosexuality and violence are commonplace. In spite of Nolff's blind affection for his only son, eventually there is a conflict which leads to an even more hermetic life for Nolff, a monastery for his saintly daughter Djenna, and redemption through suffering for Michel.
Marcel L'Herbier is known as one of the major French directors of the silent era as well as one of the pioneers of cinematic Impressionism. As this is quite early in his career, there are relatively few formal innovations in Man of the Sea, although his use of landscape and environment to suggest character traits is a relatively new technique for the time that is used extensively. Further, there are a few really memorable visual flourishes here, such as the cross that appears in the sea to suggest Nolff's association of it with the divine. This is a promising film which likely bodes good things to come as I continue my chronological exploration of L'Herbier's work.
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