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Erich von Stroheim,
The story itself is simple: a young boy is the odd one out. His parents are much older; his mother unmercifully picks on him, favoring his near-adult siblings, while his long-suffering father has withdrawn into the small pleasures of hunting and meeting with friends. Really, it's a sort of Cinderella: the wicked step-mother (only it's his real mother), the vain pampered older siblings, his having to work and slave for them, wearing tattered hand-me-downs. But it's told with a wonderful leisurely anecdotal naturalism, laced with delightful moments of surrealism (he's surrounded by double-exposure goblins when told to close up the hen house at night, for example). The greatest scene in the film combines the two, as the boy and a young girl "rehearse" a marriage ceremony, marching through the fields while the animals about them burst into song. The father, as delineated by Baur, and the maid, also immeasurably enriched by a subtle performance, are marvelous characters. The film was made during that brief period when the French countryside was a pre-technological world, yet technology was sufficiently advanced so that sound films could document that existence. Certainly there are "literary" story telling elements, such as the family being "introduced" by the father, the older maid telling the new maid what to expect, and the boy's school essay about his miserable family life. But the wonderful thing about the film is its ineffable technique and its enigmatic moments that are the purest styleless cinema. There are many visual joys, like the shot of boys playing leap-frog with the town spread out below them, that are presented with simplicity and unostentatious naturalism. All told, this is a film of the highest cinematic art, approaching the level of Renoir and Ozu.
I saw this film at the unlikely venue of the Walter Reade Theatre in New York. The film was introduced by David Grossman, a retired exhibitor who dedicated the showing to film historian and enthusiast William K. Everson. Grossman was so full of love for the film that he could hardly express himself. The print was his, cobbled together from several sources. The original US and British release was missing most of the wedding rehearsal and all of the scene where the boy swims while his uncle fishes (the latter because the boy is nude). He spoke of Duvivier's great love for making movies. The film, he said, ran a year in Paris in its initial release, unheard of during the depression. At the end of the film, he stood from his seat and stated that the actor who played the young boy was later executed by the Nazis for being in the resistance, and that Baur was also executed by the Nazis, only a few weeks before the liberation, for reasons not clear. He apologized for the poor subtitles (the reinserted scenes had none, and the rest had those intermittent titles that, as he said, was typical of the thirties), though he needn't have apologized since full translation was unnecessary. And he asked for comments from the audience in the manner of someone who's just taken a friend to see his very favorite film. and asks, "Well, wasn't it great?" A very appropriate introduction to this wonderful film.
This is a film that cries out for restoration and wider release. I wonder if the print shown on Ontario TV and the video offered on Amazon (probably the same) are complete.
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