- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

Regular attendance at National Gallery of Art film showings in the year past would have purchased familiarity with the work of Satyajit Ray, Fritz Lang and Jean Vigo, among other celebrated directors, for the cost of transportation. That's a bargain, even with today's gas prices.

The ability of the National Gallery to sustain film programs free of charge makes a strong case for habitual patronage. Over the course of a year or two, an enviable amount of movie culture can be sampled in exceptionally attractive surroundings.

An exhibition devoted to the French painter Edouard Vuillard (1869-1940) provides the pretext for a dozen titles that coincided with his life span. The survey begins this weekend with two movies, "L'Argent" and "Feu Mathias Pascal," from the 1920s prime of Marcel L' Herbier (1888-1979), a remarkable stylistic innovator and experimenter.

L'Herbier's flair for imagery and decor reflected a once-thriving cinematic avant-garde that aspired to create something akin to visual music and poetry with the film medium, before the advent of sound tended to reinforce preferences for naturalistic stylization, plain-spoken characters and proven storytelling conventions.

A Renaissance man who also dabbled in poetry, music and journalism before settling on filmmaking after World War I, L'Herbier contrived to sustain a successful career for two decades after sound was introduced. The freedom he enjoyed at the outset, which reaches a kind of crescendo in "L'Argent" with a sequence that intercuts a daring plane flight with an uproar at the stock market, was not completely withdrawn in the 1930s or 1940s.

L'Herbier also became a pioneer in film education by helping found the national film academy, IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques), in 1943 and by producing several television shows about movie history and culture after his feature-directing career dwindled away in the 1950s.

When the opportunity of catching up with the rare complete L'Herbier feature has arisen, I have been amazed and delighted. It's exhilarating to see how much sheer fun he seemed to have while discovering and manipulating the pictorial and rhythmic potentialities in cameras, settings and editing techniques.

Twenty years ago, the American Film Institute Theater revived a quartet of L'Herbier movies from a later period while showcasing selections from a far more extensive Museum of Modern Art Film Library retrospective called "Rediscovering French Film." No single rediscovery seemed as sumptuous or clever as L'Herbier's 1931 murder farce, "Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir," derived from a Gaston Leroux mystery novel and every bit as intoxicating as the title promised.

A biographer, Noel Burch, caught L'Herbier in a reflective mood about the transition period from silents to sound: "When sound came you had to exercise a good deal of auto-censorship and even accept forms of cinema which were the very ones I'd always avoided. Because of the dialogue, we were suddenly obliged simply to can plays." From the evidence of "Dame en Noir," L'Herbier was not incapable of finessing the new requirements.

Whimsically, the National Gallery will revive a quintet of Sacha Guitry films in February, illustrating the "canned play" at its wittiest, synthesized by an exceptionally playful and adroit man of the theater. Guitry (1885-1957) avoided a close association with the movies until the middle 1930s because he underestimated the cinematic potential in the sort of theatrical farce that had been his specialty for two decades.

Accustomed to writing two or three plays for himself a season, Guitry was 50 by the time he woke up to the fact that his peerlessly conceited and sophisticated talents might be suitable for the other medium, which gained an enormous amount of sophistication and assurance in return from such inimitable comedies as "The Story of a Cheat" and "The Pearls of the Crown."

Marcel L'Herbier had made one of the gaudiest budget-busters of the 1920s in "L'Argent," a lavish social satire about cutthroat capitalism, right up there with Abel Gance's "Napoleon" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" as an extravagant classic. The narration in Kevin Brownlow's documentary, "Cinema Europe," borrows the sobriquet "aristocrat of the avant-garde" when focusing on L'Herbier and the production of "L'Argent," which was released in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash.

While there must have been other aristocrats in the mix, L'Herbier was flush enough to finance his own production company in the middle of the decade. He required substantial financing from Germany to keep "L'Argent" afloat. To a European film industry in the throes of the Depression, he might have looked like an excessively pricey holdover from the Roaring '20s, especially if permitted a long leash.

The earliest title in the retrospective, "L'Homme du Large," made in 1920, will be shown after "L'Argent" and "Feu Mathias Pascal," which was released in 1925 and seems to be his most respected work of the decade. The premise of "Feu" sounds wonderful: The exiled Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine plays a harried and grief-stricken librarian whose trip abroad acquires a simultaneously liberating and complicating dimension with a false report of his own death.

These three movies were all adaptations from Balzac, Zola and Pirandello, respectively. The final L'Herbier selection, "L'Inhumaine," released in 1924, was closer to an original scenario. According to film historian Georges Sadoul, "The film was a total critical and commercial failure and marked the end of the impressionism movement in films." At this late date, such an epitaph makes a film sound irresistible.

Applied to movies of the early 1920s, "impressionism" was a blanket term covering stylistic abstraction and experimentation at large. "L'Inhumaine" alluded to a wealthy and heartless vamp played by Georgette Leblanc, a popular singer in search of a stunning movie vehicle. She lost a bundle of her own money on this debacle, which entrusted sets to different designers (Fernand Leger, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Alberto Cavalcanti, Claude Autant-Lara) and commissioned an original score, now lost, from Darius Milhaud.

Moviegoers who have just encountered starlet Brigitte Helm in the recent Washington revivals of Lang's "Metropolis" may want to catch up with her subsequent portrayal of an ultraslinky femme fatale for L'Herbier in "L'Argent."

Between the L'Herbier and Guitry miniretrospectives, the National Gallery also will devote a weekend to two films directed by Jean Gremillon, whose inventory probably deserves a closer look in this country.

The French spurt concludes with a single feature by Jean Renoir, his 1925 adaptation of Zola's "Nana," a misbegotten starring vehicle for his wife, Catherine Hessling, who wasn't ready to become a screen goddess and never would be.

EVENT: Revivals of vintage French movies, 1915-1943

WHEN: Weekends during January and February

WHERE: Auditorium of the National Gallery of Art East Building, Constitution Avenue and Fourth Street NW.


PHONE: 202/737-4215.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide