Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Short Take: Ménilmontant

Ménilmontant, Dimitri Kirsanoff's 1926 silent-film masterpiece, is heartbreakingly beautiful. A couple is murdered in rural France. Their daughters (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) move to the working-class Paris neighborhood of the film's title. They share everything: a room, food, and the same employer--both work in a sweatshop putting together artificial flowers. But a young man (Guy Belmont) seduces one sister, and then the other. Their feelings of jealousy and betrayal drive them apart. Both end up destitute. The younger sister (Sibiriskaïa) is left with a baby to care for, and the older one (Bealieu) turns to prostitution. The film's style is unique. There are no intertitles; the story is presented entirely in visuals. Kirsanoff appeared inspired by the Futurist aesthetic. The jagged camera movements, rapid editing, and canny use of superimposition give the picture a jazzy immediacy that makes it perhaps the most modern in feeling of all silent pictures. He also displays a hauntingly expressive sense of metaphor. When the younger sister carries her newborn through the streets, every element--the buildings, the pavement, the sight of the Seine--takes the viewer inside her desperation. The loveliest moment is one of hope and generosity: an old man shares his food with her on a park bench. It's almost matched by the scene of the sisters' reconciliation. Kirsanoff was blessed to have Nadia Sibirskaïa as his leading lady. (She was also his wife.) Her clear-eyed beauty and emotional transparency are a good part of what makes the picture so memorable. The great movie critic Pauline Kael considered the film her all-time favorite. Seeing it, there's little wonder why.

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