Presenting the Best Silent Filmmaker Film History Has Never Heard Of

09/09/2009 5:34 PM |

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The history of film is anything but set in stone. New discoveries, much-needed restorations and increased availability often change our perspective on topics long since thought to be behind us. The most exciting and intriguing part of Kino’s new 3-DVD box set Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913 isn’t the work of either of the already celebrated filmmakers—Alice Guy (among the very first women filmmakers) or Louis Feuillade (the stylized master of series such as Les Vampires and Judex)—but a relatively obscure name whose films have been absent from shelves, and whose legacy has unfortunately been overlooked: Léonce Perret. One of the most prominent figures at France’s legendary Gaumont studios (which, 114 years after its inception in 1895, continues to be an active and powerful presence in the international film scene), Perret’s multiple roles as director, writer, and star, combined with the popularity of his films in both France and the US (where he briefly worked), and their visual sophistication that sets him apart from his contemporaries, suggests that we may have been missing out on a major auteur all these years.

Perret’s 1912 film The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador may only be 43 minutes, but at its center is a forward-thinking theoretical take on cinema and psychology that is far more sophisticated than most writings on the subject at the time. A young woman stands to be disinherited from a will should she either go insane or join a convent, in which case all the money would be left to her cousin. After she rejects his amorous advances, he plots to shoot her lover, frame her, and in the process drive her irreversibly insane. And it would have worked, except for a crafty detective who films a recreation of the crime scene and shows it to the young woman in order to bring her out of the amnesiac trance. This linking of memory, trauma and film seems all the more impressive considering Hugo Münsterberg’s influential study on psychology and film didn’t appear until four years later in 1916.

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The Child of Paris (1913), however, is the hidden treasure of the whole box set. If all you’ve seen from this era is D.W. Griffith, then you have a marvelous surprise ahead of you. Escaping from boarding school, a young girl unknowingly leaps into the clutches of a kidnapper who uses her for slave labor while holding her for ransom. With its poetic lighting and naturalistic performances (nothing at all histrionic here), it is no stretch of the imagination to see how Perret helped pave the way for someone like Marcel Carne and his Port of Shadows (1938). In particular, Perret loves to use two separate lighting schemes in the shots, emphasizing different areas of extreme light and dark: the young girl’s escape from the dormitory into the black corridor evocatively captures her journey into uncharted territory and an uncertain future; likewise, the shot of her brooding father in the foreground is off-set by a brightly lit window far in the background, with a shadowy corridor in between marking the psychological distance between him and the rest of the world. And with Kino’s usual standard of excellence, Perret’s complex lighting structures and compositions are rendered flawlessly onto DVD, allowing us to truly appreciate and enjoy his achievements.

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Also on DVD this week:

Homicide (1991) (Criterion, Region 1) – The much-underrated Joe Mantegna stars in this David Mamet-helmed cop thriller about a police officer who, in the course of investigating the murder of a candy shop owner, must confront his own Jewish identity.

The Human Condition (1959-61) (Criterion, Region 1) – Tatsuya Nakadai’s list of acting credits reads like a list of Greatest Japanese Movies of all Time, and The Human Condition is one of his finest achievements. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, this nine-and-a-half hour epic follows Nakadai as he struggles to survive the atrocities World War II.

Model Shop (1969) (Sony, Region 1) – French New Waver Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) crosses the Atlantic to make a film in Hollywood with Eurpean siren Anouk Aimee, star of Demy’s Lola. Here she also plays a woman named Lola, who has a brief affair with young American stud Gary Lockwood.