Abel Gance’s 1919 melodrama of daydreams/nightmares, provincial maids peering out windows onto dandy lovers and eventually The Great War, has medieval feeling for a modern-day ménage-a-trois. In the same year as Griffith’s The Girl Who Stayed Home, with its upended cross-cuts between both spaces and times circulating freely amongst each other as if in a line of thought, Gance takes war as the essence of consciousness and movie-making. The shot-reverse shots are like shrapnel: anticipations and memories, dreams and nightmares, shadowy ideals and minute realities, people and their visions, light and dark, all opposed at first and finally fused in the chiaroscuro sight of a couple and an operatic beat. What’s heroic in Gance’s modern hell is simply the recognition of where they are in time, detached from everything they’ve known, and the particularities of dealing with it: sleeping in the mud or cleaning up a meal.
Dreams and montage merge major/minor thrills of heaven and hell into a superimposed skeleton dance of the living and the dead unmoored from each other, tradition, the landscape, love, reason, and all past; each shot reconfigures the last. Bruegel’s invoked, Romanticism elegized as in Romances, but the tragedy’s that there’s no Tragedy: war vets discover they died senselessly and shout the title as collective unconscious. The large-format form, location shooting, intertitles of real soldiers’ love letters, and catch-release rhythms of irises/wide-shots, still-shots/dollies, blues/reds, is modernist: a strained meter for time and a country’s conscience in shards.