Friday, May 07, 2004

Dans la Nuit (with the Alloy Orchestra)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2004 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Music for Silent Films)

Maybe my expectations were too high after the director of the MFA's film program stood up in front of the audience to say that Dans la Nuit was one of the greatest silent films ever made. Throw in that the Alloy Orchestra had chosen this film to score and was presenting it alongside an undisputed classic like The General, and I was expecting rather a lot. Dans al Nuit wasn't able to capture my full attention, though, and in a silent film, that's fatal.

Many people who have never watched a silent feature (a person in the audience behind me didn't even know who Charlie Chaplin was) don't quite understand what an act of concentration it can be. It's not just the silence; just by dint of when most were made, silents are also generaly black-and-white and not widescreen. There's no place for your eyes to go when your interest starts to wane, and the film consists mostly of long, static shots. None of the modern crutches are available, so following along requires more of an effort on the audience member's part. The flip side of this is that one must pay close attention to the visuals, and will likely appreciate them more. I don't deny that writer/director/star Charles Vanel (who would continue to act until the age of 96, but never directed another feature) created some striking imagery, but his storytelling could have used work.

The story is an interesting one - a newly-wed man who works in a mine is horribly disfigured in an accident, to the point where he must wear a mask in public, and even his wife cannot bear to look upon his face. She takes another lover, and they eventually plot against the husband. I'll admit my failing here - a combination of seeing the movie right after work, the demands of watching a silent movie (with the Orchestra's shouted translation for the french subtitles sometimes barely audible over the music), and a warm theater may have resulted in a five-minute nap. It was not immediately clear to me why the wife's lover was wearing a similar mask when he came to murder the husband, though that did make for a neat visual. Also, while it's possible that the film's final scene wasn't a hoary cliché back in 1929, I tend to think it was.

Still, the movie does do several things well. While I think the opening scene with the wedding was perhaps too drawn-out, the scenes at the mine are very nice, with interesting visuals and careful set-up for what happens. Vanel uses some relatively sophisticated techniques for the silent era, such as flashbacks, montage, and rewinding the story to show what had happened previously from a new perspective. He also uses subtitles rather than intertitles to prevent having to cut away from a scene when the dialogue is important enough.

I'm not enough of an expert on silent film to know what place Dans la Nuit has in filmmaking history, although it is a good film, well worth seeing if the opportunity arises. The Alloy Orchestra's score is also very good; I can scarcely imagine the film without it.

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