Wednesday 9 March 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (46) - Max Berghouse retrieves and reviews Maman Colibri (1929) a silent masterpiece

Maman Colibri (Eng: "Mother Hummingbird"), Julien Duvivier (Director), Script by Duvivier, Joe May, Noel Renard and Hans Szekely; Film Art Company (Producer). Based on a play by Henri Bataille of the same name (1904). Starring Maria Jacobini (Baroness Irene de Rysbergue) Francis Lederer (Georges de Chambry), Jean Dax (Baron de Rysbergue), Jean GĂ©rard and John-Paul de Baere (respectively Richard and Paul, children of the Baron and Baroness). France, 1929,

Maria Jacobini
This, the last silent film of the director, was based upon a quite recent play by M Henri Bataille from 1904. The playwright's work was, until his death in 1922, extremely popular. Much of his subject matter concerns the stifling effects of social convention on life and in particular personal relationships and I think this has to some considerable extent affected reviews of the film. Before commencing this review I glanced at some critiques which indicated that the film was concerned with an essentially selfish heroine (the Baroness) who abandons her loving if somewhat reserved and stern husband and two children for the pleasures of a relationship with a young cavalry officer (Georges), friend of her elder son Richard, who is due back on service in Algeria.

Given her antics in the early scenes, trying on extravagant clothing for a forthcoming ball, this might well be regarded as the depressing extravagance of the haute bourgeoisie but this family is clearly absolutely loaded. Incidentally the Baroness acquires the name "Mother Hummingbird" from her younger son who sees her in one of the proposed ball gowns for the coming evening ball (her hat for the gown resembles a bird's beak). They live in quite spectacular accommodation which the director evokes quite clearly. Of course being landed gentry, they have "a place in the country", about the size of a city block. The behaviour of the Baroness is entirely typical of her class and she is not shown as being self-indulgent or selfish. Indeed she is portrayed as being quite cultured, regularly playing the piano.

Francis Lederer
The Baroness meets and instantly falls for the much younger cavalry officer. Francis Lederer, a German Czech by background, was considered at the time an extremely good-looking man although I don't think he would be so considered today. The attraction is portrayed as completely natural with neither party trying to manipulate the other, nor seeking some unfair advantage. She is totally smitten, but so is he. The fact that the relationship is "improper" given the differences in age, is something we can see but that perception is not something available to the two  lovers. They depart for Algeria which was then in effect a substantial colonial state, part of the French Empire but legally treated as part of metropolitan France itself. It's just possible that the location shots of Algeria were shot in some parts of southern France which can be quite desert like, but the higher likelihood is that the location shots were done in Algeria itself. Close though that country might be to metropolitan France, it remained exotic and substantially unknown to the population. The shots of Algeria are extraordinarily interesting, principally because they are real and not studio-based.

The couple live in delicious splendour in a European – Islamic Villa, rather isolated from the community. It is, I suppose, the then equivalent of a gated community where ultimately the relationship breaks down because Georges becomes enamoured of a "pretty young thing" more his age. Irene comes to a mature sense of the, not so much of the folly of the relationship, but the inevitability of its decline. She returns to Paris and by chance meets her younger son, who takes her into the family home, to see her new grandchild in the family nursery. She shows a real sense of serenity in acknowledging one of the main consequences of mature married life. The Baron returns home and there is some inkling of a reconciliation of sorts, even though enormous damage has been done.

Viewed in this way, the film is of a piece with much of this director' s oeuvre – a pessimism about the realistic expectations one should have about life. One is born, marries, produces and dies!

Perhaps not a major film of this director because inevitably it is rather easier to produce a fully rounded masterpiece when sound is applied. This remains however a very, very superior work indeed. I've already mentioned the benefits that we current viewers have as to the location work in Algeria. In addition to this the director always seems to "place" his films in exactly the right milieu. For example – and this seems consistent throughout the director' s working life – the cars used by the family and their circle are perfectly appropriate for their class and period. I'm not intimately familiar with vintage cars but the Baron's car appears to be a brand-new top end Renault model. The clothing, the servants, everything seems perfectly appropriate.

Because silent movie cameras are very light in comparison with (certainly early model) sound cameras, the director is much more able to use an extremely graceful and fluid style of frequently long tracking shots. For example the ball scene is superbly crafted. This is coupled by a very graceful use of close-up which is allied to getting quite superb performances from Miss Jacobini and Mr Lederer.

The director was still a young man when this film was produced but it is an extremely mature work. Although silent, it is complete unto itself. It does not need sound and in fact, I doubt that it would benefit from it. Certainly had sound been available to the director, I don't think he would have created the film as well as he did.

I know very little about the director' s silent period work and my several viewings of this film have come as a revelation.

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