The Forgotten: Prison Break

An early sound film full of experimentation and expressionism.
David Cairns

The second in a short series celebrating the films of the Pathé-Natan company, 1926-1934. 

La petite Lise

La petite Lise (1930) seems like a film from Mars. It's so dazzling and unique that it should be a textbook classic, and then it wouldn't be so startling. I suppose its failure to perform at the box office is all the explanation we need for why it didn't join the canon, although other commercially unsuccessful movies have managed it. It's finally emerging into the light, I think, and taking its place as a truly innovative early sound film: dialogue occupies such a distant third place in the film's scheme that calling it a talkie seems quite wrong.

La petite Lise

One anecdote stands out: when producer Bernard Natan first saw the film Jean Grémillon had made for his company, he told the director that he'd never again be employed by Pathè-Natan, in such forceful terms that Grémillon ran out of the screening room to throw up in the street. Most accounts suggest that the extreme bleakness of Lise's story explains Natan's hostile reaction, but this was, after all, the man who would later fund Les misérables (1934), which doesn't shy away from the tawdry and tragic. The depiction of social deprivation doesn't automatically render a film uncommercial.  Les misérables actually shares plot elements with La petite Lise (an ex-convict must protect his daughter at the risk of returning to prison). So it seems quite probable that the producer's adverse reaction may have been caused more by Grémillon's unsympathetic, stereotypical and borderline anti-semitic portrayal of a Jewish pawnbroker. This character isn't quite a full-blown racial caricature, perhaps, but he's awfully close, and while his murder isn't celebrated, it's presented more as a problem for the perpetrators than as a tragedy in its own right.

La petite Lise

Grémillon's film stars the hulking Pierre Alcover, fresh from L'Herbier's L'argent, as the ex-con, and Nadia Sibirskaya, wife of Dimitri Kirsanoff and star of his great Ménilmontant.  As Lise, the convict's daughter, she brings her fragile beauty and nervous, intelligent performance style to bear on the potentially melodramatic story. In one very nice moment she answers a question "Oui," with a tiny shake of the head, the kind of micro-body language "tell" that loses poker games.

La petite Lise

The plot is stripped to the bones, and very deliberately. Screenwriter Charles Spaak, one of the great voices of thirties and forties French cinema, seems to have drawn on not just Victor Hugo but Dostoyevsky also, to create a low-life drama which yokes the working class realism of the 19th century novel to the expressive qualities of the twenties French avant garde (Epstein, L'Herbier, Delluc, Dulac).

How this works is by allowing the slender plot to gather in extended scenes in which we simply inhabit the film's environment, soaking up the oppressive atmosphere. The opening prison scene is a good example. Grémillon's camera drifts aimlessly. Isolated moments are served up in close-up, often to be returned to repeatedly. And all the while the soundtrack is a cacophony of live song, reverberant yammering, and other random sound effects.

In these, the earliest days of sound cinema (the first French talkies were made just months before), Grémillon has realized that the medium can be most effective when sound is asynchronous: rather than simply adding the weight of accompanying sound to an image of, say, a door slamming, it can introduce a whole offscreen world, and work upon the audience like a drug, lulling and throbbing. Conversations are often staged with the actors facing away, so we can follow them down a street. And at a climactic moment, Grémillon audaciously rips out the diegetic sound of a rowdy night club to replace it with an aural flashback of the clanking and moaning of prison: then he cuts to the prison as seen earlier, but lets the up-tempo melodies of the night club wash over it. The effect seems decades ahead of its time, although one remembers similar technique, used for purely surreal effect, in Buñuel. (Don Luis would assist Grémillon in 1937 on Centinela, Alerta!).

With La petite Lise we're being shown an alternative sound film, one which would show itself only in glimpses in the ensuing decades. Dialogue is sidelined, and the atmospheric value of long passages of interwoven noise is exploited. Contemporary audiences seem to have rebelled against the stop-start plotting which serves mainly to leapfrog us from one soundscape to the next, but it doesn't seem to try the patience now: not when each sequence has such a rhythmic grip. The footage exerts some kind of documentary conviction, even though it's all staged, and the accompanying sounds work like a wordless incantation.

La petite Lise

In one sense, the impressionist/expressionist school have won: few filmmakers today seek to reproduce the playgoing experience, or harness an observational style to merely show what things look like. Even Ken Loach cheats by using a musical score, so he too is trying to evoke the feeling of experiences rather than just their outward seeming. And so Grémillon and his avant-garde forebears now seem to be absolutely up-to-date, their only exotic aspects being the setting of the films in a distant twentieth century, and the way they not only conjure psychological states on the screen, but languish exultantly in them, only seizing the narrative ribbon as its last trailing tatters whisk past.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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