The Forgotten: Never Explain a Mystery, Never Wake a Sleepwalker

At around the time that the Vicomte de Noailles was dabbling in film finance with Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet and Buñuel's L'Age d'Or, another aristocrat, the Belgian duke Henri D'Ursel, adopted a pseudonym to direct and star in La perle (1929), a short surrealist fantasia owing much to the twin influences of Murnau's Nosferatu and Feuillade's Les vampires.

It's a charming and elegant (and slightly sinister) piece. We're told that the surrealists admired Feuillade partly because they saw his serials without the intertitles, which had been lost, so the plotlines, already oneiric and chancy, became even more opaque, transforming from linear thrillers into a random series of outrages. D'Ursel, following Murnau's lead in The Last Laugh, has only one letter and no intertitles at all, leaving us to more or less invent our own narrative to make sense of the dreamy events he depicts.

This much is certain (sort of): a pearl is harvested from the ocean in a Méliès-like bit of phony underwater action and is attached to a necklace. A young man buys the string of pearls, but a sexy female thief steals them. And then ensues a series of dreams, erotic encounters, mysteries, and indeed the whole thing may be embedded within another dream, and we are free to invent further dreamers outside the film who may be dreaming it, or even dreaming us.

"My Lulu, I had bought for you the most beautiful of pearls. It was stolen from me and I offered it to the thief herself out of love. You cannot forgive my unforgivable weakness. And I hope that you sleep without pain in your garden, without pain and without believing your eyes, Georges."

The sudden appearance of a female somnambulist stalking the rooftops in her nightgown is genuinely startling, even though it's derived all too closely from Nosferatu. The thief in her latex catsuit deliberately recalls Musidora as Irma Vep, but it's interesting to note that (a) The 1910s were already exotically nostalgic in 1929 and (b) fashions in body shape mean that Musidora's eye-openingly outlined breasts have no real equivalent in the age of the flapper, but Kissa Kouprine (also featured in several of L'Herbier's art deco romances) makes up for that with her slinky jazz baby frame and enticingly trim buttocks, straining against their membranous covering.

The whole movie simmers with sex and kink, from the leering close-ups of stockinged thighs, to the giallo-like homicidal impulses that seize the hero. D'Ursel said he made the film "in the flush of inexperience," and one wonders if the obsessive focus on what Preston Sturges called "Topic A," albeit filtered through every kind of fetishistic displacement, was simply the attempt of an artistic young man to stage a few scenes in which he could interact intimately with glamorous women.

Whatever the excuse, the result is an alluring, at times beautiful and eerie objet d'art. I do hope it got him laid. D'Ursel promptly retired from active filmmaking, but ran avant garde film festivals in Brussels: this was his only movie.

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

Responses

5 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • David Ehrenstein
    I believe ti is art of the permanent collection at Anthology Film Archives.

    While she’s Musidora, he reminds me ofanother moviemaking aristocrat —Nicolas de Ginzburg who starred in Dreyer’s “Vampyr” as “Julian West.”

  • Aaron G.

    I love this. Thank you!

  • David Cairns

    Those gliding corridor shots are quite Vampyr-like and VERY dreamlike and Lynchian. But of course this came first!

    Glad you enjoyed, Aaron!

  • Jesse Prinz

    Fantastic piece — both the film and the write-up. I loved your observations about: fetishistic displacement, the nostalgic exoticism of the 1910’s, and the dream within a dream. One question: isn’t the lead actor Hugnet? That is consistent with the thesis that D’Ursel was using the film as a pretext for intimate contact, but his contact may have been somewhat displaced. Hugnet, who wrote the scenario, may have has similar intentions. Or perhaps the intentions were Kissa Kouprine’s, the Vep character, who seems to be enjoying herself most of all. She also appears in some lesser films by Marcel L’Herbier.

    Thanks for helping to bring this treasure to light.

  • David Cairns

    Ack! You’re right. But you’re also right that the point, slightly adapted, still stands.

    Kouprine’s L’Herbier films aren’t so minor: certainly The Mystery of the Yellow Chamber and The Perfume of the Lady in Black are terrifically experimental early sound films, and rip-roaring good yarns. They’re also impossibly glamorous, which is clearly a Kouprine trademark.

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