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The Forgotten: The One-Man Band

Two sisters are torn apart by romantic entanglements in a Paris slum. Dimitri Kirsanoff achieves unique screen poetry.
David Cairns

Ménilmontant (1926) was written, directed, produced, edited and co-photographed in Paris by Dimitri Kirsanoff. And it is, on any terms, a remarkable piece of writing, direction, production, editing and cinematography.
I'm not sure why Marcel L'Herbier and Jean Epstein seem to be regarded as almost marginal figures in cinema, important, but somehow off the beaten path. I think they're as major as you can get. But Kirsanoff is even more neglected: he barely has a toehold in film history at all. And he seems to me to be in their league, though as yet I've seen only a little of his work. I'd even say that for Ménilmontant alone he should be in the highest ranks of French silent filmmakers. His career includes short, experimental films, as well as low-life melodramas and a German mountain film with Dita Parlo. His last film dates from 1957, the year of his death.
Ménilmontant falls into the low-life melodrama category: two sisters move into the slum area of the title, and romantic entanglements nearly destroy their relationship and their lives. Kirsanoff tells the whole story with no intertitles whatsoever (that's one less than Murnau managed in The Last Laugh). Like Epstein, Kirsanoff jettisons any notion of narrative economy in order to wallow in the moment, employing lingering close-ups and multiple views of the same action, exulting in impressionistic lighting effects and expressionistic angles, distending time and hyping emotion to operatic heights of indulgence.
He also serves up lengthy, abstract montages in which the film aspires to become a city symphony, melting through the Paris streets in long double exposures, while tying the scenery to character psychology so that the cityscape seems to emote: travelogue as pathetic fallacy. Some of the lap dissolve meshing of streets and bodies can properly be called Lynchian, particularly when he films one girl nude, her body both divided by patterned shadows and overlain with handheld shots of pavements and automobiles.
And yet, while reveling in long, distended reveries of mood and light, he can also truncate or fragment time, as with the film's opening, a traumatic and unexplained murder which propels the protagonists from countryside to city. A flurry of close-ups: lace curtains torn down by flailing hands; anguished faces; a raised axe bitten into by searing sunlight, and then, abruptly, playing children, unaware that their prelapsarian idyll is about to disintegrate.
Focussing on the youngest, Kirsanoff films her reaction to the crowd of onlookers assembled around her parents' bodies with a series of ever-tightening close-ups, jolting straight in on her wide-eyed face as the truth comes home to her. Just as James Whale introduced the Frankenstein monster, actually: but Whale used jump-cuts to produce shock in the audience, while Kirsanoff uses it to evoke the character's own trauma. The next shot plants her in medium shot in an avenue of trees, and the focus is on the background, leaving the ostensible subject of the shot a grey smear, utterly lost.
In Nadia Sibirskaia, his first wife, he has a face to photograph as profound, beautiful and expressive as Lillian Gish's.
You'll be hearing more from me about Kirsanoff, who fits the profile of a great, forgotten filmmaker better than anyone I've yet encountered in the years I've been writing this column. And I hope you can tell me something about the guy.
***
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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