For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

The Forgotten: The One-Man Band

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

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.
Not at all marginal as far as New York’s “Anthology Film Archives” is concerned. “Menilmontant” was part of its “Essential Cinema” repetory program from the very beginning and has been screened there for decades — right alongside the works of Griffith, Eisenstein and Stan Brakhage.
I’m glad to hear it — it’s just me that’s late to the party, then!
nrh
This film is pretty astonishing – Kirsanoff never really made anything that lived up to this level of achievement. I do recommend, however, the films he made into the sound period – especially his 1934 feature “Rapt,” which (along with those early Clair films) seems to suggest an alternate route that sound film making could have taken…He made an number of films in the ’40s and ’50s, and those ’50s films look pretty forgotten indeed…
One of Kirsanoff’s 1950s films, Le Crâneur, is available on DVD; it was released a couple of years ago in France, though I haven’t seen it.
One of my favorite films — thanks David.
The YouTube clips of Le Craneur make it look pretty good. Kirsanoff’s style is certainly more muted, but it’s still elegant, expressive filmmaking. Am very excited about seeing Rapt, also.
While I acknowledge that New York City is the center of the world, I have to agree with David C. overall in that Kirsanoff seems to be pretty unknown in the vast uncivilized world from what I can gather from my years of reading. Even someone as esoteric as Brakhage seems to me to be a major celebrity in comparison, only in comparison though of course. I suspect this is, in part, due to Kirsanoff not fitting as neatly into the usual narratives of film history which are commonly espoused where each time and place has a signature innovator or a small number of them who can be grouped together into something of a thematic whole which can then be taught as being the important thing to know about that place and era and how it connects to some evolutionary pattern put together to create a would be coherence out of the messiness of history.
That’s the trouble with history. I think it’s best to start by learning your film history, but then digging around to find the people who have been written out of it is likely to provide just as much pleasure and education. And one can feel, perhaps, a silly kind of ownership of these private discoveries, although that should only be a very small part of the joy.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features