Abel Gance’s La roue

Abel Gance’s La roue (1923)

If you’re the sort of person who eagerly greets an opportunity to devote seven hours of your life to a hundred-year-old silent melodrama loaded top to bottom with innovative trickery, then it’s likely you’re also the perfect reader for Paul Guff’s outstanding essay for a 2018 issue of Literature/Film Quarterly. La roue (1923), the feature Abel Gance made after J’accuse (1919) and before Napoléon (1927), screens in full with a thirty-minute intermission from noon to dinner hour on Saturday at the New York Film Festival and then again next week in two parts: Episodes 1 and 2 on Wednesday and 3 and 4 on Thursday.

Railroad engineer Sisif (Séverin-Mars) rushes to the site of a train wreck and discovers a survivor, an orphaned baby girl named Norma. Sisif takes her home to raise her along with his infant son, whose mother died in childbirth. Over the years, Norma blossoms into an irresistibly attractive woman (Ivy Close), and neither Sisif nor his son, Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), can help but fall for her. Jacques de Hersan (Pierre Magnier), the wealthy rail yard owner, learns of Sisif’s guilty passion and blackmails him into granting Norma’s hand in marriage. Tragic turn follows tragic turn when Hersan discovers the love letters Elie has written to Norma.

If you’re planning to see La roue cold, you should know that from here on down, there will be a few mild spoilers.

When La roue premiered over the course of three days at the Gaumont-Palace in Paris, the audience of six thousand leapt from their seats at the end of the third day, breaking into thunderous applause and cheers. They wouldn’t leave. Someone leapt to the stage and called out for the final reel to be projected again. “The lights went down, and the rapt audience relived Sisif’s death and the peasants’ spring dance in the mountain snowfields,” wrote Richard Abel in a 1983 essay for Cinema Journal. “Once more the applause broke out.” None other than Jean Cocteau is supposed to have said, though Paul Guff wonders if he actually did, “There is cinema before and after La roue, as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

La roue met the fate of so many films of its era, cut down—by Gance himself—for international distribution, with great swaths lost to far-flung archives. That two-and-a-half-hour cut expanded to a four-and-a-half-hour reconstruction that Flicker Alley released on DVD in 2008. Reception was mixed. “Gance seems to have been the first filmmaker to realize that one could use rhythmic, accelerated editing to portray extreme states of mind,” noted Kristin Thompson in a 2012 video essay she made with Kevin B. Lee. Thompson focuses on two scenes, the first being a terrifying train ride into Paris.

“Decelerating editing down to a series of shots six and seven frames long convey [Sisif’s] despair and Norma’s growing anxiety,” observes Thompson. “Second, as Elie hangs at the top of a cliff and hears Norma approaching to save him, Gance takes the phrase ‘his life flashed before his eyes’ literally and edits together short shots of the two of them from earlier scenes, culminating in a flurry of single frames just before he falls. Those scenes were to influence numerous filmmakers, including the Soviet Montage directors.” All well and good, but: “By the end, I personally am left with a sense of a mixture of brilliance and self-indulgence.”

Reviewing Flicker Alley’s DVD for the New York Times, Dave Kehr issued a similar verdict. He noted that La roue was “inspired by the nineteenth-century social epics of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, and reflecting in equal measure Hugo’s dense, multigenerational plotting and Zola’s theories of biological predetermination. The result was a story that applied themes of incest and alcoholism to a sweeping narrative covering several decades and moving from the dark, grimy railroad yards of Nice to the blindingly white vistas of Mont Blanc.” Kehr found that the “psychology of the central relationships seems crudely deterministic,” but also that La roue “still fascinates as a grab bag of experimental techniques, which do not all belong in the same movie, but which clearly dazzled audiences of the time with the formal possibilities of this still relatively new medium.”

The full reconstruction overseen by the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, working in collaboration with the Cinémathèque française, the Cinémathèque Suisse, and Pathé, premiered at the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon in 2019 and now finally arrives in New York. It was in anticipation of this restoration that Guff wrote the essay in which he explored three “neglected literary influences: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Victor Hugo, Rudyard Kipling. I am interested in these figures precisely (perhaps perversely) because of their unfashionability within modern cultural studies. Appreciation for prodigious expressive talent is frequently outweighed by embarrassment at their ideological romanticism (Hugo), nationalism (D’Annunzio), or imperialism (Kipling).”

But Guff forged ahead, and the results are richly rewarding, revealing how deeply Gance was steeped in the literary worlds conjured by these writers. Thematic and stylistic echoes led more than a few contemporary critics to credit Gance’s assistant director, the poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars, with the facets of La roue they most—or, in some cases, least—appreciated. For Guff, “Gance’s protracted tale of desire, grief, and reconciliation possesses aspects that are at once realistic and symbolic, morbid and humorous, pessimistic and uplifting, material and spiritual.”

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