Cocteau’s comment is the most often quoted: “There is cinema before and after La Roue just as there is painting before and after Picasso.”
The story is simple. Railway engineer Sisif rescues a child orphaned by a train wreck. He brings her up with his young son who does not know she is not his sister. Once Norma is grown Sisif (Severin-Mars) and son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) both find themselves in love with her. An early film critic (in Le Courier cinematographique) used the adjective unwholesome in describing La Roue; and he strikes a nerve. There is no literal incest here, yet the entire film seethes with a sense of unlawful attraction. For the record — and SPOILER ALERT — Elie never consciously allows expression of his attraction to Norma until he learns that she is not really his sister.
Norma is also the highly desired object of affection of De Hersan, Sisif’s boss. The plot revolves around three men’s passion for a completely uninteresting woman: She can only be uninteresting: We never learn anything about her despite hours of close-ups. This completely uninteresting woman is played by — sorry! — an actress not in the least attractive (Ivy Close). As a character she becomes close to unlikeable when, on her father’s demand, she marries De Hersan whom she does not even like and is never civil to for a single day of their marriage.
We learn no more about the other characters. We are expected to believe, without evidence, that Elie finds and loves music and thrives on violin making without ever leaving the family cottage built among the rails. How did he learn to make a violin? About Sisif we know that he is passionate about his train, almost as passionate about his adopted daughter and that he has both a temper and a penchant for the bottle.
This is a four and a half hour film in its present version. So much time is invested in everything that sequence and character become blurred. How many times can brother and sister be reprimanded as misbehaving children, then repeat the same behavior for another reprimand? One is reminded of all those lengthy scenes in Stroheim’s Queen Kelly filled with so many shots of faces and no accompanying development of character, no advancement of the narrative, as if time spent must mean added significance. Pauline Kael is dead-on here when she refers to “the overblown pretentions of the characterization.”
One of the intertitles reads: “Work comes first. The Wheel has to keep turning.” Gance’s reputation rests largely on what is considered his contribution to the grammar of film. The editing is interesting, and its rapidity, for its time, often remarkable. Turner Classic Movies shows a fine print which gives the film every advantage; but for this story the outstanding photography is often too beautiful. Norma and Elie talk of the constant noise and smoke, but the film’s visuals make it all lovely.
I am almost as uncomfortable flying in the critical face of Jean Cocteau as I am agreeing with Pauline Kael. Kevin Brownlow is an admirer of the film, too. But not all critics have been as smitten. George Sadoul wrote “much style but not a great deal of taste.” Bardeche and Brasillac: “It would have been laughed off the screen had not everything else been effaced by its technical mastery” and its “poetic quality.” The great Clair noted its “superficial psychology” but “an extraordinary lyricism.” And Clair again: “If only he would renounce literature and have confidence in cinema!”
La Roue remains, unavoidably, a cinema milestone, what John Ewing of the Cleveland Cinematheque would call an essential film. I will always take an opportunity to view it again. At this time I do lean with those having major reservations rather than with those writers rhapsodizing over its lyricism.
I am grateful to Pauline Kael for pulling together the remarks of classical commentators for her article on Gance in John Wakeman’s World Film Directors. Sources tend to give 1923 as the date for La Roue which, according to Kael in Wakeman, was first released in Paris in 1922. It is based on Paul Hamp’s book called Le Rail, described by Kael as a proletarian novel. — I apologize for my current keyboard’s lack of French accents.
Reminder: The career of Leslie Howard continues on Turner Classic Movies.
NEXT POST, Friday July 20
See you at the movies,