When the world gets to a point where it no longer expects to be hit into excitement or tickled into guffaws by every film, when speed isn’t the test of a film – and that time isn’t so far distant – the French film will come into its own in the world’s eyes and the eyes of France. – Harry Alan Potamkin, The French Film, 1930
When Harry Alan Potamkin wrote his article The French Film for the publication Cinema in 1930, I am sure he had no idea how far away we’d still be in 2017 from a time when “speed isn’t the test of a film”. I can say that, from my own experience as a teacher, that it is speed, the speed of cinema today versus the speed of the cinema ten or twenty years ago, that is the primary prohibitive factor that keeps today’s youth from discovering the cinema’s history. But why distinguish narrative cinema by a binary complex of “art” and “entertainment” at all?
I believe there is something to be said for films whose system of aesthetic values defy categorization as either “entertainment” or as “art”. There exists between the two, the “speedy” and the “slow”, a happy medium where, on rare occasions, a different kind of cinema occurs. In this medium zone one would probably find such classics as Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly (1993), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012); each film a brilliant, genre defying accumulation of incongruous cinematic expressions whose singular totality yields new and sometimes profound insights as to how we perceive and interpret films.
One of the truly anomalous works of cinematic art I have encountered, as strange and threatening as Tough Guys Don’t Dance but as chaotic as The Paperboy, is Le Brasier Ardent (1923). Le Brasier Ardent brings together such conflicting elements that its relatively fluid narrative trajectory should, under no circumstances, function cohesively; and yet it does. The film opens with what appears to be a D.W. Griffith inspired piece of metaphorical moralization which transitions into a slapstick styled satire (featuring a gadget infused bed and a speaking dog) that transitions once more into a different style altogether that combines Louis Feuillade’s sense of pulp with Fritz Lang’s sense of design to comic effect. The hero of Le Brasier Ardent, Detective Z., is equally absurd. He first appears as a Dr. Mabuse style vilain in a dream, then reappears in “reality” sporting a bizarre disguise only to metamorphose into a series of other personalities, in rather quick succession, including a dapper private eye, a grandma’s boy, a bumbling clown, a sadistic pianist, and finally, a giddy man-child.
The reason why all of this nonsense seems to work is because of Le Brasier Ardent’s star/director/writer Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine, a prominent member of Films Albatross, was a highly regarded actor in his day who only directed two films (of which Le Brasier Ardent is the second and last). The lack of a formal regard for the cinematographic, coupled with Mosjoukine’s sincere interest in exploring notions of fantasy, combined to create one of the most highly original and entertaining films France produced in the early twenties. According to the excellent Flicker Alley DVD liner notes to Le Brasier Ardent, this was the film that inspired Jean Renoir to first pursue a career in the cinema.
In many ways the genius moments of stylistic juxtaposition in Le Brasier Ardent are the byproduct of an amateurism; much in the same way that the beauty of Flaming Creatures (1963) was the byproduct of Jack Smith’s relative amateurism. The disregard for formal convention is one thing that, in most cases, cannot actually sustain a film on its own. Luckily, Mosjoukine’s own aesthetic convictions, as well as his charisma on screen, sustain Le Brasier Ardent where it may otherwise fail visually. Even more important though to the complex of Le Brasier Ardent’s various stylistic parts is Mosjoukine’s speed. We move at a rapid pace from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, style to style, at such a clip that it has to be Mosjoukine’s constant presence that sustains us as his image unifies the sum of the film’s parts.
Ivan Mosjoukine’s direction, his absolute authorship of the film Le Brasier Ardent, stands as a sort of latent self-portraiture. Ivan Mosjoukine began his film career in tsarist Russia, relocating to Paris during the revolution of 1918. At Films Albatross, Mosjoukine, along with other Russian émigrés Victor Tourjansky and Alexandre Volkoff, began to explore with tremendous enthusiasm the French cinema. The “discoveries” Mosjoukine made in the French cinema are felt throughout Le Brasier Ardent as if the film were a kind of index on the very potential of cinematic narrative forms. On another level, Le Brasier Ardent is not just a catalogue of aesthetics and techniques, it is a record of Mosjoukine’s various incarnations and meanings in the role of a matinee idol as Detective Z continues to shift and change with the narrative.
Consider J. Lee Thompson’s What A Way To Go! (1964) in comparison with Le Brasier Ardent. Both films examine different styles of narrative film using one star (Ivan Mosjoukine and Shirley MacLaine) as the anchor point with which to provide narrative continuity in an otherwise discontinuous film. Each of these two films proposes questions about the interplay between the cinema and our own private fantasies. What A Way To Go! approaches this textual collage, as it were, in an episodic form, prioritizing accessibility for an audience with affiliations for the classic Hollywood form by locking its different styles alone in various isolated dream sequences. Mosjoukine’s film is more bold than that, maybe even careless. Le Brasier Ardent doesn’t treat each new style within a narrative vacuum. Mosjoukine grounds his investigations into differing forms within a straight fluid narrative that imbues the film with a spontaneity and intensity verboten in What A Way To Go!.
Le Brasier Ardent is one of those explosive little films that conveys a true and highly contagious passion for the cinema. However, if one were to consider seeking this film out, there is something to keep in mind; the plot-line is patriarchal and chauvinist (though no more so than the majority of silent films). Le Brasier Ardent is a film of value because of its technique, its uniqueness in this respect, not its political or social message.