Maldone (1928)

22 05 2009

I had seen only one Gremillon film prior to this one, and it was the decent but otherwise underwhelming Pattes blanches. All the talk about his rhythmic editing, his documentary-like observations, the poetic touches were completely absent from said film. In his defense, he made it 21 years after this so perhaps some of his magic was beginning to rust? Whatever the case, this impressed me a great deal and confirmed my suspicions that Gremillon had more to offer than a simplistic melodramatic narrative.

The setup here is rather simple. The titular character is an aging wagon driver, who becomes infatuated with a much younger gypsy girl, Zita. While he is busy falling in a deep love-induced trance, his brother is dying. Gremillon cross-cuts Maldone’s silly attempts at flirting with the tragic death of the brother. With his brother’s death, Maldone must now take control of the family manor, which delays his potential relationship with Zita. Eventually, he submits to a marriage with Flora. The newlyweds are in direct dichotomy; Maldone is reluctant and still festering feelings towards Zita while Flora is oblivious to her husband’s feelings and sees their union as an exciting beginning.

Three years later, Maldone is still unhappy, perhaps more so than ever. He takes his wife on a vacation, which only makes things worse when he sees Zita, now a club dancer. He is able to verbalize his feelings, which he has contained inside of himself for so long, to Zita. She has moved on, though, and tells Maldone that she is merely flattered to play a role in his past.

Gremillon doesn’t tie up his narrative at all, which is, of course, a very good thing. There are plenty of impressive elements here, some technical and others thematic. I particularly enjoyed the very fragmented style, which perfectly underscores the cerebral wanderings of the protagonist. Even the intertitles seem to play up to his rapid-fire pace of pondering. Towards the end, specifically, where little dialogue is produced. Instead, the intertitles are poetic translation of feelings that a lesser director would have dressed up in some half-hearted symbolism. Gremillon himself almost falls in to this trap with the mirror sequence, but usually, the intertitles explain in a simple, yet heartbreaking fashion things like “Suddenly, Maldone felt anger inside himself.” Of course, such anger is never manifested in the form of physical violence, but instead in a suicidal passivity for which Maldone operates.

It wouldn’t be the most original description or even the most helpful, but I’d say that this a good representation of “first person filmmaking.” It is a PoV film that just happens to not be filmed from the character’s physical point of view. Instead, we experience his emotional and mental point of view. Through him we jump to the past and the present, to the future and fantasy. While Gremillon has made a film look like a documentary with some visually expressive touches, he has made the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a completely personal cinematic experience. Unfortunately, it is not as immediately overwhelming as I’ve made it sound, but it is okay when its lingering power is so great.

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