The French Impressionism is an avant-guard, non-commercial movement which took place between the years of 1918 and 1929. It was mainly based on the naturalistic acting, the “photogénie”, the visual rhythm and the exploration of the characters’ psychological suffering in order to suggest “impressions” in the audience’s minds. To trigger the public’s reactions several devices were used: filters, lens out of focus and slow motion in cameras; fast cutting and short shots in editing; lightning objects, textured curtains and striking settings in mise-en-scéne.
One of the most famous representatives of this time was Dimitri Kirsanoff. Born in Estonia in 1899, he emigrated to France in 1923 where he got in touch with the impressionist circle and died (1957). Fusing the soviet montage style with the hand-hold camerawork and lyrical composition, he worked as a director, writer, cinematographer, producer, editor and actor but always better during the silent movie’s era.
Ménilmontant is his most relevant film which main character was his wife, Nadia Sibirskaia. A melodramatic and short story shoted during the winter of 1924-25 directed, co-photographed,edited and produced by Kirsanoff which original title was The Hundred Steps (Les cents pas). Explanatory intertitles are not used what is an innovation among his contemporary filmmakers. Even the serie of events is after all just an excuse for the usage of his innovating way of work based mostly on impressionist techniques such as ultra-rapid montage and superposition to achieve “photogénie”. In the words of David Badagnani, Ménilmontant “comes closer to poetry than to narrative prose”.
The movie starts with an unexplained double murder shown rapidly to us through a very early use of an emotive device: alternate shots of the falling axe (putting the spectator under it) and shots of the terrified victim. This evoques strong sensations in the audience. Later a group of people is looking at what must be the two corpses and a girl (the younger daughter of the ones who were murdered) is atracted to the crowd. A series of four dynamically articulated static shots of her face, from medium to extreme close-up, reveals her shocked expression and proves the influence of impressionism in this film.
The dissolve is a tecnique to soften a cut between shots or to represent the passage of time which Kirsanoff makes much use of. For example, when the two sisters are coming from the graveyard the walk advances through a series of elliptical dissolves; or when one sister and a man are sitting on the park bench and he leaves we can see his body fading out while hers is fading in. The dissolve can have some different connotations from the mentioned above like in this last case where it is related with irony and provokes an emotional effect.
When the younger sister goes to a stranger’s house where she is seduced the scene cut to the older sister laying in bed at home. It is shown that she misses her sister and then a complex montage sequence with clocks, naked women and car wheels appears suggesting the sexual act (rhythmic movements and nudes) and a combination of jealousy and fear and representing once more the psychological pain being served to the public.
After the older sister is also seduced by the stranger the dissolve comes back to use in order to show the its consumation: they exit the house’s door and it dissolves into a twisted shot of them embrancing that oddly flips their position in the frame what gives the sensation of disconfort.
One of the most importante sequences of Ménilmontant
is when the younger sister, already a single mother, is sitting in the park bench and an old man gives her food. She didn’t ask for it but acepts and smiles while he almost don’t look at her. In this scene Nadia Sibirskaia’s performance is perfectly subtle and expressive. It became an excellent example of one of the characteristics that the impressionist movement wanted to display (naturalistic acting).
In the end of the movie the two sisters get together again. They meet, look and feel sorry for each other. This is shown through a justaposition of close-ups of the two of them which symbolizes the time they were apart. Also the death of the man who seduced both of them gives some closure to the story and the shots match the intensity of the opening assassination.