Tuesday, June 03, 2008

La Maternelle

1933, France, directed by Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein

Essentially forgotten today, the director Marie Epstein had a short career in the 1930s that produced at least one remarkable film, La Maternelle. Career brevity certainly did nothing to harm Jean Vigo's reputation, but Epstein hasn't been treated as kindly by history. It's a shame that her work - frequently in collaboration with Jean Benoît-Lévy - has fallen by the wayside, for this film in particular is long overdue a thorough restoration (in the US, the version that circulated on VHS has subtitles that often obscure large sections of the picture, and which seem to date from the film's original 1935 US cinema release). The film is a visually striking work with imaginative shot choices and a sense of poetic realism that often emulates the work of Vigo and René Clair. (Despite the lack of access to the film, I was pleased to discover that at least some scholars are teaching it, as Chris Cagle's 2008 summer syllabus indicates).

The film is based on a 1904 novel by Léon Frapié, the second winner of the Prix Goncourt, and a popular success that also spawned a 1925 silent film (and another version in 1949). The book is essentially a collection of vignettes with a strong eye for social detail rather than a conventional novel, and Frapié wrote two further collections of "Contes de la maternelle", apparently based largely on his wife's experiences as a teacher, after the first book became a hit. This film version condenses the book, which deals with a large number of different children over a longer time period, focusing instead on a handful of children, in particular Marie Coeuret, who becomes especially attached to the lead character, Rose (played by Madeleine Renaud, in a luminous performance; Renaud's pale face in the darker corners of the slums makes for a striking motif).

There's a strong hint of what would later become Italian neo-realism in the film's unusually clear-eyed portrayal of Paris's more down at heel neighborhoods (the English title for the film was Children of Montmartre but that area is never mentioned; the original book was set at the fringes of Paris and its suburbs, the area once known as La Zone). As in several of Roberto Rossellini's best-known films, the child's perspective on traumatic events is used to great effect: Marie Coeuret, for instance, is only too aware of what is happening around her, despite the obliviousness of her adult guardians; directors Epstein and Lévy relied almost exclusively on children from the Parisian streets, and craft a depiction of working class childhood that's both tender and unsentimentally blunt when required.

The adults in the film, especially in the titular nursery itself, often refer to the children in terms that underline the place's institutional nature, and which even imply the children are more animal than human: that perhaps explains why the youngsters identify so strongly with a rabbit that appears in a pivotal scene, or the mice which scurry through the kitchen. The film only occasionally leaves the confines of the nursery, reinforcing the sense that these children have an exceptionally limited horizon, though when the opportunity presents itself they reveal the capacity for dreams of a wider world.

Epstein and Lévy are assured filmmakers, with several arresting transitions, such as a shot of a child picking through a rubbish bin on the street that dissolves into a shot of the coathooks in the nursery, or the shots of the children's food bowls. On one occasion, the camera travels along the cluttered table to illustrate presence and absence, while another shot fills the foreground with the bowls as the staff talk in the background. Several of the scenes are shot almost wordlessly, the silent tradition still strongly present, such as the marriage proposal that takes place inside a many-windowed room, with several of the film's key characters - often stock types invested with new life - peeking in from different sides and reacting in vividly different ways. A key sequence where one of the young children attempts to destroy what she can't bear to accept is also filmed without words, the directors making imaginative use of multiple exposure.


Marie Epstein died in 1995, and the French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau wrote a notable obituary that appeared in the British newspaper The Independent in June of that year.

It was difficult to find any decent stills from the film online, and I couldn't make them myself; if anyone has a nice shot from the film, it would be greatly appreciated.


goatdog said...

I'm really enjoying going through your archives, especially the reviews of French films. I wish I had discovered your blog before my recent trip to Paris. Then again, I already spent too much on DVDs, so maybe it's better I was late to this party.

Chris Cagle said...

Yes, I did teach the film this summer... from a 16mm rental print, so unfortunately I can't share any stills. I think that of all the films I showed, La Maternelle surprised and impressed the students the most.

Anonymous said...

I have devoted one third of my book, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema to the work of Marie Epstein (with Jean Benoit-Levy, or the other way around). A whole chapter is an intensive analysis of La Maternelle, which is how I came to find the horrible MoMA copy from which all prints are made. Marie showed me the 35 mm version at the Cinematheque in 1977, which is how I came to be interested in her work. I am currently devoting more time to the amazing Jean Benoit-Levy. sandy flitterman-lewis

Gareth said...

Thanks for your comment, and for pointing me to your book. I've enjoyed your work in Cineaste.


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