L’Hirondelle et la Mesange

Barbican, London

                                                            30 September 2018

(Warning: Contains spoilers)

It was with some mild trepidation that I approached this afternoon’s screening at the Barbican  of L’Hirondelle et la Mesange (The Swallow and the Titmouse).  This film, with live accompaniment from Stephen Horne and Elizabeth Jane Baldry,  was my highlight of last year’s British Silent Film Festival.  In fact it was my favourite silent film with live musical accompaniment for the whole year. But would a further viewing, even with the same musicians performing,  match the delight of that first screening or would it be something of a disappointing anti-climax.  

The film follows barge captain Pieter van Groot (Louis Ravet), his wife Marthe (Maguy Deliac ) and her sister Griet (Jane Maylianes )  who live on their barges l’Hirondelle and Mésange  transporting goods along the rivers between northern France and Belgium.  Arriving in Antwerp to pick up a cargo of coal Pieter arranges with a local jeweller to smuggle some diamonds back into France while Marthe and Griet buy fine lace for the same purpose.  Another sailor, Michel (Pierre Alcover) recognises the jeweller and his suspicions are aroused.  When he finds that Pieter is looking to take on a new crewman he gets the job.  As they slowly travel back towards France Michel settles in, winning the confidence of Pieter and attracting the attention of Griet. But Marthe harbours suspicions about the new arrival.  With Pieter’s encouragement Michel and Griet become engaged (image, left) but when Michel asks her about Pieter’s smuggling activities she replies that that is a secret.  As Michel searches the boats one evening looking for the diamonds he sees Marthe undressed and being wrapped in the lace to conceal it under her clothes (image, left)  prior to the border customs checks and is immediately infatuated by her.  The next day he tries to force himself on her (image, right) but is thwarted when Pieter arrives back early. When Marthe tells Pieter what happened he wants to confront Michel but she holds him back fearing that Michel will divulge their smuggling activities.  Pieter says he will take care of it!  That evening Michel takes Pieter to a bar to get him drunk so he can steal the diamonds unhindered.  But Pieter only feigns drunkenness and follows Michel back to the boat where they struggle and Pieter drowns Michel. Life on the barges continues as normal.

Should I have been worried about seeing the film again? Would it turn out to be something of an anti climax?  Absolutely not.  In fact, I probably enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.  Shot entirely on location on the waterways of Flanders (even down to the barge interior shots) with a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors the film remained gorgeous to look at.  As the barges slowly travelled the rivers and canals it had a supremely gentle, almost dream like, quality with stunning cinematography both of the war damaged landscape and of the medieval towns (particularly Ghent).  The film was also noteworthy in being one of the first to record the historic Ommegang Procession in Antwerp.  

The acting was beautifully understated, especially from Jane Maylianes (one of the non-professionals, image right) as Griet who was able to convey huge depths of feeling with just a look or a sideways glance. There is a lovely scene of her with Pieter as she tries to convey to him her suspicions about Michel without being able to say quite why, and his total incomprehension.  And the scene as Michel sits down to lunch not knowing whether Griet has told Pieter about his assault on her just oozed tension amid wonderfully furtive glances.  All of the cast looked as though they were born into life on the canals, which added hugely to the authentic look and feel of the film. While highlighting much of the routine and often backbreaking work (particularly the hauling of the barges from the riverbank, image, left) the film also nicely captured lighter moments, in particular a very amusing visit to the photo-booth of a funfair (image, right).  The overall pacing of the film was such that one almost failed initially to notice the gradually rising tensions and simmering under-currents so that the final violent encounter, so out of character with the rest of the film, came over as truly shocking. Perhaps equally disturbing was the pace at which the dream like progression of the barges resumed after Michel’s murder, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.  

And yet L’Hirondelle et la Mesange came so perilously close to being lost forever, before it had even been seen by an audience.  The film was shot by director Andre Antoine in 1920,  but when producer Charles Pathe saw the unedited rushes he deemed the project commercially unviable and the footage was stored away and forgotten (although a single French source does claim a version of the film, subsequently lost, was privately exhibited in 1924 by the Club Français du Cinéma at the Colisée in Paris).  The original rushes were not rediscovered until 1982 in the vaults of Cinémathèque Française.  The Cinémathèque then commissioned editor Henri Colpi (editor on Hiroshima mon Amour (1961), Last Year at Marienbad (1963) amongst others ) to assemble the surviving six hours of footage into a finished product using Gustave Grillet’s original script and the director’s detailed notes as a guide.  And so, 63 years after it was originally shot, the film had its world premier in 1983

Director Andre Antoine (image, right) had already earned a reputation in French theatre for the natural realism he brought to his productions rather than the overt theatricality then in fashion and after joining Pathe in 1915 he sought to bring similar innovation in his cinematic work. Using largely non-professional casts, naturalistic acting styles and with an emphasis on location shooting he made some ten films between 1915 and 1922, mainly literary adaptions. L’Hirondelle was his first film based on an original script, written at his request by his playwright friend Gustave Grillet. But by 1922, Antoine had given up directing, working instead as a film and theatre critic for the rest of his life.  Many of the innovations employed by Antoine (amateur casts, naturalistic acting, location shooting, concealed cameras for crowd scenes etc) would subsequently become the stock-in-trade of pioneering neo-realist cinema. L’Hirondelle is also notable in Antoine’s use of several cameras to film a scene from multiple angles and for innovative effects such as wipes, irises and  dissolves  between  scenes.  If Charles Pathe’s short-sighted decision to shelve L’Hirondelle et la Mesange was a factor in Antoine’s subsequent decision to give up directing, this may be yet another of cinema history’s great ‘what ifs’.   

The other key figure behind the camera on L’Hirondelle et la Mesange was cinematogrepher Léonce-Henri Burel.  Active since 1915, he had already achieved a considerable reputation having shot amongst other films, J’Accuse (1919) for Able Gance.  He would go on to have a long and illustrious career shooting silents such as Tourjansky’s Michel Strogoff (1926) and Gance’s Napoleon (1927) while in the sound era he worked closely with Robert Bresson through the 1950s and early 1960s before his last film, Bonaparte et la Revolution (1972) a re-edited version of Gance’s original Napoleon, with some new scenes.  

In assembling the unedited film rushes into a finished product in 1982, Henri Colpi also deserves considerable praise turning out a beautifully paced and cogently structured film.  My only quibble would be in the bar scene near the end when Michel tries to get Pieter drunk.  There is clearly some history between Michel and the barmaid, almost as if she is in on Michel’s plot to steal the diamonds, which we are not party to.  Perhaps Colpi saw this as an un-necessary distraction from the main plot or perhaps the necessary rushes didn’t survive.  I guess we will never know.  But its only a minor point and doesn’t detract from the film as a whole.  .   

Amongst the largely non-professional cast, Louis Ravet (Pieter, image, left) had appeared in minor roles in short films since 1908.  After L’Hirondelle he had a supporting role in C T Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) but his film career appears to have ended with the silent era.  Pierre Alcover (Michel) had a couple of minor roles after having been discovered working as a porter in Paris’ Les Halles food market in 1917 before his leading role in L’Hirondelle.  He continued to act in largely supporting roles until the mid-1940s.  Neither Jane Maylianes (Griet) or Maguy Deliac (Marthe, image, right) appear to have continued a career in cinema.   

But as good as the film was, enjoyment of it was once again hugely enhanced by the exquisitely delicate musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne (piano, flute and accordion) and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (harp).  Appearing to rely far more on a scored arrangement rather than the more semi-improvised accompaniment employed when I last saw the film, they nevertheless still caught perfectly the dream like pacing of the film while also picking out the rising tensions and added marvellously to the surprise and shock of the dramatic climax. This is about as good as silent film with live accompaniment can ever get and the only downside is that the film is unlikely ever to be available on disc with this wonderful accompaniment.    

L’Hirondelle et la Mesange is in fact  available on DVD with a somewhat repetitive accordion soundtrack, possibly by Marc Perrone.  There is also a very good quality version on YouTube, with English translations of the French inter-titles but no soundtrack.