Academic journal article Romance Notes

Silent Spectaculars: Adapting Balzac in le Mort Vivant (1912) and L'auberge Rouge (1923)

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Silent Spectaculars: Adapting Balzac in le Mort Vivant (1912) and L'auberge Rouge (1923)

Article excerpt

IN December 1921, the French publication Cinemagazine surveyed those texts by Honore de Balzac that had been adapted for the screen. Despite Balzac's canonical status, wrote the critic Rene Jeanne, filmmakers had shown little enthusiasm for producing cinematic versions of his work. "Jusqu'a present", Jeanne suggested, "La Comedie humaine semble avoir inspire quelque terreur aux habituels fournisseurs de l'ecran et rares sont les films qui portent le titre d'un roman de Balzac" (1921: 7). As we shall see, Balzac's posthumous collaboration with silent cinema was certainly uneasy. In reality, however, many early filmmakers also viewed La Comedie humaine as a rich source of creative inspiration. Eager to gain cultural respectability for their new medium, they were drawn to Balzac by his proven capacity for generating large commercial revenues, and by the variety of dramatic situations presented in his work. Before the onset of sound film in 1927, eighty-two adaptations of Balzac texts were either planned or produced (Doumens 2008), including films based on Le Colonel Chabert, Eugenie Grandet, La Duchesse de Langeais, and Le Pere Goriot. The majority of these films originated in France, where production was dominated by Pathe, Gaumont, and Les Films d'Art. Early cinematic interest in Balzac also extended, however, to Italy, Germany, Britain, Denmark, and the United States. Balzac adaptations proliferated in these countries, where filmmakers were unencumbered by the novelist's cultural prestige, and therefore more willing to experiment with the source material.

With the notable exception of work by Anne-Marie Baron (1990; 2008) and Richard Abel (1984), the relationship between Balzac and silent cinema has nevertheless received very little scholarly attention. This neglect stems in part from the sense of artistic inferiority with which silent filmmakers, particularly those in France, approached Balzac. As one anonymous director explained in 1923, "il y a des choses ladedans qui sont au-dessus de moi, j'ai peur de ne pas etre a la hauteur des caracteres" (Montchanin 1923: 10). The absence to date of an exhaustive study of Balzac and silent cinema seems merely to justify such fears of inevitable failure. The rarity of the films themselves creates another, more challenging obstacle to research in this area. Archivists and film scholars routinely estimate that at least eighty per cent of films produced worldwide during the silent era have been lost (Cherchi Usai 2000: 10). Those Balzac adaptations which survive have done so primarily by virtue of their association with actors and directors who remain prominent within the wider history of the medium. Other silent films owe their preservation to the studios in which they originated, and which have since made them available in new formats. The Conquering Power, for example, a 1921 adaptation of Eugenie Grandet made by Metro Pictures and starring Rudolph Valentino, still exists thanks to a combination of these factors. While a small primary corpus remains, any discussion of Balzac and silent film is tempered by the constraints of what limited material can be accessed commercially, or through archives, private collections, and film festivals.

Analysis of two films, Louis Feuillade's Le Mort vivant (1912) and Jean Epstein's L'Auberge rouge (1923) demonstrates, however, that the rewards of studying Balzac and silent cinema outweigh the frustrations. Through their necessary recourse to spectacular visual effects, these films interpret Balzac as a novelist of action and excitement. More importantly, by foregrounding this aspect of his creative personality, Epstein and Feuillade reveal affinities between their own adaptive methods and those operated by La Comedie humaine. Writing in the preface to the Histoire des Treize in 1835, the novelist distinguished his work from the sensationalism of Gothic horror and melodrama. Aware of the public appetite for "des drames degouttant de sang" and "des romans oU roulent des tetes", he stated his own artistic inclination towards stories of private tragedy: "il [l'auteur] a choisi de preference les aventures les plus douces, celles oU des scenes pures succedent a l'orage des passions" (1976-81, 5: 788). …

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