Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Mary Meerson: «I Am the Memory of the Film»

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Mary Meerson: «I Am the Memory of the Film»

Article excerpt

«Listen, darling» Mary Meerson would declare, «I am the Memory of the Film. I am the world film knowledge, the world's film history». I was never in any doubt about this.

Back when I was earnestly setting about establishing a film archive for New Zealand in the late 1970"s, I wrote to the Cinémathèque Française to ask them if I could visit. Langlois was dead, and 1 didn't have the name of anyone to write to. Remarkably, as archives are not generally noted for their letter writing abilities, I received a reply back from some functionary at the Cinémathèque, inviting me to call when I got to Paris.

I telephoned, and explained as best I could in my limited French who 1 wanted to meet, why I wanted to visit and what I was trying to do. The woman who answered at the Cinémathèque, rather disconcertingly, made it quite clear there was no point whatsoever in my seeing the person who'd written to me (who was clearly not to be trusted, I was learning fast). It was equally clear that the only person who could help me in my quest was Madame Langlois. «And», she said, «I am Madame Langlois».

We met late at night in the heart of Chaillot. Mary was strategically and dramatically occupying a desk in the enormous hall at the end of the Musée du Cinéma, phone pressed to her ear, fingers circling the dial relentlessly. 1 was sent into the Musée (closed at the time) to wander alone among the treasures for an hour or so. It was the first of many meetings.

This great, marvellous, grand and mysterious woman was (and remains) an inspiration to me, and 1 loved her dearly. She took me in when 1 was struggling to shape my ideas for setting up the film archive in New Zealand. What eventually grew into The New Zealand Film Archive would have been poorer, and certainly less creative, without Mary's generosity and passion. She helped open up fresh and exciting possibilities. For films to live, she would insist, they needed people to see them. «Save it to show, or it becomes a dentist's window». «Mary Meerson does not exist. 1 am Scheherazade», she told Richard Roud in his book on Langlois. A star of Montparnasse of the late 1920s, she was a model for de Chirico and Reisling; Kokoschka did a series of portraits; and Lotte Eisner described her as being elegant and as beautiful as Marlene Dietrich. This was the Mary Meerson I only heard whispers about from others.

She never spoke to me of her own history, only stories of other people. Of Eisenstein and Alexandrov in Paris making Romance Sentimentale, financed by a jewel dealer on the condition his wife appeared in the film. With Lazare Meerson doing the sets, and adding for Eisenstein «a little spot of Russian Revolution» in the form of lightning flashes and stars suddenly coming through the window into the salon while the lady is «singing, singing».

Where she came from (Bulgaria maybe?), when she was born (1900?), Mary would never say. She spoke five languages (at least), and lived with Lazare Meerson - the great Polish-born French set designer, in an apartment he designed on rue Gazan facing Pare Montsouris. Mary accompanied Meerson to London, where he died suddenly in 1938 while working for Korda. Mary was with Jean Renoir and Robert Flaherty (Flaherty she described to me always as «King of the Image» and «like a father to me») when she first met Langlois in Paris in 1941. …

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