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Flicker Alley presents
"Under my mask of soot, she can't see my suffering."
DVD ReviewAbel Gance leapt onto the cinematic scene with the success of his 1919 picture J'Accuse, which used technique to startling effect. With the backing of Pathé he turned to an even more ambitious project, this tale of a doomed railway engineer that in its original form ran 32 reels, or seven and one-half hours. Like many of Gance's other works, most notably Napoleon (1927), La Roue was but This set includes a reconstruction that features 20 of those 32 reels, though it seems fairly complete in and of itself.
Sisif (Severin Mars) is a French railroad engineer who discovers a young girl, Norma, in the aftermath of a train wreck. Finding she is an orphan, he takes her in as his own to be a sister to his son Elie. Telling them nothing of her origins, after fifteen years things become awkward as Sisif and his son (Gabriel de Gravone) are both falling in love with Norma (Ivy Close). At the same time, treacherous civil engineer Jacques de Hersan (Pierre Magnier) is determined to have her for his own and is willing to use any means possible to have her.
The love quadrilateral described may seem a bit contrived when described verbally, but with the expansive canvas used by Gance it's more a basis for his psychological drama than a mere plot device. The respective characters are each in for more than their share of torment for a variety of reasons, which are emphasized by Gance's brilliant technique. Although never shown in America at all, the picture was hugely influential elsewhere, most notably in Russia and Japan. Gance utilizes a rapid montage that anticipates Battleship Potemkin and Eisenstein's other classics by several years, rhythmically cutting to reach a climax after an often almost intolerable buildup. Some shots are as little as a single frame, making them practically subliminal at times.
Even outside of the montages, Gance's technique is surprisingly modern, so that for the most part today's viewer will find it a more comfortable experience than many other silents. The acting, especially of Severin Mars in the early going, tends to be a bit melodramatic, but in the second half, after Sisif begins to go blind, is frequently underplayed and quite moving indeed. Magnier is quite effective as the antagonist who not only takes Norma away, but is also keeping Sisif destitute. Gance occasionally overplays his hand with the pathos where Norma is concerned, with several sequences of her tears freezing against her face as she deals with rejection and misery in frigid conditions.
The second half of the film, set on Mont Blanc, is rather different in tone than the first half; the accompanying booklet suggests that it may have been an afterthought. Nevertheless, the photography on Mont Blanc is frequently stunning and comparable to the Alpine work of Arnold Fanck. In the mold of von Stroheim, Gance was determined to have authenticity at all costs, which meant taking his cast up on top of Mont Blanc in desperate conditions, which are clearly observable on screen.
Gance is clearly suggesting a mythic approach to his characters, with his hero being named after the condemned Sisyphus, who seduced his niece. There are also elements of Oedipus present, from the theme of incestuous desire to blindness as a punishment from the gods. Heck, throw in Ixion for the wheel of the title, which represents many things to Gance: the wheel of the locomotive, the wheel of time and fate, and in a small illustration on the intertitle cards, the torture device. There's a lot going on here in Gance's Balzacian tapestry, and despite the long running time it bears rewatching.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Although the restoration is derived from diverse sources from around the globe, it looks wonderful at least 95% of the time. Clearly early-generation 35mm materials form the bulk of the sources, with only a few short sequences that may have come from a 9.5mm source and unavoidably look a bit dupey. Most of the time, there's plenty of crisp detail, excellent greyscale and lovely texture. That's critical for Gance's in-camera effects, which come across for the most part splendidly. The only drawback is modest wear and speckling throughout, which is perfectly acceptable for a picture of this age and rarity. Clearly some of Flicker Alley's best work yet, and there's absolutely no sign of combing or artifacting as is so common on many European-sourced silents.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Robert Israel contributes an excellent orchestral score to the picture, and it's evocative without mickeymousing. There are occasional diversions into recognizable classical motifs but for the most part the score seems to be original. The recording quality is satisfactory though not particularly outstanding, and directionality is not pronounced. Classical composer Arthur Honegger composed the original score for the picture, but regrettably only a four-minute prelude survives. It's too bad that wasn't included as an extra feature.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsKudos to Flicker Alley for finally bringing this hugely influential film to American viewers, in a lovely restoration that will please nearly everyone.
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