MoMA Film Festival: J’accuse

What is the essence of silent film? Is it possible to truly appreciate the history of cinema if we cannot identify and appreciate this unique childhood of the art form? I personally felt the connection with these cinematic roots when viewing Abel Gance’s most revered film from the silent era, J’accuse, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Festival “To Save and Project”, a unique festival that runs throughout October into November 14th. It’s purpose: to screen remastered prints of films that have gained national or international renown. The films screened range from Japanese silents from the early twenties two Warhol’s more contemporary “pop art” films.

My feelings on the film are clear: it was a fine film, especially in comparison to other films of that era; Griffith certainly had a run for his money in Gance. Even in spite of the rumours I had heard the about Gance: a filmmaker whose penchant for  melodrama knew no bounds. Is J’accuse a melodramatic film? It certainly is. Is melodrama used to drive the plot forward? Indeed. With that in mind, the final question arises: is it done tastefully? My response: an enthusiastic “yes!”

Starring a great silent ensemble made up of Romuald Joubé as the poet Jean Diaz, Severin-Mars as the brute Francois, and Maryse Dauvray as the beautiful Edith, we are transported to an idealised Provencal prior to the First World War. Francois and Edith are in a loveless marriage endorsed by her father, Lazare, who is preformed brilliantly by Maxime Desjardins. Jean, the handsome artist, falls for Edith during a county fair, and the curse of the midsummer owl falls upon the town, presumably because of its vices.

Not long after, the war begins, and Francois and Jean are drafted. Francois is immediately sent to the front while Jean is delayed to be sent to officer school. Realizing that Jean has fallen head over heels for Edith, Francois, in misguided protectiveness, ships his wife to her family in the borderlands. En route, she is captured and abducted by the Germans. In misery, Jean tells Lazare, who is aware of his daugther’s infedility and capture, that he will avenge his daughter. Lazare, in a fit of sadness and disgust, accepts in spite of Jean’s wooing being the indirect cause of the abduction.

Jean goes to officer school while Francois distinguishes himself on the front lines. Later, Jean and Francois find out they are in the same regiment, and while at the outset cannot respect each other, develop an uneasy bond as the war progresses. When Edith, Francois and Jean return from their respective absences from Provencal, a love triangle of Shakespearian proportion develops — and is further muddied when Edith reveals that she has been raped and sired a half-German daughter. And that is all I can reveal. And all I will reveal. The ending of the film is truly something that must be seen to believe.

The film is technically impressive considering the time it was produced: the color temperature of the film ranges from warm yellows to cold blue hues and rather disorienting and jarring reds. In this regard, one could truly call J’accuse experimental cinema. Obviously produced with great care, Gance even went so far as to use extras from the French and American military in order to give the film the most realism as possible — and if that was not enough, many of the film’s extras who became casualties in the “cinematic” sense indeed became casualties as a result of the war — many in the “American battalion” were killed shortly after their return to the front, as Gance himself recalls.

In all ways, J’accuse is a film of its times, a film made in the mess that was war-time Europe, literally and figuratively “accusing” those who started and benefitted from the war. Towards the end of the film, Jean does exactly this: calls into account those who cheated on husbands, profited from dead sons, and made a fast dollar off of war. Gance makes it clear that no one is safe from scrutiny in the war except its “walking dead”, the veterans who were wounded mentally and physically as a result of combat in a war, that objectively speaking, accomplished nothing.

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About Ryan Silva
An American born cinephile writing, making films, and studying in New York City. Festival addict and student Jurist at the 2010 Rhode Island International Film Festival. Hits: moe anime and space operas. Misses: Smelly roommates and Jersey Shore

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