(Re) discover rare gems for free

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For nearly a month, the French Cinémathèque, which has a rich archive of films, has been organizing films on its new streaming platform called Henri. Due to confinement in France, the Cinémathèque has been closed since March 13. Every evening, a new film appears in free access.

This new platform bears the name of the founder of the Cinémathèque, Heni Langlois. If you want to know who he was, the site offers films about Henri Langlois, including two with English subtitles. He was one of the first to actively conserve and archive films, so that future generations can see them as well. The films chosen to be viewed on their new platform have all been restored by the Cinémathèque. Some films, unfortunately, do not yet have English subtitles. None needed for films like the fantastic animated short by Albert Pierru Boogie Surprise, and you can easily do without silent movies.

The site began with films by Jean Epstein, one of the pioneering filmmakers of the 1920s in France who both theorized this new medium and experimented with his varied techniques to create the most poetic films of the silent era. The Fall of House Usher and Three-sided ice cream are such films. Both daring and avant-garde in their innovative use of the various cinematic tricks that can be created with a camera. As the documentary on Jean Epstein says, it is thanks to Henri Langlois, who hid these films from the Nazis during World War II, that we can now view them. James June Schneider’s documentary, Jean Epstein, Young Oceans of Cinema has English subtitles.

Epstein’s The Fall of House Usher (1928) is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, although the story is tweaked slightly. Epstein’s film combines some short stories from Poe, following the structure of The Fall of House Usher, but mixing it with The oval portrait, and also, I would say, Ligea. While in Poe’s short story the Lady is Usher’s sister, in the film she is his wife. Here she embodies Poe’s adorable description of Lady Ligeia.

Lord Roderick Usher invited an old friend to stay with him. Upon his arrival, however, the friend finds Usher and his wife in a strange mood. Usher paints his wife’s portrait. As he advances with his portrait, Lady Usher falls more and more ill. Watching Epstein’s film, and especially this one, is an editing lesson. Every cut, slow motion, layering has a significant effect. While Roderick Usher paints his wife, the film frames Madeline Usher. Three or four other images of her overlap, literally suggesting her duplication. As the story indicates, his life is transferred to painting. The duplication of itself implies the disappearance of its own body. There is also an incredible use of slow motion to suggest the weirdness of Usher’s house. Never have I seen the slow motion of the curtains waving in the force of the wind as beautiful as it is in this film.

If you’re looking for a more fun movie, take a look at The Burning Blaze, directed by Ivan Mosjoukine (favorite of silent cinema) who also plays there. This movie will show you that not all silent movies were black and white. The opening sequence, for example, uses a red filter to suggest the intensity of the fire. Mosjoukine plays a detective hired by a husband, anxious after his wife has an intense dream about a mysterious man whom she clearly wants. Unbeknownst to the husband, the mysterious man is the detective himself.

There are some amazing photos of Paris in the 1920s, as the husband chases his wife in a car on the Champs-Elysees. He ends up losing his track by entering a mysterious building, which turns out to be a detective agency, called the “Find-Everything” Agency. Inside the “Return of the Missing Women” room, the husband must choose from among a panoply of strange-looking detectives which one he will employ. It’s a fun film that is incredibly inventive at the same time. Apparently, it was after seeing this film that French filmmaker Jean Renoir (Great illusion, The game’s rules) decided to become a director.

The selection of silent films chosen for the platform is quite remarkable. If you liked to watch Lighthouse, there is a good chance that you like these films, directed by the masters of the silent in France. You’ll see how Robert Eggers’ film skillfully borrows from the language and aesthetics of silent cinema. The Fall of House Usher, Three Sided Ice Cream, The Burning Blaze, Late Mathias Pascal all are experimenting with their medium, finding innovative ways to create special effects with images to tell a story cinematically. The platform does not only broadcast silent films of course. There are, for example, three rare films by Chilean director Raoul Ruiz.


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