After its early dominance of international film production was shattered by World War I, France never quite managed to sustain a studio system on the Hollywood industrial model. What the French achieved instead was an artisanal cinema built around independent producers, several of whom — like Adolphe Osso in the 1930s, André Paulvé in the ’50s and Anatole Dauman in the ’60s and ’70s — had tastes pronounced enough to establish identities for their firms. These maisons de production functioned more like book publishers than dream factories, attracting a certain kind of talent for individual productions rather than putting rosters of stars and filmmakers under contract for a steady stream of releases.
The Russian avant-gardist Ivan Mosjoukine and Nathalie Lissenko in “Le Brasier Ardent” (1923), one of five films in Flicker Alley’s “French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928.”
A new box set of DVDs from Flicker Alley, “French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928,” is a five-film retrospective devoted to one of the earliest and most ambitious of these production companies, La Société des Films Albatros. Founded in 1922 by Alexandre Kamenka, the son of a banker from Odessa, the company began as home to a group of Russian actors and directors who had fled their studios in Yalta after Lenin nationalized film production in 1919 (Albatros was the name of the ship that carried them to France).
But after the company’s Russian talent — including its greatest asset, the magnetic actor Ivan Mosjoukine (sometimes rendered as Mozzhukhin) — was raided by a rival firm, Kamenka turned to the emerging filmmakers of the French avant-garde. Albatros produced important early work by Jean Epstein, Marcel l’Herbier, Jacques Feyder and René Clair, whose 1928 farce, “The Italian Straw Hat,” remains probably the best-known Albatros film today (and the subject of a fine Flicker Alley edition a few years ago).
The selection here bridges the transition, and is bookended by major discoveries: “Le Brasier Ardent” (“The Burning Crucible”), an unclassifiable 1923 amalgam of satire, suspense and screaming melodrama directed by and starring Mosjoukine; and “Les Nouveaux Messieurs” (“The New Gentlemen”), a scathing political satire directed by Feyder in 1928 built around a bittersweet love story. The pivotal point is occupied by, appropriately, “The Late Mathias Pascal” (1926), starring Mosjoukine and directed by l’Herbier, which Flicker Alley released earlier this year in an impressive stand-alone Blu-ray edition.
With his hypnotic blue eyes, magnificent beak of a nose and jumpy, restless physicality, Mosjoukine was one of the few European performers of the day whose popularity rivaled, in the home market at least, that of major American stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.
In “Le Brasier Ardent,” however, Mosjoukine often suggests a Slavic Buster Keaton, with his deadpan performance, fascination with multiple personalities (Mosjoukine plays no fewer than 11 roles here), and skill in constructing complex, mechanical sight gags. The movie opens with a burst of wild imagery — the dream of the bored, frustrated wife (Nathalie Lissenko) about a wealthy older man — in which Mosjoukine appears in roles as widely varied as a martyr burning at the stake and a silk-hatted roué visiting the sort of underground cabaret-brothel-opium-den that David Lynch would be conjuring 70 years later. (More Lynchian than Lynch, Mosjoukine’s nightclub comes equipped with a curtain that burns from the bottom up as it is being raised).
The dream comes to an end, when Madame wakes up and discovers that her fantasies have been inspired by the pulp magazine adventures of a master detective known only as Z (Mosjoukine, of course, as a character that might have been drawn from a Louis Feuillade serial like “Les Vampires”).
But for most of its running time, “Le Brasier Ardent” seems to be following a similarly oneiric, free-associative structure, as the husband finds himself hiring Z (a partner in an exclusive, clandestine detective agency, where the operatives are psychologists as well as investigators) in a misguided attempt to recapture his wife’s affections. It’s all the more impressive, then, when the film finally reveals itself to have been following the sequence of events laid out in the dream sequence all along.