Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - La Roue (#76)

The Favorites - La Roue (#76)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. La Roue (1923/France/dir. Abel Gance) appeared at #76 on my original list.

What it is • One sunny day a train crashes in a hybrid urban/rural landscape (a countryside crisscrossed by railroads and other industrial clutter). Sisif (Severin-Mars), a virile young engine driver, rescues the orphaned Norma and decides to raise her as his daughter. Unfortunately, Sisif's delight in this "rose of the rail" is cast in a more sinister light when she grows into a beautiful young woman (Ivy Close) and he finds himself attracted to her. This horrible desire (which Sisif is determined to deny and keep a secret) drives much of the film's tragic action, but there are many other elements weighing on his body and soul too - all of life is represented (repeatedly and none too subtly) as a wheel that keeps relentlessly turning, wearing the characters down over the course of this four-and-a-half-hour film. Sounds miserable, right? Yet the film is also deeply beautiful, capturing the crisscrossing lines and plumes of black smoke in the railyards, and later the stirring, epic peaks and valleys of the Alps where an aging Sisif, slowly going blind, is reassigned to guide a pathetic little funicular engine in his waning days. The cutting is superb, with an accelerating onslaught of images clashing yet complementing one another; this is revolutionary montage a year before Sergei Eisenstein made Strike, and more concerned with accumulation than contrast. And the performances of Severin-Mars and Ivy Close are monumental in their expressiveness, capturing the subtle shifts as their characters lose their youth but never quite their vitality. La Roue was a benchmark in the silent era, essentially forgotten for decades but re-discovered in recent years. Abel Gance, fresh off the acclaimed J'Accuse and several years shy of his even more groundbreaking Napoleon, is concerned with innovative technique onscreen, but he is also deeply invested in the soul of the picture (which opens with a tribute to his young wife, who died while he was making La Roue). This is a film that recognizes beastliness and beauty as two sides of the same human coin.

Why I like it •
Glancing at some of the other reviews, even the positive ones, it's clear I have to take two different tacks in my defense. La Roue is widely respected, but I'm not sure it is widely beloved. First of all, I have to disagree with the dismissal of its "melodrama"; even favorable critiques cringe at the film's heavy-handedness, sordid subject matter, and emphasis on the characters' torrid emotional states. I don't think La Roue can be fully appreciated if you don't go along for the ride with the characters, experiencing Sisif's shame and fury as he struggles against the hostile forces within and outside of himself, Norma's heartbreaking confusion as her home falls apart and carefree days dissolve, or even to an extent the less-developed Elie's (Gabriel de Gavrone's) wan romanticism. The plot and themes aren't merely there to provide a platform for the visual techniques, they are the engines that drive those visuals. This isn't always a pleasant trip to take, but the intensity of Gance's depiction contains great power - carving these characters with a force that might be called novelistic in its intense devotion to texture and detail. That brings me to the second complaint - that La Roue is far too long for such a "simple" story. But here again I think this misses the point of the movie. Its power is precisely in Gance's willingness to experience not just the dramatic highlights but the small moments in between. If we didn't witness the playful frolics of the happy family in flashback, would their slow-motion dissolution sting so much? If we didn't follow Sisif's mellowing in his waning years, as time smoothes the edges of his grief and self-hatred, would we be able to understand his behavior late in the film, and the maturity with which it unfolds? The film saturates us in the experiences it shows. It's always tricky to capture the vastness of human experience in the microcosm of a movie but every extra minute Gance spends with his story exponentionally increases the film's effectiveness. Many of my favorite films are not simply stories, they are worlds you can sink into and La Roue definitely fits that description.

How you can see it • La Roue is available on DVD from Netflix but not, at the moment, from any streaming services. For now at least it is also available in its entirety on YouTube. You can watch a clip at 3:10 in "Dance of the Silents" (chapter 1 in my 32 Days of Movies series).

What do you think? • Is La Roue too long? Does its length add to the experience? How does it hold up against other intensely-focused yet epic-length films like Greed? Do you see similarities with other similarly-themed films? How does Gance's style of montage compare to Eisenstein's and other early directors? Do you feel the influence of D.W. Griffith on La Roue, and if so which scenes (and which Griffith films)? How do you see the film's relationship to French Realist authors of the 19th century? Do you think this is Gance's best work, or do you prefer J'Accuse, Napoleon, or something else entirely? If you find the film too melodramatic, are there other melodramas you find more effective or do you just not have a taste for that mode of storytelling? Were there parts of the films you felt worked better than others? Which characters or situations did you feel were strongest or weakest? Where do you think Norma will go after the film's end?

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Previous week: The River (#77)

Next week: Pandora's Box (#75)

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