The best film I’ve seen so far in my journey of French cinema, Ménilmontant brings together the best of the experimental and narrative worlds to present a moral tale of enormous weight. The film begins with a surprisingly violent sequence, edited alongside childhood innocence. Two young sisters play in the garden, laughing and hanging from trees as their parents are brutally murdered with an axe. No one could have prepared me for the strong sense of visuals and framing, and I was immediately drawn into what is perhaps the very strongest avant-garde film of the 1920s.
The scene is given absolutely no context, there is never an explanation or reason for the murder, and some film historians speculate it’s meant to serve to symbolise the transition young girls go through during adolescence, as now, without parents the young girls are forced to go to Paris and live as adults. The film is very much about female sexuality, and what seems to be a popular theme in 1920s cinema (from the beginning with The Smiling Madame Beudet to the end of the decade with Pabst’s Louise Brooks films), the intricate social inequality and exploitation of women. Though a short film, Ménilmontant explores several complex issues and emotions relating to sexual awakening.
Though heavily melodramatic, the extremely pervasive understanding of the visual medium raises the film far beyond it’s rivals. Emotion and state of mind are explored through fast editing and a strong sense of composition. The city itself is exploited to isolate the girls, revealing their strong loneliness, which leads them both to seeking comfort in men. The oldest sister first, meets a man who she thinks she loves, and has sex with him, only to get pregnant. Her insecurity is palpable, though her lust and passion are also illustrated with a quickly edited sequence exploring the jealousy of her sister. Trains, work and her naked body are edited and pasted together to create a strong montage of sexual bliss and passion, it’s hard to believe something so blatant, could also be so beautiful and artful. Obviously schooled in Russian Montage, Dimitri Kirsanoff, actually has more grace and restraint in his use of cuts than Eisenstein from around the same period. It could easily be a matter of using the style to suit the subject matter, but I think they are at the very least in the same category.
Pregnancy leads the older sister to being abandoned, not only by her lover, but by her sister and she even loses her job. She drifts the streets, hungry and lonely and is offered very little sympathy. There is one sequence where she is city on a bench, and an older man offers her some bread. It’s very simple, but beautifully cut and emotionally, extremely effective. One could not imagine that a scene that could not be longer than three sentences on a page could be drawn out so effectively.
After giving birth, there is a final extended sequence of subjective nightmares where the young mother internally contemplates her options, and they all seem rooted in the dark waters of la Seine. As with the rest of the film, especially through cutting and editing, a strong set of emotional and intellectual responses are evoked. The hopelessness of her situation is magnified by her identity as a young woman, and having been just a child herself just months ago. Her final decision reveals another shocking revelation, but puts trust and faith in womanhood. Revealing that in a world set against women, the only palpable recourse is to support not compete against each other.