by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: French cinema is speckled with movies that play out from a child's point of view almost exclusively, without a flashback structure to remind the audience that the events shaped the protagonist's adult views or moments that make the kid too witty or clever. Not a great deal - it's a tremendously difficult thing to pull off - but enough for the past ten to stick in one's head. "Visages d'enfants" demonstrates that this goes back to 1925, and was being tremendously well-done then.It starts with a funeral, as Jean Amsler (Jean Forest), a boy of about nine, sees his mother laid to rest. He mourns seriously and deeply, visiting the grave every Sunday and seeing his mother's portrait move when he says his evening prayers. Some time away from home is considered a good idea, but summer ends, and when he returns home, it is not just to father Pierre (Victor Vina) and little sister Pierette (Pierette Houyez), but to a new stepmother (Rachel Devirys) and her daughter Arlette (Arlette Peyran). He immediately resents Jeanne, but he hates Arlette, and she is none too fond of him either.
"Kids being kids, dealing with grief silently."
It is natural, and almost unavoidable, for filmmakers to approach stories along these lines in adult terms; even films like this with primarily young casts are generally being made for an adult audience, after all, and they often have the most active, pointed responses. Filmmaker Jacques Feyder, then, must make something that is simultaneously direct and indirect, showing the kids doing fairly ordinary things under a sometimes smothering layer of emotion, but also not burying it, either. Kids may sometimes go quiet instead of yelling, although that is generally not Jean's way, especially once the step-people are in the picture. So for much of the movie, the action is less about what these children are doing than the way that they are doing it.
How much of getting the right sort of emotion out of kids is proper acting and how much is coaching and editing is often tough to tell from the finished product (at least, if the movie is actually good), and that is the case here. Whatever the method, the results are great; Jean Forest, for instance, seldom seems to overly emote and neither Feyder nor co-writer FranÃ§oise Rosay inserts long intertitles explaining his motivation in detail, but there's always enough to his expression and body language to build a chain between action and reaction. He and Arlette Peyran forge an impressive on-screen enmity, the kind that comes from being threatened by the other being not just an invader but uncomfortably similar to one's self, enough so that the viewer hopes they'll eventually do more than just tolerate each other. Pierette Houyez is thankfully not called upon to be terribly complex, and neither are the adults. Seldom does the camera linger on them so that conflict or wisdom can register on their faces, with both Victor Vina and Rachel Devirys making sure that the parents come across as people that the children love but can no more understand than vice versa.
In keeping things realistically straightforward, Feyder and Rosay do remember something important - kids can be little monsters, something that can come out in even more extreme ways with how frequently they went unsupervised a century ago. The last act of the movie does a fine job of letting some real danger arise from Jean and Arlette despising each other, especially since it holds up ninety years later. Many movies, through no fault of their own, will leave a modem viewer missing the important side of what's going on because he or she has a hard time getting past a culture just different enough to be confusing, but Feyder mostly avoids that. There's drama, but it arises out of the kids' believable natural impulses, and Feyder trusts that to be enough (kudos to Stephen Horne, the accompanist for this screening, for not disturbing the delicate balance of those later scenes).
Feyder does cheat a little, as the seasons seem to change overnight as a symbolic shift overrides how important certain practicalities were minutes before. The film is good enough to tolerate it, especially since the setting is gorgeous in both cases (the Alps, apparently, double for a village in the Haute-Valais). The cinematography by LÃ©once-Henri Burel and Paul Parguel is crisp, and Feyder does a nice job of making sure everything on screen looks just right without ever having the film look designed.There is, I imagine, an lot of effort put into doing that in a film like "Visage d'enfants"; they need such utter sincerity that any visible effort will undermine the picture. Fortunately, that's seldom an issue here, making for a perfectly constructed film.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29219&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/02/15 13:14:41