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Swallow and the Titmouse, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A bird or two of a different feather."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: It's kind of surprising to see that "The Swallow and the Titmouse" was considered so non-commercial as to go unreleased when it was made, and kind of not; the audience that would go for its style of storytelling today is a niche one, although the appeal of its inside look at the rivers of France and Belgium must have been even greater. That's what happened, though; the film vanished into obscurity even before leaving it until an assembly cut was found sixty years later and restored, demonstrating that the film business has been making great art difficult to see since the 1920s.

L'Hirondelle and La Mésange of the title are not birds but barges working the rivers. Pierre Van Groot (Louis Ravet) is their captain, and the crew is mostly family: his wife Griet (Jane Maylianes) and her sister Marthe (Maguy Deliac), along with their dogs, chickens, and other small animals. They lack a pilot, but hire Michel (Pierre Alcover) in Antwerp, where Pierre also obtains diamonds to smuggle into France, as one does. Affection soon blossoms between Marthe and Michel, encouraged by Pierre, but he may be more interested in that secret cargo.

This may be an art movie, but it's one with a pretty straightforward plot when you get right down to it, and while the suspense is a bit muted compared to some of the more melodramatic movies with similar plots, it develops into something enjoyably noirish as the film goes on. It never completely becomes a thriller, but it's a great deal of fun to watch as director André Antoine and writer Gustave Grillet tease the story out and Antoine even applies some flourishes that have characters emerging from the shadows in a way that presages film noir, while the methodical way things are laid out will later be echoed in policiers. It's got an ending to match, too.

Kind of surprising that the story turns out that way, as part of the reason for the film being rejected was that it felt too much like a documentary rather than a narrative. True, that is very much the case in the early reels, where Antoine spends a fair amount of time describing the operation of these vessels, introducing his characters with caught-looking shots rather than the way silents would typically show and narrate key traits on first appearance, and jump into hiring a pilot rather than establishing a need. Even later on, the film will make deeps that are not essential to the plot, commenting on what they see on the river and making an extended stop for the Omneganck festival and parade. Viewers expecting constant, purposeful activity may be disappointed at how often the film seems content to observe rather than push things forward.

Others will find that one of the film's strengths. Omneganck, in particular, looks like a home movie, and that's an asset: By establishing the setting as being outside a studio and establishing that he is showing real things that don't merely exist at the whim of a screenwriter, Antoine makes the part of the movie where he and Grillet take more complete control that much more suspenseful, as it implies that there will be no narrative cheats or oratory that changes the course of the story. The characters will be as true to themselves as the river well be to itself, because by then the film cannot work any other way.

In addition to shooting in actual locations, Antoine also liked to use non-professional actors, and while it's not obvious that's what he's done here, there's not a member of the cast that doesn't fit his or her role like a glove. Maguy Deliac has a real working-class luminosity to her as Marthe that delights in a different way than the rest of the characters; she seems separate from the shady goings-on with the rest of the crew. The lack of actorly flourishes by the rest of the cast keeps things interesting, though; even when up to something, there's enough genuine-seeming affection between them and sense that everybody is trying to wind up a little bit ahead to keep the audience engaged with them.

It makes me wonder a bit if either the original producers didn't give the story time to emerge before giving it the thumbs down or if editor Henri Colpri w wound up creating something new when trimming six hours of raw footage down to 79 minutes despite working from the director's notes. Either way, it's a terrific piece of "you are here" that wins up being a lot less abstract than it sounds.

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originally posted: 06/13/15 11:03:38
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Directed by
  André Antoine

Written by
  Gustave Grillet

  Maguy Deliac
  Pierre Alcover
  Louis Ravet
  Jane Maylianes

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