At a film conference some years ago, a small subset of international scholars congregated outside the auditorium for a non-coffee-drinking coffee break. The neophyte and established hailing from Madrid, São Paulo, Berkeley and Montreal bunched together and rather openly plotted a crime. “You’ve seen that?” “Yes, I have, last year.” Someone else interested in the title drifted over, latching onto the word “have.” “Oh, I don’t have it have it. I saw it at a festival.” Interested parties still on alert, asked, “Do you know how I could get a copy?” Everyone shrugged. Three members of the impromptu gathering broke off and headed out to the host city’s commercial district where one of them knew where to procure bootlegs, fast, cheap and under no one’s control. “How many can we carry?” someone asked. “Five, I think, but I can hide some in my checked bag.” And off they went, leaving the rest of us to our regularly scheduled afternoon program.
Had I joined them, I would have looked for some Jacques Feyder. He’s one of those recognized masters it’s almost impossible to see outside of France, where I assume his films, saved from Nazi flames by the heroic Henri Langlois, are more readily available. Finding any Feyder where I live has tested my hunting skills (on high, dusty video store shelves, by Googling, Vimeoing, Vuzing, you name it) and law-abiding tendencies to their maximum. While the Internet yielded some treasures, it was a paltry bounty compared to the Belgian-born director’s lengthy, varied career.
I’ve not seen, for example, Le grand jeu or Pension Mimosas, recognized as the beginnings of France’s poetic realism movement that included the films of Vigo, Carné and some Duvivier. Making them even more covetable, they are two of seven films written by Charles Spaak, Feyder’s onetime secretary turned longtime collaborator who went on to write, among other classics, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion.
Nor could I find Feyder’s circus film, neither the German version Fahrendes Volk nor French Les gens du voyage, both of which he directed. Nor his Alexander Korda-produced Knight Without Armor about the Russian Revolution, starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat, which Variety proclaimed was the only picture on the subject to depict what it was really like. A proclamation probably euphemized from this review, which unwittingly makes the film even more enticing: “the butchery also begins to reach senseless proportions by the time the film is half unreeled. … The direction of Jacques Feyder is fair enough. At least it moves.”
My failures mount. I could not get ahold of any of his four American-made films. Two starring international screen phenomenon Greta Garbo—The Kiss (her last silent) and the German-language version of Anna Christie (her first talkie)—remain, incredulously, out of my reach. I have seen a brief clip from Daybreak, with Ramon Novarro, also star of Feyder’s other American film, Son of India). In an extended tracking shot taken alongside a horse-drawn carriage, an Austrian army officer woos a reluctant female. Near the end of the scene, when Novarro’s handsome face edges sweetly into the frame, both players now in the carriage, we know the conquest is almost complete.
Even out of context and rather crappy-looking, the six-minute sequence on YouTube upends the rusty notion that early sound films were uniformly bad. The original novel, by Arthur Schnitzler, is a tragedy—the womanizing lieutenant commits suicide—but the MGM film has a happy ending, a tacked-on occurrence of such regularity when under contract to Louis B. Mayer that Feyder could not have been surprised. Years later, Feyder described the process of making films in the studio system as so efficient (“grinding,” he wrote) that it nullified any fresh artistic point of view, resulting in “a film that an American director would have made in pretty much the same way.” Novarro felt differently and ranked the director alongside Ingram, Lubitsch and Murnau.
Nor does a comprehensive biography exist in English of Feyder. References to his life and career can be found scattered in French cinema history books, Richard Abel’s volumes on French criticism, biographies of others and most thoroughly in Lenny Borger’s notes for the Pordenone Film Festival catalog and Flicker Alley’s DVD set “French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923–1928.” I have liberally cribbed throughout.
Born Jacques Léon Louis Frédérix in Ixelles, Belgium, he dutifully attended military school in the early 1900s but then spurned his father’s insistence on respectability and became an actor instead. He had the decency to move to Paris to do so and thoughtfully changed his name to obscure his reputable origins.
He acted in several Gaumont shorts and Episode V of Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires lists Feyder in the credits as “un invité chez Mortesalgues”—one among the many mustached men attending a birthday party thrown by the evil Baron. I like to think that’s Feyder in the foreground near the end of the episode, raising his hand to his head, demonstrating the effects of the sleep-inducing gas. This subtle gesture, in stark contrast to the histrionics of his pantomime-mad peers, befits Feyder, an early proponent of naturalistic acting.
At Gaumont, he learned how to do everything related to moviemaking, directing twenty or so shorts and becoming what he later called a “craftsman.” He also began his lifelong collaboration with actress, and wife, Françoise Rosay, a lovely and sure on-screen presence, who often appeared in his comedies. His last Gaumont film, about a job hunter who breaks into an office afterhours to correct a mistake on a job application, turned out to be “too eccentric” and the company let him go, clearing the way, according to one historian, for “the birth of a great film artist.” Feyder had also contributed to the film’s scenario, beginning a career-long practice of writing or adapting texts for his own projects.
In 1920, Feyder made his first feature-length film, with money borrowed from a cousin. Running 162 minutes (on YouTube), L’atlantide might be the longest calling-card film on record, and, in its making, Feyder may have accumulated the experiences of an entire career. He schlepped his cast and crew to the Sahara (for eight months!) to shoot an adaptation of the popular novel by Pierre Benoît and the least of his woes among budget overruns and on-location hardships was the rapid weight gain of his female star, Stacia Napierkowska, who, the costume designer complained, was in need of constant fittings. The film, like the book, was a “smash hit,” according to Richard Abel, as moviegoers of the time had grown accustomed to sprawling historical epics on the order of Pastrone’s trend-setting Cabiria and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Critics, on the other hand, found much bad along with the good. Louis Delluc was blunt: “There is one great actor in this film, that is the sand.” Léon Moussinac used his review to school Feyder on international cinema: “[He] undoubtedly knows nothing of the Swedish films, Arne’s Treasure [sic] or The Outlaw’s Wife [sic] before guiding his valiant caravan into the vast sands of the Sahara his work would have been different and more complete.” He then gives due credit to Feyder for freeing the film from studio confines, what the director himself disparaged as “fakery.”
“Each time that he makes the desert participate in the drama,” Moussinac wrote, “the work strangely soars.” The sagging middle aside, I, too, was mesmerized by the desert’s presence, the two French soldiers smoking on their isolated veranda, the sands stretched to the horizon, the dazzling Algerian sun forever setting in the distance. From the very beginning, Feyder had a lyrical touch.
Feyder took these criticisms to heart when making Visages d’infants, cowritten with Rosay and starring child-actor find Jean Forest, about a young boy who must adjust to his new stepmother and stepsister. Shot on location in 1923 in the Swiss Alps, the movie borrows Stiller and Sjöström-esques landscapes: paths cut through snow-covered mountains and quaint villages below where lifetimes pass to the rhythms of the harvest. In one particularly memorable scene, search lanterns daub the pitch-black night sky like faintly bobbing stars.
Dramatic action like the kind used by Swedes (or Americans) comes in the form of a third-act avalanche and a denouement in white water rapids. But Visages d’infants is mostly a knowing portrait of family life from a kid’s point of view. In a heartfelt moment, an angry young Jean takes out his dead mother’s dress and arranges it to simulate her form, taking care to properly crease the pleats. Feyder is able to draw understated, treacle-free performances from both Jean and the little girl who plays his younger sister and keeps his camera, when necessary, at a discrete reserve.
1925’s Gribiche, Feyder’s first of two great comedies Feyder made at Albatros, the Montreuil-based studio started by Russian émigrés fleeing the Revolution, features Forest in the title role and Feyder’s wife as an American widow who takes over a boy’s upbringing so he has a better chance at respectability. It’s laugh out loud funny and the story takes surprising turns. (It’s also an eye-opening look at French child-rearing practices—a boy sits alone at a café sipping wine!) For Albatros, it fulfilled Feyder’s promise as a visual artist who could appeal to wide audiences.
His follow-up, Carmen, almost ruined him. It starred Spanish diva Raquel Meller, from whom Feyder could coax nary a naturalistic moment or even an on-screen kiss. It was, by all accounts, a dud. He left Albatros (or Albatros left him) and turned back to a project he’d started years before, an adaptation of another Pierre Benoît book, Le roi lépreux, to be made on location in Indochina. When financing definitively fell through, a German producer offered him the career-defining Thérèse Raquin.
An adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel, Raquin is the film that landed him the invitation by MGM production chief Thalberg. It’s one of the many of films I haven’t seen, but few alive have. The French Cinémathèque says it’s lost (though Mubi has a hope-inducing still and description) and others sadly confirm it. Unless it turns up we’ll never know exactly what about it redeemed his Carmen failure in the eyes of Albatros, which invited him back to the Montreuil, where he shared the studio with René Clair, then making his own career-changing film, The Italian Straw Hat. Their whimsy must have been contagious. Feyder’s comedy about two parliamentarians in love with the same ballerina, Les nouveaux messieurs (The New Gentlemen), slowly reveals itself to be about the nature of power and who really gets the girl. Still, Thalberg’s invite came just in time, as the director’s warm French welcome was already running cold again. The government banned Nouveaux messieurs because the portrayals of some of the more craven politicians were apparently a little too true to life.
Feyder was already on the boat, as Lenny Borger tells it, more than eager to try the American way. In a 1925 article, Feyder had chided French critics offended by Universal’s 1923 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and praised Hollywood scriptwriters Frances Marion and Jeannie Macpherson and German transplants Carl Mayer and Hanns Kräly. “There’s no point, then, in crying about sacrilege; instead let’s be astonished at the scriptwriter’s ingenuity.” He later worked with both Kräly (The Kiss) and Marion (in the bloody Knight Without Armour), for better or worse.
However, his best was yet to come. After he returned to Europe, he continued his independent rather itinerant way of working, directing Le grand jeu and Pension Mimosas, sometimes even with the same collaborators — Rosay, set designer Lazare Meerson, assistant Marcel Carné (who had been with him since Nouveaux messieurs) and the scriptwriter Charles Spaak.
Once, when touring the set of Le grand jeu with the director just as shooting was about to start, Spaak expressed consternation at all the noisy activity compared to the quiet when the two of them were turning the idea into the script. Feyder smiled and replied, in the polished retelling by Spaak: “To direct a film is to defend its meaning against all these people who work around us, and against the performers who are soon to take up their places on the newly finished set. It requires holding on to the original conception, which will threaten to slip away amidst …the clouds of plaster and the sound of hammers. What a battle it was in the first place to get the material resources to film our story. And now what a battle it will be not to end up a prisoner of those resources.”
The world seemed to take notice of Feyder’s films for the first time, sensing the beginning of a new movement later dubbed poetic realism. His 1936 comedy Carnival in Flanders earned him the best director prize at the fourth annual Venice Film Festival. Watching a rather a crystalline transfer, on YouTube, without English translation, I grasped what I could, which, according to one critic for the Daily News, was more than enough to appreciate its splendor. “You don’t have to understand one word of the film’s language to get its delicious flavor,” reads Wanda Hale’s review, excerpted in the hopeful distributor’s pressbook aimed at U.S. audiences famously adverse to subtitles.
It takes place in a 17th century Belgian village under military occupation by the tax-hungry Spanish king. The first ten minutes alone is a tour-de-force of camera movement, economic storytelling and character establishment. The impeccable sets, rich in references to the Flemish masters, were designed by Meerson. “The museums,” one French critic exclaimed at the time, “have descended into the streets and have come teemingly alive.” Feyder’s trademark subtle humor is also on view from the outset. A child’s bow-and-arrow hits its mark, the complex folds of a maid’s bustle, but the reaction only comes when the boy pries the weapon from the target. Deeper ironies unfold as the men retreat from responsibility and the women step in to deal with the greedy invaders.
World War II found Feyder in Switzerland, where he directed his final film, Une femme disparaît, which, I’ve read, spookily foreshadows Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its portrayal of a man determined to transform a woman into another he truly loves. He wasn’t out of film altogether. He wrote the script for Macadam and served as consulting director for Maturareise. He wrote his memoirs, including one coauthored with Rosay, Le cinéma, notre métier. He died in Switzerland in 1948 in the midst of a new realism, ten years before the New Wave. These upstarts found his work too stodgy and Feyder began his long, rather permanent obscurity.
Feyder’s protégé Marcel Carné, whose beginning of Children of Paradise has striking similarities to Carnival in Flanders, paid another homage to his mentor. In 1953, he updated, with the help of Charles Spaak, the story of a woman married to the wrong man, the readily available Thérèse Raquin.