Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a new weekly video essay series.
We spotlight the classic and highly influential French epic film La Roue (The Wheel), directed by the French silent film visionary Abel Gance, in this video essay. The commentary is written and narrated by film scholar Kristin Thompson, co-author of the seminal film studies textbook Film Art: An Introduction and author of The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood.
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The French Impressionist movement can be said to have begun in 1918, and up to the premiere of Abel Gance’s film in late December of 1922, its main traits had to do with the representation of subjectivity through camera tricks: point-of-view shots, superimpositions, fuzzy filters, distorting mirrors, that sort of thing. Gance seems to have been the first filmmaker to realize that one could use rhythmic, accelerated editing to portray extreme states of mind. The most famous scenes in La Roue are, first, the journey to the city for Norma’s marriage, when Sisif tries to crash the train. Decelerating editing down to a series of shots 6 and 7 frames long convey his despair and Norma’s growing anxiety as she notices that the train is speeding. Second, as Elie hangs at the top of a cliff and hears Norma approaching to save him, Gance takes the phrase “his life flashed before his eyes” literally and edits together short shots of the two of them from earlier scenes, culminating in a flurry of single frames just before he falls. Those scenes were to influence numerous filmmakers, including the Soviet Montage directors.
At the time when Gance made La Roue, he was quite aware of his reputation as the most popular and innovative of French directors. French filmmakers were consciously striving to avoid popular genre movies and create Art with a capital A. Some put shots of themselves at the beginnings of their films, the equivalent of a painter signing his or her work. Here, after the title crediting him at the beginning, we see a brief medium shot of Gance, dissolving quickly to a close-up of his face, staring solemnly into the lens, his eyes highlighted by the reflections of studio spots. The implication seems to be that he is inspired, serious, and artistic.
Clearly a melodrama of regular feature length wasn’t art, so Gance had stretched out his simple, old-fashioned story to epic length and strives to give it dignity and importance. In part, he does this with motifs. Norma is compared to a rose, and flowers abound. Sisif’s sufferings ultimately are compared to those of Christ—rather an odd notion, since a single selfish act he performs early on essentially ruins four people’s lives, including his own, and he never really makes any amends for it.
The opening is undeniably powerful, especially the intercutting as Sisif struggles to move the axle blocking the switch that would signal the oncoming train of disaster. The final shot, from inside the signal house, lines up a row of signal handles into depth, with the frantic action of the rescuers in the distance visible through the window, is Gance at his best.
But then one goes straight into the sentimental, over-emphatic Gance. The explicit comparison of the toddler to a rose, the lingering shots of the two cute children asleep, accompanied by an equally cute puppy and kitten. (Shades of D.W. Griffith’s introduction of the southern family in The Birth of a Nation.) Then there’s the downright melodramatic last shot of an arm stretching up desperately from the wreckage—an especially trite touch, given that Gance had already used the hand groping from beneath twisted metal in the initial scene of the crash’s aftermath.
The contrast of the innovative and the conventional continues. The single most famous scene is undoubtedly the ride into the city, when Sisif determines to kill himself and everyone on the train rather than deliver Norma to her wealthy fiancé. It’s an extraordinarily impressive scene that must have been a revelation to its first audiences in 1922. Again we see Gance at his best, creating a contrast to this hectic scene by ending with a dark, hazy arrival in the Parisian train station after the crash is averted. The moment is both beautiful and grim—something that also can be said of the high-angle extreme long shots that several times act as transition moments between scenes. In them, Gance shows a single train passing through a maze of sinuous tracks in a gray light.
Clearly the trains and the setting of the train-yard inspired Gance in his use of avant-garde techniques. Once Sisif and Elie move to the mountains in the second half, the plot becomes more relentlessly maudlin—sometimes to the point of being downright silly. When Norma arrives at Sisif’s cabin in a blizzard, she throws open the door. Instead of rushing inside and slamming it, she stands almost motionless, covered with melting snow, simply so that Gance can give us lengthy shots of her suffering. And unfortunately, of the four characters who have to carry most of the plot, the director kills off the two that I find the most interesting, leaving us with over an hour in the company of the remaining two. By the end, I personally am left with a sense of a mixture of brilliance and self-indulgence.