SWALLOW AND THE TITMOUSE, THE (André Antoine, 1920, France, 80m, BW)
L'hirondelle et la mésange (1920)
aka Swallow and the Titmouse, The (1920)
aka Hirondelle et la mésange, L' (1920)
31 May 2015 (USA)
Director: André Antoine
Writer: Gustave Grillet (screenplay)
Stars: Maguy Deliac, Pierre Alcover, Louis Ravet
A bargeman, his wife and sister-in-law navigate the canals of northern Belgium in their two vessels, the eponymous "L'Hirondelle et la Mésange," taking the time to appreciate the sites and landscapes they encounter along their way. Like many in his trade, the mariner supplements his income by transporting occasional contraband. The tranquil rhythms of their nautical lives are interrupted, however, when they hire an ambitious new pilot.
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.
"L'Hirondelle Et La Mésange" is an excellent, dark, dramatic and violent silent film directed by Herr André Antoine in 1920 but it was not released theatrically until 1982!; The French distributor of the oeuvre, Charles Pathé, considered in those early times that the film was too much like a documentary ( a characteristic of Herr André Antoine films, by the way… ) and for this reason, "L'Hirondelle Et La Mésange" was forgotten in a gloomy French cellar until the Cinémathèque Française found six hours of rushes of the film, and under the direction of André Antoine himself, the film was restored and finally released after sixty years.
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.
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