HOMME DU LARGE, L' (Marcel L'Herbier, 1920, France, 84m, BW)
Directed by Marcel L'Herbier
Written by Marcel L'Herbier (scenario)
Honoré de Balzac (story)
Starring Jaque Catelain
Cinematography George Lucas
Edited by Jaque Catelain
Gaumont Série Pax
3 December 1920
85 minutes (2256 metres)
Language Silent film
L' Homme du large (English: Man of the Sea or Man of the Open Seas) is a 1920 French silent film directed by Marcel L'Herbier and based on a short story by Honoré de Balzac. It was filmed on the rugged southern coast of Brittany creating atmosphere in a film about the forces of good and evil that motivate human behaviour.
After the success of L'Herbier's previous film, Le Carnaval des vérités, Gaumont allowed him more resources for his next project, and in the spring of 1920 he drafted a scenario based loosely on a philosophical short story by Balzac called Un drame au bord de la mer. He said that he wanted to use again the sea of Brittany as a protagonist in a drama, an idea which he had explored previously in his scenario for Le Torrent (1917), but now to treat it more lyrically. He gave his story the title L'Homme du large, and added the subtitle Marine ("seascape").
Nolff, a devout Breton fisherman, has taken a vow of silence and lives as a hermit beside the sea. No-one comes near him except the white-clad novice who brings him food. Years before... Full of contempt for mankind and life on land, Nolff has built his house on a remote cliff-top, and devotes himself to his fishing and to his wife and children: his daughter Djenna, hard-working and dutiful, and his son Michel whom he idolises and is determined to bring up as "a free man, a sailor".
But Michel is selfish and exploits his father's blind affection, and as he grows up, hating the sea, he becomes addicted to the pleasures of the town, lured into bad behaviour by his friend Guenn-la-Taupe. At an Easter celebration, the only occasion of the year when Nolff and his family join the townspeople in their festivities, Nolff's wife becomes ill, and while she is taken home Michel escapes to a disreputable bar in the town to consort with the dancer Lia. Djenna comes to fetch him to his mother's bedside, but Michel slips back into the bar, where he gets into a fight with Lia's protector and stabs him.
Nolff pays for Michel's release from gaol, but when they return home, they find his mother dead. Needing money to spend on Lia, Michel steals the savings which his mother had kept for Djenna, but he is caught and denounced by Nolff, who vows "to return him to God". Nolff ties Michel in the bottom of an open boat and pushes it out to sea. He then adopts the life of a hermit beside the sea, while Djenna enters a convent. Months later, Djenna receives a letter from Michel: he has survived and is now a changed man, earning his living as a sailor. When Nolff hears that Michel wants to return home, he cries out to the sea in remorse for his judgment of his son.
The movie is substantially different from the book, with the added character of Djenna, and a less tragic ending. It is remarkable notably for the use of natural settings in Brittany and the important role played by the sea. The film has some similarities with Terje Vigen, notably the character of the solitary seaman who has lost part of his family and the re-creation of life in a small coastal community with its typical inhabitants, dances and costumes. Costume design and art direction is masterly ensured by Clause Autant-Lara who will also become one the most renowned French film directors. The story contrasts the pure and simple people in the village with the corrupt city, a theme that would later inspire F.W. Murnau for his 1927 film Sunrise. Some of the scenes in a seedy bar were quite provocative for the time, e.g. a woman kissing another one and caressing her knees, and were cut by censorship at the time of release.
As in Terje Vigen, the narrative structure is based on a long flashback telling the story of an old man living alone in front of the sea. During that story flashbacks but also original scenes are shown to express the thoughts and words of the characters, thereby limiting the need for intertitles. The film is quite innovative in its use of symbolic images, the sea, trees, or crosses to express abstract ideas. Where intertitles are used, they are sometimes shown next to a character speaking rather than consecutively as in other silent films. The sea is regarded itself as a character by Nolff; he introduces it to his baby son as his betrothed, and at the end, it is the sea who forgives.
While the camera is mostly static, a couple of vertical pans are used in a symbolic way, moving e.g. from a man to a cross at the top of a cliff to express a move from human to divine. Iris shots and masks of various forms are used for the transition between shots and to stress a particular part of the image. Cross-cutting is systematically used and the frequent use of close-ups and reverse shots builds up tension very effectively up to the end of the long flashback. Acting, notably by Roger Karl, Jaque Catelan and Marcelle Pradot is very expressive without overplaying. Charles Boyer, who will later become the archetype of the French lover in Hollywood, makes here his début in a secondary role as Guenn la Taupe. Images are beautifully composed and lit. Split screens in different shapes are sometimes used to show parallel actions.
Marcel L'Herbier is known as one of the major French directors of the silent era as well as one of the pioneers of cinematic Impressionism. As this is quite early in his career, there are relatively few formal innovations in Man of the Sea, although his use of landscape and environment to suggest character traits is a relatively new technique for the time that is used extensively. Further, there are a few really memorable visual flourishes here, such as the cross that appears in the sea to suggest Nolff's association of it with the divine.
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