EL DORADO (Marcel L'Herbier, 1921, Finland, 100m, BW)
Directed by Marcel L'Herbier
Produced by Gaumont Série Pax
Written by Marcel L'Herbier
Starring Ève Francis
Music by Marius-François Gaillard
Cinematography Georges Lucas
Distributed by Gaumont
28 October 1921
Language Silent film
In Granada in Spain, Sibilla works as a dancer in a squalid cabaret called El Dorado, struggling to earn enough to care for her sick child. The boy's father Estoria, a prominent citizen, refuses them both help and recognition, fearful of jeopardising the engagement of his adult daughter Iliana to a wealthy nobleman. Iliana however slips away from her engagement party to meet her real lover Hedwick, a Swedish painter. Sibilla, in desperation after a further rejection by Estoria, sees an opportunity to blackmail him by locking the lovers overnight in their meeting-place in the Alhambra.
When Hedwick learns the truth next day, he and Iliana decide to take refuge at his mother's remote house on the Sierra Nevada, and they propose to Sibilla that they should take her son (Iliana's half-brother) with them so that he can be properly cared for in a healthy climate. Sibilla reluctantly agrees, but she is distraught as she returns to her empty room at El Dorado where she even has to fight off Joao, the cabaret's clown, as he tries to rape her. Knowing that she will not see her son again, she performs a last dance on stage to rapturous applause before going backstage to stab herself.
Tactile, voluptuous, and otherworldly, the ornate, impeccable architectures and visual geometry of the cabaret El Dorado and the clandestine meeting grounds of the desolate L'Alhambra also reflect this elaborately conceived imaginary construction, a meticulously rendered, but irresolvable fictional aesthetic that is similarly manifested in the baroque interiors and mise-en-scène of Last Year at Marienbad and invariably serve as an essential projection of the characters' own psychological reality and unarticulated desire: a sickly, illegitimate child is confined to a Spartan room adorned with a large cross, a constant reinforcement of his seemingly incurable illness and near death; the smoke-filled, unbridled hothouse of El Dorado, visually distorted under the influence of the patrons' intoxication and lust for the cabaret's feature performer, Sibilla.
The recollection of a seduction and ill-fated love affair appears clouded and unfocused, sentimentally diffused by years of estrangement, frigidity, and fading memory; an artist pining for his lover envisions her materialization in the symmetric framing of an arcing fountain, in essence, a figurative mental projection of ephemeral desire onto physical architecture. The influence of L'Herbier's stylistic subversion of melodrama through plot distillation and integration of metaphoric imagery is also evident in Resnais' fractured narrative and metamorphosing imagery, introducing archetypal characters that eschew human complexity in favor of representational acts (note the denouement that occurs behind a translucent stage backdrop, creating a grotesque superimposition of spasmodic shadows). It is this narrative compression through the integral conflation of performance and mise-en-scène that inevitably defines the bold, idiosyncratic spectacle of El Dorado, a film in which the tale of the human condition is revealed, not through expressed character insight, but through the loaded imagery of evocative gestures and malleable architecture.
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