Incredible visual design is the most salient aspect of La Dame Masquée. The film was produced by the legendary Albatros studio at Montreuil, made up largely of Russian émigrés who fled their country in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and the resulting civil war. The talent pool included a genuine star in Ivan Mosjoukine, and a range of other gifted personnel; mainly Russian, but some Albatros productions were directed by major French réalisateurs such as Jean Epstein (incl. Le Lion des Mogols), René Clair (incl. Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie), Marcel L’Herbier (Feu Mathias Pascal), and Jacques Feyder (incl. Gribiche). Ivan Lochakoff, responsible for the sets of La Dame Masquée along with Édouard Gosch, was the principal set designer for Albatros between 1920 and 1924, and their work here is just stunning.
Art deco was cemented as a style in 1925 with the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, but a year earlier in La Dame Masquée, the style (with an especially heavy element of chinoiserie) was on full display. Even the less elaborate sets are striking and beautifully designed.
Another huge point of interest for me with this film is the connection to Claude Cahun, one of my favourite artists. I bought the book Inverted Odysseys (an catalogue of an exhibition of work by Cahun, Maya Deren, and Cindy Sherman) as a teenager and have returned to it often over the years. Fiercely androgynous (perhaps even genderqueer) and openly lesbian, Cahun is most well-known for her photographic work, particularly her self-portraits that up-end notions of gender and identity.
In La Dame Masquée Cahun is credited by her birth name, Lucie Schwob, as creating the wardrobe for Nathalie Kovanko (the main character, Hélène). Kovanko is costumed stylishly and interestingly throughout, including a magnificent tricorne hat in the masquerade ball scene, but a design that particularly stood out to me is a relatively simple design: a shift dress emblazened with the abstracted initials of Kovanko.
How Cahun’s association with Albatros came about is not known, but the CF presents several possibilities; essentially, it seems that she crossed paths with Albatros personnel via the arts scene. Anyway, this was Cahun’s only costuming work for films; a shame for cinema-lovers, but it shows what a talent she was across different media.
As beautiful as it is visually, La Dame Masquée presents a rather pessimistic view of human nature. It is the story of Hélène (Kovanko), a young woman from a small town who goes to her relatives in Paris after she is orphaned and loses her home.
Right: Hélène puts on a theatre performance for the children of her village.
Unfortunately for Hélène, her bad fortune doesn’t end there – not by a long shot. Finding out that she stands to inherit a fortune, Aunt Doss marries Hélène off to Doss’ son (Hélène’s cousin), Jean. The marriage is not a happy one, and Hélène becomes involved with Jean’s friend Girard, who she had noted with interest from the outset.
Poor Hélène just cannot catch a break: Girard, too, is a scoundrel. She also endures unwanted attentions from gambling-den owner Monsieur Li. Eventually, there is a murder, and most of the second half of the film involves unraveling those circumstances and dealing with their aftermath.
Kovanko is quite a strong lead, well supported by the rest of the cast (with one exception discussed below). The two actors who stood out the most to me were Nicolas Koline as her kind-hearted uncle Michel, and Jeanne Brindeau (of the Comédie Française) as her miserly aunt Doss. Brindeau must have relished her role as the evil-stepmother type, whereas Koline is warm and likeable as Michel.
Brindeau as the severe Aunt Doss; Koline as Michel pulls a face.
The film is fluidly edited according to narrative convention. However, I did notice a couple of unusual stylistic flourishes. Flashbacks are heralded by a dissolve to and from an abstract pattern of moving shapes, unrelated to motion in the shots either side; I can’t recall having seen anything similar before. Secondly, a climactic scene uses rapid, almost Soviet-style montage; I don’t have any direct information about this, but it certainly suggests that the Albatros crew were conversant with current Russian film practice.
The stills of the décor above show a clear Orientalist influence; however, you may have already guessed that this influence is not just restricted to the sets. A whole subplot of the film concerns the shady dealings of a Chinese club/gambling-den manager, Monsieur Li, who spends most of the film skulking around with these kind of facial expressions:
Lovely. Monsieur Li is played by Russian-born actor Nicolas Rimsky in yellowface, with eyes taped and narrowed. Rimsky is relatively one-note, not that any kind of performance could really have saved the character, who written is without much depth. Li is just one of the many terrible people that Hélène encounters, but his character drives much of the plot, as well as figuring in the story’s climax. Interestingly, he may be the one man who is interested in Hélène for her own sake, rather than just trying to use her (although one could also attribute his actions to impure motives), but his creepy and predatory behaviour towards her makes her aversion to him entirely understandable.
The major centrepiece of the film is an impressive masquerade ball scene, involving costumed deception, overheard conversations, secret plots … and merriment.
Sylvio de Petrelli as Girard, costumed in a Punch and Judy-style mask; partygoers in revelry.
A contemporary critic wrote of La Dame Masquée:
If one day we have a cinémathèque, this Albatros film will deserve its place in it. Every film which comes from that astonishing phalanstery which is the Montreuil studio carries an individual stamp of decoration. La Dame Masquée, which we have just seen, is marked by profound art done with apparent ease. With what sure talent has M. Lochakov has built and brushed décors of a perfect stylization! … The immense salons of linear design in which the whites and the blacks collide without half-tones, the chilly residence of Madame Doss, the arid house of Hélène the unhappy wife, the low, banal bachelor flat of the seducer, the rotunda of the proprietor Li, are equally attractions for the eye.
Indeed, Georges Franju, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, considered the Albatros material to be the basis of the CF’s collection. Apart from film elements, the CF also holds almost 500 files relating to the production company. Incidentally, they were the only documents affected in the famous 1959 CF fire, damaged primarily by the emergency services called in (I assume this means water damage). The CF enacted a big photocopying project in the 80s to make the fonds accessible to researchers. It’s a really good thing that they did this, since the original documents were then destroyed in another fire in 2002.
As for the 1959 fire, the full extent of the losses will never been known, due to the (deliberately) poor record-keeping of Henri Langlois. Many unique copies perished, including the only surviving print of Erich von Stroheim’s The Honeymoon (1928); it is said that in all, 5000 reels of nitrate were destroyed.
The Cinémathèque Française restored La Dame Masquée in the 80s from a nitrate negative (not stated if it was the OCN or a dupe). In 2009 they struck a tinted print according to the original tinting instructions, using the Desmet method. I haven’t seen that version, but on his blog, Antti Alanen wrote that he felt the strong colours obscured the quality of the cinematography.
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La dame masquée [The Masked Lady]. Dir. Vyacheslav (Viktor) Tourjansky. France: Films Albatros, 1929.
Several of the Albatros films have been released on DVD in this boxset by Flicker Alley (North American, so it’s NTSC). I don’t yet own it, but am very much looking forward to! Expect some more posts on Albatros in the coming months.