Before Morrissey, before Morris Day … there was another: the original Moz. And that Moz is Ivan Mosjoukine, né Мозжухин (Mozzhukhin) … Vanya to his friends.
He has been seen before on this blog, but only briefly and not in his full glory. A massive star in both pre-Revolutionary Russia and as an émigré in 1920s France, Mosjoukine is not nearly so well-known as he deserves; I assume this is due to him never really cracking the Anglophone market. Yet he is a great actor, possessed of a wonderful, beaky, distinctive face, and a truly charismatic screen presence. Furthermore, as Le Brasier ardent (his only solo directorial credit) proves, the Moz had a quirky, visually inventive sensibility. It failed to strike a chord with contemporary audiences – though appreciated by critics, the film was a box-office failure – but luckily today we can appreciate his strange and wonderful vision.
The Cinémathèque Française gives the following synopsis of the film: In a dream, a young woman sees an unknown man throw her into a crucible. Her husband hires a detective to determine the origin of this nightmare. I’m not sure if that’s how I’d characterize the plot, but it’s this extended nightmare sequence that opens Le Brasier Ardent.
Mosjoukine, Natalie Lissenko, demonic happenings … is this the lost ending to Сатана ликующий | Satan Triumphant (RU 1917)?
Fire, brimstone, and Natalie Lissenko being pulled by the hair. Now she is being pursued by the same man, this time besuited:
In a third scene, the man is a Putin-esque priest from whom she is receiving penance.
Almost ten minutes of the film elapse before the woman character (identified only as Elle – she) wakes, amused and startled at the dream she has had after falling asleep reading Through the Human Jungle, the memoirs of the famous detective Z.
As we see from the book, Z is a man of much intrigue and many disguises.
Elle is kept in comfort by her rich industrialist husband (‘Le mari’), who adores her, and for whom she feels a great deal of affection, even if she isn’t in love with him.
So we have the basic setup: a mysterious detective, a distracted wife, and a concerned husband, mixed together with a few doses of surrealism. But the plot doesn’t proceed as you would think – it’s full of intriguing ellipses and diversions. Detectives are not what they seem; a woman is in love, but not with another man; Elle goes missing, but is found again soon; a marriage licence is stolen, then recovered. All of this is delivered with a lot of flair: sets are striking and often larger than life, reinforcing the outsize nature of the plot. Even regular scenes will have odd touches, such as the futuristic gadgetry in Elle’s bedroom.
The standout scene, a true set piece, is the one in which Le mari happens upon the ‘Club des Chercheurs’ (Seekers Club). He knocks upon a door, only to find himself being flipped into a hallway guarded by black-clad men.
At the top of the spinning staircase, a radiating series of hallways, each doorway containing different disembodied body parts.
Le mari is nonplussed by the concierge, asking him “what’s this about ‘seekers’? Where am I, anyway?” He is directed to the room titled Return of Missing Wives, filled with a semicircle of detectives from which Le mari must make a selection.
Again, there are strange moving sets and gadgets, and the detectives themselves are distinctly odd. Or are they? After Le mari makes his choice, their disguises too are revealed to be all part of the game.
It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence. Le Brasier ardent settles down into a more conventional story thereafter, but the first act is among my favourite in film.
Apart from having fingerprints all over the scenario and direction, Mosjoukine excels as Z le détective. As Richard Abel writes, the role seems crafted to showcase his acting range:
His penchant for eccentric fantasy and comedy made him a Protean master of disguise, a synthesis of character types … In the rest of the film, he shifts among a series of contradictory personae – a brilliant detective, a silly buffoon, a cruel dancing master, a shy lover, and a mama’s boy.
As mentioned above, the other leads are played by Nicolas Koline (Le mari), an actor I find very charming, and Natalie Lissenko (Elle), Mosjoukine’s frequent collaborator, and for a time, real-life partner. I go back and forth on Lissenko, but what is certain is that she and the Moz play off each other very nicely.
Another scene worth mentioning is that of the ‘dance marathon’, in which, egged on by Elle, Z’s frenetic piano playing drives the dancers to the point of collapse. Another echo to a very similar scene in Сатана ликующий | Satan Triumphant (RU 1917), though this time with more humour.
Most of the visual intrigue of the film comes from graphic elements – clever sets and staging. However, Mosjoukine’s use of negative footage to introduce a flashback stood out to me as an unusual cinematic device – I can’t think of other films from this era (or indeed later times) where I’ve seen that.
There are also some shots that are simply beautiful, such as this Loïe Fuller-esque moment from the dream sequence.
Likewise, I always appreciate a good double exposure, such as in this shot of Lissenko (adorned with the kind of crown-like fan of hair that always reminds me of Asta Nielsen’s headdress in Die freudlose Gasse).
I’ve praised Le Brasier ardent a lot in this review. It’s not a perfect film, of course; the pacing is a bit erratic, f0r one thing. But I do think it is something special, and at its best, it really is spectacular. I would certainly consider it one of my silent films of the year.
Incidentally, Le Brasier ardent is on the record as inspiring a young Jean Renoir to get into films: “I was delighted. Finally, I had a good French film before my eyes. [..] I decided to give up my trade, ceramics, and try to make films”. (Early results were, uh, mixed).
A unique and beautiful film. Here, have one last parting shot of Mosjoukine, réalisateur, actor, and possessor of flawless eyebrows.
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Le Brasier ardent [The Burning Crucible]. Dir. Ivan Mosjoukine. Montreuil, France: Films Albatros, 1923. Available on this DVD set from Flicker Alley, which any fan of silent film should own. Tantalisingly, Flicker Alley are
also strongly rumoured to be preparing a release of the Mosjoukine/Albatros serial La Maison de mystère (FR 1922). Update: On Facebook Flicker Alley told me that it’s in preparation, with a tentative release date of Spring (March thru June) 2015. Update 2: It’s all official! Preorders will ship out at the end of March, I assume the DVD will be available for general order thereafter.