Monday, July 19, 2010

SFSFF: L'Heureuse mort

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
L'Heureuse mort (1924)
Accompanied by: Matti Bye Ensemble
Sun, Jul 18th 7:30pm
Castro Theatre

The closing night of the San Francisco Silent Festival was packed. The program began with a drawing for a shopping spree from festival sponsor McRoskey Mattress Company. We then saw the fanciful Georges Méliès short A Kingdom of Fairies (1903), accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano & flute, playing busily, sometimes on both instruments simultaneously. Critic Leonard Maltin spoke briefly & observed that the evening's big audience for the little-known feature film was a testament to the trust that audiences now have in the festival. L'Heureuse mort is a movie that most in the audience, including myself, had probably never even heard of. The story's anti-hero is a failed Parisian playwright who finds himself, after his death is mis-reported, to be wildly successful as a posthumous author. Nicolas Rimsky is both the screenwriter & star, & his excellent performance elicits sympathy without ever begging for it.

Though a French film, L'Heureuse mort was actually made by Russian émigrés. The whole movie has a European sense of sophistication, & the humor is startlingly modern. A completely abstract drawing shows up as a sketch for a proposed monument. The duel scene is rendered by an animated cartoon. The perfectly controlled ending left me pondering that gap between one's self & the world's perception of that self.

The movie's light touch was matched by the Matti Bye Ensemble's original score which was tasteful, discreet & spare. Recurring dance-like tunes run parallel to the scenes without trying to punctuate every action. The 4 musicians of the band played piano, organ, saw, violin, mandolin, guitar, percussion & vocalized. They also provided occasional sound effects, such as wind for the storm at sea. It was as good a film experience as I have had in a while, & it makes me realize that movies haven't improved over the decades.

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