Thursday, June 3, 2010

100 years, 100 films 4: The Child of Paris (1913)

Leonce Perret's 1913 film The Child of Paris is the first actual "feature" film in my 100 years, 100 films experiment thingy - it ran for a little over two hours. Which was somewhat strange, since it climaxed about seventy minutes in, and then just kept going.

It starts off with a happy aristocratic family - mum, dad and precocious little girl. They are happy and gay but - oh no! The father is called away to war. Kind of sad, but it's alright. There's an... uncle (?) around to be the man of the house, so the status quo is maintained, more or less. But after a ridiculous looking battle sequence (it resembles no battle sequence more than the ending of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup), the father is killed. (Or is he?) Well, that's sad and everything, but at least their is the uncle (?) around to look after things. Oh wait, no he's not, he's called away to war as well. Oh, and the mother goes crazy and dies of grief.

Yep, so after that cheery beginning, the precocious little girl gets shipped off to a boarding school that makes Oliver Twist's orphanage look like a fun place to be. It's so clichedly horrible that after just a single day the little girl decides to run away. She falls asleep on the side of the road, is picked up by a petty thief, and is sold into slavery to an abusive alcoholic cobbler.

Boy, this film lays it on thick. These openning passages actually do become ridiculous after a while - particularly since the little girl is such a... weird actress. She does the exact same over-the-top arm movements and exaggerated facial expressions that an adult actress would do in a silent film from this time, but coming from a tiny child it just feels bizarre. Sometimes it is legitimately effective, like when she starts sobbing in the boarding school, surrounded by her totally uncaring classmates. But sometimes it seems truly surreal - there is one scene when she first goes to the boarding school, and her dolly is taken away from her. She is left in this big empty room all by herself, and she does this weird thing where she just sort of stretches her arms out longingly, then holds them there for about a minute. It's as if the director forgot to give her direction after "hold your arms out," and so she just stayed like that until he called cut. Which he didn't do for a really long time.

So anyway, after she's sold into slavery to the cobbler, the cobbler's apprentice feels sorry for her and becomes her friend. They hang out for a while, making the best of a bad situation, and it's here that the film starts to pick up - it's finally gotten out of its, "let's do the worst possible things we can think of" routine, and has admitted that some people can be nice.

And then it turns out that the father wasn't dead after all! He was just a prisoner of war. So he comes back to find his wife dead and his daughter missing, and is understandably pretty annoyed about the whole thing. So he gets the newspaper to print an article about how his daughter is missing, and a bunch of unscrupulous rapscallions who know the drunken cobbler decide they will basically ransom the daughter out to her father. The cobblers apprentice finds out about this whole thing, and he doesn't want the girl to get hurt, so he follows one of the rapscallions to their secret hideout, where they have tied the father to a bed (for some reason). He then alerts the police, they burst in and arrest everybody. And this should have been the end - that way the film would have had constant forward motion, culminating in a satisfying climax.

But what actually happens is that one of the rapscalians escapes with the little girl, and flees the city. Why does he do this? It isn't really clear - he makes vague allusions to having some sort of plan to extort more money out of the father, but he already got a million francs out of the deal - how long does he think his luck could possibly last? The fact that he managed to get away at all was lucky - the fact that he managed to get away with the ransom money was basically a miracle. Why does he choose to take the girl as well? To slow him down and increase the chance of capture exponentially? To make sure that the police are putting all their resources into capturing him? It makes no sense - and it would be fine if the answer was "to continue the plot" - I would have accepted that as an explanation. But the plot gets really crummy after this point, and if he hadn't taken the girl, none of the crumminess would have happened.

What do I mean when I say that the plot gets crummy after this point? Well - the movie becomes a detective mystery from this point on, with the cobbler's apprentice working as an amateur sleuth. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but the problem is that it's really weirdly done. It isn't some ceaseless quest, building in speed and tension, moving towards an inevitable confrontation between the apprentice and the rapscallion. But this doesn't happen. It happens for about the first ten minutes - the apprentice finds clues, works out what's going on, tracks the rapscallion down, hones in on him. And then, for no reason, the film just decides to... wander off for a while. It spends about twenty minutes just meandering around. The apprentice rents a hotel, eats some food, gets some new clothes, wanders aimlessly around some parks. And after this pointless meandering, the film never regains steam. It just sort of continues at this ambling pace, and so the ending of the film just seems sort of like a petering out.

The film should have either stopped after seventy minutes, when the police arrested all the rapscallions, or should have edited out about twenty minutes of the last fifty, where absolutely nothing of consequence happens, slowing down the pace to a weird and pointless crawl. If it had done either of those things, it would have been really good. As it was, it was just reasonable. Not bad, but... reasonable.

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