The five films collected in this set from Flicker Alley were produced at the Films Albatros studios in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, where the studio’s core group of artists was composed primarily of Russian émigrés, as the title suggests. Although the focus of the set is extremely specific (presenting only the work of Russian immigrant filmmakers working in and around Paris for a single studio during a six year period in the 1920s), the quality of the artists’ output is surprisingly strong throughout. Yet, the five films herein offer incredible story variety while embodying such extraordinary amounts of filmic experimentation and storytelling charm that one would absolutely have to get specific in order to compile such a consistently engaging collection as this.
The films collected in French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 include: The Burning Crucible (Le Brasier Ardent, 1923), Kean (1924), The Late Mathias Pascal (Feu Mathias Pascal, 1926), Gribiche (1926), and The New Gentleman (Les Nouveaux Messieurs, 1928). Each film is masterfully-crafted in its own right, but to my mind, the romantic fantasy, The Burning Crucible, shines brightly above the rest. Master director Jean Renoir cited The Burning Crucible as his inspiration to take up filmmaking, and if that’s not praise enough, I don’t know what is! The film features one of the most uniquely odd and daring setups to a romance in filmic history with lavish set design and spectacular visuals underscoring the story of a world-renowned detective (and master of disguise) who’s hired to return a woman’s soul to her husband. Love ensues.
The Burning Crucible was written and directed by Ivan Mosjoukine, who stars as the aforementioned detective. And Mosjoukine is one of the primary driving forces behind the works in this set. Not only was Crucible his brainchild, but he also plays the titular role in Kean, which he co-wrote, as well as the titular role in The Late Mathias Pascal. Kean is a biopic relating the life story of 19th century Shakespearian actor, Edmund Kean, and Mathias Pascal, based on the novel by Luigi Pirandello, is an epic, nearly-three hour-long picture directed by Marcel L’Herbier.
Gribiche opens with the most downright wholesome of characters crossing paths in a most wholesome manner: the young boy Gribiche returns a wealthy philanthropist’s pocketbook but subsequently refuses a reward. When Gribiche allows himself to be adopted by the aristocrat in the hopes that his widowed mother will at last remarry, the resultant fish-out-water tale becomes a powerful and heart-warming treatise on the importance of collective charity and the inherent dangers of individual charity.
The set rounds out with The New Gentleman, a visually-inventive comedy about a struggle over a beautiful dancer’s affections between an aristocrat and an electrician turned left-wing union organizer. Much of the plot centers on the shifting political sentiment in the French House of Lords that allows the electrician to rise to political power. Director Jacques Feyder manages to brilliantly show this shift without ever having to reveal any of the specific policies that divide the House to the audience. He accomplishes this primarily through the use of selective image blurring that moves onscreen from the literal and political left to the right and back again, revealing the shifting allegiances of Lords that influence the love triangle that is ultimately the real focus of the film.
This is but a single example of the many stunning cinematic flourishes employed throughout these five pictures by the artists at Films Albatros, most of which are presented, as in the above example, merely in passing. As such, you’ll find yourself spending the five films’ combined 660 minutes of running time in absolute amazement, wondering why they just don’t make them like they used to. Supplemental features included in this five-DVD collection from Flicker Alley include a scene from Gribiche included in the foreign negative but not in the cut of the film appearing here and a 28-page booklet including an essay on “The Russian Émigrés in Paris 1920-1929,” originally published in 1988, and notes on each of the films by Lenny Borger.