Sunday, February 22, 2009

Music: Les Berceaux (1935, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Les Berceaux (1935)
France, 5 min
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff
Starring: Ninon Vallin
As do most cinephiles, I first got onto avant-garde filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff through Ménilmontant (1926). Though I quite enjoyed this effort, the determinedly-disorientating editing style, for me, kept it from being the masterpiece many proclaim. Les Berceaux / The Cradles fortunately sees Kirsanoff severely toning down his erratic editing, and, indeed, you'd be tempted to believe that the director had forgotten his passion for Soviet montage in the intervening decade. This five-minute musical short film most strongly recalled Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov's similar Romance Sentimentale (1930), in that both films feature only singing female protagonists accompanied by a visual montage. But, as I mentioned, Kirsanoff's montage is slow, meditative; he finds a relaxing serenity in the woman's (Ninon Vallin) voice, as is conscious that quick-cut editing would likely interrupt the peacefulness of her song. Instead, he favours slow cross-fades and transitional wipes, and even utilises an imaginative visual technique to avoid some transitions altogether.

From what I gathered, Les Berceaux is about the dedicated sailors who venture out into the deepest ocean, and the wives who must await their return. The woman sits in her living room, gently rocking her infant's cradle as she sings, the movement mimicking the rolling motion of the ocean waves. Many men will lose their lives to the ocean's vast waters, but the juxtaposition of death and life (in the cradle) suggests an endless and noble cycle. Kirsanoff imaginatively places a rear-projection screen outside the woman's window, through which, as she sings, we can watch the ocean waves lapping up against the shore, or the ship charging majestically over the water. Also worth noting is that the film was photographed by Boris Kaufman, who later also shot On the Waterfront (1954) and 12 Angry Men (1957). In all, Les Berceaux is a pensive and peaceful ode to a life at sea, and fans of Kirsanoff should certainly seek it out.

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