The thirteenth of his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels, Émile Zola’s 1887 La terre (The Earth, or The Soil) is a transplantation of Shakespeare’s King Lear to rural France—Beauce, in the Cloyes region. The book is extraordinary; in it, the land is alternately described in erotic terms as a woman and in cosmic terms as the Mother Sea from whence we come and to which we return. André Antoine’s silent film version, from France, does not match the poetry of Zola’s oceanic concept until the last five minutes or so, at which point naturalism rises to become the sheer poetry of Nature, and the film rises to the level of cinema’s greatest poet, whose works were yet to come: Aleksandr Dovzhenko. One must also add that socialism, Zola’s solution to the divisions of land afflicting France, plays no clear and distinct role in the film. Antoine’s La terre is, nonetheless, engrossing throughout and highly accomplished visually and, at the very last, it is one of the greatest films on earth. (It is currently available on DVD, but not on VHS. A score is added to the DVD of the film. Turn off the sound, therefore, to best appreciate the film.) But I also recommend the book, for I suspect that Zola’s identification with the naturalism that he so dedicatedly harvested has misled those who haven’t read his work to categorize him as a purely prosaic writer who is incapable of transcendence. Seek out his La terre and prepare to be surprised. While Antoine’s is perhaps less consistently engaged, in full measure Zola’s soul responds to the earth.
Antoine, who presumably also wrote the script (no one is credited), has inherited the Shakespearean story from Zola’s novel. Père Fouan, too old and tired to farm any longer the land he owns, has it surveyed and divided into three parts, each of which goes either to a son or a son-in-law, in the latter case, his daughter Fanny’s spouse. By society’s established terms, he and his wife, Rose, will be allowed to remain in their home and will receive from the offspring a monthly complement of wood, wine and eggs. They will also receive money for the land and a generous monthly allowance on which to live. It is not long, however, before Fouan must threaten the children with notification of bailiffs. The children who seemed so loving to begin with turn out to be greedy and unfeeling, and there isn’t even a Cordelia in sight. Indeed, Fouan’s older sister and neighbor, piqued that she wasn’t given a piece of the land, pronounces her brother a fool and predicts both his betrayal by his children and his homelessness. She tells her brother, and she means it, that he should not come knocking at her door for shelter, for all she will want him to do is die in a ditch.
It is a problem that Shakespeare doesn’t travel well beyond the limits of its royal settings. Things that fit so perfectly within a royal domain make less sense outside it. Moreover, new things need to be wedged in that do not fit so well, either. Money is not an issue in King Lear, as it is here, and the absence of this issue in the original makes the issue of land there a springboard for metaphysical concerns. Lear is proud humanity brought down low as he realizes his existence is stretched on fortune’s wheel—the capriciousness of the cosmos. The issue of money, a bourgeois preoccupation, delays the film’s embrace of the material’s fullest and most profound dimension.
At the same time, however, the familiarity of the story is of enormous benefit to the film. Points of plot connecting the film to Lear become like Stations of the Cross that Fouan must hit, one after the other, as he navigates his familial ordeal. The plot turns into a meta-plot to which we scarcely need to attend, so well do we already know it, and this has the fortuitous result of making what would otherwise be a considerable amount of plot virtually disappear. None of the greatest films have much, if any, plot; cinema is a twentieth-century (and, now, twenty-first century)—that is, modern and postmodern art form—while plot as such belongs to the nineteenth century and earlier. Zola’s novel, of course, indulges its plot elements, which the echoes of King Lear rather reinforce. In Antoine’s film, these same echoes turn plot into nothingness; and nothing will come of nothing—and nothing in the modern sense of the nothing that is there.
But Zola is a genius, and it turns out that on one crucial point his La terre is more highly analytical than the wonderful film that Antoine has wrought. In the latter, Fouan is increasingly weakened physically by the cruel and vicious blows that his family members deal him (this includes the denial of his pension and the theft of his financial reserves); this weakened state alone explains why he makes no recourse to the legal system that arranged the terms of the land division and could conceivably set right much of the wrong that has been done to him. In the novel, though, the matter is far more complex. There, each blow that the old man is dealt further erodes his sense of authority and importance, which is bound to his sense of patriarchic entitlement by dint of society’s organization and founding bias. To be sure, the elements remain for such a reading of the film, for instance, the fact that Fanny’s husband, not Fanny per se, receives a portion of the father’s land along with the father’s biological sons, while his elder sister is excluded from consideration altogether. But, in the film, these elements do not coalesce into the thematic resonance—the sociopolitical analysis—that the novel provides. Launching Fouan’s downward spiral is Rose’s death. This terribly weakens Fouan, but the film doesn’t specifically explain how, permitting the sentimental explanation, that Fouan has lost his life-partner, to take precedence. Fouan has, in reality, lost more than that. Fouan’s marriage, modeled on the hierarchy that sets man above woman, had daily, constantly, however unconsciously, reinforced Fouan’s sense of authority and importance. Filial deference, likewise eroding, had helped reinforce the same sense. The old man’s gradually diminished social, cultural and political standing are central to the novel, and they contribute to Fouan’s gradual debilitation; in the film, unless we “read into” what we see from the novel, the old man’s physical deterioration stands alone. Zola’s concept is more astute and penetrating. It is, if you will, a fuller explanation. Moreover, the patriarchism that Zola opposes acts in concert with another theme in the novel: humility vis-à-vis the female earth. Farmers bend to the fields that they work, in anticipation of their eventual burial: life as a preparation for death. In the novel, the two themes are interwoven.
Indeed, the novel is conceptually more complex. In the film, the cycles of both Nature and humanity’s inhumanity (such as greed) exist parallel to one another. In the novel, they seem to be intersecting circles of import. Zola was no Flaubert, but his novels bear some degree of interesting design, for all his slapdash methods of composition.
On the other hand, the film repeats one of Zola’s most regrettable penchants: hoary symbolism. A teenaged neighbor of Fouan’s, Françoise, is leading a cow of hers to another neighbor so that the animal, in heat, may mate with a bull. The cow’s mood is testy, to say the least, and she—one can hardly call her an “it” in this context—goes wild, dragging Françoise across the field until a passer-by, Jean, a wanderer on the open road, who is looking for work, rescues her. Françoise comes to, her eyes aglow, in Jean’s sturdy arms. The scene’s meaning is insultingly reductive: Françoise is tied to her sexuality, at the mercy of her sex drive, its pushes and pulls (not to mention, bulls). This sort of nonsense actually works better in print than on film, but it works well nowhere. At the same time, Antoine scores a visual coup when we see Fouan, exhausted from farming, also on the ground, in need of as much supportive attention as Françoise, but ignored by Jean. The message in this case, that youth will have its day, shutting the elderly out, arises naturally from the dramatic material. Here, Antoine is being reflective, not reductive.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, visually, La terre is remarkable, almost from start to finish, especially nearing and at the finish. An early shot provides an outstanding instance of Antoine’s level of achievement. The film visually interrelates wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans, that is to say, the domesticaters of animals. We see wild animals as they are being poached, and we see farm animals as they contribute to the farming of the land and the lives of the farmers. Antoine devises in this regard a transformative shot, a thing of visionary brilliance. A conveyance, a truck, is opened at the back; the camera, creatively positioned, faces the rear opening from inside the truck. The truck is full of sheep, and they all appear black because of the darkness of the truck’s enclosure. They also appear wild in their haste to exit the enclosure. Below, on the ground, are white sheep in an orderly procession. Within the same frame we see the dark sheep, billowy, formless shadows, reach the ground and, themselves white in sunlight, meld with the definable white sheep. It is, at once, an encapsulation of domestication and, by dint of metaphor, a vision of the process of civilization: disciplined by light, the emergence of humanity from its dark, primitive impulses. The whole film (as does the novel) reminds us how close is the light of humanity to the dark of humanity, but here is an image, belonging to cinema, that bounds beyond Zola’s limits.
The daughter of one of Fouan’s sons is known as La Trouille, “The Pest.” She and her father, nicknamed Jésus-Christ, are poachers. We see her thinly clad feet mounting a tree; another creatively positioned camera greets her arrival up the tree, where figure and ground are as indistinguishable as the woman and the proliferation of branches. La Trouille reaches into the nest that was her goal. We expect her to lift out an egg or two, but it is fully-hatched, naked, vulnerable life that she pilfers for collection in a box. It’s a monstrous image—and another extraordinary shot, another visionary shot disclosing the dark capacities of humanity. The emotional coloration is also complex, for we may wish to distance ourselves from the mirror-image of us that La Trouille provides, while at the same time we identify the baby birds with human babies whom we feel moved to protect.
Commentators have noted that shots of the peasants, especially as they work in the fields, appear to be drawn from paintings by Jean-François Millet. This is a misleading remark, no matter how many repeat it, because not once does Antoine freeze human activity in order to invoke a canvas (as, say, Bob Fosse does in Cabaret). Rather than invoking Millet paintings, I would say, Antoine evokes a spirit of rural life that inspires him as much as it did Millet.
The finale of the film is organic rather than contrived; one can feel its growing out of what has preceded it. Antoine, then, has achieved a Zolaesque vitalism. At the same time, though, he does not bear down on it to forge, in some ideological crucible, the determinism that is one of the cardinal (and daunting) features of Zola’s fiction. By now, Fouan is homeless and roaming the fields, seeking comfort in a stray conversation, bitterly regretting the fact that he has lost everything and no one will take him in. In long-shots, we see him walking, by now with the help of two canes, through vast fields with an even vaster sky overhead; he is a tiny figure in a seemingly illimitable ground. The weather beats him (I forget whether it is snowing or raining); the sunshine, when it arrives, seems to be mocking the weak, marginalized Everyman. He falls down in the morning and finally dies. Meanwhile, at the same time, a young woman rises from bed to face the day. She stretches her arms outside her upstairs window. The cycle of life continues, favoring the young, and Fouan, nearly even by us, is already forgotten.
I appreciate that a closing, with dazzling cross-cutting, that anticipates the grave, and with the incomparable beauty of Dovzhenko, does not translate into the greatness of Dovzhenko. But let us give La terre credit for what it is rather than complain about how it falls short of this or that. If it is not the greatest film ever made (which Dovzhenko’s 1930 Earth perhaps is), it is close enough to being so to provide one of the most sublime experiences in cinema.
Armand Bour gives a tremendous performance as Fouan; we perceive Fouan’s foolishness as reflective of our own, and we feel for his plight without absolving his judgment. He and Zola are among Antoine’s four great collaborators here, the other two being his phenomenal black-and-white cinematographers, René Gaveau and René Guichard.
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