Estonian-born Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant, from France, opens explosively. A grinning lunatic hacks to death a man and a woman with an ax, orphaning the couple’s two daughters, whom we watch playing outdoors with a cat, lamenting their loss at their parents’ graves, and walking together from the cemetery down a desolate path lined with a small number of bare trees. A dissolve shows the pair farther down the path all of a sudden; and, while it is likely he stopped filming in between the two points, Kirsanoff thus established the idea, the possibility, of a jump-cut. Mark Donskoi, moved and impressed, used Kirsanoff’s lyrical method of transposing a human figure farther along in a significant foot-journey to conclude his Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938). Indeed, shards of Ménilmontant’s expressiveness would make their way into many other famous films. Alas, the two main characters, unlike Gorky, would remain anonymous—except to us. At some level, one cannot help but think, their orphaned fate is correlative to Kirsanoff’s own separation from homeland, also instigated by violence, the 1917 revolution and the subsequent Soviet state.
Kirsanoff follows the sisters from the country to Paris, which electrifies amidst speedy tracking shots and use of hand-held camera, correlative to the world of possibilities now seemingly before the girls. The world, though, shrinks; they begin and end working in a sweatshop. In between, a man comes between them, undercutting their one source of emotional support: each other. One becomes pregnant, while the other becomes a prostitute. Also, their parents’ killer re-enters the picture.
As in Dickens, melodrama is a vehicle for social and psychological inquiry into the plight of the downtrodden. Kirsanoff’s dazzling technical versatility—different camera angles and distances, superimpositions, dissolves—never overwhelms the sad, delicately spiritual human story.
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