ROMANCE SENTIMENTALE (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1930)

Romance sentimentale, from France, is one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made—by Eduard Tissé. Essential viewing, it is nonetheless the one Sergei Eisenstein film I find dubious.
     Its theme is the relation of mortal awareness to the suspension of this consciousness wrought by art, whose impetus, ironically, can be an overwhelming feeling of loss, with its presentiment of the end. The principal action consists of a glamorous woman sitting at her piano in a luxuriant room, singing. An opening title card explains: “Autumn, sadness, dead love: such are the themes of this old Russian song.”
     The first thing we hear, against a darkened screen, though, is discordant sounds. Images appear in speed-motion: traveling shots through trees; crashing waves; falling trees. When the added speed is withdrawn, thin trees are bent by the wind. Storm subsides; trees appear reflected in rippling, then settled water. The woman, in stark silhouette, is introduced indoors; she is postured, pensive. The first of many inserts of a mantlepiece clock at work sets the woman in time; now fully visible, at her piano the woman starts singing, and we realize that what we have seen of Nature subsumes the sadness of the song. Outdoors again, the camera shows melancholy, fog-drenched Nature; bare branches in the background are phantoms, while thin ones in the foreground are black, echoing the woman’s initial silhouette. The film cuts back and forth between Nature and the woman at the piano before brandishing superimpositions of both and a montage of Rodin sculpture. Downpour; the sound of the song dissipates as image is lost to dark and fog. Then sunlight; dawn. Trees are in blossom, and the woman, still singing, for the first time is smiling.
     It could be spring. It could be death.

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