France / 38 minutes / bw Dir & Pr & Scr: Dimitri Kirsanoff Cine: Dimitri Kirsanoff, Léonce Crouan Cast: Nadia Sibirskaïa, Yolande Beaulieu, Guy Belmont, Jean Pasquier, Maurice Ronsard.
A minor milestone of cinematic history, this longish short, full of early Expressionist flourishes, has a very noirish feel to it, notably in its cinematography and most especially in its highly imaginative editing (also by Kirsanoff), which makes creative use of such new techniques as double exposure; it’s at its most effective in the several places where it makes jerky little series of multiple, often unexpected cuts.
The movie is silent and has no intertitles; thus, although the basics of the plot are easy enough to follow, some of the details rely on the viewer’s interpretation. Ménilmontant is, anyway, more about mood and impressions than about the details of a plot that doesn’t entirely hold together; this is a quite affecting, haunting little piece, one that gets under the skin.
Nadia Sibirskaïa as the younger of two sisters trying to make their way in Paris.
Somewhere in the countryside, two little girls are playing in the woods while, unbeknownst to them, back home their parents are being murdered by a madman. Together, the two orphans set off for Paris. When next we see them they’re young women, living in the city’s downtrodden Ménilmontant quartier. The younger and prettier sister (Sibirskaïa) catches the eye of and becomes enamored of a handsome youth (Belmont). Although she’s clearly reluctant and apprehensive, she lets him seduce her.
Next we see her checking off the days on a wall with a piece of chalk. Eventually she’s sure beyond doubt that she’s pregnant, and sets off to tell her lover this . . . only to happen upon him smooching with her elder and pudgier sister (Beaulieu); the smoochers retreat to his rooms with a fairly obvious intent. The younger sister goes off, has her baby, decides not to hurl herself into the Seine, and does her best to keep the child and herself alive, though homeless in the midst of a Paris winter. Finally she chances once more upon her big sister, who appears to have done well for herself and agrees to take in the child. Meanwhile the treacherous lothario, with yet another woman in tow, is killed during a street brawl.
The younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaïa) and her baby face yet another bitterly cold, hungry night of the Paris winter.
The two killings that frame the narrative are really quite graphic for their time; intriguingly, we’re offered an explanation for neither. But the story that really interests us is that of the younger sister. Sibirskaïa, who was Kirsanoff’s first wife and appeared in a number of his movies as well as those of other directors, has an extraordinarily potent screen presence, her emotive face managing to be playfully impish in one moment and waifish, desolated, heartrendingly tragic the next.
The dates of Sibirskaïa’s marriage to Kirsanoff are uncertain; after their divorce he married a film editor, who worked as Monique Kirsanoff. Dimitri Kirsanoff died young, in 1957, and was outlived considerably by both wives. Monique’s last movie credit was the porn movie Chattes Ravageuses (1980), dir James-H Lewis (i.e., Gilbert Roussel); I haven’t been able to find out when she died. Sibirskaïa died in 1980, a matter of weeks before her 80th birthday. She’s sometimes listed as having taken part in one of Joe Sarno’s sexploitationers, Scarf of Mist, Thigh of Satin (1966), but as far as I can establish this is an error. Her last-released movie appears to have been another Kirsanoff piece, Quartier sans Soleil (made in 1939 but not released until 1946).
Ménilmontant (1939) dir René Guissart, with Gabriel Signoret, Pierre Larquey, Josette Day, Thérèse Dorny and Valentine Tessier appears to be a quite unrelated comedy drama.
On Amazon.com as part of this collection: Avant Garde – Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s