Petite Lise, La (1930)

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All he sought was his daughter’s happiness!
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vt Little Lise
France / 84 minutes / bw / Pathé–Natan Dir: Jean Grémillon Pr: Bernard Natan, Emile Natan Scr: Charles Spaak Cine: Bachelet & Colas (i.e., Jean Bachelet and René Colas) Cast: Alcover (i.e., Pierre Alcover), Bertheau (i.e., Julien Bertheau), Mihalesco (i.e., Alexandre Mihalesco), Nadia Sibirskaia (i.e., Nadia Sibirskaïa), Alex Bernard, Pierre Piérade, Joe Alex.

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Years ago, Berthier (Alcover), driven to the bounds of sanity by the infidelities of his wife, killed her with his bare hands. Convicted, he was sent to the penal colony on Cayenne in the Caribbean to serve his sentence, perforce leaving behind him in Paris his young daughter Lise to fend for herself. A colossus of a man, Berthier recently showed great courage during a fire at one of the local trading posts, and the colony’s governor (uncredited) has therefore pulled strings to have the big guy released after serving only half his sentence—in a mere 45 days from now, in fact.

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Berthier (Alcover) dreams of being united with his darling daughter Lise.

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One of his fellow convicts (uncredited).

As it happens, Berthier and two of his pals (both uncredited) were planning to escape that very night. Now, for obvious reasons, he has to back out of their plan. The other two make their bid for freedom without him. He tells them before they go that, when they reach Paris, they should look him up at the Hôtel d’Étoile du Nord there. That’s where Lise lives, and that’s where they’ll find him too.

These opening scenes in the penal colony go on for far too long—nearly a quarter of the movie’s running time. We see convicts playing games, cooking their meal, singing an interminable song—when the cry went up of “Just one more chorus!”, I almost beat my head against the desk. What we don’t see is Berthier’s fugitive friends again, so the whole subplot about the escape attempt is really just a red herring. It’s almost as if setting up the penal colony, with its many occupants, accounted for a sizeable chunk of the movie’s budget, so the expenditure wasn’t going to be wasted on a mere few minutes’ running time . . .

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Berthier (Alcover) lets himself into Lise’s room.

When Berthier arrives at the Hôtel d’Étoile du Nord there’s a touching reunion between the father and the darling daughter for whom he has been pining all these years. Lise (Sibirskaïa) tells him she’s now a typist by profession; in fact, as we’ve worked out but Berthier won’t for a while, her profession is somewhat older than that. However, she and her musician boyfriend André (Bertheau) want to get her off the game and out of Paris altogether. They have the opportunity to open up a roadside garage if only they can raise the necessary 3,000 francs for down-payment on the property.

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The paired photos on the mirror are a giveaway that Lise is enamored.

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Lise (Nadia Sibirskaïa) tells André (Bertheau) that her father is not after all dead.

While Berthier is off getting a job from his old acquaintance M. Carret (Piérade), André and Lise attempt a crazy plan. The idea is that they’ll use the watch that Berthier has brought back from Cayenne as a gift for Lise to gain entry to the apartment of the local pawnbroker, M. Shalom (Mihalesco); after he’s opened his safe, they’ll stick him up with a fake gun, then steal the necessary 3,000 francs.

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Lise (Nadia Sibirskaïa) plans with André (Bertheau) how to get hold of 3000 francs.

The pawnbroker offers to lend them just 30 francs for the watch—it’s worth so little because of the initials, “LB,” engraved on its back. Shalom writes a receipt and then André produces his replica gun. What the robbers haven’t reckoned on is that Shalom might fight back. Not only does he do so, he easily gets the better of André and is well on in the process of strangling him when Lise brings a vase crashing down on the back of his head, inadvertently killing him.

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M. Shalom (Mihalesco) is not intimidated by the fake gun André (Bertheau) brought, but fights back.

They flee, in their haste quite predictably leaving the watch lying on Shalom’s counter.

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When he gets home that evening, Berthier recognizes that something has disheartened his daughter. Popping into her purse some of the money that Carret has advanced him, he discovers Shalom’s receipt for the watch. Desperate to believe the best of Lise, he makes an excuse to go out and pops along to Shalom’s apartment, where he discovers the corpse and the incriminating watch.

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Lise (Nadia Sibirskaïa)  gazes from the window as her father heads for Shalom’s apartment.

Still trying to see only what a father wants to see in a daughter, he attempts to talk himself into accepting even this as just a quirk of fate . . . when up turns Lise’s Friday-night regular (Bernard) at the door, expecting the usual.

That’s it for Berthier. He swears to kill André, whom he assumes is responsible for Lise’s being on the game. Persuaded otherwise, that André’s the one trying to get her off it, Berthier—as you probably guessed several paragraphs ago he would—pops along to the local cop shop to hand himself in for the killing of M. Shalom . . .

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Although, as noted, the first twenty minutes or so of La Petite Lise is a sort of gruesomely extended longueur, thereafter events move along at a good pace. One of the devices that director Grémillon uses to achieve this is through use of sound: sometimes the sound from the next scene will overlap into the current one, so that, for example, you hear the whine of machinery before the visuals have shifted to Carret’s shop floor. The effect is, of course, to tug you from one scene to the next, and the technique is very familiar to us today. But, bearing in mind that La Petite Lise was one of France’s first talkies, released not so very far short of a century ago, the feeling of modernity becomes startling. There are other bits of experimental sound use in the movie, notably the deliberate distortion of some of the sung music used as background.

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Berthier (Alcover) can no longer hide from himself the truth about his daughter’s profession.

(Talking of sung music, near the end of the movie there’s a great sequence set at the nightclub where André’s employed. The sound quality’s far better than you’ll ever get from a 78rpm disk, and the performance is rousing.)

Alcover is tremendous as the father, a man of such integrity and faith that for a long time he fails to see the truth about his daughter, even though it’s staring him in the face. That face of his, which seems initially as impassive as a rocky crag, in fact proves immensely expressive; we feel his shock, grief and despair as each revelation unfolds.

Nadia Sibirskaïa, while less convincing—she retains a few too many mannerisms from her years as a star of the silents—nonetheless has lost nothing of the magnetism for the camera that she displayed in the much earlier Ménilmontant (1926), also discussed on this site. Whether her face is in repose or animated, our gaze is drawn inexorably towards it. Although she was about thirty when she made La Petite Lise, Sibirskaïa comes across as being in her early twenties or even her late teens, which I think was Grémillon’s intention.

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Nadia Sibirskaïa as Lise.

The depiction by Mihalesco of the Jewish pawnbroker Shalom has been described as antisemitic but I think that’s something of a calumny; there’s stereotyping, certainly, and André’s attitude towards the man surely borders on the antisemitic, but the movie itself seems to treat Shalom with respect.

Producer Bernard Natan, who had recently taken over Pathé, hired Grémillon on the back of two very successful silents that the director had made, Maldone (1928) and Gardiens de Phare (1929). Natan rejected the first two screenplays that Grémillon and writer Charles Spaak offered him as being too artsy, which is why they opted for stark melodrama for the third, which would become La Petite Lise. Unfortunately, once the movie had been made, Natan disliked it intensely. He gave it what today we’d describe as a very limited release, and then let it rot. Luckily it survived, and today we have access to a good Cinémathèque Française restoration.

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9 thoughts on “Petite Lise, La (1930)

  1. You have more than piqued my interest with this one John, as I am a major fan of the director, whose work I have tracked down over the past several years. My late colleague Allan Fish too is a big fan, yet this particular film has eluded me. The reason has to do with the fact that this is one of his earliest works – he did come into prominence in the mid to later 30’s. Sounds like there is some clunkiness connected to the earliest sound films, in the opening reel, but it soon enough finds its footing. Exemplary review throughout and with more than a little historical importance as well.

    • It’s definitely worth a watch should you come across it. I’m finding that, although it’s now some months ago that I watched it myself, the movie has stuck fairly firmly in my mind — I think because of the two central performances as much as anything else. Alcover is such a screen presence, while the camera really did love Sibirskaia.

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