Ménilmontant tells the story of two young sisters in the Paris neighborhood of Ménilmontant. The film begins with the murder of their parents, orphaning the two young women. The young women grow up and end up falling for the same boy. Jealousy over the boy ends up pushing the sisters apart and on different paths. Unfortunately, he is a guy that sleeps and ends up getting one sister pregnant and deserts her, leaving her in a depressed state. Once she has the baby she is forced to raise it alone and falls into an even deeper depression. She even considers drowning herself in the river with her baby. In the end she reconciles with her sister who became a prostitute, while the boy is beaten to death in a similar sequence as the sisters’ parents.
Not many silent films are devoid of intertitles completely. Dimitri Kirsanoff was able to orchestrate the story so well that his audience can infer the context and plot relatively easily. Including the intertitles would take some of the question marks away, but once you take the time to think about the actions of the characters or let the scenes play out, it becomes clear what is happening. At least, I think so…
The lack of intertitles, or visual text within the shots, makes the film easier for viewers around the world to understand. The ability to pull that off shows how well edited and thought out the screenplay must have been.
Editing and Violence
The overall flow and pacing of Ménilmontant is like a roller coaster. The editing moves back and forth between fast paced shots, typically in times of violence and emotional intensity, and slow in times of reflection and inner conflict. Kirsanoff did an incredible job of creating an immersive experience that only heightens his story. The camera complements the story and in term the emotional connection between the film and the viewer are stronger.
The sequences throughout the film match the subject matter that they are portraying. For the faster paced scenes, the edits are fast, the movements on screen are fast, and the subject matter is more physically charged. The scenes of sex and violence are shot like this. During these sequences it is hard to tell which way is up or what exactly is happening until the dust settles.
When things slow down and the characters are processing events internally, Kirsanoff draws out the shots to the opposite end of the spectrum. The long shots force the focus on the characters expressions and their current situation and make it easier to get in the head of the character and connect on the internal struggle.
The juxtaposition of the two speeds mimics the content as well as primes the audience for what is to come and what the director is trying to make the focal point of any given sequence. This purposeful and calculated step to the film is what makes the lack of intertitles that more manageable and ultimately made them completely unnecessary.
Kirsanoff did a great job in crafting the plot and executing it. He was able to create an engaging psychological narrative in a film that is under 40 minutes long, excludes intertitles, and has only three primary characters. A significant amount of the success is due to Kirsanoff’s use of the camera to help emphasize the impact of shots and in creating a circular story that reinforces themes and repeats the critically emotional moments. Ménilmontant is one long cycle of love triangles, violence, and disrupted family units.
There is a certain feel that this film has that makes it stand out. The intimacy portrayed through Sibirskaïa’s performance matched with the intimacy conveyed through Kirsanoff’s film style makes for a powerful combination. There is something raw and honest about this film that many other films of this era do not possess.
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff
Cinematography: Léonce Crouan
Written by: Dimitri Kirsanoff
Starring: Nadia Sibirskaïa, Yolande Beaulieu, & Guy Belmont
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