LA PROIE DU VENT (Films Albatros, FR 1926)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair, dal romanzo/from the novel L’Aventure amoureuse de Pierre Vignal, di/by Armand Mercier; f./ph: Henri Gondois, Nicolas Roudakoff, Robert Batton; scg/des: Lazare Meerson, Constantin Bruni; cast: Charles Vanel (Pierre Vignal), Sandra Milowanoff (Hélène), Lilian Hall-Davis (la castellana/Countess Elisabeth), Jean Murat (il marito di Hélène/Hélène’s husband), Jim Gérald (il dottore/the doctor); data uscita/released: 18.12.1926; 35mm, 1890 m., 92’ (18 fps); fonte copia/print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Didascalie in francese / French intertitles.
In later years, Clair would speak of La Proie du vent with distaste, and dissuade anyone from even trying to unearth the film. He went so far as to ask Henri Langlois not to reveal the existence of a complete print at the Cinémathèque Française. Clair’s American biographer Robert C. Dale only got to see it after wheedling a special dispensation out of Clair himself!
Clair’s subsequent rejection suggests that La Proie du vent was an imposed assignment, stoically endured and indifferently executed. In reality, it was a project he himself packaged and peddled to producers – he had bought the screen rights to the recent best-selling source novel by the now-forgotten Armand Mercier. More importantly, it was not quite the worthless hack job Clair implied it was. Despite its banality, La Proie du vent was made with technical flair, a touch of style and some bravura set pieces. After the debacle of Le Voyage imaginaire, its commercial and critical success reassured Clair (and others) that he was still a directorial contender. It also mattered in that it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with his enterprising producer, Alexandre Kamenka, and the brilliant young set designer, Lazare Meerson.
An adventure romance inspired by the success of such films as Léonce Perret’s 1923 Koenigsmark, La Proie du vent tells the story of a French pilot (a broodingly introspective performance by Charles Vanel) whose plane is forced down by a storm near an Eastern European chateau inhabited by aristocrats who have been ousted from their homeland by revolution. Convalescing from his crash-landing, the hero gradually falls in love with his beautiful hostess, only to learn of the existence of a “mad” sister sequestered in a remote wing of the castle. His attempts to help the latter lead to tragedy...
As in Koenigsmark, there is a climactic car chase, excitingly shot and edited. But the most visually imaginative sequences have to do with the hero’s growing desire for his hostess (Lilian Hall-Davis) – two scenes remarkable for their erotic content, an element absent from Clair’s universe. In the first scene, Vanel takes advantage of his hostess’s brief absence to covet her still-lit cigarette, caressing it, putting it to his lips, then replacing it on the ashtray with his own cigarette when she returns and resumes smoking. Pierre Billard calls it “probably the most roundabout kiss in the history of cinema,” while Olivier Barrot compared it with Garbo’s chalice scene in Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil (shot the same year). Even more elaborate is the hero’s erotic murder fantasy, again cued by a cigarette motif, as he jealously spies on the window of a room occupied by the countess and her supposed brother-in-law, whom he now imagines to be his rival. The scene’s power is magnified by Meerson’s imaginative use of volume, texture and space.