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Festival Year Festival Section

Alternative Title 1
Alternative Title 2
Alternative Title 3
Country France
Release Date 21 November 1924
Production Co. Films Albatros
Director Viatcheslav Tourjansky

Format   Speed (fps)
35mm   18
Footage   Time
2192 m.   106'

Archive Source Cinémathèque française, Paris
Print Notes Didascalie in francese / French intertitles

Nathalie Kovanko (Hélène Tesserre), Nicolas Koline (Uncle Michel), Nicolas Rimsky (Li), Jeanne Brindeau (Madame Doss [Mathilde Kern]), René Maupré (Jean [Kern]), Sylvio de Pedrelli (Girard), Boris de Fast (Robin)
Other Credits
scen:; f./ph: Joseph-Louis Mundviller, Nicolas Toporkoff, Albert Duverger; scg./des: Alexandre Lochakoff, Édouard Gosch; cost. (per/for Nathalie Kovanko): Lucie Schwob
Other Information
riprese/filmed: Studio de Montreuil, Studio Lewinsky (Joinville)
Program Notes
La Dame masquée must be one of the darkest and most misanthropic films in silent cinema, far exceeding proverbial Russian “morbidity”. The opening scene finds the carefree country girl and would-be actress Hélène deliriously performing for an unimpressed audience of village children. This is her only moment of happiness. Even while it is continuing, her house burns down and her mother is killed. She seeks refuge in Paris with her rich aunt, who abuses and humiliates her, until, discovering that Hélène is an heiress, she forces her into marriage with her dissolute son Jean. Hélène seeks consolation in an affair with Jean’s friend Girard, but he proves to be an adventurer and blackmailer. From bad, things go to worse, as she is subjected to the attentions of the sinister Chinese, Li…
Things may have been different in the countryside of her youth, but in this Parisian society depicted by Tourjansky, there is no decent or sympathetic character, with the single exception of the browbeaten Uncle Michel (Nicolas Koline) who endeavours to offer some kindness and practical help in Helène’s tormented life.
The structure is eccentric, yet coherent. The “première époque” ends with Helène’s marriage and the discovery that Jean has married her for her fortune. The “seconde époque” takes up the story a year later, when she is already seeking escape from her unhappiness in a flirtation with Girard. The centre-piece is the 15-minute sequence of the masked ball, in the course of which the dramatic situation reaches its peak. The action then moves into a murder mystery, plotted with great complexity of flashbacks and anticipations (the viewer should notice and try to account for Hélène’s acute anxiety on thinking she sees Girard in his masquerade disguise towards the end of the party). Finally a violent climax and shoot-out à l’américaine is followed by a quiet and genuinely touching coda.
Above all, however, La Dame masquée is a triumph for the designers Alexander Lochakov and Édouard Gosch. The film was made a year ahead of the official explosion of Art Deco, but the settings and costumes brilliantly anticipate and capture the style of the moment. Kovanko’s dress (decorated with the initials KN) complements the idiosyncratic interpretation of Chinese decoration in the final scene. A contemporary critic wrote perceptively: “If one day we have a cinémathèque, this Albatros film will deserve its place in it. Every film which comes from that astonishing phalanstery which is the Montreuil studio carries an individual stamp in terms of decoration. La Dame masquée, which we have just seen, is marked by profound art done with apparent ease. With what sure talent M. Lochakov has built and brushed décors of a perfect stylization! There could not be a richer evocation of the action and the characters … The immense salons of linear design in which the whites and the blacks collide without half-tones, the chilly residence of Madame Doss, the arid house of Hélène the unhappy wife, the low, banal bachelor flat of the seducer, the rotunda of the proprietor Li, are equally attractions for the eye. … The scenario, which makes great concessions to the public, cannot fail to please it, because it adds original detail to an ordinary dramatic story. Moreover, Tourjansky’s direction has striven to develop within these décors, in a very plastic way, a pleiad of fine actors…”
This is certainly one of the best performances of Tourjansky’s wife Natalia Kovanko (1899-1967), as she progresses convincingly from ebullient country girl, to abused orphan, to unhappy and then unfaithful wife, and finally to full-blown tragic heroine. Rimsky, in between his newly discovered comic excursions, has a field day with Li, the sinister Chinese, while Koline finds one of his most sympathetic and human roles. The wretched Robin was the first acting role of Kovanko’s brother, Boris de Fast (born Boris Fastovich), who would soon afterwards appear in Tourjansky’s Michel Strogoff and Gance’s Napoléon. The French actors also are skilfully cast. Jeanne Brindeau, a stage veteran with a long career in films, is a grand monster, and Sylvio de Pedrelli a convincingly charming seducer. René Maupré’s gross Jean contrasts with his suave operator in L’Heureuse mort, made in the same year.
The film was restored by Françoise London in 1986 in black and white, from an original nitrate negative acquired by the Cinémathèque française in 1958. This is one of the few Albatros prints still retaining its original credit titles. – DAVID ROBINSON