French director Abel Gance attracted a lot of attention with this 1923 work. Two notable directors from the newly-fledged Soviet film industry came to France just to thank him for it, and the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau later said that “there is film before La Roue and film after, just like there was painting before Picasso and then after.” Originally, however, it was also pretty long – some estimates put it to nine hours – and Gance was forced to cut it down to a more audience-friendly two hours shortly after release. Modern film critics and scholars have restored it to about five hours, which I’m not entirely convinced was the right idea. But – that much film gives you ample evidence of Gance’s skill.
The story itself is a tragic love triangle, kicked off shortly after a train crash in Provence. Ace engineer Sisif (Severin-Mars) rescues a toddler girl named Norma in the course of helping with the accident, and when he discovers that no one has claimed her in the aftermath, he guesses that she’s been orphaned and takes her home, raising her along with his son Ellie, whom he’s raising as a single father.
Fifteen years later, Norma has grown into a fun-loving and quirky young woman, who loves palling around with her brother and dressing up both herself and her pet goat for fun.
Ellie has become a somewhat studious luthier, but is charmed by his “little sister”‘s hijinks and at one point gushes to her that he hopes one day to marry a girl as lively and pretty as she.
Sisif, though, is starting to act a little funny – going out drinking after work, picking fights, and barricading himself in the living room at night. He’s harboring a dark secret – he’s realized that he’s starting to fall in love with Norma, whom he’s never told that she’s adopted. After a fight with a co-worker and a near crash on the job earns Sisif a reprimand, he finally confesses his secret to one of his colleagues, Hersan, swearing him to secrecy.
Hersan is also charmed by Norma, though, and agrees to keep Sisif’s secret on one condition – that he be allowed to marry Norma. Sisif reluctantly agrees, and after a few weeks’ of persuasion, Norma finally assents as well. A heartbroken Sisif insists on driving the train that takes the couple to Paris, and nearly gets into a second accident on the way. A few months later, Ellie finally learns Norma is his adopted sister, and realizes with a shock that he actually could have married her, instead of marrying a girl like her. Sisif – still lovelorn for Norma – figures out Ellie’s secret, and the pair bond over their shared unresolved passion, turning themselves into a hell of a weird support group.
Norma – who is miserable herself in Paris, and feels no love for Hersan – pays the pair of them a surprise visit, only to have the pair turn her away – baffling her, since as far as she’s concerned, she’s Sisif’s daughter and Ellie’s sister. Dejected, she returns to Paris and takes up violin lessons, figuring that if Ellie won’t talk to her, at least she can study his favorite instrument. Sisif, meanwhile, is distracted enough that he gets into one final accident – during which his eyesight is damaged – and is finally demoted to running a dopey little tourist shuttle train at Mount Blanc. Ellie, also seeking to escape memories, tags along.
Father and son live together in a shack in the mountains for a year, diligently at work on their separate pursuits; they’ve agreed that neither will bring up Norma at home, but both separately and secretly are obsessed with her; Sisif thinking of her while working in the trainyard…
….and Ellie thinking of her while working on his violins.
The pair are each able to keep their obsession at bay, though; and each has something else to worry about as well. Since his accident, Sisif’s vision has continued to deteriorate, to the point that he fears he’ll go totally blind one day. Ellie has a happier challenge – he has been perfecting his violin design, and one day a visiting virtuoso offers to play one of his creations for an invited audience of other musicians, in an effort to promote his designs. Happily, the concert is a smash success, and Ellie thinks his luck is turning – but then sees that Norma, who is there on vacation with Hersan, is in the audience. Sisif soon learns Norma is in town as well, and father and son try to keep each other from contacting her. But Ellie, in a desperate moment, makes a violin as a gift for Norma – just so that he can write out a full love letter to her and secretly paste it on the inside. She’ll never see it, he writes in the note, but she will have it, and that will be comfort enough.
But then a couple days later, a suspicious Hersan breaks the violin in a rage – and finds the note. He storms to the shack to confront Ellie. And Ellie – by now probably glad that finally he can do something – proposes that they fight for Norma, and the pair set off to a remote cliff for a man-to-man contest. During the struggle, though, Ellie shoots Hersan in the stomach – then falls off the cliff, catching himself on a ledge below and hanging on for dear life. Norma has followed Hersan to the shack, and she and Sisif are waiting when Hersan struggles in, makes a confession, and dies there in the room. Norma and Sisif rush to find Ellie – but just as Norma reaches the ledge where he is hanging, his grip loosens and he falls to his own death as well, leaving Norma to break the news to Sisif when he finally shows up. He doesn’t take it well – he blames her and drives her away too.
The film glosses over the next couple years, during which Norma struggles with money following a botched execution of Hersan’s will. Finally, she sneaks back to Sisif’s shack to beg forgiveness, but finds that his eyesight has been totally lost. So instead she spends a week secretly living there with him, quietly fixing things around the house, and earning her way back into his good will before revealing herself. Sisif, too enfeebled and sad for his old obsession, takes her back.
The last sequence – set a few months later – is actually really lovely. Norma has been devotedly caring for Sisif, and some of her old spark is starting to come back. Then one day, a group of other young men and women invite her to an outdoor hiking and dance party they’re having in the mountains nearby. Norma isn’t sure about leaving Sisif alone, but he encourages her to go ahead. After a flash of her old quirkiness – she changes her mind about wearing a hat, and instead places it on the head of the family dog – she skips out to join the others, leaving Sisif sitting by the window, imagining her dancing happily with the other young men of the village. As he sits, realizing she is finally happy again, Sisif dies, at peace at last.
….Okay: in some places, this felt really long. There were plenty of moments of characters’ reaction shots just running on way too long – too many shots of Sisif glowering in bars towards the beginning, too many seconds of characters looking into the camera and looking tortured. In the scene where Sisif’s eyesight is damaged, a minor character reacts as Sisif is taken to the doctor – and we are treated to a full fifteen seconds of him grimacing and wincing and biting his nails, watching Sisif be carried off. I can only hope that the two-hour version cut those bits out.
But Gance also used some inventive surrealist techniques for some of his shots, and I’m hoping they stayed in. I’ve used some clips above, with double-images showing Norma’s face superimposed on violins or on smokestacks; another scene from Mont Blanc shows Ellie and Sisif at home, each retreating to opposite ends of the shack after dinner to work on their private tasks, and slowly the word “Norma” fades up into view between them, superimposed over the scene as a literal wedge between the pair. Gance also liked to use sequences with a lot of quick cuts, and one in particular was especially haunting – right before Ellie falls to his death, just as Norma is calling to him from the cliff’s edge, Gance intersperses shots of Ellie struggling to hold on with a lot of brief clips of the fun-loving, charming Norma from earlier in the film. And it is only after this rapid-fire series of images of Ellie interspersed with clips of Norma that his grip loosens and he falls. Which only served to make me wonder whether Ellie let go on purpose, a question I’m still struggling with.