In the Kingdom of Shadows

In the Kingdom of Shadows

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there.

So begins Maxim Gorky’s famous description of watching a film in July 1896. The whole experience of being at the Silent Film Festival in Pordenone is a bit like this, but it applies perhaps most precisely to this evening’s showing of a recreation of Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre from 1900. Watching the flickering ghosts of French actresses, singers and dancers from over a century ago – and what’s more watching some of them in colour and with original synchronised sound – was truly strange. Strange and rich and wonderful and moving and, well, magnifique. The 80-minute programme, which was receiving its world premiere, was alone worth the trip to this festival (although I have other posts in process) – and in a way I still cannot quite believe what we saw – and heard.

Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre was an attraction at the Paris Universelle Exposition in 1900. It was presented in its own pavilion on the side of the Seine, where visitors watched a sequence of short films – some with synchronised sound, and some with hand-coloured images – of the stage stars of the day. The showing tonight was by far the most substantial presentation of this since the early 1900s (the showed toured, including to Britain, for a couple of years), and it was made possible by a impressive collaboration between Gaumont-Pathé Archives and La Cinémathèque francaise, together with Lobster Films and an expert in early sound recordings, Henri Chamoux.

One other element was also of fundamental importance – the piano (and the extensive research) of John Sweeney, whose immaculately synchronised playing accompanied the films that did not have original sound (of which there are now just eight out of thirty-four). So as on the screen the legendary Carlotta Zambelli and Michel Vasquez performed Pas de la Castillane from Le Cid, John Sweeney brought them to life with the music of Jules Massenet.

And ‘brought to life’ does somehow seem like an appropriate metaphor, for from these flickering fragile frames – each sequence of which presented an unvarying medium-shot – figures from the Belle Époque seemed to be before us: an imperious Sarah Bernhardt playing out the fatal duel with Laertes from Hamlet; Benoit-Constant Coquelin (who joined the Comédie-francaise in 1860!) speaking – in a distant and scratchy recording – lines from Moliere; and music-hall star Little Tich with a routine involving boots longer than his modest height.

The comic actress Gabrielle Réjane performed for us a celebrated mime of the temptations of Paris, including the can-can, from which she has stopped her husband from sampling. Her grace and charm is apparent across the years, and one understands instantly just why Marcel Proust drew on her in part for the character of Berma in A la recherché du temps perdu.

Here too was Mariette Sully performing a a fragment of Edmund Audran’s comic opera La poupée, which opened – with Sully – in 1896. The staging is basic but the actress’ doll-like dance has a unique beauty and brilliance. We saw the celebrated ballerina Rosita Mauri, who was painted by Degas and Manet and Renoir and others. And the opera singer Jeanne Hatto, with impossibly natural yet painted-on skin tones, in a glorious fragment of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride… and on and on.

How we laughed and cheered and clapped! Yet here too before us was something uncanny and unsettling. For the moments they were on the screen, despite – and because of – the rescued sound and the emulsion scrapes and scratches of more than one hundred years and the hand-colouring, these performers felt vividly, vitally present. It was as if part of me was back in Paris in the summer of 1900. But I understood too – of course I did – that I was watching people who were long since dead, great artistes who decades ago had joined another kingdom of shadows. If you only knew how strange it was to be there.

Image: detail of the original programme for Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, 1900; courtesy David Robinson Collection.