• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, March 27, 2017

    La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906)

    I'm reviewing this film as part of the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon (though I've been meaning to do so for some time). The film is available as part of the Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913) box set from Kino Lorber or if you're naughty/skint like me you can see it on YouTube.

    Alice Guy1 is famed for being cinema's first female director and producer, having a hand in around 1000 films beginning with her directorial debut La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. Having revolutionised the infant industry in her native France she moved to America and set up a studio, but not before creating her film on the life of Jesus La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, 1906). From a technical angle it's shot in a similar tableau style as Pathé's 1905 and 1907 films La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ).2

    The Pathé film was down to Guy's friend and rival Ferdinand Zecca. Indeed two years before the release of this film Guy found Zecca selling soap on a street corner having been seen as surplus to requirements at Pathé (McMahan:2009, 125). Guy hired him instead, leaked the news to Pathé who reinstated Zecca and he then proceeded to re-work La Vie et La Passion de Jesus-Christ. It's an anecdote typical of Guy who was not only a pioneer in the film of cinema, but also a mentor who possessed the canny knack of spotting talent and developing it. In addition to Zecca she also gave a hand up the ladder to Victorin Jasset (although he was fired during the making of this film), Lois Weber, Louis Feuillade and her future husband Herbert Blaché all of whom would go on to great success (McMahan:2009, 125-126).

    As filmmakers though Guy and Zecca could not be more different, at least within the limitations of the tableau approach that so typifies films from cinemas first decade and a half. Zecca's film is far more theatrical, his actors perform in a manner that is often seen as over the top. The use of stencil colour also adds to this flashy style.3

    Guy however is far more subtle and nuanced. Her actors are far more naturalistic and the film lacks the grand, showy gestures of Zecca's film. It's often thought that the style of acting found in Zecca's film is deliberate and typical of the era. What isn't given sufficient consideration, in my opinion, is the fact that many of those who appeared on screen at this time were simply not very good actors. At this stage in the development of cinema it was still very much theatre's poor relation. The best actors appeared on stage rather than on screen and the theatre was a far more lucrative source of income for those with talent. In this context then, Guy's ability to both see the need for, and manage to produce this kind of more natural and realistic types of performance is critical, and far more fitting, I would argue, for her subject matter. "Guy's work is more modest, but more deeply felt." (Williams, p.40)

    This noticeably more humble aesthetic did not prevent Mademoiselle Alice from using camera tricks. There are a number of uses of double exposure, or cuts allowing angels to suddenly appear on screen. In fact such angelic visitations happen five times throughout the film (not including the charming original intertitles), most notably in the, extra-biblical, scene above where they guard the sleeping baby Jesus when Mary pops inside for a moment. Notice too the simplicity of the angel's costumes in that shot contrasting with Zecca's elaborate halos.

    But Guy was very much an innovator. Whilst she was not quite the first director of drama (the very first films were effectively documentaries) she was certainly one of the first, persuading her boss Leon Gaumont to let her make La Fée in her own time. As Gaumont's Nicolas Seydoux has put it "She told her boss that making movies was the best way to sell his equipment" (Simon: Preface, xv). At the time Guy was only employed as his office manager. having witnessed her success Gaumont freed up Guy to produce more films. When he invented the Chronophone (an early system that synchronised sound with moving images) she produced the 'photoscènes' that showcased it. Guy later moved to the US with her husband and the two set up their own studio, Solax, one of the first to move away from New York.

    This entrepreneurial thirst for innovation can be seen in the way Guy uses the camera in the film. Camerawork was still very much point-and-shoot, but this films showcases a number of developments in that respect. Firstly, I recently read David Bordwell's post "Anybody but Griffith". Whilst he describes how during 1908-1920 the move towards editing began to predominate, he argues that "the tableau strategy developed into a powerful expressive resource which "offered rich creative choices to filmmakers" (Bordwell). Bordwell highlights shots from a number of films from the 1910s that suggest that directors using the tableau style were doing more sometimes doing far more than just plonking down the cameras in front of what was effectively a theatre stage and letting the scene play out, but that this was a creative choice.

    One of the key things Bordwell focuses on is various times where the "shot makes sense from only a very limited number of points" and he cites various examples from 1910. Yet this approach is found various times in Guy's film. The most notable example is in the scene where Peter denies knowing Jesus (see image below). Like many of the scenes in the film it is inspired by James Tissot's illustrations of biblical scenes, though whilst they owe something to Tissot, by no means does she merely slavishly reproduce his work in moving form. Here the architecture of the scene owes more to Tissot's second denial of Peter whilst the sense of action belongs more to Tissot's third denial.

    It's clear however that whilst Guy is inspired by them she also creates something of her own that is more cinematic. When the shot begins Jesus is absent and the focus is on Peter. At the end of the shot Jesus walks along behind the scenery and perpendicular to the camera line. As he does he appears in two places where there is no wall, stopping on the second occasion to look back at Peter. Like the scenes Bordwell discusses, this shot would not work for many viewers in a theatre. It works here by using the composition, and the audience's prior knowledge of the subject to draw their attention to the place where Guy wants to focus their attention.

    There are several other shots like this in the film such as "The Arrival of the Magi" where the camera can see the infant Jesus for almost the whole time, but very few people would be able to see him were the same scene reproduced live in an auditorium, and "The Samaritan" where the audience is pre-warned as to the disciples arrival in a similar fashion to the denial scene.

    Another way in which Guy develops the tableau style is by filming various scenes from more interesting angles. For example the Last Supper. Whilst the vast major of artistic presentations of this subject have simply captured it with table in the centre of the frame and square-on, Guy films it from an oblique angle, and therefore is able to make Judas's early departure all the more obvious for the audience.

    Thirdly, there is a panning shot as Jesus is brought before Caiaphas. It's slight, but still relatively rare for the period. More striking in this respect is the scene "Climbing Golgotha" which begins partway up the hill looking down at the crowd accompanying Jesus to his execution as they snake up the hillside. But as Jesus himself is about to file past the camera it pans left and upwards to view Jesus and the rest of the procession from the rear. Again Guy could have chosen to insert a cut here, but her panning of the camera is a deliberate choice to keep all of the action within the same shot

    Most impressive in this respect is a three shot sequence involving a degree of continuity editing. The first "Jesus Before Pontius Pilate" shows Jesus before Pilate, shot from an angle to Pilate's seat of power. Not only does Guy's blocking move both characters around all of the space, but as the shot ends Jesus is taken out of the rear of the shot, more-or-less along the camera line and seemingly down some steps, but Pilate exits to the back and stage right.

    The next shot, "The Torment" shows both men arriving at their destinations, Jesus at his whipping post and Pilate at the balcony that overlooks it. Whilst the camera has dropped a floor to be on the same level as Jesus, there's no mistaking that we are seeing the back of the previous shot, filmed from the opposite angle. It's an attempt at continuity in the form of "something close to a reverse-angle shift" although the flow is rather disrupted by the intertitle that introduces the new scene (Abel, p.166).

    The third shot, "Ecce Homo", is again looking up at Pilate's balcony, but this time the camera is filming from a fresh angle, straight on as opposed to the previous angled shot. The main reason that the three shots here and the "Climbing Golgotha" shot are possible is because much of the production was filmed on location. Again this gives the film a more natural film in contrast to Zecca's edifices, but it also means the terrain is far more interesting than what could be shot on the flat floor of a studio.

    The most celebrated of this film's innovations is the mid-shot of St Veronica that appears as Jesus is dragged along the road to Golgotha. Veronica wipes his face and then Guy cuts to the mid-shot of her displaying a likeness of Jesus's face on her cloth. As David Shepherd points out as this shot is immediately preceded by an unnamed woman kneeling in front of the cloth and gazing upon it this essentially becomes cinema's first point-of-view shot (Shepherd, 73).

    Shepherd also notes how the white sheet Veronica uses to show her viewers an image of Christ evokes the cinema screen that Guy is using to display her image of Christ to her viewers (p.73). The fact that the observers of Veronica's image are predominantly female is just one of many suggestions that this film was made with a female audience in mind.

    Certainly it is the most female focused of all the major Jesus films. This starts with the emphasis on the birth scenes, noticeably on Mary, including the scene described above where angels care for Jesus to keep him safe whilst she finds some respite. Most notably, as my scene guide demonstrates, the only three scenes included from Jesus' ministry all feature women prominently, the woman at the well (here just titled "The Samaritan"), the raising of Jairus's daughter and the washing of Jesus' feet. "The scene in which Peter denies Jesus focuses on the women around the disciple as much as on him." (Abel, p.166) When Jesus falls on the Via Dolorossa it is "six women coming to Jesus' aid", rather than Simon of Cyrene (Hebron, p.546). Naturally, the scenes of women witnessing Jesus' resurrection feature heavily in the film's closing scenes.

    It's disappointing that 111 years later, and all the gains in equality that have been won in that time, that no subsequent filmmaker has yet matched Guy's vision of a Jesus who had women right at the heart of his ministry. Many more recent films have sought to include women at the Last Supper, and highlighted their presence at the resurrection, but all too often this seems like window dressing rather than something akin to Guy's core conviction that women were so central to Jesus' plans. But then few people saw the things in such a remarkable way as Alice Guy. I'm grateful to those who have championed her achievements and helped us see a little of more of how she saw the world.

    1 - Whilst after her marriage to Herbert Blaché she became known as Alice Blaché and then after their subsequent divorce, Alice Guy Blaché, at the time of making this film she was unmarried and simply known as Alice Guy. Therefore I have chosen to use this name throughout.
    2 - Contrary to what it says on the case, this is the version that has been available on DVD for many years (along with From the Manger to the Cross). One day I'll get around to summarising the evidence for that, but you can find out for yourself in Shepherd et al, "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"
    3 - For a longer comparison see Friesen pp.87-94

    - Abel, Richard (1994) "The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914", Berkeley: University of California Press.
    - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    - Bordwell, David (2017) "Anybody but Griffith" http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2017/02/27/anybody-but-griffith/ retreived 24th March 2017.
    - Friesen, Dwight H. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca's Passion' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178
    - Hebron, Carol A. (2016), 'Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), "The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film", vol. 2, 543-55, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009) "James Tissot and Alice Guy Blaché" - http://www.aliceguyblache.com/news/james-tissot-and-alice-guy-blache retrieved 25/3/2017
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009)'Key Events and Dates: Alice Guy Blaché' pp.124-131 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Shepherd, David J. (2016) 'La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (Gaumont, 1906): The Gospel According to Alice Guy' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.60-77
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'The Great Adventure: Alice Guy Blaché, Cinema Pioneer' pp.1-32 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'Preface' pp.xi-xx in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Williams, Alan (2009) "The Sage Femme of Early Cinema" in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press , 2009

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    • At 3:26 pm, March 27, 2017, Blogger Fritzi Kramer said…

      Thanks so much for joining! I enjoyed reading about Guy's generosity to Zecca and her putting women into the picture of her film. Excellent piece!

    • At 5:31 pm, March 27, 2017, Blogger Caftan Woman said…

      I was fascinated by your article and the wonderful happenstance that Alice Guy was born at the right time to use her fertile creative mind in cinema.

      I was particularly moved by your closing line: "But then few people saw the things in such a remarkable way as Alice Guy. I'm grateful to those who have championed her achievements and helped us see a little of more of how she saw the world."

    • At 2:45 am, March 28, 2017, Blogger Joe Thompson said…

      Hi Matt. That was an excellent essay. I had never heard the story about Alice Guy getting Pathe to rehire Ferdinand Zecca. "It's disappointing that 111 years later, and all the gains in equality that have been won in that time, that no subsequent filmmaker has yet matched Guy's vision of a Jesus who had women right at the heart of his ministry." -- That was well said. The women around Jesus get ignored in too many retellings.

    • At 10:13 pm, March 28, 2017, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comment Fritzi and for organising the Blogathon.


    • At 10:15 pm, March 28, 2017, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Caftan, glad you enjoyed it.

    • At 1:01 am, March 29, 2017, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Joe, I really liked the Zecca story. I felt it gives real insight into her as a person.

    • At 8:10 pm, March 29, 2017, Blogger Silver Screenings said…

      Wow – thanks for this insightful and well-researched essay on this biblical film. I've not yet seen this one, which makes me glad I read your piece first. Now I know how to truly appreciate the film and what to look for.

    • At 11:37 pm, March 31, 2017, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Well thanks,. I hope you enjoy it.


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