Le mystère des roches de Kador (1912)
Alternate Titles: The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.
The French had the largest and most successful film industry in the world prior to World War One, and so it’s no surprise that their movies appear rather “advanced” already by 1912. Of the films of this period I have reviewed so far, this made the strongest use of text – both in the form of intertitles, and many handwritten documents that characters wrote and sent to one another, or found and used as evidence. Unfortunately, since I don’t read French and no translation was provided, this was an impediment to my following the action. It also didn’t help that the version I watched had a very modern Dark Ambient soundtrack superimposed (I turned it off after 15 minutes). It did have some interesting bits, however. I particularly liked that they solved the “mystery” with the relatively-new science of Psychotherapy, and that the method of treatment was showing the traumatized witness a film recreating the event they had experienced. This gave the filmmakers a chance to reflect on some of their own techniques for the audience.
Update 12/12/2016: I wrote this review shortly after starting the project of watching 100 year old movies back in 2012. I have now been able to see it with English subtitles (and a decent soundtrack), so the time has come to update the review.
This movie is the story of a young woman whose rich father dies while she is still a minor, and who then falls into the clutches of the malicious executor, who hopes to inherit by means of marrying or killing her, whichever is more convenient. If that plotline sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was used with rather less subtlety by Pathé in the famous serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914. In this instance, the scheming trustee is played by the director, Léonce Perret, who brings a certain decadent boyishness to the role. Unlike Pauline, the heroine (Suzanne Grandais) doesn’t want to seek “adventure,” she just wants to marry her true love (Max Dhartigny), who she met once at a spa and fell instantly in love with. When she therefore spurns Perret’s advances against the backdrop of a lovely rock formation at the beach, he decides to poison her and shoot her lover. He leaves them lying on the beach, but neither one is actually dead, so they manage to crawl into a rowboat and spend the night adrift instead of drowning when the tide comes in.
The whole experience remains a mystery, however, because Max didn’t see who shot him and Suzanne is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic. So, the brilliant psychiatrist Émile Keppens is called in and he brings a camera crew back to the beach to shoot the whole incident and makes Suzanne watch. This triggers her memory, but now they have to trap the evil Perret. They arrange to show up in costume at a masquerade he is holding and spring a trap, demonstrating that he must have written the note that lured the lovers to their near-doom.
As with “The Child of Paris,” this movie’s strength is in its imagery and a series of well-chosen shots, not in pacing or editing. The use of the motion picture as a new technology to recover memory is also interesting, particularly the scene in which we see the recreation of a scene we just watched, only now there is a cameraman in frame, cranking the film by hand as the action plays out. The doctor/director then says “OK, let’s get the shots on the waves,” letting the audience in on the fact that movies are shot out of sequence. It still strikes me as a clever and effective idea, however unlikely that it would actually help someone with PTSD. Perret’s approach works because the whole movie seems to occur in a kind of fairy tale or mythic space, so that the scientific details don’t really matter.
Director: Léonce Perret
Camera: Georges Specht
Starring: Suzanne Grandais, Léonce Perret, Émile Keppens, Max Dhartigny, Jean Aymé, Louis Leubas
Run Time: 44 minutes
You can watch it for free: here