CRAINQUEBILLE (France / 1922)
Once praised by D. W. Griffith as "beautiful, compelling, bold!," Crainquebille is now regarded as one of the key French films of the silent era. Directed by Belgian-born French filmmaker Jacques Feyder (1885-1948), it helped paved the way for the poetic-realist tradition which dominated Gallic cinema during the 1930s. While Feyders most famous effort, Carnival in Flanders, transpired during that decade (1935 to be exact), his career came to fruition in the early 20s, with such films as Queen of Atlantis (1920), Crainquebille, and Faces of Children (1925). (Feyder then moved to Hollywood for a few years, where he made two films with the popular Greta Garbo: The Kiss  and Anna Christie , the German-language version.)
Adapted from a novel by Anatole France, Crainquebille opens with documentary-style realism as we watch various merchants traveling with their carts through Parisian neighborhoods in the early hours of a morning. (At this point, a few of the films secondary characters are introduced, accompanied by Feyders pungent social criticism.) After establishing the milieu with an astonishing overhead shot of the central wholesale marketplace of Les Halles, the filmmaker introduces us to Jrme Crainquebille (Maurice de Fraudy), an old pushcart peddler making his way across the congested streets, selling produce. Hes shown as a kind, generous and modest individual, with many loyal customers. One day, while waiting for a payment, Crainquebille becomes involved in a minor argument with a gendarme, and gets wrongly accused of insulting him. A farce of a trial later, he is jailed, where the life turns out to be pretty good, at least better than his outside reality. And that worsens once he is released. The stigma of being in prison follows him everywhere, eventually becoming the root cause of his downward spiral.
Feyder was said to have been influenced by German Expressionism. At one point during the trial sequence, Crainquebille hallucinates the statue of Marianne, the French national symbol for Liberty and Justice, looking down on him, literally and metaphorically. Also, his accuser is seen by him as a towering giant, while the lone individual who comes to his defense appears as a diminutive figure. Later on, a nightmarish experience allows for sharp contrasts in colors and personalities. (Part of the credit certainly goes to the great cinematographer Lonce-Henri Burel, who also did magnificent work in Faces of Children.) Crainquebille is a remarkable and deeply moving effort featuring a timeless quality which transcends its social and artistic relevance.
*CRAINQUEBILLE premiered in NYC in 1923 and was named among the year's best by The Times. It is now available on DVD in the U.S. (Image/HomeVision).