La Roue (1923) Director: Abel Gance
“Creation is a Great Wheel which does not move without crushing someone” -Victor Hugo
La Roue is a film which defined and solidified the train/railroad motif in early cinema. It seems that all the great directors of early cinema made copious use of trains –Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and, in this case, Abel Gance. With La Roue, Abel Gance offers a new cinematic language for conveying visual narrative: extended close-ups of characters and scenes which deeply ingrain a sense of time and place. The film itself rolls along like a wheel. In La Roue the two chief contrasting locales are striking: first, a gritty and ashen railroad town where life is hard and noisy, followed by a peaceful and remote snow-capped mountain town where our protagonist Sisif is now a blinded but contented old man.
We begin with a dramatic and cataclysmic train crash. Sisif (played by Séverin-Mars who died of a heart attack before the release of the film) the ironically named and alcoholic railroad engineer, adopts a young girl from the wreckage, Norma. He raises her along with his son, Elie, whose mother died in childbirth. Sisif lives in a humble house surrounded by railroads. He comes home each day covered in soot and filth, though he is actually a gifted inventor and another colleague takes the credit for his work. As Norma grows, she becomes a lovely girl. Suitors begin to hang around, one wealthy gentleman offers his hand in marriage, promising to save Norma’s family from destitution, however is reluctant. Sisif gets into a fistfight with a co-worker over the beauty of his adopted daughter, Norma. Elie dislikes the dreariness of railroad work, and he dreams of becoming a violin-maker, married to someone pretty like Norma.
As time goes on, Sisif falls in love with his adopted daughter, whom he calls his “Rose of the Rail.” Midway through the first part of the film, Sisif reveals his dark secret in a private confession. Afterward, he tries to kill himself by starting the train and throwing himself under it, in a fiercely tense scene, only to be rescued at the last second by a fellow railway worker. He announces that he must be living in hell because he cannot even die. When he recuperates, his wealthier colleague blackmails him into allowing Norma his hand in marriage. Sisif recklessly drives the train to Norma’s wedding day, nearly crashing.
Time goes by and her marriage is unenjoyable. Sisif’s son, Elie, realizes the truth, and both men acknowledge their love for Norma. Sisif again is punished at work, this time for running his train named for “Norma” off the rails. The accident nearly blinds him. He moves away to a small mountain home high up in the snowy mountains with his son. Sisif operates a small mountain train, a parody of his former work. These scenes are some of the most majestic in the whole film. Elie spots Norma in the audience for a classical performance featuring one of his violins. Elie writes a note to Norma professing his love, but it is discovered by her husband. He goes to confront Elie and the two of them fight in a dramatic cliff-hanging sequence high up in the mountains. At the last moment Elie spots Norma only to fall to his death moments later in an intense cut-scene sequence. Norma moves in with Sisif, at first without him knowing because of his failing eyesight. They live in sorrow for their losses. An old co-worker (the one who once saved Sisif) arrives for a visit and asks about Elie, and Sisif looks off in the distance and says he has gone for 27 years, for that is how long it takes for the glacier to give up it dead. The last hour of the remastered film contains extended scenes of misery and sorrow for Sisif and Elie, and Sisif’s eyesight continues to grow more cloudy. They live together, and he re-assumes the role of her father. She goes out to a gay dance in the mountainside, while Sisif looks out the window smoking his pipe: “Sisif had gently departed, as a ray of sunshine abandons a window at twilight” and also “As the soul of Sisif found release one of its shadowy wings caressed the carefree young Norma as she continued to revolve within the Wheel.” We are given scenes of the mighty snow-capped mountains inter-spliced with scenes of the railroad wheels, as Sisif dies in front of his mountain home window. Sisif transforms from an odd and, in some ways, unlikable character in the first half, to a sympathetic human being in the second half of the film.
I was particularly struck by the unique glimpses we are given into the minds of the characters through unique visual arrangements such as flashbacks, memories, and dreams (such as the dream of Elie and Norma in medieval garb as violin-makers or the scenario in which the face of Norma appears to Elie while he is high up in his new mountain home as he amusingly tries to swat the image away and close the window on it to no avail). These unique asides to the audience cannot be conveyed in traditional theatre, and they help to reinforce a new language of cinema. Jean Cocteau once said ‘there is cinema before and after La Roue, in the same way that there is painting before and after Picasso.’
Gance initially screened the film on 32 reels, over three days. Estimates vary, but the film originally lasted somewhere around 7.5-9 hours, and unfortunately the original has been lost, however thanks to the tireless efforts of the current version runs somewhere just south of 4 hours. The film was highly influenced by Gance’s lover who was ill –she was dying of tuberculosis while he was developing the film. His leading man and friend, Séverin-Mars, was also seriously ill and dying during the filming, and Gance, himself, was recovering from the Spanish Flu.