Film Review: La Cigarette (1919)
Germaine Dulac's psychological drama pre-dates what came to be called 'Hitchcockian'.
One of the first women director's working in the golden age of silent cinema, Germaine Dulac's 48- minute film has a plot that Hitchcock would have loved.
An aged anthropologist exhibits an Egyptian mummy of a woman whose older husband had committed suicide because of her infidelity. Soon, Pierre (Gabriel Signoret) begins to see parallels in his own married life. A scholarly kind, he is married to a much younger and modern Denise (Andrée Brabant) who claims that she is having "no fun" in her life.
Severely disappointed, he chooses to follow the example of the suicidal Egyptian king, he chooses a unique method of killing himself. In what is a kind of 'Russian Roulette', of killing oneself, he poisons one of his cigarettes and mixes it up in his cigarette box, leaving it up to chance the day he smokes it. Each time he smokes, could be his last.
The plot is suspenseful but Dulac's focus is more on the relationship and the psychology of the man. There are several scenes of both the characters alone with themselves, pondering their fates. This brings an unusual depth to the film.
At times, the damage to the print adds poetry and meaning to the film. As if Dulac was reaching through time to still tweak it.
As Denise leaves the room after an argument with Pierre, he seems to burn
Here Denise seems to disappear inside the mummy, displaying the similarities in their stories.
There is no theatricality in performances that you would expect from the era. Its cuts are subtle, surprising and psychologically astute. Like in the following scene where Pierre confronts Denise with his suspicions. Watch as the film cuts to the another kiss that Pierre had witnessed.
After the seemingly happy resolution, Dulac leaves the film on an ambiguous note which suggests that their relationship is poisoned forever. This is yet another 'modern' device.
If one were to search for a more political meaning here then it is the obvious one of the clash of civilizations. The West picking out the worst tendencies from "the others" and highlighting it. There is another similar suicide of a Turkish king mentioned that inspires Pierre to kill himself. If one is to continue to look at the film's details in the same way, narrows down the conflict even more.
However you may read it, La Cigarette is definitely worth a watch - if only to serve as a reminder to the young filmmakers that whatever cool ending they have thought for their films have, probably, already been done.