On Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’Enfants

by Jonah Horwitz

In May of 1923 the Belgian director Jacques Feyder and a French crew decamped to the Swiss canton of the Valais. In the high valleys of the Entremont and Anniviers they shot the footage that would comprise much of what was released, after a delay of two years, as Visages d’enfants (“faces of children”) in France and Alles voor moeder (“everything for mother”) in the Netherlands.

Visages d’enfants was neither a critical nor a commercial success in France, though it did reach England, where a print recovered some years later was one basis for the film’s rediscovery; and Japan, where Kinema Jumpo proclaimed it the “best European film” for 1925. Its mostly indifferent reception in Europe, and the subsequent disappearance of known prints ensured that in most mid-century appraisals of Feyder’s body of work, it would remain something more than a footnote, but much less than a key reference. A restoration completed in 1985 by the Netherlands Film Museum brought the film once again before European audiences. Within the past decade, a number of the journal Archives, published by the Institute Jean Vigo, was devoted to Visages d’enfants. And a special Jacques Feyder issue of 1895 included an appreciation, “Notes sur Visages d’enfants” by Lenny Borger. This process of rediscovery culminated in the film’s opening the 22nd Giornate del Cinema Muto on October 11, 2003, accompanied by a new score written by Antonio Coppola and performed by the Octuor de France.

Possibly then, Visages d’enfants is on its way to being definitively incorporated into the silent film canon. But there remains to my knowledge virtually nothing written about the film in English. My intention in the notes that follow is to clarify the nature of Feyder’s achievement, and locate its place in film history.

A good place to start is with a short article written by Feyder in 1923 and published in Der Internationale Film of Vienna.* In this piece Feyder presents his version of a problem facing the European cinema and proposes a solution. The problem, according to Feyder, is that no European country can afford to produce films solely for its national audience. Economic realities maintain that any major feature film—costing, per Feyder’s estimate, at least one million Austrian crowns—must be sold and appreciated in numerous countries. Only in America—whose films occupied by 1923 a substantial and increasing share of European screens—can the national market satisfy the costs of feature filmmaking. For this reason, American films can be made “without the least attention to foreign tastes.” These same films, aiming only to please the American public, have known the greatest and most durable success the world over.

Feyder sees in this apparent paradox a lesson for the European, or rather the international film: “Only a film of high national character is truly an international film.” He names two relevant examples from Europe: that of the Swedes, who “have created the most beautiful films in the world” while “never producing anything but Swedish films”; and that of the enormously successful Les trois lumières (Der müde Tod, Fritz Lang, 1921), much of whose action unfolds in a Bavarian village, reflecting “real life and meticulous observation.”

Other films, in their artistic and commercial failure, offer a warning. In an era that saw innovations in international co-production, Feyder scorns—without naming—those products which, in the name of internationalism, are constructed on a “bad base” of “simple, banal” stories and force their actors to hide every trace of their nationality against a setting that has been robbed of all distinctiveness. Such films, writes Feyder, “cannot interest anyone.” Neither can those films made in blatant imitation of successful Hollywood models achieve success with their similarly visible lack of authenticity.

Feyder’s vision of a cinema of truly international appeal, to which he hopes to “convert . . . the great patrons of European cinematic production,” has two essential components:

– “a simple story, an event that speaks to all intelligences, to all hearts”;

– the story should be situated “in a characteristic setting [milieu], at the same time colourful [pittoresque] and natural, in one word we would create, with the greatest artistic understanding, the ‘atmosphere.’”

Both Crainquebille (1922) and Visages d’enfants—shot the same year as the publication of Feyder’s article for Der Internationale Film—would appear to follow these prescriptions. Crainquebille is the sympathetic story of a young paperboy (Jean Forest, then aged 9), who befriends and later saves the life of a down-and-out old street vendor. Much of the film was shot in Montmartre, and contemporary reviews praised its precise depiction of Montmartrois street life.

The hero of Visages d’enfants is another young boy, Jean Amsler, again played by Jean Forest. Jean lives with his parents and younger sister, Pierrette (Pierrette Houyer). The mother dies, and Jean’s grief is deep and incapacitating. A year later, Jean’s father Pierre (Victor Vina) has returned to work and begun to court a young widow, Jeanne Dutois (Rachel Devirys); but Jean is still speaking every night to a portrait of his mother, and devotedly leaving flowers at her grave each Sunday. Jean’s father decides to marry the widow, and he entrusts the canon Tailler (Henri Duval), parish priest and Jean’s godfather, to reveal the news to the still-fragile boy. Jean returns from a week’s retreat with Tailler to a house of four: his father; Pierrette; Jeanne, his new stepmother (his mother was also named Jeanne); and a new stepsister about his age, Arlette (Arlette Peyran). Against the sensitive advice of Jeanne and the more brusque admonitions of their father, Jean and Arlette are continually squabbling: over a box of crayons, a doll, and inevitably the affections of their parents. Jean and Pierrette conspire to exclude Arlette from their games, chasing her from their figurative sandbox. And Jean still worships his dead mother. He finds her portrait consigned to a far corner of a bedroom, and replaces it above his bed; he cries upon discovering that Jeanne is wearing his mother’s brooch; and he cannot bring himself to acknowledge Jeanne as his mother. In one of the film’s most poignant images, Jean sits his mother’s dress atop a chest, and lays his head on “her” lap, his normally sad face momentarily taking on a blissful countenance. [FIGURE 1] Later, Jeanne prepares to make from the dress clothes for the children, but Jean cuts it to ribbons rather than allow anyone else to wear it. Jean’s behaviour provokes the increasingly desperate frustration of his father—he is prevented from beating his son only by the intervention of his new wife.

One evening while riding home with his family, Jean tosses out Arlette’s treasured doll along the route, and then urges her to sneak out in the middle of the night to fetch it. She becomes helplessly lost, then endangered, and is brought home half-alive by a search party. After he confesses his culpability, Jean’s estrangement from his parents is conveyed in a terrifying high-angle shot taken from his own point of view: his parents, warming the freezing Arlette by the living room hearth, cast burning, silent stares at their son as he hunches on the banister upstairs. [FIGURE 2] Jean, consumed by remorse, says farewell to his sisters and tries to drown himself in a river. His stepmother races to save him from the rushing water. Cradled in Jeanne’s arms, for the first time, Jean calls her “maman.

The film’s emotional honesty is surprising—for any era. Jean, far from being a precocious scamp, is alternately morose and cruel. Arlette can be selfish, proud, and a tattletale to boot. Pierrette, first introduced playing with soap bubbles and a kitten in contented ignorance of the meaning of her mother’s funeral (“Where is Mama?”), is quick to join her beloved Jean in picking on the lonely Arlette. The three children are both victims and tormentors. The father is cowardly (he is unable to tell Jean the news of his engagement) and quick to anger—the soft face of actor Victor Vina itself suggests a childishness, a certain self-absorption. Only the stepmother is largely free of such complexity, although Feyder and actress Rachel Devirys deftly suggest her violently mixed emotions in one short sequence, which shows her reaction to Jean’s having endangered her only child: full of horror and unable to look her stepson in the face, she nonetheless pats him on the back and gently sends him upstairs; only when Jean pauses on the steps, glancing back with an expression that seems at once to convey regret and seek compassion, she stiffens up and yells angrily, “Go to your room!” [FIGURE 3]

If the film’s conclusion is conventionally tidy, one cannot say that Feyder and his actors did not take risks and expend extraordinary sensitivity getting us there. Visages d’enfants was presented by the Giornate in conjunction with a charitable organization called “Innocence in Danger”; but the film is much more shaded than the Victorian  tale such a recipe might call to mind. Borger suggests that its “psychological harshness” was not accepted by audiences in 1925. But it is not simply that in telling this story, Feyder transcended sentimental representations of children and families of the late silent era; one festival patron confessed to me that he was depressed, even upset, by the intensity and tragedy in this portrait of children.

The titles of this film are meaningful. Visages d’enfants does display the range of expressions that frequent the faces of children, and of the emotions that underlie them. The discipline and expressiveness of Jean Forest contributes mightily to this (the young actor and his director had a special empathy; Forest would appear in a third film of Feyder’s, Gribiche, in 1925). Alles voor moeder has, in light of the film’s story, a prickly irony: Jean, despite a devotion to his dead mother that is moving while bordering on the morbid, must come to accept his new stepmother.

But according to reports of the film’s shooting in the Haut Valois from Schweizer Cinema Suisse, its provisional titles were successively Saint-Bernard and Mont Saint-Bernard, after the peak presiding over the valley of Entremont. This suggests the prominence of the Haut Valois setting in the film—an object of some fascination for its scattered admirers in 1923-25 and for today’s audiences, and the movie’s means of fulfilling the second part of Feyder’s vision of an international film.

The genesis of Visages d’enfants remains obscure, but its producers—Dimitri de Zoubaloff and Arthur-Adrien Porchet—were from Lausanne. They apparently wanted to reinvigorate the Swiss film industry by importing a prestige director, and to show off the rough beauty of the Haut Valois to the world. Perhaps half of Visages d’enfants transpires outdoors. The central place of the landscape in Feyder’s design is established with the first shots of the film. Intertitles announce spring in “Saint-Luc” (actually Grimentz in the valley of Anniviers) followed by successive postcard-like views of the village nestled in the hills; a waterfall; the large, rustic wooden house of “the president of the commune”; a stream running by a mill. Villagers begin to arrive in increasingly close framings of the house. But then an ominous title: “. . . while sadness is in the house.”

The first sequence (after the placid opening images) of Visages d’enfants, exemplary in its emotional tangibility and physical descriptiveness, is worth relating in detail. A long shot of the Amsler parlor introduces the scene as one of mourning, and the medium shots and intertitles that follow establish the Amsler family and their guests. Images of a happy Pierrette playing with her bubbles, too young to understand what is happening in the next room, are intercut throughout the sequence with the very different responses of Pierre and Jean: the father wrings a handkerchief, then brings it to his face as he bursts into tears; Jean looks up at his father, and a low-angle point of view shot of the father’s contorted face buried in his kerchief tells that Jean will have to rely for the moment on his own strength to get through. Feyder rotates a second time through the medium shots presenting the mourners, as they shift their attention one by one to the staircase. Cruelly, Jean’s mother is introduced with a cool intertitle like those for the other characters: “The mother of the two children.” But what follows is not a portrait but a medium shot of her coffin being carried down steps to the Amsler parlor. This more or less conventional (though austerely framed) scene dissection is punctuated by elliptical images, often seen from Jean’s perspective: boots of the pallbearers slipping on the steps, the gurney that will carry the coffin resting on the floorboards, a table beside the front door dressed sombrely with a cross and several offerings.

A funeral procession snakes through the narrow streets of the village where—often from Jean’s point of view—we are shown a collection of his neighbours: women crossing themselves as the mourners pass by; little children greedily munching bread and jam; old ladies with faces permanently fixed into a look of well-tested stoicism. Jean’s neighbours look like mountain folk (and indeed, were mostly Grimentz locals serving as extras), with their weather-beaten boots and wide-brimmed black hats; their thick wool jackets stiffened for protection against the harsh weather; and among the elderly, their faces deeply creased by decades of hard labour. A bell tolls in the thatched church tower. Tall, spiky trees stretch from a mountainous horizon as the funeral march nears the cemetery on the outskirts of the village. Jean seems to grow woozy as his image alternates with his view of the rear of the coffin. At the cemetery, dominated by a tall, thin wooden cross, we see the pick of the gravedigger repeatedly surge up out of a hole in the earth and plunge downward again. [FIGURE 4] Jean’s view of the mourners begins to blur as the coffin is laid into the ground. Villagers take turns tossing soil into the grave, ending with Jean, who stares out numbly with canter in hand, until the priest gently takes it away and gestures the boy forward. The mourners exit slowly. When no one but Jean, his father, and the impassive old gravedigger remain, Jean suddenly slumps back, and in an onrush of flash frames Feyder repeats images of the coffin, the mourners, the onlookers, the bell tower, towering trees, the tombstone, the gravedigger, the grave. Jean collapses toward his father, in whose arms he is carried home.

This 11-minute sequence, with its “meticulous observation” of fragments of reality, cross-cutting, and alternation of objective presentation with Jean’s increasingly feverish subjectivity (the former often paced slowly, the latter introducing a marked acceleration of the montage), numbers at least 155 shots in the Amsterdam restoration. It manages to introduce the characters, present Jean’s mental state with force and clarity, and illustrate both the human community and the physical landscape of Saint-Luc. It is surely one of the most moving and memorable sequences in the film (and, according to Antonio Coppola, one of the most difficult to score).

Though such concentrated bravura is exceptional, the remainder of Visages d’enfants makes varied and often striking use of the Haut Valois setting.

Without doubt certain features of daily life in the Haut Valois make their way into the film. Feyder was particularly proud of the authenticity lent by his use of locals as extras in certain scenes—the funeral, the marriage of Pierre and Jean, the search party sent to rescue Arlette. In an interview given to Cinémagazine on the occasion of the film’s release in France, Feyder asserted, “You have been able to judge with what natural, with what serious, with what truthful ‘reality’ they have filled their roles in the few scenes where I needed to have an ensemble.” Aside from the particularities of dress, gesture, and perhaps temperament these local players would have brought to their scenes, and the overall impression of austerity given by the clothing and homes of the villagers, Feyder includes such descriptive images as a boy moving sheep along a mountain road; men chopping wood in the lumberyard; and Pierre, as president of the local commune, receiving rent from the tenants of Saint-Luc. It is in this capacity that he meets Jeanne Dutois and her daughter. Jeanne’s husband was killed in a work accident; attributing it to his carelessness, the insurance company has refused his widow compensation. She is unable to meet her rent, and Pierre’s taking pity on her leads to their courtship and marriage. The central role of the priest, as Jean’s godfather and Pierre’s confidant, accords with the experience of Feyder’s team while shooting in the Valois. Also in Cinémagazine, Feyder related, “From the day when the parish priest of the village read and approved the scenario, all difficulty disappeared; as the farmers of the Valais were profoundly Catholic, the influence of the representatives of religion were therefore decisive and really supreme.” Pierre entrusts the priest to reveal the news of the engagement to Jean, and this latter action transpires while Jean and his godfather are shovelling hay on the grounds of a Catholic hospice at Vissoy, in an adjacent valley.

One way Feyder is able to make use of setting is by tying changes in the psychology of his characters to the changing of the seasons. The first time we see father and son visit the mother’s grave, the leaves are off the trees and the ground is covered in snow—it is the dead of winter. Shortly after, an intertitle: “And spring returned.” What follows is a lovely panorama of the village, the snow receding onto the mountain slopes. Pierre begins to pay regular visits to Jeanne, and Feyder frames their flirtations in a landscape newly bursting with wildflowers and leafy trees. The first Sunday of June finds Pierre and Jean heading again to the cemetery, but this time Pierre decides instead to see the Dutoises, where he proposes to Jeanne. Jeanne is stunned, but soon assents in a gale of laughter in which Pierre soon joins her. Summer, which has effectively dispersed the snow and cold that hung over Saint-Luc during the worst of Pierre’s grief, is the setting for his new happiness. Intercut with this joyous scene is Jean’s lonely visit to the cemetery, where he tidies up his mother’s grave and leaves bundles of flowers. His face is the same as it was many months ago at the funeral. Feyder’s visual emphasis on the arrival of summer, and the divergent reactions thereto of father and son, serves to highlight the depth of Jean’s continued grief.

This scene also finds Feyder using the village setting to establish this emotional divergence graphically. Jean and Pierre part ways and in a stark long shot we see a forking road, Jean heading off right to visit his mother, Pierre to the left to see Jeanne. [FIGURE 5]

Most of the uses of the valley setting, however, suggest a tendency with which Feyder is frequently associated by film historians: pictorialism. A case in point is the scene of one of Jean and Arlette’s first spats. It opens with a panorama of goats grazing on a mountainside. Jean grabs Arlette’s doll and ties it to a goat’s horn, and she has to go chasing after it. The scene is dominated by generous shots which reveal the valley landscape for our contemplation. [FIGURE 6] But unlike in the previous examples, the setting here does not reinforce character psychology. I do not want to discount the very real pleasure to be derived from Feyder’s handsome images. But as with the postcard-like views that open Visages d’enfants, these views simply do not linger long enough for them to register as evoking much more than a harmless pastoralism.

At other times, Feyder uses the Haut Valois landscape for graphic effects so striking that they momentarily overwhelm the narrative. Descending the side of the mountain after having passed several days in Vissoy, Tailler and Jean pause before a view of Saint-Luc from on high. The village spreads out laterally as in an aerial photograph. The effect is vertiginous. [FIGURE 7] Toward the end of the film, Feyder intercuts between Jeanne saving Jean from the water and Pierre riding home. The hourglass-like composition dominated by the cleave of the waterfall from which Jeanne rescues Jean rhymes with that created by the identical lines of tall trees that line either side of the road along which Pierre directs his cart. [FIGURES 8, 9]

Feyder’s concern for making use of his unique setting does not mean that Visages d’enfants is any kind of documentary; as the editors of the special Archives issue attest, the film has only a limited interest as a record of the Haut Valois and its inhabitants in the 1920s. Much of the film—all of the interiors, and certain closer exterior views of the Amsler home—was shot in Paris, and the central actors are all French professionals. The cemetery where Jeanne Amsler is buried was created by Feyder’s team on an empty patch of land, and shooting took place up and down two valleys (Grand Saint-Bernard and Liddes in the valley of Entremont; Grimentz and environs, and Vissoie in the valley of Anniviers), although the results are presented in the film as the village of Saint-Luc and its outskirts. Feyder was quite up-front, in an interview published in La Revue Suisse du cinema just after the completion of shooting in the Valois, about his disinterest in “the absolute truth.” He sought instead a “true, direct, powerful” effect. “What the member of the audience looks for in the cinema—outside of the documentaries—it’s not a certain material truth, but a visual impression strong enough to stir his spirit.”

In this statement Feyder would seem to echo the attitudes of certain of his contemporaries, those classified by film historians as the “French Impressionists” or, more ecumenically, the French narrative avant-garde: Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier, Louis Delluc, and others. Feyder did share some tastes (for American over recent French films), stylistic tendencies (simple stories, a desire to express nuances of subjectivity and feeling, location shooting), and ontological preoccupations (Feyder insisted on the specificity of the cinematic art, which he identified as its “extreme mobility in space and time”) with these colleagues. He even worked with some of the same craftsmen, such as the cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel, who had shot Gance’s La Roue before joining Feyder for Visages d’enfants.

Feyder makes limited use of Impressionist effects in Visages d’enfants. There are the flash frames in the funeral sequence. The portrait of the mother changes according to Jean’s thoughts, alternately smiling upon him and, when Jean reproaches himself for having endangered Arlette, effaced entirely (the smiling effect is reprised at the very end, when the portrait is seen to approve Jean’s acceptance of his stepmother). At the film’s climax, after Jean stares down into the river, the subsequent shot of the water is thrice refracted, making the water appear to surge upward violently—expressing both its pull on the tormented Jean and something of the boy’s own turbulent mental state. [FIGURES 10, 11] But Visages d’enfants does not aspire to the sustained stylistic experimentation—the thoroughgoing exploration of subjectivity—of Epstein’s Coeur fidèle or Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet. Feyder’s idea of an appropriate “visual impression” was one that created the “illusion of reality.” His subjective “effects” are typically naturalistic and relatively discreet, functions of framing, nuanced editing and acting, set design, and as discussed above the use of the natural landscape. For example, rather than the modernist-influenced designs of  L’Herbier’s L’Inhumanité,Visages d’enfants  tends to tableaux vivants that effectively recreate the spare chiaroscuro of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting, as in a shot where Pierette wanders through the Amsler kitchen, with everything else in the frame—including Arlette at right, striking a pensive pose—reduced to graphic elements. [FIGURE 12] (Feyder would pay more explicit hommage to Hals, Jordaens, and Breughel in his 1935 La Kermesse héroïque.) Not hesistant to subtly deform elements of his sets to achieve a “favourable shot,” Feyder nevertheless explicitly rejected the “systematic deformation” of “Caligarism” as “an absurdity, a challenge to good sense,” and implicitly rejected the stylistic extremes of Impressionism as well.

One might further deduce from Feyder’s statements and his films that such extremes—which threaten to alienate a mass audience—ran counter to his populist instincts. In his article for Der Film Internationale, Feyder tellingly presumes an equivalence between popular and artistic success. He accepts the economic realities of European film, and addresses himself to the question of viable production, expecting that he can answer both economic and artistic needs with his vision of an international film comprising a universal setting and a local background.

This vision can be better understood in the light of Feyder’s position, and his self-image, within the European film industry. All his career long Feyder insisted, against fashion and the flatteries of his admirers, that he was not an auteur but, per the title of his autobiography, Un artisan dans le cinéma. Feyder was not, however, a contract director in the Hollywood mode—when he did spend several years in Hollywood, he found its production methods stifling. And his native Belgium, a country marginal to European production, did not have the resources to sustain a director like Feyder. So he found himself working with a variety of French firms on a freelance basis, and made films in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the United States, and eventually Belgium too.

Charting an independent and peripatetic course in a commercial film industry, but denying pretensions to authorship, Feyder saw himself as serving an international public eager for authentic images and powerful stories. Hoping to reach and to move this large public, but sympathetic as well to the artistic strivings of his French colleagues, Feyder situated his film practice somewhere between the experimentation of the European avant-gardes and a modest classicism. Both the director’s film style and his formula for the “international film” can be appreciated as part of his struggle to reconcile artistic independence and popular success in a kind of exile.

The initial commercial and critical failure of Visages d’enfants might be said to refute Feyder’s vision of a successful international cinema. But that vision seems, in retrospect, less a formula for creating commercially viable films in Europe than Feyder’s attempt to theorize the working methods and artistic sensibilities he had begun to develop as a wandering artisan. The successful revival—still underway—of Visages d’enfants attests to the soundness of those methods, and the generosity of those sensibilities.

* The original German text was translated into French for Les Cahiers de la Cinématheque by Victor Bachy in 1984; I have translated this and other references into English myself. All emphases used within quotation marks are reproduced from the original references.