Psycho Pompous: Impressionist Horror, Part II: Ménilmontant, the Birth of Psychological Horror
By the time 1926 had rolled around, German expressionism, and the horror films it produced, was already in full swing. The time of the horror film as a viable form of filmmaking had begun. However, there are several elements of import that need to be addressed before moving onto expressionism. By this point, French impressionism was the source of the era’s most important works in the evolution of film technique, language and style in Europe. However, by this point it had begun to lose steam.
Most filmmakers who had attempted impressionism had not found the success to which Abel Gance (La Roue), Jean Epstein (Coeur fidèle) and Germaine Dulac (La Souriante Madame Beudet) had achieved. Though this would be the year that Jean Renoir would release his second feature film (but first significant impressionist work) Nana, based on the ninth book of the same name in Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series; impressionism would only survive as an active artistic movement for roughly four more years.
A significant film that would be brought to French audiences in 1926, may stand as one of the most important works of impressionist filmmaking and impressionist horror in history. Though terribly obscure now, the short film Ménilmontant by Dimitri Kirsanoff radically influenced the design of horror films of the later 20s and early 30s. While this work wasn’t intended as a horror film, its effect was nevertheless horrific. The movie is the culmination of the entire foundation of European filmmaking to that point.
To specify, Dimitri Kirsanoff’s childhood in Russia exposed him to the psychological realist movement, giving him an understanding of real human drama and a more sophisticated approach to manipulating fear. Upon his moving to France, he was employed by a local movie theater where he would assist the live orchestra of film screenings by playing the cello. This is where he was exposed to the romantic films of the United States, impressionist films of France and Italy, the early expressionist films of Germany, and also where he came to understand how a film is paced and how that pacing can be manipulated. The techniques Kirsanoff pioneered throughout his work was very much inspired by the concurrent career of Abel Gance, who was the leading impressionist of the day, and the critiques of Louis Delluc, one of the most important French film critics of the 20s. All of these prior elements together helped create Ménilmontant. It can be argued that Kirsanoff had a reactive influence on Gance, providing the evolved character framework, psychiatric realism and exploratory camera techniques laiden into impressionist imagery Gance would employ in his masterpiece Napoleon (1928).
In the very opening frames of Ménilmontant, we witness a brutal axe murder of a couple by a deranged man. While F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene were experimenting with shadows and sharp, jagged angles to create a mood second-to-none in the art of invoking fear, their works were also hindered by many characters being pantomimes or overly flamboyant deliveries, as that was the norm still in most cinema of the day. In Ménilmontant, initially we are given genuine appearances of rage, fear, and confusion. All shot in direct sunlight with angles and focus rapidly intercutting between a number of different perspective. While expressionism was the seat for atmospheric horror, Kirsanoff had was the pioneer of human horror.
Because we do not understand yet the context for the insanity of these rapid and frantic shots at the film’s opening, the unknown adds a further layer of fear for the viewer, amping up the anxiety for what is to come. However, as quickly as the scene opens, the violence ceases, instead focusing on the stillness and lingering void left in the murder’s wake. Rather than gruesomeness of the killing being the object of our horror, the loss of life is seen as the true grisly aspect of the scene. The same approach in cinematic horror have been employed in films such as Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo: or The 120 Days Of Sodom (1975).
Immediately, the next scene is in stark contrast, as it is of two girls (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) playing and climbing a tree. The area is bathed in bright and glowing sunlight, the girls are dressed in spotless white clothes, as opposed to grey muddiness and grime of the opening. This contrast is of violence and cruelty against naivete and innocence, also standing as a metaphor for the cynical realities of adulthood meshing against the optimism of youth.
The worlds collide in a sequence of editing genius. As Nadia arrives at the house where the murders have just taken place, we are given a close-up of her face. The camera pushes in closer with a series of rapid cuts; with each cut her emotion evolves from curiosity and confusion to realization and horror. It becomes apparent that the couple who were murdered were her parents. She returns to Yolande, and though she prods Nadia for information, she cannot even speak. I consider this to be one of the greatest displays of naturalistic horror in a film of this period.
As the story continues we see the sisters grieving their late parents in a graveyard. With the tonal shift in lighting and wardrobe, we can see that their parents were not the only casualty, but also of the sisters’ lost innocence. They have forgone their white dresses with their hair down and curly, resigning to wearing black with their hair tightly restrained. As if to reinforce this point, much more time and attention is spent on this scene than the prior ones, suggesting not only was the act horrific, but also that the true horror and pain is those who survive afterwards. Much of the imagery in this scene focuses on the overgrown weeds and decay of the graveyard, suggesting that this moment is occurring some time after the opening scenes, and adding a deeper feeling of neglect and hopelessness.
Now. At this point, you could say that the only element of typical horror thus far would be the opening sequence. But it isn’t. Just as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), this is the type of horror that enters the audience through deep-rooted emotional empathy with the characters. In this kind of horror, to make the audience fear what will happen, the audience must be invested in how the protagonists feel. If the main character is scared, then we should be. By orphaning the sisters, they are already placed in a position of vulnerability for the rest of the movie, not only because of their shattered ignorance, but (as the imagery concluding the graveyard scene provides) because of how alone they are in the world.
The sequence ends with a series of rapid and multi-layered superimpositions of constantly moving cameras. This is impressionism at its best. We are given a personal look into the frantic minds of the sisters, of their unfocused attention and anxious thoughts. This also is a perfect depiction of memory, how we remember not in complete scenes, but in instances of fragments of moments. The true atmosphere of Ménilmontant is how its characters (and then likewise the audience) find value in the mundane, and appreciate such value. After establishing that the sisters are employed assembling flower arrangements, they wake the next morning with their hair down, bedclothes white. They are cheery and optimistic on their current life, even though their home is in a slum. Nadia then receives a letter from a suitor (Guy Belmont), to which the both of them rejoice, jumping together on the bed. However, though this scene is simple by itself, its placement here illustrates another element of Kirsanoff’s genius.
As the previous scene depicted in the same light scheme and intensity was before the sisters found their dead parents, Kirsanoff mirrors this in the latter part of this sequence with Nadia meeting Guy. At first it is cheerful and carefree, but it quickly turns uncertain, Nadia becoming quite visibly apprehensive. At first it can be assumed from nerves, though the reason that becomes prevalent is Guy’s unwanted sexual advances. As the uncertainty builds, the film moves to being shot in high contrast, the camera is positioned so everything begins sprouting in sharp and intersecting angles, very much mimicking its expressionist cousins in Germany, but using the actual architecture of the Parisian neighborhood from which the movie gets its name.
The film then splits along two coinciding storylines, one of Nadia and one of Yolande. The audience sees the subtle torments and pleasures of the characters through seemingly innocuous actions, (such as Nadia not coming home for many nights but not telling Yolande, thus causing her to worry and wander the streets looking for her), adding a further psychological complexity to the relationship between the characters, and to the film as a whole.
The film’s perspective also shifts further inward, utilizing close-ups with a longer lens detailing the intensity of character emotion at the same time providing a symbolic separation of them from the world. As the sisters further alienate themselves from each other, so do they from those they are surrounded, till they feel that they are alone even if in a crowd. Intercutting footage of the surrounding areas, minute details of objects, and flashbacks creates a parallel between what we as the audience see, to what the character perceives, involving us in the character’s thought process and mental condition. This is a highly involved cinematic experience, one that required the audience to be an active participant. As a result, we experience a highly invasive form of cinema; one where comfort is an illusion and uncertainty, timidness and fear are the natural states of life.
Nadia then discovers she is pregnant by Guy roughly about the same time she discovers his affair with Yolande. This is sequenced with flashbacks surrounded by stark shadows and dark water, trapping and isolating Nadia in her heartbreak. Though having grown to be a striking, independent and willful woman, Nadia now displays sincere vulnerability, betrayal and jealousy. She is as broken as the cobblestone streets that are constantly referenced throughout the film. Her world has gone cold as we can now see the breath of the actors. The world is no longer sunny, but overcast and shadowed, plunged into a bitter winter both in metaphor and in reality. Such bleak imagery tied directly into the mental state of the protagonist would play directly in future films such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Adrian Lyne’s Jacob's Ladder (1990), and Gregory Read’s Like Minds (2006).
After she has given birth, Nadia can hardly bring herself to even look at her child. She instead stares at the ever-present cracks in the sidewalk. The audience is then thrown into the most intense scene of the film (and equally the most horrific). We are greeted by a moment of sheer terror, not because of what has happened to Nadia, but what has the probability to happen. The tension built is very real and human, having elements playing out much like a Victor Hugo tragedy. With Nadia approaching a riverside walkway, the picture is awash in frantic superimposed images with rapid editing, as she is contemplating throwing the child into the freezing waters of the Seine River. Nadia is terrified over the desperation of her situation and is looking forlornly for a way out, but is deathly afraid of the consequences. None of this sequence is played up for melodrama. There isn’t an ounce of mannerist acting. This is raw, uncompromised life reflected on her face. The despair of her situation and how she got there is explained without any need for words (this film also includes no intertitles).
After Nadia retreats from the river’s edge and takes a seat on a park bench, she is joined by an old man. Seeing how cold and hungry Nadia is, her hair messy and her tightly gripping her coat, the man gives her bread. At first she looks away, ashamed, tears in her eyes, reverting momentarily to her proud individualistic self before she was swept away by Guy. But as he places a slice of salami on the bread, she relents and begins to eat. But as she does, she loses her composure and breaks down. This is one of the most heart wrenching images in silent movie history. Kirsanoff holds the shot longer than what would be expected, showing that just because the moment is over, the emotions remain. He focuses on the haunting aftermath of all subtle forms of cruelty now, not just blatant violence. The subtlety in Nadia’s sorrowful smile as she nods in thanks to the old man brings a deeper level of melancholy that most films cannot achieve. This humanizes our characters even further; from Nadia’s sorrow, to Yolande’s blissful ignorance, to Guy’s manipulation. And in turn it compounds the effects each character has on another. Significant works that have reprised this similar theme in horror have been Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007).
The last portion of the film takes place at night, the first time any nighttime scenes are featured in the movie. The shadows have hard contrasts, characters and elements lit from streetlamps and windows of nearby buildings. What must be noted here more than any other part of the movie, for unlike expressionism, the camera is an active part of telling the story in impressionism. Kirsanoff makes each motion or angle of the camera and each focus of every shot play an integral role in not only revealing information to the audience, but equally propelling the story.
When Nadia and Yolande find each other again, Yolande embracing her long lost sister and her niece, for the last time in the film the sisters are bathed in light. They almost glow against the background, which is almost a complete sea of black. This is Kirsanoff ending their arc. It is the Rule of Threes (as opposed to the Rule of Thirds). And just as he utilized the same lighting twice before, this time alludes to impending danger. However, this time, it changes the formula. As the sisters retreat from the world of the dark and the cruel, once again comforted by each other, Guy is then made the ironic final victim of Ménilmontant. He is being followed by a pair of drunk penniless drifters and is jumped and beaten to death as the sun rises. We are given rapid glimpses of the sisters returning to their previous lives assembling flower arrangements.
Kirsanoff’s films (particularly Ménilmontant) were experiments in manipulative optical editing. He always strived to manipulate the image to display an underlying complexity where the details of places and things hold a higher significance to the narrative than characters. This wasn’t overly exaggerated and gothic. Everything was skewed so even the casual scenes are unsettling to a subtle degree. This was horror in the mundane, how though we have moments of happiness, it is due to being unaware of the realities of each individual. That we find solace in things that are inert or minimally impactful.
The film is steeped in metaphor. It doesn’t disguise it, nor deny anything about the darkness of the human mind. However it isn’t outfront with it either. This was the dawning of a brand new subgenre, psychological horror. Though this wasn’t the first film to experiment with the idea of psychological horror in history (as my previous installments have concluded), this film was the first to do it without the need to place the context of the story in that of a supernatural (or supposed supernatural) phenomena. The impact of this work would be felt throughout Europe almost immediately. This was due not only to the content of the film, but to the independent methodology of Kirsanoff’s work, as he never utilized a studio to make his movies. His style and approach have notably bled through to other works, notably influenced probably the most important and influential expressionist horror story ever filmed besides Robert Wiene’s seminal 1920 opus, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That film was Paul Leni’s 1928 masterpiece, The Man Who Laughs.