Stuck in a Nightmare You Can't Get Out of:
Visual Collision in Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant
For all the romantic analogies between dreams and movies, is it not rare for us to even remember our dreams? In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Georges Méliès nods to a young boy in his studio and says, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around … this is where they’re made.” Most of us have difficulty recalling the specifics of our most recent ‘sweet’ dream. Less problematic, however, is reliving our nightmares (Suddenly, Méliès’ quote transforms into a creepy omen). The fragmentary structure of nightmares, as we piece them together after the fact, lends itself to film well and has undoubtedly influenced countless filmmakers. One of them is Dimitri Kirsanoff, the Soviet-French director of the 1926 masterpiece Ménilmontant. The silent Ménilmontant stresses filmic storytelling through its montage editing à la Sergei Eisenstein, yet also warps the gap between cuts with an innovative use of protracted dissolves and double exposure. The eminence of colliding images, whether adjacent or superimposed, makes for a very visual, dreamlike editing technique.
The scenes in Ménilmontant that prescribe to a strict Soviet montage style may follow an established set of cinematic rules, but they use this framework to build an intimate series of images aimed at arousing intense emotion from the viewer. The film opens with a brutal struggle: An unknown, and practically unseen, man brandishing an axe hacks the protagonists’ mother and father to death. Those protagonists are two sisters — the younger, more prominent one played by Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu as the older, ancillary sister — frolicking in the forest down the road, giggling as a cat scales a tall tree. Thus, their parents’ horror proves a stark juxtaposition; Kirsanoff likely wielded montage editing for this reason. Eisenstein asked the question, “What characterizes montage and, consequently, its embryo, the shot?” and answered it with, “Collision” (21). “Conflict lies at the basis of every art,” he declared (21). This concept takes on social dimensions when imbued with the Marxist class struggle he and his pro-Soviet intellectuals preached (before Kirsanoff left the U.S.S.R., that is). But, for the aesthetic and apolitical analysis of this essay, the Soviet montage method generates action, tone and meaning.
Ménilmontant opens with a close-up of a cottage door and its glass shattering from an unseen force. This shot orients at about 45 degrees from the door’s parallel, and cuts to a perpendicular view of the door and the violence behind it (with a continuity error of the glass intact). We see very little besides a blur of faces and hands. Cut to the doorknob twisting, back to the door, back to the knob — cut to the wife opening and running out the door as the assailant grabs her hair, with the camera framing her face in a startling close-up. Cut then to the husband opening the door (in another apparent continuity error), and the killer following him as he walks out. It then cuts to a strange low angle shot of the wife stumbling out the door, with her white dress covering the screen for a seamless natural wipe into a shot about 180 degrees around, of the killer’s and wife’s feet stepping forward out of frame. In yet another continuity issue, the next shot frames the attacker in a blurry close-up with the open door behind him and the couple completely absent. The husband has his back against a wall in the next shot, while the subsequent shot cuts back to the killer shaking his head side to side in a vigorous, rabid motion. One of the more unforgettable images follows, with the wife jutting into the frame from its left side, only to be pulled in and out of it by the man who is messily murdering her. After two more shots of this repeated action, we see the axe propped against a log and cut to a reverse eyeline match of the husband who recognizes its presence. So does the killer, as Kirsanoff cuts to him in a grinning close-up. The two men wrestle in the next shot, which then cuts on action to the husband’s hand reaching for the weapon in a close-up of the axe. About four more back-and-forth shots like this repeat, and then we see the bloodied wife in a close-up, reaching out her hand and pleading for her life. The most memorable image — the extreme close-up of the husband and his agape gaze of terror — soon follows, as does a still, high contrast image of the axe held high in the air. We then see the killer hack away, only to disappear through the bottom of the frame where our imagination finishes the rest.
This all times in at right under 40 seconds, with 34 shots, making an average shot length of 1.17 seconds. The swift editing overwhelms the viewer with the power of these images, while the increasing acceleration of cuts builds tension. Kirsanoff communicates ideas both simple and profound through the “assembly of [the] elements” “of montage” (20). Cutting back and forth, multiple times, from door to doorknob demonstrates the time it takes to open the door; the escalating speed of these cuts, as well as the confused swirl of limbs behind the windowpane, instills in the viewer the desperation this husband and wife must have felt. With the exception of the quick still image of the raised axe, the editing in the opening sustains its invisibility and only seeks to communicate a subjective perspective of a violent event, in hopes that this scene will arrest the viewer. Technical limitations may have stripped dissolves and double exposure from the opening, but the disjointed barrage of this opening scene (rife with perhaps purposeful continuity errors) infuses a nightmarish quality that is achieved through its montage style above all other factors.
But just as some dreams frighten us with confusion and speed, others wring us of energy through lingering images and sensations. Kirsanoff inverts the montage technique in several key scenes, placing one image over another. These overlaps span a breath of time to numerous seconds, with the intent to convey internal character struggle. There are a few, more stylistic touches in this vein, such as when the girls leave home and head for the city: A continued shot of a long, tree-studded dirt road holds steady while the subject — the girls — of the image transports down the road in a series of jump cuts masked by long dissolves. The same technique casts the younger sister and her rapist across his apartment in an effort to expedite narrative and establish an unsettling mood to his abode.
Multiple pre-Vertov city montages with a liberal use of superimposition occur throughout Ménilmontant; the most powerful sequence would be when the younger sister walks by the river with her illegitimate child. An unsettling point of view shot drifting alongside a concrete sidewalk barrier, focusing on its sharp edges before panning left to reveal the lethal tides just yards away, commences this series. Kirsanoff cuts to a reaction shot of the girl, who keeps on staring into the inviting waters as seen through POV pans down the stream and distorted close-ups of the waves. A shot of the water then lays over a close-up of the girl throughout a lengthy dissolve; as she closes her eyes, the frame becomes solely hers once more. Her exact immoral fantasy remains unclear, — Does she want to throw herself into the water? Her baby? — but the potential of utilizing the river weighs down on her, quite literally, through editing. As her baby wails and she puts her ear to the child in a vain attempt for comprehension, the city begins to meld into her torment. Double (and often greater) exposure centers a close-up of the girl in the frame as blurs of cars and faceless pedestrians layer over. An even closer shot of the girl seamlessly follows as the frenetic metropolitan superimposition continues. Kirsanoff goes so far as to take the girl out of the frame completely and let us see and — through Paul Mercer’s eerie music — hear her agony, one steeped by rape, murder, betrayal and abandonment. An innocuous establishing shot of a bridge now deforms into an indictment of modernity and the toll it takes on the innocent and vulnerable. The girl walks dejectedly through the city as these thoughts continue to wash over and fight within her. What is a nightmare to us cements as a cold, harsh reality to this girl. She wants to wake up from it all but cannot, for the only escape is ending herself, once and for all.
In Ménilmontant, Kirsanoff balances his homeland’s established editing school with a new one very much his own. The “collision” of moving images rooted in Soviet theory creates a bloody collision of axe and human skin, as well as all the victims’ fears piling up until that final point. Superimposition of disparate visual icons expresses one young girl’s inner pain and its underlying cause. Despite colliding these techniques not only in the same film but also often in the same scene, Kirsanoff builds a consistent, surreal mystique to the whole film. Ménilmontant hits so close to home, so often, that the dreamlike feel teeters on raw realism. When that sick awareness creeps upon you, however, it is wise to pinch yourself and be thankful you have the option to walk out of the theater.