Menilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

I am teaching a seminar entitled “Global Silent Cinema” next semester.  This course will introduce students to the eccentricities and complexities of cinema’s first three decades. Each week will be guided by a different concept (e.g. language, narrative, the archive, etc.).

I am just starting to make my way through a long list of possible films for the course.  I recently rescreened Ménilmontant, Dmitri Kirsanoff’s intertitle-less short from 1926, and made a first pass at gathering together the work that’s been done on the film.  Much of this writing focuses on the film’s experimental narrative form.  Richard Abel argues that the film is structured by series of losses and substitutions. Richard Prouty pivots from this claim to read the film’s spatial and narrative economies:

“What distinguishes Kirsanoff and his fellow avant-garde filmmakers from the commercial cinema is their characters’ resistance to identifying with bourgeois subjectivity (identified by the figure of the consumer) and the filmmakers’ refusal to hide the mediating quality of commercial narrative forms.  They present a reverse image of the utopian arcades: space is alienating, intersubjectivity understanding is thwarted, and the micronarratives remain distinct from each other and unresolved. […] Menilmontant is a film about desire but not pleasure.  If there is any substance to the characters, it is the stamp of trauma that resists integration into the signifying chains organized by reified subjectivity and conventional narrative forms.  The spectator’s desire heads toward a death delivered by closure, but it is a death without the mastery of stimuli.  In essence we are traumatized ourselves, forever unable to reconcile our totalizing desire for happy endings and our shock at the senseless violence that concludes the film.” [i]

Prouty’s essay is worth a read.  He does a lovely job of thinking Menilmontant‘s narrative structure against the rhythms of commodity culture and commercial cinema.  That said, I find his slide from the film’s visual/narrative shocks to the shocks of spectatorship unconvincing.  I also think (non-narrative) pleasure deserve a bit more attention.  Part Man Ray, part city cinema, part Eisensteinian montage.  While Menilmontant may not be about pleasure, it is one of the most (visually, rhythmically, sensorily) pleasurable films of the 1920s.

It likewise seems important to consider the waves of inter-war immigration that constituted both Kirsanoff as a filmmaker (he moved to Paris from Estonia in the 1920s)
and Menilmontant (the neighborhood) as an alternative to the arcade model of city space and bourgeois consumption.

[i] “The Well Furnished Interior of the Masses: Kirsanoff’s Menilmontant and the Streets of Paris,” Cinema Journal 36, no. 1 (Fall 1996): 14.

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