Film Review
By Ray Young




La Terre

Directed by André Antoine. Based on the novel by Émile Zola, adapted by Mr. Antoine. Cinematography by René Guichard and René Gaveau. Assistant directors: Gorges Denola and Julien Duvivier. Score composed by Adrian Johnston. With Armand Bour, René Alexandre, Germaine Rouer, Jean Hervé, and Milo. 97 minutes, released in 1921.


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    Between 1917 and 1922, less than six years, André Antoine (1858–1943) directed nearly a dozen pictures. But filmmaking was only a brief concern for him, and he’s generally unnoticed in the history of cinema. The restoration and DVD release of La Terre (1921), however, may soon correct this unfortunate oversight.
    During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Antoine was a seminal figure in French theatre, working as director, critic, and manager of the Théâtre Libre and the Théâtre Antoine. As recounted in Jean Chothia’s career biography, André Antoine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), and Antoine’s own Memories of the Théâtre Libre (Florida: University of Miami Press, 1964), his goal was to replace the stiff theatrical posturing common of the day with realism in both acting and staging. His experiments in cinema were simply an extension of this desire for convincing humanist drama.
    After bringing several Émile Zola novels to the stage, Antoine’s attraction to La Terre made an inspired choice for the screen. Screenwriters and directors have long been fascinated by Zola’s recurring themes of humiliation and ruination, and a few of his stories — Germinal, La Bête Humaine and Nana — have been filmed many times. Considering its provincial setting and unrefined characters, though, Zola’s La Terre lends itself especially to Antoine’s practicality.
    Set in the plain of Beauce, near Chartres, France, La Terre (“the earth”) begins at the twilight of Père Fouan’s (Armand Bour) career as a farmer. After he and his wife make arrangements for their retirement, and divide the sizeable property among their grown children, uncertainties begin to develop. In keeping with Zola’s comprehension of human nature, greed, callousness, and self-centeredness erode the family unit. The children, their spouses and offspring gradually turn on Fouan, spirit away his money and possessions, and exile him to the soil. “Only the earth is immortal,” wrote Zola, “the mother from whom we all spring and to whom we all return.”
    There is a notation on the DVD explaining that this version of the film — taken from the sole surviving copy — is incomplete. But transitory gaps cannot diminish the sweep of the narrative nor the ingenuity of its execution. While Zola effectively probes deteriorating morals, Antoine’s passing fancy as a film director belies his obvious comprehension of the medium. Filming on location with fledgling cinematographers René Guichard and René Gaveau, his rudimentary approach to neorealism includes economic tracking shots and pans that capture the primal spirit of the countryside. Remaining true to his principles, Antoine’s script balances cynicism with sincerity, objectivity with intimacy, and mature composure in the eye of a scenario so open for hyperbole.
    Not that La Terre is without broad incident. The actor Milo, playing Fouan’s alcoholic son, nicknamed Jésus-Christ, and Berthe Bovy as his daughter, Olympe, supply hostile comedy relief, a sarcastic means to redirect tension. And both Armand Bour and Jean Hervé (as the second son, Louis) periodically strain subtlety with pinched scowls. But René Alexandre and Germaine Rouer are quietly affecting as external characters watching the demise of the family. (It should be noted that the charismatic Rouer was also in Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires [1915], and was among the ‘cast of thousands’ in Sacha Guitry’s Affairs in Versailles [1954]. There’s a text interview with her on the La Terre DVD.)
    The years were physically unkind to La Terre, and it was poised to become a ‘lost’ film. Fortunately, Gosfilmofond of Russia preserved a copy, the last known print, in their archives. Restored by Photoplay Productions, in collaboration with the Royal Belgian Film Archive and the Cinémathèque Française, La Terre has been given an attractive DVD presentation by Milestone Films. It’s a wonderful introduction to an artist who would direct only one more film (an adaptation of Alphonse Daudet’s play, L’Arlésienne [1922]), before retiring from the cinema at the age of sixty-four. With any luck, this may inspire revivals of Antoine’s other pictures, as he clearly doesn’t deserve obscurity.