Visages d’Enfants

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Here is my (slightly modified) review of Visages d’Enfants, as published in Issue 2 of Take One’s special publication for the British Silent Film Festival in April (the review is on the last page). It’s a film which was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

Thankfully, the journey of discovery for cinema lovers is one that never ends, and is a road occasionally marked by particularly significant milestones, such as coming across a film that is truly extraordinary. Courtesy of the British Silent Film Festival, I was privileged to find one of these cinematic treasures, when they presented Jacques Feyder’s lyrical and moving 1925 silent film, Visages d’Enfants, complete with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

The story concerns a sensitive young boy, grief-stricken by the death of his mother. When his father remarries, the boy finds it difficult to adjust to his new family, which now includes a step mother and step sister. As the title suggests, Feyder’s chief interest is to develop the story from the childrens’ point of view: the camera often carefully observing their faces as they react to the adult world around them, or picking out the small but significant details they observe in their surroundings. Feyder is keen to avoid over sentimentality, encouraging delightfully naturalistic performances from the the young actors. The beautifully photographed dramatic mountain landscape in which the story unfolds provides a counterpoint to the small unfolding domestic drama, while reflecting the immense personal impact of the grief felt by the characters.

Neil Brand’s masterful, finely judged accompaniment emphasised the deep humanity of the film, while never overpowering it. His sensitivity to the nuances of the story meant that he always found the perfect melodic motif, the most effective modulation of key, and the most authentically appropriate harmonic colour to exactly match the needs of the onscreen drama. At one point, for instance, a family friend breaks the news to the boy that his father is to remarry. Neil subtly underlined the scene with a motif consisting of a simple repeated note and used this as the building block for his improvisation throughout the scene. It was an elegantly precise musical expression of the uncertainty and awkwardness felt by the characters.

This screening was a wonderful, deeply touching experience, a clear demonstration of just how powerful an art form silent cinema can be. For me, this was one of those great cinematic moments and is surely destined to be amongst the highlights of my cinematic year.

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