Silent Night

You are currently viewing Silent Night
  • Post author:

On Charles Vanel’s Dans la nuit

Charles Vanel was one of the most prolific French actors of his or any time. His career spanned more than 75 years (1910 to 1988) and comprises nearly 200 credits, though he is perhaps best known for his role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece The Wages of Fear (1953). His performance as Mr. Jo, one of the desperate men in the film tasked with transporting an unstable shipment of nitroglycerin through treacherous terrain somewhere in South America, won him a recognition for Best Actor in Cannes, where the film also won the Grand Prize (the Palme d’Or did not yet exist) before it went on to win the Golden Bear in Venice. 

Several years before this international recognition, Vanel had taken part in another hazardous journey, that of cinema’s rapid and inexorable transformation from silent films to sound. At a point where many of his contemporaries saw their careers turned to dust almost overnight, the actor navigated this bumpy road without even slowing down his output. His extensive stage work and pleasant gravelly voice in fact helped make him a recognisable presence in the sound era. It seems a particularly bitter irony, then, that Vanel’s sole feature directorial effort was undermined by the very same technological changes that brought him so much success in front of the camera. 

Shot in late 1929, Dans la nuit was released in 1930 and all but ignored in favour of films that made use of the then-new technology. “It was one of the last silent films,” Vanel later explained, “it was ready in time for the release of sound films. I was told ‘we won’t release this now, we’ll keep it aside, because sound films — there are only about 3 or 4 of them on the market, it will stop soon.’ Well, it didn’t stop, and my film stayed there.” As passé as it may have appeared at the time, however, silent filmmaking in Vanel’s hands was an incredibly modern and surprising artform. The restoration overseen by the Institut Lumière in Lyon reveals a film that doesn’t represent the dying gasps of an artform on its way out, so much as it does a complete mastery of all the tools that this medium, in its entirely visual and purest form, provides. 

The absence of spoken dialogue (and very minimal use of on-screen text) helps sever the adherence between film-time and real-time, which allows Dans la nuit to work on a wide array of different scales, speeds, and levels of reality, moving from one to the next with thrilling ease. This is hardly unique to Vanel’s film, but the director makes particularly potent use of this malleability to play with our own perceptions of what kind of story we are being told, what genre it unfolds in, whose perspective we are given to see and share, and more; though the story may be straightforward, Vanel tells it with a creativity that indicates an artist excited by the possibilities of the medium. 

After the tranquil opening credits, with slow crossfades between each bit of text, a shot shows smoke rolling away to reveal a man in a room, wearing work clothes. In the next shot, he approaches a window, and we then proceed to see the mine he supposedly works at from all kinds of angles in a frenetic succession of awe-inspiring images: workers cutting harsh figures against the outside light; machines working relentlessly to carry rocks out of a hole in the mountain; a stunning tracking shot from inside a trolley, filming the view as it transitions from the light outside to the profound darkness of the mine. The rapid cuts, the sheer power on display, the visible effort expended by men covered in soot — all gives the impression of a harsh world where man may triumph over nature, but not without putting his all into the task. 

It’s an ominous start, one that makes what comes next all the more unexpected and welcome. One worker holding on to a trolley dragging him up a hill suddenly steps off and breaks into a run, his colleagues stopping to stare in surprise. The man, already euphoric, heads straight for a stream where he takes off his shirt and washes his face. He is clearly in a hurry, and after running to the changing room, sets about putting on his fancy clothes. After an intertitle stating “meanwhile…”, we finally see the reason for his unusual behaviour: a bride (Sandra Milovanoff) and groom (Charles Vanel himself) are standing outdoors behind a beautifully decorated table and drinking champagne; it seems they are waiting for more guests to join them, including our intrepid and well-dressed miner. More shots reveal a few people already arrived, wearing their best Sunday clothes: two women in their seats turning around to look at the happy couple; some old men playing cards, one of them a sore loser; kids listening to an accordeonist and giggling. Vanel then intercuts shots of the man getting ready — his colleagues gently teasing him, one of them eventually helping him tie his bowtie — with more shots of the married couple and their guests, all drinking and being merry. 

Highlighting the playfulness of the workers, pointing out the funny little scenes that emerge at the wedding party — Vanel looks beyond the given, economic dynamics of this small mining town to focus on the exceptions, the things that shouldn’t be there, the life and love that exist despite the difficult, dangerous, stern reality of such a place. Much of the film’s power stems from this intelligence, this ability to see the place in a nuanced and generous way which allows for both its beauty and its abrasive qualities, for the seriousness of a job well done and the casual silliness that can exist between work colleagues and during village celebrations (Vanel’s father lived for a long time in Boyeux-Saint-Jérôme, one of the two communes where the film was shot). To the gentle teasing of the miners and the lighthearted atmosphere at the party, Vanel even adds jokes of his own: one shot of the miner getting dressed pans down to reveal his naked legs, before the next shot from the wedding party shows this time a woman’s bare legs, as she stands on a stool to hang decorations handed to her by a man who sure is delighted to be of help. 

As the miner then rushes to get to the party, running past a crowd of workers on their way home before hopping onto a horse-drawn carriage, his chaotic journey stands in some contrast with the more relaxed and relatively more elegant goings on at the wedding. One particular tracking shot of the assembled guests, the camera gliding from left to right and back along the large table, seems worthy of Scorsese and similarly captures both the ceremony and the cheery, messy atmosphere of the gathering. A montage sequence once the man arrives lets Vanel demonstrate more of his knack for striking images and his eye for endearing detail. Shots of the couple and their guests exclaiming with delight at each subsequent dish brought out by the chef — a big roasted chicken, a mountain of profiteroles — are separated with fades to black suggesting the passing of time, and close ups on the accordion which never seems to stop playing all throughout the celebration. Vanel films people dancing, but also seated guests’ feet under the table, all moving in time with the unheard music — though the film may be silent, it isn’t without a beat. A score was commissioned for its first restoration in 2002 from French jazz musician Louis Sclavis, but the new version now touring festivals is accompanied by a different live score at every screening. Beyond recalling the live accompaniments of cinema’s early days and turning every projection into a unique, completely unrepeatable experience, this bold conceit also feels like a belated and sly revenge on the promises of sound cinema; modern films’ ready-made offerings sure seem rather stale in comparison.

Dans la nuit is a foreboding title, and things do not remain all so rosy throughout the film, to say the least. The first sign of trouble is almost no sign at all, which only makes it more unsettling. After the couple and their closest wedding guests set off in a horse-drawn carriage covered in ribbons, singing all throughout their journey, they arrive in a busy town square where a fair and its attractions appear to have taken temporary residence. There the elation of the day takes on, with the images crafted by Vanel and cinematographer Georges Asselin (who would go on to shoot Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)), an almost abstracted and effervescent quality. We can feel the wine and champagne have now really gone to the heads of all involved as husband, wife, family and friends get off the carriage — Vanel even speeding up the footage here — and make their way through the crowd. Vanel elegantly and poetically suggests that heads are starting to spin by having his characters literally get on a merry-go-round, on individual swings, and finally on a swing ride, with grins on their faces. But in the middle of all this joy are hints of trouble, just a few images that shouldn’t be there — some people with spooky caricature masks who stop the couple in the crowd to throw confetti on them, the blurry and unsmiling faces of strangers passing by from the merry-go-round. Most upsetting of all: the bride at one point begins to feel dizzy on the swing, at which point Vanel cuts to a man staring at her from the side. He lets out a sigh before he is pulled away by his friend, whose whole manner of looking at the scene sideways gives the entire situation an air of threat. As soon as they are gone, she recovers her smile. 

Although Dans la nuit is only 75 minutes long, Vanel packs the whole array of human emotion in its runtime. The wedding party’s journey home, which could have been covered in a second, here is the occasion for a stunning evocation of the wistful mood that sets it around sunset and the pleasurable exhaustion at the end of a full day of genuine celebration. As the characters calm down, so does the film itself, the shots lasting longer and taking in the beauty of the surroundings, as though the film too was in a daze. Finally home, the new couple embrace tenderly, and after a fright from some friends drunkenly checking on the two lovers — a bad omen so soon after the bride’s fainting spell at the fair — she lays in her husband’s arms. A shot on Vanel’s face crossfades into a shot of hers; they have never been so close. Finally, she falls asleep.  

“Love – trust – happiness – months pass by…” reads an intertitle, the text interposed over a shot of a luxuriant meadow. Indeed in the next scene, the wife pushes her husband onto the bed as he gets ready for work, and covers him with kisses; he gently fights her off, actually waving his finger at her. Part of what makes Dans la nuit so charming is its conception of marriage as one big party, not a contract made of duty and sacrifices but something fun, where both parties are allowed to enjoy themselves and even to enjoy having sex. Before the husband sets off to the mine with a spring in his step, a stunning tracking shot follows the two of them from the hallway onto the landing outside. The shot is repeated later on in the film, though in a completely different context, and one thing that makes Dans la nuit such a triumph is Vanel’s understanding of the power of such repeated visual motifs to underline just how sad and tragic the changes that have come in between really are. 

The shots that follow, showing various men working in the mine, echo the film’s opening scene and seem at first to evolve in the same mood of serious concentration and the same atmosphere of controlled danger. It turns out they do not: a mistake leads one of the workers to trigger an explosion too early, trapping Vanel’s character under the debris. The sequence of the lead up to the disaster is so well constructed that it is hard to believe Vanel had never directed a film before. Besides expertly establishing the geography of the incident, Vanel also beautifully handles the two scales of action at play, namely that of human beings (including the little girl who innocently causes the tragedy) and that of the mountain, a huge geological formation blown up to smithereens by men yet still a danger to them. 

The husband is eventually dug up from the rubble, and after weeks away at the hospital, we see him back home. His poor wife is anxious but also terrified: her husband’s face is almost entirely covered in bandages. This is another sad echo of an earlier happy moment, where he playfully startled her with his face covered in shaving cream — an uncanny poetic repetition. Vanel leans into the Gothic quality of the image, with this bandaged man barely moving and his lover almost shaking in terror. The film falls close to body horror when she removes his bandages to reveal that one side of his face is badly disfigured: we see the change plainly, and the makeup is very convincing. The wife laughs uncontrollably, terror still visible in her eyes; her husband, too, is shocked. He resolves to lie in bed, with a terrifying fabric bag over his head, with only holes for the eyes. It may still be preferable, however, to the silver half-mask he then decides to wear every day. With its frozen expression, it looks just like a death mask and makes him seem like a man only partly returned from the dead. The only thing that softens that impression is the husband’s apologetic demeanour: he is ashamed of the way he looks. His wife can see it, but struggles to hide her fear. The story here seems to take on the quality of a fable, the realistic depiction of life in this mining village making way for a more tragic and existential story of two people united by a terrible, almost surreal tragedy. 

Vanel however does not abandon the emotional and psychological realism and maturity that have so far made his characters so endearingly human. Although the wife eventually abandons herself into the arms of her husband, the director/writer is keen to highlight that the couple’s life isn’t just forever changed: it is also changed differently for each side of that marriage. The husband has no choice but to continue this life as best he can; his wife, however, is only bound to it by her vows. Vanel’s decision to shift the film’s focus to her side of the story — and to do so almost imperceptibly, at the pivotal moment of the incident — demonstrates once again the sophistication and intelligence of his storytelling, his ability to find where the tension truly lies without falling into cheap sentimentalism. 

He does not portray the woman’s sorrow as her revealing her true, previously hidden nature, or as an unforgivable betrayal. Instead, the film makes her terrible sadness acutely felt, sharing in all the nuances of her state of mind just like it previously showed all the waves of emotions from the couple’s wedding day; from the atmosphere of the village-wide celebration, to the dynamics of a united couple, we then enter into the mind of a single character. With her husband now working the night shift — Dans la nuit — so as to avoid being seen, she spends her days alone while he sleeps. She can never stray far in case he wakes up and needs her help, which condemns her to a lonely existence. He is still in considerable pain — one heartbreaking shot shows him struggling to breathe and stopping on his road to work, sitting down with his back to the camera then taking off his mask just for a minute, under cover of darkness. The tracking shot of the two of them walking to the landing outside their front door is repeated, but this time it is night, and when he moves to kiss her, she looks down to avoid him, sorry and ashamed. 

Many plot synopses for the film state that the wife flirts with another man. While this would be if not excusable, then at least understandable under such circumstances, the situation is in fact more nuanced than that and, once again, paints the wife as an altogether more complex and honourable individual. She does not flirt then set off with that man — in reality, she returns the stranger’s look once, and he seems to take this as a hint that he can show up to her house unannounced, right after her husband has gone to work, and ask her to run away with him! Vanel’s filmmaking and Sandra Milovanoff’s shockingly realistic performance highlight the wife’s confusion and torment, and the fact that her ultimate decision to go away with the stranger is based on her own despair rather on whatever qualities this person may possess.They are embracing, but she isn’t thinking about him at all: with her face behind his shoulder and her eyes looking up, she is dreaming, fantasising about an imaginary happy life she could have. She is desperate, tears rolling down her cheeks, and once she accepts the man’s offer to run away with him she is eager to leave as fast as possible. She wants to outrun her guilt and doubts. 

But they must wait — there are kids playing outside. Vanel has already shown the woman take a last look at her house, and the life she has decided to abandon, but now she is forced to stew in her feelings of guilt for a few more unbearable minutes — the director again emphasising the weight of his characters’ actions on their conscience. Her new beau, meanwhile, is intrigued by one of the silver masks hanging off a shelf, which compounds her distress even more. When he puts it on, she is terribly frightened — when her husband, wearing his own mask, walks in on them, she becomes petrified. 

The image of the two nearly identical men (there is no doubt Vanel cast the other actor due to their resemblance) wearing those spooky, bright half-faces is terrifying beyond its narrative significance here; it seems the apotheosis of the film’s poetic project. The men come to blows, until one of them accidentally kills the other: the husband lays inert on the ground. What happens afterwards has, both for the audience and for the wife, the quality of a waking nightmare. The new couple decide to bring the body up to the mine where they can throw it in a large body of water. On their way there, the woman’s eyes are constantly darting around them, anxiously checking that nobody is watching, and she looks almost wild as she crouches and runs between the trees — she already seems profoundly changed by the experience of doing such horrible, unimaginable things. Once the deed is done, the new couple slowly amble home in a daze, as though the adrenaline in the lead up to the mine had now left their bodies tired and depleted. The lover throws himself at the living room table, exhausted by his effort, and immediately falls asleep. The wife, however, stays up all night. Vanel’s eye for the natural ebb and flow of emotions and sensations, which also served him as an actor, is once again on display. 

Dans la nuit has more twists in store, one of which is widely disliked by many who feel it takes away much of the film’s power. On the contrary, it seems to me a very bold, almost meta idea, bringing to the fore the way in which silent cinema allows a film to imperceptibly slip between registers, between reality and dreams, between one perspective and another, leaving us to wonder what it is we’ve just seen. Vanel’s directorial efforts continued with just one more film, a short titled Affaire Classée from 1932. But his sole feature film as director already suggests a filmmaker with a vivid imagination, a willingness to experiment that matched the possibilities of the medium, and a rare ability to look beyond the trends of his time. 

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.