Rien que les Heures

Film Review by Dean Duncan Oct 21, 2014

Alberto Calvalcanti’s innovative film experiment is something of a city symphony, with detours. The city symphony was a staple of the documentary avant garde in the 1920s, providing formally precocious morn-til-midnight portraits of some great urban centre or other. This time it’s Paris, and Cavalcanti’s detours are about to become a very important departure for this genre.

By their very nature avant gardes and their adherents are contrarians. This often means being contrary to some previously stated opposition or objection; it may be that in some ways this film’s departures are difference for the sake of difference. Further, there was much of ambition and plain elation in these film circles at this time. This means that, Rien que les Heures being an experimental French film by a Brazilian surrealist, anything goes, or anything went.

But there is something more operating here than mere hi-jinx and high spirits. Mixing modes is standard modernist strategy, and here it bears considerable fruit. In addition to the city symphony’s customary propulsion and cinematic derring-do, Rien que les Heures pauses for some more extended narrative fragments. Though the city remains the subject here, Cavalcanti gives a few of its inhabitants much more than the usual cursory glance.

This film’s formalist flights are grounded in a measure of socio-economic specificity, or awareness. The sequence with the elderly lady is very effective in portraying compassion, the impulse toward it, and its workings. It does so, pointedly, from a helpless or non-intervening distance. This is more the preoccupation of the activist than the aesthetician. After taking note of it, what does one do about poverty? This same idea is approached or at least attempted in the not completely successful episode with the prostitute. Was it inspired by Dmitri Kirsanoff’s contemporaneous and very beautiful Ménilmontant? One of the most exciting things about exciting films is how they lead you to other sources, other sensibilities.

City symphonies didn’t tend to have climaxes as violent as this one. This particular Brazilian surrealist would, after all, go in to make one of the most heart-rending violent movies ever. That film, 1942’s Went the Day Well (q.v.), would achieve positively Homeric heights, and it further helps us to situate this earlier effort. The documentary sections in Rien que les Heures are more interesting than its tricks, except when the tricks are put in the service of its documentary sections. There is, for instance, that dinner sequence, where we pause on that diner’s plate, and then go backward to take a look at the labour that went into the preparation and delivery of the meal. This is not only a pleasing formal surprise, it’s also a striking informational and ideological one. An homage to, a loan from Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda (1924, etc.)? Perhaps, and also a reminder that this brave early work does rather go, galloping off madly in all directions.

Youth! Much critical impulse proceeds on the assumption that these kinds of inconsistency need to be corrected, even condemned. But must we? As with so many of these films at this period, Rien que les Heurs excites as much for what it promises as for what it delivers. Still, for all of that partiality, as well as the patent borrowing amidst strivings for originality, the results are both bracing and enjoyable.