Home Video Hovel: The House of Mystery, by Scott Nye
Though Flicker Alley has elected not to go this route, the subtitle for their recent release of the ten-part The House of Mystery could very well be, “So You Think You Know French Silent Serials!” Not that this is a total break from the genre – it still involves murder, intrigue, disguises, romance, and a decent share of cliffhangers. But rather than use one plot to launch a thousand ships, as could often be the case, The House of Mystery essentially follows one story the whole time, taking more the form of a novel (it was, indeed, adapted from one, by Jules Mary) or the modern HBO mini-series. The result has astounding breadth, encompassing nearly twenty years in the life of one family trying to deal with the ramifications of a single act of violence.
Julien (Ivan Mosjoukine) and Régine (Hélène Darly) are deeply, passionately in love; their courtship and marriage are as beautiful and romantic as the screen has ever seen. Their happiness is only compounded with the arrival of their daughter. But Julien’s stalwart associate, Henri (Charles Vanel), covets his neighbor’s wife, and convinces his friend that she and her frequent visitor and lifelong benefactor, Marjory (the mononymous Bertkevitch), have less than honorable relations. Suddenly, Marjory is found dead, and while the community fingers Julien for it, we see the larger plot – that Henri has found a way to get Julien out of the picture and have Régine all to himself!
The particular twists and turns that take place over the six-and-a-half-hour journey (each episode runs between 25 and 45 minutes) engross emotionally as much as they do narratively. Yes, it is gripping to see our hero escape from prison or suddenly thrown off a cliff; more haunting is to watch him go to war, or see his face as he watches his family have a pleasant Sunday without him. The world keeps turning around this family, and the social and political movements are never far enough outside their plush estate to allow their private drama to remain their sole occupation.
Mosjoukine, probably most famous now as the face of the Kuleshov effect, was a Russian émigré and major star of French silent cinema; that he receives a writing credit on The House of Mystery is indication enough of his stature. The film gives him plenty to do, from wide-eyed youth to mournful man, assuming any number of disguises along the way that would convince us as well as they do the other characters, were it not for his terribly expressive eyes always in view (at least one of them, anyway).
Director Alexandre Volkoff, a fellow émigré and the cowriter of this film, has similarly not held an outstanding reputation as the decades have worn on, but this is enough to urge deeper investigation. This is easily the most nimble achievement of this kind I’ve ever seen, wildly changing and reconfiguring stylistic approaches to what all remains a unified story. The first episode, at times, resembles the cut-out figure cinema of Lotte Reiniger, whole sequences purely achieved with shapes and silhouettes. He doesn’t even introduce tinting until the third. Towards the middle, when Julien is at his lowest, it takes on a social realist bend.
Flicker Alley presents the film on DVD for the very first time, utilizing a new restoration by the Cinematheque française. I know my fellow home video enthusiasts will mourn the absence of a Blu-ray option, and I don’t know what decisions lead to this being DVD-only, but in any event, it looks truly spectacular, better than any number of high-definition releases, showing once again that it’s not always the format that matter, but how you use it. Depth, contrast, and detail are all superb, grain is nicely rendered, and while there’s understandably some damage on this neglected 90-plus-year-old film, this is remarkably complete.
The release just won an award for Best DVD at the esteemed Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival, with good cause. You don’t get much in the way of supplements – just a short booklet and a gallery of production stills – but the mere fact of releasing this is such a triumph in and of itself that such quibbles are quite minor. This is a vital, thrilling piece of silent cinema, and I am ecstatic that it is now available for all to view.