Disgusted by the modern world, a famous astronomer retires to an observatory in the frozen wastes. He is forced to reconnect with society when he discovers a comet on a collision course for Earth. The news causes massive panic, and unscrupulous financiers seek to use the situation to their own advantage…
Abel Gance was a highly successful French filmmaker of the 1920s, whose modern reputation rests largely on silent epic ‘Napoleon’ (1927), a film so vast in scope that it required special projection equipment and a custom-made screen to show it. Nowadays, it’s a recognised classic, partly due to the director’s use of close ups and dolly shots; common film grammar now, of course, but almost unknown in the silent era. He even shot some scenes in colour and 3-D, although they were discarded later. Not surprisingly, the special screening arrangements prevented any commercial success on the continent and, on release in America, it was cut down considerably from its original running time of over 5 hours(!) and flopped. Hard. The upshot of all this was that, by the early 1930s, Gance no longer had the creative freedom he had enjoyed in his heyday, and that may go to explain this well-meaning but rather lifeless project.
This tale of the coming apocalypse focuses on the Novalik brothers; Martial (Victor Francen), a Nobel-prize winning stargazer and Jean (played by Gance himself) an aesthete and philosopher. Martial has achieved world renown but Jean prefers to live anonymously in poverty. He rejects the love of pretty blonde society gal Genevieve (Colette Darfeuil) because he knows that he is ‘born to suffer’ on behalf of mankind; something that provokes much staring off into the distance while looking vaguely constipated. Unfortunately, Darfeuil gets into the crosshairs of dastardly arms manufacturer Schomberg (Samson Fainsilber).
This is a curious, and rather dated story. On the plus side, Gance does not skimp on the concluding spectacle, and the mendacious behaviour of the authorities and big business ring all too true. Where the film fails is in the personal stories of its main protagonists. The self-sacrificing Jean is a ridiculously messianic figure; playing Jesus on the cross in a passion play, lying on his sick bed surrounded by white doves, and being stoned in the street when he tries to help a child. The fact that the director chose to cast himself in the role is an interesting choice, to say the least!
Elsewhere, the other main characters are one note; Francen the dedicated scientist, Fainsilber the dedicated capitalist, but there is one notable exception: Darfeuil’s apparent heroine. Hers is a problematic role. At first, she is dedicated to Gance’s martyr-in-waiting, vowing to wait for him even after he rejects her. Shortly after that, though, she’s flirting with Fainsilber at ritzy parties, much to the joy of her ambitious father (Jean D’Yd).
After one such encounter, he forces himself on her, and her father advocates she marry him to save the family from being disgraced! Not surprisingly, she runs away to join Team Francen and help in their efforts to get the word out about the upcoming Armageddon and prepare a new world for whoever might survive. This decision is reinforced by a vision of Gance on the cross. However, she soon gets bored with all that pesky office work, and runs back to rapist Fainsilber instead! Then she betrays him to Francen as the comet approaches! Women, eh? Just can’t make up their minds!
What also won’t sit too well with a modern audience is the slow pacing and some of the performances, which are ridiculously melodramatic at times. Similarly, some of Gance’s filmmaking techniques, although highly innovative at the time, now appear a little forced and crude. The climactic scenes are also of their time; there’s lots of drinking as the final hours approach but not nearly as much fornication as you would expect. Still, it was 1931, l suppose.
A seriously dated spectacle, with undoubted historical value but offering little in the way of entertainment.