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As he had in J'Accuse (1919), Abel Gance introduced astonishing advances in cinematic art with his next work, La Roue (1923). His fellow French filmmaker Jean Cocteau was so impressed with the film's expressive power that he declared, "There is cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso." Gance's advancement of sophisticated film editing techniques and the use of montage were especially remarkable -- and so impressive that Russian directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin traveled to France to personally thank him for opening their eyes to new possibilities.
Like its predecessor, La Roue is a tragic story of tortured love whose emotions come alive through Gance's imaginative genius. Sisif (Sverin-Mars), a railroad engineer, adopts an orphan girl Norma (Ivy Close) and raises her as his daughter, along with his own son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone). As young adults, the two fall in love, but Norma has been promised to another man. A fight between the two suitors ends in Elie's death, and the embittered Sisif blames Norma for his loss. As the years pass, however, and Sisif loses his eyesight, the relationship between him and his adopted daughter takes an unexpected turn.
Gance had spent six months on the script for La Roue and an additional year shooting on location at railroad yards in Nice and the Alps. On the day he finished filming, his second wife (from a common-law marriage), Ida Danis, succumbed to tuberculosis. He mourned during a trip to the U.S., where he met D.W. Griffith. Inspired by this meeting, he then returned to France for an additional year of editing on his film. At the film's beginning Gance quotes Victor Hugo: "Creation is a Great Wheel, which does not move without crushing someone." (The "Wheel" of the title refers to the wheel, or circle, of life.)
Another French director, Ren Clair, wrote that "La Roue is the perfect example of a film in the romantic spirit... You will find passages of an extraordinary lyricism, what one might call an inspired flow of the sublime and the grotesque."
In its original presentation La Roue was 32 reels long (nine hours) and required three evenings of viewing. After a few months Gance himself cut it to 12 reels. Still more cuts were made for foreign distribution (7-8 reels) and a 1928 revival. The film was not imported to the U.S. in theatrical form.
The restoration of La Roue, a Flicker Alley Digital Edition from the Blackhawk Films Collection, was completed by Eric Lange of Lobster Films. The reconstruction began with a 35mm master positive, a Russian print of the eight-reel version, two incomplete tinted nitrate prints of a longer French version and, finally, for two short but critical scenes, a four-reel abridged version released by Path on 9.5mm for home movie showing.
Conflating all this material, Lange edited and digitally restored a 20-reel version of beautiful pictorial quality that is by far the most complete edition of the film seen anywhere since 1923.
Producers: Abel Gance, Charles Path
Director/Screenplay: Abel Gance
Cinematography: Gaston Brun, Marc Bujard, Lonce-Henri Burel, Maurice Duverger
Film Editing: Marguerite Beaug, Abel Gance
Original Music: Arthur Honegger
Art Direction: Robert Boudrioz
Cast: Sverin-Mars (Sisif), Ivy Close (Norma), Gabriel de Gravone (Elie), Pierre Magnier (De Hersan), Max Maxudian (Le minralogiste Kalatikascopoulos).
Producers: Eric Lange, David Shepard
Associate Producer: Jeffery Masino
Digital Restoration and Editing: Eric Lange
English Titles: Lenny Forger, David Shepard
Music: Robert Israel Orchestra
by Roger Fristoe