San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2013: Day One – “Prix de Beauté”

prix-de-beaute-1930-04-gfive-starsThis year’s Silent Film Festival began with the charismatic beauty of G.W. Pabst‘s often used leading lady, Louise Brooks. The most famous films from this actor-director team are arguably Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Mrs. Brooks was not on hand for this screening (being that she’s dead and all), but her screen presence most certainly was – and boy, what a presence. Written by both Pabst, and René Clair, but directed by Augusto Genina, Prix de Beauté is a competent piece of silent filmmaking that when combined with the live score of the single handed multi-instrument orchestrating wonder that is, Stephen Horne, left me with a resonating profound impression of the film.

The story revolves around Lucienne (Brooks), a typist who dreams of being crowned Miss France. On a whim, and against her boyfriend’s wishes, she enters the contest and not only does she win the title of Miss France, she wins the title of Miss Europe as well. I should mention here that the winner of the beauty contest is the one who garners the loudest applause, and not only did Lucienne receive the loudest applause from those on screen, but she received it from those off screen as well.

As the Catstro Theatre broke into applause, matching the action on screen, I, sitting in the center of this silent film palace (Castro Theatre was built in 1922) could not help but feel as though I had just traveled back in time to when silents ruled the theatres. Talk about being immersed in a picture. This moment was indeed the most festive part of the festival, more so than any after party, or film related event that I’ve been to all year as well.

Almost immediately after being declared Europe’s prettiest woman Lucienne is swept up into a world of riches where Kings, Princes, and other upper echelon types fall head over heels for her. Really, can you blame them? Brooks is now in a fantastical fairy tale of sorts, and like most fairy tales one expects there to be an evil character figure whose existence is for no other purpose than to prevent our protagonist from living happily ever after. This character is Lucienne’s husband, André (played coldly by Georges Charlia) whose inability to distinguish his controlling behavior is the driving force behind the film’s antagonism.

Without spoiling the film, even though it is 83 years old and probably well past the imaginary statute of limitations set for spoiling a plot, I will say that the tonal shift of the last act along with the tragic ending is one of the most beautiful and satisfying conclusions of a silent era film that I have ever seen. Granted, my silent film watching is not as extensive as other eras and genres of cinema, but it’s still impressive nevertheless.

A very satisfying plot is not all the film has going for it. Subdued acting throughout, particularly from the lead, Brooks, added strong believability and sincerity to the story. That, when combined with an opening act of documentary style camera work, wherein the action constantly and infectiously encompasses the frame, a shadowy pre-noir suspense laden third act, and a tragically poignant resolution make Prix de Beauté a highly memorable and joyous experience.

I love this festival! Can’t wait for day two.

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Categories: Reviews, Silent Film Festival

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