PRINT November 2016


Paul Meyer’s Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre

Paul Meyer, Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre (From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom), 1960, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.

THE ANNALS OF NEOREALISM must now account for an emergent classic, Paul Meyer’s Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre (From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom, 1960), shown only sporadically during the more than half-century since it was made, often miscategorized as a documentary, and finally surviving as a single worn 35-mm print and a damaged camera negative, from which the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique has managed to produce a revelatory restoration. Few discoveries rewrite film history, but From the Branches should at the very least force an auspicious entry into the inventory of unheralded masterpieces and compel us to consider what its director might have accomplished had the movie achieved the canonical status it so urgently deserves.

The appalling saga of the film’s production makes its reappearance all the more miraculous. Meyer was commissioned by the Belgian Ministry of Education to make a propaganda short portraying the effortless integration of the children of immigrant workers in the Borinage, the blighted coal-mining district in Wallonia, particularly that of the Italians who had arrived en masse after their government signed a bilateral treaty to ensure energy supplies to fuel Italy’s postwar “economic miracle.” The director quickly realized that the truth was hardly so uplifting and that only a fictional feature using locals and nonprofessional actors would do the subject justice. Aghast at the result, the government funders accused Meyer of misusing public money and insisted he pay back every franc, thereby hobbling his future career. From the Branches portends many films, including Quebecois documentarian Pierre Perrault’s imminent Île-aux-Coudres trilogy (1962–68) and, decades later, the social realist cinema of Meyer’s admirers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; nevertheless, the prescient work bore little but bitter reprisal for its maker, who was forced into television to survive and never made another film for theatrical release.

Combining the eye of van Gogh, who wrested grisaille beauty from the Borinage’s sooty skies and grim interiors, with the poetics and leftist politics of Meyer’s compatriot Henri Storck and the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, directors of the landmark documentary about a 1932 mining strike, Misère au Borinage (1933), the starkly eloquent From the Branches turns coal-mine trailings and abject workers’ quarters into a terrain of privation, where silicosis abounds and a slag heap serves as a playground for the children: They skitter down the obsidian hills on metal griddles and race across a smoldering landscape that, recalling the volcanic topography of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), belches jets of steaming stench. (The secretary general of the Belgian Communist Party complained that the film was too pessimistic and asked Meyer why he hadn’t placed flowerpots on the miners’ windowsills.) Though From the Branches’ Neorealist fresco portrays the lives of many immigrants, it concentrates on a Sicilian family, the Sannas, who arrive just as the mines are about to close, and on the lonely fates of an unmarried older worker, Domenico Mescolini, who ended up in the colliery after being expelled from Marseilles in 1939 as an illegal docker, and Valentino Gentili, an adolescent whose father died in the mines and who lives with his mostly absent uncle. (The boy’s sullen isolation, lack of familial affection, and casual cruelty as he first pets, then pelts, a pregnant cat with stones suggest a precursor to Bresson’s Mouchette.)

So elegant is From the Branches’ black-and-white cinematography (the accelerating rearward tracking shot in the precredit sequence, which frames Domenico between narrow sidewalks whose loitering families recall Paul Strand’s famous 1953 photo of the Lusetti clan, announces the film’s surprising aestheticism) that one cannot but rue the ill fortune that kept its cinematographer, Freddy Rents, obviously a genius at camera placement, from a major career. After the credits—which appear in lowercase script, reflecting the film’s modesty, and are accompanied by a haunting Italian folk song—Meyer and Rents follow that showy track with a long fixed shot of two men at night waiting for a train. One of them, the mine owner, muses on the influx of Italians, and when the Sanna family finally arrives from Palermo, From the Branches uncannily predicts the similar arrival of Rocco and his Sicilian brothers in midwinter Milan (though it is Vittorio De Seta and not Luchino Visconti with whom Meyer shares his Neorealist affinities).

Edited with soft and lap dissolves, symmetrically structured by Domenico’s initial approach and final departure, From the Branches appears expansive despite its temporal compression. Meyer’s bracing sensibility renders every commonplace unconventional: A Belgian blonde’s flirtation with Geppino, the eldest Sanna son, at a village dance curtly avoids cliché, and a little boy’s theft of two fish from a monger’s cart is transformed into anticlerical comedy when a gaunt, black-robed priest adjures the child to join him on a pilgrimage up a tufted hill to visit a cross and ends up with a herring in his hat. (The diagonal composition in which a goat in lower-right frame appears to aim its muzzle at the cross in upper left accentuates this Buñuelian moment.)

In the film’s moving final sequence, the affection-starved Valentino lurks outside the Sannas’ window, forlornly mimicking the father’s tender stroking of his son’s head. Domenico, leaving for Italy, urges Valentino to return to his uncle’s place, but the boy lingers alone, deep in the recess of the nocturnal image, longing for a home he will never have. From the Branches’ title and song derive from a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo, who wrote elsewhere, as if to describe this enveloping darkness and solitude, “Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world / pierced by a ray of sunlight, / and suddenly it is evening.”

From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom will screen in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s To Save and Project festival on November 7 and 22. The Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique’s 2K restoration of Meyer’s film comes out on DVD this month.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.