Opening sequence of Feu Mathias Pascal [The Late Mathias Pascal, Marcel L'Herbier, 1925] involves insert shots on a contract that the widow of a family will be selling as part of an estate. Her sister-in-law is nonplussed. Mathias, who is the son-inheritor, remains off-stage, only perceptible through a keyhole — he is “at work” and must “not be disturbed,” according to the chunk of slate hanging on his quarters’ door. He’s roused by the commotion, comes out, sees the contract, is disgusted. He’s played by Ivan Mosjoukine, the centerpiece of the Albatros film group. He flees outside to chide a cow. Outside is orange tint.
Shortly after, he returns to his chamber and work. He’s interrupted by an Oscar Wilde-looking man in a straw hat — “Mino,” a young Michel Simon.
Mathias, storming out, passes one Romilde on the street (in green tint). We’re told she secretly admires him (in orange tint) and she’s being dressed by her mother, a widow, Pescatore, who wants to marry her off to a rich man.
Mathias, back in his chamber, encounters a — ghost? — rising from beneath his tossed cloak. Of course we know it will be some kind of chum: it’s Mino. He folds Mathias into a plot to ask for Romilde's hand on his behalf at tonight’s fête. Mathias nonplussed, then plussed, as an iris closes in, then back out, and fade to black.
“The bonfires have already been lit in Miragno.” Submarine tinting. Mathias and Mino, one more aristocratic in bearing than the other. They spot Romilde. A slew of activity around Romilde and her mom as Mathias approaches. It’s clear the two will fall in love. Mino watches from a distance. Naturally the two abscond while a jaunty tune begins among the crowd and Mino throws Romilde’s chunky mother on a carousel.
Green tinting. They sit like virgins on opposite ends of a remote park bench. He divulges: “A charming but shy young man has instructed me to tell you that he… loves you.” Needless to say, Romilde interprets this as an approach on Mathias’s part. Donning white gloves: “May I ask for your hand for him?” Timidity, as the carousel whirls in orange tint. “So it’s me you…?” starts Mathias, back in the green wash of the park. Chaste move: he presents her with his glove as the revelers carry on with pyrotechnics elsewhere. Mathias and Romilde embrace as the goings-on play out. Their dance is somber. Dissolve to a gold tinted revery where rings are exchanged between the two. And then the couple are back in her workaday salon. This is all too silly. “And the most heinous of mothers-in-law.”
So far, a sad entertainment for audiences. Hours to go.
Mosjoukine’s made-up Russian face, peck-bickering at the air in close-up, to salvage things with Romilde, loyal to her mother, running up a loft-cage like that of the family in Grémillon’s later Le ciel est à vous. Mother says she won’t live under the same roof as this “good-for-nothing” who has not yet expressed scintillae of character. Suddenly an intertitle alerts us of Mathias’s forthcoming fatherhood.
He also doesn’t want to leave his mama, whom he rushes off to visit in an attempt at fresh atmosphere. Amber tinting. She sits bedside him and it’s clear that she’ll probably die at some point in the movie. “HIS MOTHER! the only real love in the world left to him except for the child that would soon be born…” Yes, mother must die.
Her sister-in-law has knitted ten white baby-booties which please Mathias and his mother to no end. With one on every finger he clouds the camera from her face as he kisses her on the mouth then presses himself to her breast while she rocks him. Iris out.
Baby-rocker covered in linens like cobweb and moving at a chunked rhythm. The baby is a girl. Mathias, wiping his hair with a comb while ropes attached to his hips move the rocker, has fully adopted a disgusting habitué. His midsection swaying to the rock of the ropes, he dons a tie, regards himself in a mirror, all perversion of the poverty-fatherhood to follow in ‘30s Ozu. A stuffed pigeon tcotchke eyes his tweeded groin. An intertitle informs us Mathias is now an adjunct librarian, off to start his first day on the job.
He unties himself from the bedroom apparatus and tries to caress the daughter-baby, now held by Romilde, who rebukes him to stop pestering her — past words from her own mama towards the husband too. Superimposition of both their faces! The Russian storms off to a presumable library that in long shot resembles a factory’s maw. An intertitle reads: “Mathias arrive plein de zèle — ‘Le travail, c’est la liberté’,” a prophecy of the similarly arched entrance to Auschwitz.
“Set up in a deconsecrated church, the library was a strange place.” Doors are three times the height of humans, as in all movie sets of the era. Mathias (green tinting) is confronted with piles upon piles of dusty paperbacks and rats. The rats violate his person. He eyes “le bibliothécaire en chef” who hunches over his givens like Scrooge or that guy in Nosferatu. We are to understand him as the poring Jew. He ignores Mathias who gets to work with an arbirary removal of bookstacks, before a segue to gold-tint leads us back to his home where he plays with his daughter, she lighter than the books. Romilde and her mother are caught up in housework. A message comes through by a caller, Mathias’s mother’s sister-in-law: “Madame Pascal is very ill. She would like to see her granddaughter…” The fat elder refuses, stating it's too late, and as the movies of the period will have it, the sister-in-law won’t grab the mother to shake her into the semblance of human sense with any “THE FUCKING WOMAN IS DYING YOU COW,” but rather starts a dough-throwing fight, which on second-thought is perhaps even more satisfying if not effective.
The next morning at the library Mathias, unaware of the previous night’s showdown, gives two kittens — tied to his person by filthy lengths of frayed rope — a lesson in rat-hunting. His aunt enters. “Your mother is very ill, and you didn’t come.” Mathias rushes home to his mother’s bedside. He learns she was forbidden from seeing the baby, and promises her he’ll bring her back. He stalks from the room with a face of determination like Bela Lugosi’s. Back home, the baby has gone ill, and Romilde has left to fetch a doctor. Mathias lifts and lets drop the child’s hand. The doctor arrives and cautions: “It’s difficult to diagnose… there’s nothing do… but wait.” He rushes to his mother’s house. Just outside he sees the bedroom light change to dark. Mother is dead.
He thinks of his daughter in close-up and takes off toward his own home, where a small group has converged with rosaries around the child, and Romilde lies unconscious on the floor next to the baby. Nearly a minute of contortions from Mosjoukine’s face, semitones of emotion clumsily played. He lifts the swaddled child and shuffles out of the bedroom into the night. A fearsome wind wracks father and child. Dazed he enters his mother’s room, mourners gathered around the deathbed. He rests his child’s corpse upon his mother’s breast and kneels. Iris in.
Orange tinting: railroad tracks. Mathias, aboard a train, reading “Histoire de la Liberté,” he is asked for his ticket by a porter. An intertitle explains that he’s getting away from a miserable homelife, torn asunder by mourning. Superimpositions of Mathias outside his home, Romilde, rail tracks… He arrives in Monte-Carlo. ”Still grief-stricken, he saw everything as if in a dream.”
That night: an enormous gambling hall. Mathias timidly investigates the tables, but eventually feels compelled to join in. By midnight, neophyte gambler Mathias has achieved a winning streak at the roulette wheel. “1:55am. Five minutes to closing, Mathias has broken all records.” At the final bet of the night, Mathias goes all in on the number “12” — suggested to him by a fellow player during his first round, Mathias ignored, going with “13” on his own instinct, thereby initiating his streak. This same fellow player, overcome at the neophyte’s run, has now stumbled out to the palm trees, and when the winning bet is called — “12” — he blows his own brains out with a snub-nosed pistol.
Newly rich, he boards the train to Miragno. Shock: a newspaper entry reads: “By wire from Miragno: Last Saturday, the body of a man in a state of advanced decomposition was found drowned in a millrace. The body is thought to be that of the librarian Mathias Pascal. Cause of suicide: grief and financial debt.”
At the next stop Mathias leaps from the train to send a telegram: “Not dead. Home tomorrow.” — has a vision of his sneering mother-in-law… and thinks twice. — “être mort, c’est être LIBRE.” He shreds the telegram, tears the monogram from his inner hatband, and prepares to take a different train. Intertitle: “ROME.” Here Mosjoukine will start life anew, and undergo the literal émigré experience in character that Mosjoukine the actor has already undertaken in Paris.
The film’s second half begins with a fade-in to a dusky shot of an old fountain spewing an aerial stream against the skyline of the city. Moments out of the station, Mathias eyes a new fille, parting ways with her mother. He follows her for a bit, then, eyed strangely by both his prey and some policeman, stops into a haberdasher and buys a suit less “merry” than the one he presently wears, before heading into the Hotel Excelsior Palace. Upon check-in, he’s requested to fill out an identity form, required by the local authorities. Panicked, Mathias enters the restroom and leaps out a window, racing down myriad stone steps in a procession of shots throughout Rome. “There’s something bitter about Liberty…”
The film has by now taken the form of a walking tour of the Eternal City. He spots the girl from the station again, and follows for a bit before coming across a room for rent. The owner calls for his daughter Adrienne, who recages her pet dove on a sumptuous terrace and joins the pair in the much more austere and sooty interior corridor of the place. The room Adrienne leads Mathias to off the main hall is grand, thirty-foot high ceilings, fully furnished, walnut and marble appointments. She straightens some periodicals on a table: close-up: “REINCARNATION” by Marinus P. Ramanida. Adrienne asks him his name. “My name?… My name is.. actually… monsieur ADRIEN.. Does that bother you?” She shakes her head ‘no’ with an expression of delight. She walks away lazily, seemingly distracted, then returns to Mathias: “Don’t mind these books… They’re my poor father’s passion; I detest them, myself!” She walks off.
Alone, Mathias exults in the room, jumping on the dusty bed (while a fedora’d man quickly peeks across the edge of a lintel and darts back, in an apparent production snafu) and uncovering beneath the bedspread a copy of a book, close-up again, titled “SPIRITISME.” A subsequent close-up insert reveals a subtitle that had not appeared on its cover just prior: “How to Communicate with the Dead.” Trickshot double-exposures as two Mathias’s appear on a nearby duvet: one the ‘before’ version, the other the ‘after.’
A fat drunk woman tenant stubmles back into the house. Adrienne tells Mathias the woman is her father’s medium, Mademoiselle Caporale. They shuffle her off to her room.
And then Adrienne’s uncle arrives. He wants to introduce Mathias to his niece’s fiancé, “a distinguished archaeologist: Térence Papiano.” — a man who previously greeted Mathias at the door to the Hotel Excelsior Palace, and who foisted his card upon him. He arrives and they make one another’s acquaintance. Taking his leave, Mathias rushes down the staircase only to pass, now, the thuggish boy he saw accompanying the woman he eyed directly upon his arrival in Rome. He speeds up down the staircase, and nearly collides with Adrienne. They chat a bit, and he follows her up… into iris-in, and then an intertitle informs us that “Adrien” has taken a liking to “Adrienne,” that Térence is away, and that he is “odious.” Scipion, the thug, the half-brother of Térence, may intervene after his eavesdropping! Adrienne discloses to Mathias that her father has been using the medium Caproale as a means of enlisting spirit powers so that they might enforce her love for Térence.
The rest is total insanity.