See the moving picture

FIGURE 9.12

Melodramatic Morality

Nuit de Noël (Christmas Eve Tragedy)

Pathé-Frères, France, 1908

Set in the hinterland of the northwest French coast, Nuit de Noël is shot almost entirely on exterior locations. As the film opens, a wife, claiming our attention in the foreground of the frame, breaks into tears as her fisherman husband puts out to sea (1). The focus on her continues as she walks the barren countryside, pausing to pray at a rugged stone cross (whether for her husband’s safety or for her own continued fortitude against loneliness, we don’t know) (2). Still sobbing when she reaches home, she loads and hauls grain for the mill, where she encounters the amorous miller; she rebuffs his advances despite (as a title card informs us) a certain “Fascination” with the idea of a man’s romantic attentions (3). Back home again, she spends some time in front of her mirror, trying on a fancy cap and reassuring herself that she’s still an attractive woman even if her husband hasn’t the time or energy to express any desire for her (4). That night, she attends a festival bonfire (a scene toned red), where she dances until morning (5) and accepts a ride home with the miller.

At this point, a title card—“Thieving Another’s Honour”—forces our attention away from the psychological theme of the wife’s emotional state and moral choice to a theme that underlies the melodramatic thrust of the remaining plot (6): namely, the miller’s disruption of social order, both marital and moral. The miller brings the wife home (7) and seduces her into an illicit interlude (8). Meanwhile, the husband returns unexpectedly from his sojourn at sea (9). Seeing the miller’s cart at his door, he bursts in upon the couple. The miller exits through a rear window and attempts an escape in his cart, and the husband pursues him despite his wife’s desparate appeals (10). Catching up to the miller on the highlands above the sea, the fisherman beats the adulterer senseless (a scene enhanced by the nervous horse’s spinning of the cart in a tight arc) (11) and then pushes cart, horse, and unconscious miller into the waves and rocks below (12).

Back to CHAPTER 9/Part 1