Marcel L’Herbier – Eldorado (1921)


Synopsis wrote:
The tale of a dancer rejected by her lover and forced to endure other indignities in order to support her child is shown in avant garde style and traditional narrative techniques, with camera angles and architectural design defining the emotional states of the characters. Featuring Eve Francis, Jaque Catelain and Marcelle Pradot. wrote:
El Dorado is the fifth film directed by Marcel L’Herbier for Gaumont’s prestige collection ‘Pax’ which was characterised by high production quality. Its most striking aspect is the invention of new elements of the cinematographic language. L’Herbier uses distortions of the images to convey different messages or impressions: the faces of drinkers become distorted as they become drunk, Sibilla’s face becomes blurred as she thinks about her sick child, or photographs of the Alhambra are distorted to express the artistic vision of the painter intending to represent them.

In German expressionist films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari or Von Morgen bis Mitternacht distortions were also used, but they were only applied to the sets, which could also be done in a theatre. Here, it is done by optical means which is specifically cinematographic and opens a whole new range of possibilities. A new technique also pioneered by L’Herbier is the Point of view shot to put the spectator in the middle of the action: he shares for example Sibilla’s feelings when she is thrown out of the house by the servants of her son’s father, or those of characters locked at night in the Alhambra. Point of view shots are also used to show various characters remembering what they have experienced.

The editing is very modern. Crowd scenes are filmed from different points of view, alternating very rapidly wide shots and close-ups focusing on the expression of some of the characters: an old man, a group of women with their children. Sequences are linked in an original way e.g. by fades to white, white masks, or by blurring out.

L’Herbier innovates also with camera movements, using tracking shots or panning, sometimes very fast, to follow characters. By contrast, shots with a static camera are very carefully composed and lit. L’Herbier fully uses the opportunity he had to shoot the film on location in Spain, in Granada, Seville and the Sierra Nevada, to realise beautiful pictures of landscapes and indoor scenes, in particular in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, often with unusual camera angles and lighting. He also includes some footage of Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations in the streets of Sevilla.

Lights, shadows and transparency create a very original atmosphere in the last scene in the cabaret with cross-cutting between on-stage and backstage, separated by a curtain which partially reveals what is happening on the other side.

The story, presented as a melodrama by L’Herbier, is an original variation on the common theme of the woman seduced and betrayed and has a rather unexpected ending. It is interpreted in a convincing way notably by Eve Francis as Sibilla, and Jaque Catelain and Marcelle Pradot, already seen in L’homme du large.

The film met with immediate success in France both with the public and the critics, notably Louis Delluc who summarised his impression in one sentence ‘This is cinema!’ It was restored in 1995 in a tainted version with the original soundtrack composed by Marius-François Gaillard which is an important component of the film. It is available on DVD.

Language(s):Silent (French intertitles)