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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D'ITALIE / THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1928)

While only a handful of René Clair’s films live up to his reputation for technical innovation & savvy social commentary, this is one of that handful. His best work appeared just as the silents gave way to the Talkies, and these films (one silent, three early sound) all demonstrate his complete belief in a limitless world of filmic possibilities. This exceptional farce, his last silent, moves the original 1860s story to 1895, letting Clair celebrate cinema's birth-year just as sound was about to take over. It starts when a bridegroom’s horse chews off a chunk of a lady’s hat. He’s in a rush; it’s his wedding day! But, the Lady in question must have a replacement chapeau since her escort is not her husband, but her lover! That’s the set up for the spiraling comedy of errors & frustration Clair loads with tour-de-force running gags, physical jokes played as comic fugues (via parallel editing or on different planes of action in a single shot), and lots of tight shoes & impotent chases. Magically, he avoids the deadening effects of the farcical straitjacket simply by treating his cast with 3-dimensional affection. And he freshens things up visually with surrealistic touches you’d expect to find in Dziga Vertov’s Soviet showcase MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (out the following year), or by giving us a brief story recap in the style of a 1905 short. A good looking new edition from Flicker Alley restores the full running time of 105 minutes (at a convincing 19 fps) and lets you choose between soundtracks from the Mont Alto chamber ensemble or, even better, Philip Carli’s solo piano score.

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