Gap Year: The Red Inn (1923)

Amid catastrophe, the French Narrative Avant-Garde rewrote the screenplay.

Movies Features The Red Inn
Gap Year: The Red Inn (1923)

To broaden his cinematic horizons, Ken Lowe is taking a gap year! Join him for this monthly feature throughout 2020, seeking out the essential, the classic, the weird, and the infamous films of a foreign country. This year, the spotlight is on France.

“We must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the doughnut hole has a hole in its center. It is not a doughnut hole, but a smaller doughnut with its own hole, and our doughnut is not holed at all!”—Knives Out

It’s a familiar scene: A secluded place of deceptive comfort that shelters a group of affable strangers (or sometimes people who only believe they truly know one another) on a dark and stormy night. As the story unfolds, we know there’s more to it than what we’re being told, and we suspect that as raw and gory as the tale is, there will be some justice meted out at the end.

L’auberge Rouge (The Red Inn) has the DNA of classic mystery novels in it, and more than a little bit of the noir tales that would form a major pillar of 20th century cinema. Writer Louis Delluc and director Jean Epstein, working from a story by Balzac, tell a tale within a tale of (literal) blood and thunder, using the conventions and narrative devices of the novel, in a way that pushes the film, gently, away from the spectacular and toward the psychological.

A group of urbane and well-dressed strangers gather at a candlelit inn in 19th century France, and one of the companions tells his fellow guests a story that, an acquaintance promises, will surely make all those present shiver. On a dark and stormy night in 1799, at an inn not so different from this one, he says, another group of strangers gathered to get out of the rain. Among them are two young doctors on their way to Alsace, a fortune teller, a cheery diamond merchant, and the innkeeper’s daughter.

The diamond merchant unwisely reveals that he’s traveling with plenty of wares, blithely gifting the two doctors who kindly came to his aid in securing a place within the crowded inn with two rough diamonds of little value. The fortune teller pulls three cards that set the tone for the evening: They predict Gold, Crime and Death. The young doctor Prosper struggles with thoughts of killing the merchant and making off with his wares, but stops himself at the last moment, wailing his own mother’s name out in the rainstorm in his shame and guilt.

It’s too bad for the merchant that Prosper’s fellow traveler—our narrator has forgotten his name—does not stay his own hand. Prosper awakens to find himself covered in the merchant’s blood, the diamonds stolen, and himself implicated in the coverup. The innkeeper’s daughter, who has become infatuated with him, is devastated as the police march him off to a speedy trial and convict him, even as it seems comically clear he’s been set up. He’s killed and buried before the innkeeper’s daughter can see him one last time.

As Hermann ends his story, it’s clear one of the other guests at the party is made deeply uncomfortable by it. Another young guest, noticing one or two telling details (including a whopper of a diamond ring on the guy’s finger, and that the man’s name happens to be the same as the vanishing doctor, now that Hermann remembers it) calls out the man, and he falls dead of fear.

Hermann: Frédéric had disappeared. Ah, I’ve found it again! His name was Frédéric.

French film pioneered a lot of the technique and grammar of cinema in the earliest days of the medium, and then it stumbled hard within just a couple of decades of its emergence onto the world stage. Between 1914 and 1945, France weathered two world wars, felt the effects of the Great Depression just as most other Western countries were recovering from it, and was occupied by an invading power that would define evil in the 20th century.

The country’s film industry, which mostly consisted of what would be considered small businesses when compared with that of other countries, felt major financial strain as a result. All the while, new technology in the United States and Germany left the French industry behind, rushing to buy expensive, licensed access to new film technology that enabled them to produce the color and sound to keep their films competitive with the spectacle hitting screens in other countries.

It’s in part because of these major hardships that the “Narrative Avant-Garde” movement arose, spearheaded by writers like Delluc, who sought to make films that revolved around writing rather than what they considered spectacle that chased after profit. Much of L’Auberge Rouge (and some of his other works, like 1921’s Fièvre) try to evoke the feeling of being in amongst a mass of people who are all creating a bustling scene anchored by naturalistic acting that’s a world apart from the more operatic style of the very earliest cinema.

That feeling of being there with real, somewhat psychologically complex characters, carries through to the writing as well. When the name of the diamond thief occurs to Hermann again, the title cards are written in a way that sounds like a person’s everyday speech.

When Rian Johnson rounds up a motley crew of strange suspects and methodically lays out their personalities, histories, relationships to one another, and the geometry of the house in which their patriarch has died at the beginning of Knives Out, it’s as if he’s setting the same kind of table as Delluc and Epstein were setting in 1923. There’s gold, crime and death afoot, and we suspect that one of these matter-of-fact storytellers is not revealing everything they know.

Kenneth Lowe has slain the voyager to rob him. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.

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