The White Russian exile Ivan Mosjoukine was arguably the greatest male star of the silent screen. Imagine an actor who combined the matinée idol looks of John Barrymore with the smoldering sexual magnetism of Valentino, the deft physical comedy of Chaplin with the dark Gothic creepiness of Lon Chaney. It sounds impossible, of course - unless you've seen Mosjoukine in action. One glance from those hypnotic, liquid eyes holds more power than all the others combined.
Indeed, there's a strong case for Mosjoukine as the greatest actor in screen history. His stylised High Romantic playing has dated far less in 80 years than the Actor's Studio tricks of Brando and de Niro have dated in half that time. To see him in his great roles - and Matthias Pascal is one of those - is to feel time itself dissolve through the camera's lens. Mosjoukine, like Garbo, is one of a handful of screen stars whose work on celluloid has the immediacy of live performance.
As a vehicle for Mosjoukine and his brilliance, The Late Matthias Pascal is one of the all-time greats. He starts off as an adolescent dreamer, last survivor of a ruined of a ruined aristocratic dynasty (much like Mosjoukine's own family in post-Revolutionary Russia). Blundering his way into marriage, he becomes a harassed and penniless family man, weighed down by wife, baby and the original Mother-In-Law From Hell. Only the awfulness of his home life allows him to tolerate his job - catching rats at the local library, whose mouldering piles of books resemble the last scene of Citizen Kane!
Tragedy strikes, and Matthias runs away. Instantly, his luck changes. Winning a fortune at the Casino in Monte Carlo, he moves on to Rome - where he appears as a young gentleman of fashion. Soon enough, he falls in love with a young girl played by Lois Moran. An infatuation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the model for Rosemanry in Tender Is the Night, Moran is similarly idealised in this film. Naturally, Matthias longs to do the decent thing and marry her. Yet he faces the same dilemma as most of Pirandello's heroes. If he isn't himself, who on Earth is he?
As a work of cinema, The Late Matthias Pascal is not as spectacularly dotty as L'Herbier's 1924 masterpiece L'Inhumaine. It is also perhaps a shade too long. Yet its bravura sequences - the library, the casino, the dream sequences where Matthias is haunted by his 'dead' double - show L'Herbier as an unjustly neglected genius, worthy of a place next to Lang and von Stroheim in Film Studies 101. His spectacular use of real-life locations is unusual for the 20s. But Mosjoukine is the most spectacular sight of all!
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