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Film / La Roue

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"I know that Creation is a Great Wheel which cannot move without crushing someone!"
Victor Hugo, as quoted at the start of the film

La Roue ("The Wheel") is a 1923 French silent film written and directed by Abel Gance, who would go on to write and direct Napoléon. The "wheel" of the title is a recurring motif throughout the film, and is ultimately a metaphor for life itself.

After widowed railroad engineer Sisif finds an orphaned baby girl named Norma, he adopts her to raise alongside his biological son Elie. Fifteen years later, She Is All Grown Up, and Sisif is acting like the Boyfriend-Blocking Dad. In truth, he is attracted to his own adopted daughter. Elie, who has become a violin maker, is also attracted to Norma because of course he is. Sisif makes the mistake of revealing the truth to unscrupulous businessman Jacques de Hersan, who is (you guessed it) attracted to Norma. After a bit of Blackmail, Hersan gets Norma's hand in marriage and takes her away to live with him in Paris. Meanwhile, Sisif's eyesight is damaged in an accident, and he is reassigned to run a funicular train in the Alps. Norma, who is unhappy in her marriage, visits the same area with her jealous husband. Suffice it to say that their reunion with Sisif and Elie is not a happy one.

Upon its original release, La Roue came in at a whopping 32 reels, running for either (sources are conflicting on this) seven and a half or nine hours. While the 1923 theatrical cut distributed more widely ran for 140 minutes, the most frequently-seen and circulated version currently in existence is "only" four and a half hours, although a 2019 restoration added over two further hours of rediscovered footage to yield a 'full cut' (or the closest possible equivalent modern audiences may ever see) clocking in at an astounding six hours and 57 minutes.

This film has the examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Sisif drinks to deal with his problems. And he has a lot of problems.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Disliking the hectic modern life of The Roaring '20s, Elie wishes he had lived during The Middle Ages. He has Imagine Spots in which he and Norma are engaging in Courtly Love with appropriate period costumes.
  • Boyfriend-Blocking Dad: Sisif doesn't like other men looking at Norma nor does he like her dressing in a way that's likely to get their attention. He has his reasons.
  • Blackmail: Sisif tells Hersan the truth, only for Hersan to use it as blackmail in order to get Norma's hand in marriage.
  • Bungled Suicide: Sisif tries to commit suicide by laying on the railroad tracks, but the train is stopped in time.
    "So this must be hell! I can't even die!"
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Elie calls out Sisif for lying about where Norma came from.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Hersan is very jealous of Sisif and Elie.
  • Death by Childbirth: Sisif's wife died giving birth to their son Elie.
  • Foreign-Looking Font: For Elie's medieval Imagine Spots, the intertitles are written in the Old English Blackletter font.
  • Fortune Teller: Sisif has his hand read by a palm reader at one point.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "You're turning your head again, Norma. Not feeling gay today?"
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Norma starts off as one.
  • Hypocritical Humor: "Me, Machefer, stoker for a drunk like that? I'd be risking my life!" Machefer then proceeds to chug a bottle of his own.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Sisif tries to crash the train in the hopes of killing himself and Norma (and everyone else on the train, but who cares about them, right?) rather than letting her marry Hersan.
  • The Ingenue: Norma, like many, many other silent-movie heroines.
  • Literal Cliffhanger: When Elie and Hersan fight on top of a cliff, Elie goes over the edge, leaving him clinging on for dear life. He eventually loses his grip.
  • Male Gaze: When Sisif is watching Norma swing, the shots from his POV are close-ups of her shapely legs.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The beginning of the film features Norma and Elie as toddlers.
  • Mutual Kill: In their cliffside confrontation, Elie and Hersan pretty much kill each other.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Elie was low-key attracted to Norma before he found out they weren't biologically related. After he does find out, he realizes that he wanted to hook up with her all along.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Subverted. Norma came with a necklace that reveals her name, but Sisif apparently never showed it to her. In fact, she never even finds out that she was adopted.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Due to his worsening eyesight, Sisif is reassigned to run the funicular at Mont Blanc. Later on, he goes entirely blind and has to give up that job as well.
  • The Remake: The film received a sound remake in 1957.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Across seven hours, Norma is pretty much the only female character who matters.
  • Stealing the Credit: Hersan takes credit for Sisif's inventions.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Sisif becomes attracted to Norma when he sees her doing this.