La roue

La roue
Abel Gance, 1923, 417’

A railway engineer adopts a young girl orphaned by a train crash. Years later when she starts getting suitors, he grapples with whether or not to tell her the truth about her parentage.


“Is movement not, in fact, drama? Movement, in art, is rhythm. The possibility of inventing new rhythms, of encapsulating the rhythms of life, of intensifying them and varying them infinitely, becomes, at a given moment, the essential problem for cinematographic techniques. I think I resolved this by inventing what has since been called rapid montage. It was in La Roue that I think we saw on the screen for the first time those images of a runaway train, of anger, or passion, of hatred that follow one another with increasing rapidity, one image generating another in an unpredictable rhythm and order, an eruption of visions which, at the time, people thought of as apocalyptic and which are now as common in our cinematographic syntax as enumeration or exclamation in literary syntax. [...]

It is not the images that make a film but the soul and the mind of the images and that is why some works leave a hidden trace whereas very beautiful visions do not remain in the memory for more than a week. Very beautiful films do not need to have beautiful images. [...]

I have often in my films used more advanced and more daring techniques than my comrades. Essentially these techniques consist in bringing the fundamental laws of rhythm into the foreground. As you saw, this tendency is manifested in La Roue, through accelerated montage. [...] Violating most of our usual ways of seeing, I have at such moments speculated, then, on the rapid and simultaneous perception of the quarter or even an eighth of a second. The eyes of this generation can hardly bear the strain of these moments of paroxysm, but we have to construct this visual counterpoint which our children will consider elementary and which can to a great extent be apprehended even now if we are attentive enough.”

Abel Gance1


“Of course, not all of these highly experimental cinematic devices work; and, as Kehr argues, they are perhaps not even appropriate to a single film. But the very energy they and its creator (and surely his brilliant poetic assistant, Blaise Cendrars) exude cannot be dismissed. Even the intertitles, quoting major poets and writers (Kipling, Baudelaire, Hugo, and, yes, Cendrars) seem unable contain their larger ideas. The wheel turns and turns and turns with utter abandonment, throwing out everything before it and after. As Jean Cocteau remarked ‘There is cinema before and after La Roue, as there is painting before and after Picasso.’ Perhaps the best the way to think of Gance’s La Roue is not to experience it as a coherent movie, but rather as a series of cinematic pyro-technics. Gance clearly took a simple story and explored it with whatever arsenal he had in his head. If today it seems sometimes banal and outdated it is only because every filmmaker after him stole those ideas and embellished them so thoroughly that they became standard methods of filmmaking.”

Douglas Messerli2


“During production, Gance was also aware that his lead actor – and intimate friend – Séverin-Mars was gravely ill; he died in July 1921. Furthermore, just as Gance was beginning work on editing La Roue in April 1922, news arrived that his adoptive father Adolphe Gance had died. In his speech at Séverin-Mars’ memorial service in October, the filmmaker addressed his threefold grief by citing cinema as a kind of luminous memory-scape in which the dead underwent continual resurrection. Gance even read out a letter that he claimed had been written posthumously by the spirit of the deceased Séverin-Mars. The actor calls La Roue the first film capable of ‘stopping death in its tracks’, explaining, ‘I will return every evening upon the screens across the world, carrying on my shoulders the invisible weight of the cross of Fatality, which burdened before me the shoulders of Oedipus and of Prometheus.’ (Comœdia, 19 October 1922) It is an image Gance had already conjured in J’accuse, which climaxes with hundreds of dead soldiers returning to confront the living – before they depart, carrying their crosses towards the horizon.”

Paul Cuff3

  • 1Abel Gance, “The Cinema of Tomorrow,” 1929, quoted from Abel Gance. A Politics of Spectacle, Norman King, BFI Publishing, London, 1984.
  • 2Douglas Messerli, “As the Wheel Turns,” World Cinema Review, July 2016.
  • 3Paul Cuff, “The Cinema as Time Machine: Temporality and Duration in the Films of Abel Gance,” Aniki vol. 4 no. 2, 2017.
UPDATED ON 28.11.2021