×

Telluride Film Review: ‘Natan’

This quixotic documentary seeks to defend Jewish entrepreneur Bernard Natan against claims that he got his start peddling silent-era pornography.

With:

Niall Greig Fulton, Lenny Bromberg, Serge Bromberg, Francoise Ickowicz, Lenick Philippot, Sophie Seydoux, Joseph Slade, Frederic Tachou, Gilles Willems. Narrator: Gavin Mitchell. (English, French dialogue)

“Natan” elaborates on a footnote in French film history, offering a one-hour documentary portrait as a sort of substitute for a man completely forgotten — or worse, unflatteringly misremembered — to all but the most devoted cineastes. Ironically, what makes Jewish entrepreneur Bernard Natan most interesting is the very charge this quixotic docu seeks to challenge, questioning whether one of the key architects of France’s modern film industry could possibly have gotten his start peddling silent-era pornography. While scholars will appreciate the efforts to clear Natan’s name, the vintage stag-film footage greatly limits the pic’s prospects with polite audiences.

Surely an interesting study could be made of the first erotic films committed to celluloid, though “Natan” veers in the opposite direction as it tries to shake the potentially slanderous notion that its subject (born Natan Tanenzapf) distributed, directed and starred in a handful of saucy short subjects (including one, “Fuck a Duck,” that even the most sex-positive culture critics would find appalling).

In the eyes of directors David Cairns and Paul Duane, these claims heap further insult on an influential figure who encountered fierce anti-Semitism among his peers and was ultimately sent to Auschwitz during World War II. Meanwhile, Natan’s many contributions to the French industry have gone largely unsung: Talking heads attempt to rectify that balance here, describing how Natan took control of Pathe in 1929, produced such important films as “La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc” and “Les Miserables,” and paved the way in France for such innovations as sound, color, home viewing and widescreen projection.

In his papers, Natan describes “Les Miserables” as “the story of a man from lowly origins who amasses a fortune, but is destroyed by a petty crime from his past” — a summary that also fits his own experience, as a 1911 arrest related to trafficking in adult films seems to have colored the way historians have viewed him since. The directors wait until relatively late in the film to raise Ohio U. professor Joseph Slade’s assertion that Natan was a porn-monger whose past caught up with him.

This oblique approach allows Natan’s other achievements to stand on their own at first, before the docu attempts to debunk Slade’s claims via side-by-side comparisons of Natan’s reconstructed portrait and footage from the offending stag films. One of the most touching revelations about Natan’s true character comes at the very end, with the detail that he served as Georges Melies’ benefactor after the silent-film maestro was abandoned by the industry and reduced to selling toys in a train station.

Despite the fact that Natan worked in cinema, the film seems starved for footage to support its incomplete biographical portrait, relying on documents, photographs and interviews better suited to a film-journal essay. A fanciful narration, delivered as if the film had a voice of its own, complements staged footage in which an actor who resembles Natan moves about various sets while wearing a large papier mache mask — a motif designed to remind that no one quite knows the truth about the enigmatic figure.

Popular on Variety

Telluride Film Review: 'Natan'

Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Aug. 23, 2013. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) A Reel Art production, funded by the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaion. Produced by Paul Duane. Executive producer, Craig McCall.

Crew:

Directed by David Cairns, Paul Duane. Written by Cairns. Camera (color/B&W, 16mm/35mm/HD), Duane, Cairns, Rob Cawley, Louis-Joseph Auguste, Simon Fanthorpe, Jon Ebright, Scott Ward; editor, Eoin McDonagh; music, Seti the First; production designer, Charis Suddaby; costume designer, Hollie Danby, Raffaella Buck; sound, Leon O’Neil.

With:

Niall Greig Fulton, Lenny Bromberg, Serge Bromberg, Francoise Ickowicz, Lenick Philippot, Sophie Seydoux, Joseph Slade, Frederic Tachou, Gilles Willems. Narrator: Gavin Mitchell. (English, French dialogue)

More Film

  • Sony Pictures: 'We Are Disappointed' by

    Sony 'Disappointed' by Disney's Divorce on 'Spider-Man' Projects

    Sony Pictures has gone public over its divorce with Disney on future “Spider-Man” projects. In a rare public rebuke to Disney, Sony announced Tuesday night that it was “disappointed” over the decision, highlighting Disney’s refusal to allow Marvel President Kevin Feige to continue as a producer on the projects. It also praised Feige, who teamed [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    ‘Good Boys’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Universal Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Good Boys.” Ads placed for the comedy had an estimated media value of $4.42 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Demi Lovato

    Demi Lovato Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision'

    Demi Lovato has joined the upcoming Netflix comedy film “Eurovision.” Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the film with Andrew Steele, announced the news Tuesday with an Instagram post, in which he wished Lovato a happy birthday with a “homemade” cake. Following the announcement, Lovato can be seen blowing out candles on the cake next to a “Eurovision” [...]

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Schneider won a four-year term [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content