Jerome Seydoux Pathé Foundation Restores Abel Gance’s Monumental ‘La Roue’

A pan-European endeavor, Pathe Foundation Teams on ‘La Roue” with the French, Bologna and Swiss cinematheques and German broadcast ZDF.

Sophie Seydoux
Courtesy of Pathé

In the wake of receiving Pathé’s silent film library last year, the Jerome Seydoux Pathé Foundation, founded in 2014 and headed by Sophie Seydoux, is planning to restore Abel Gance’s monumental “La Roue” (The Wheel) in its original six-hour version, as a pan-European endeavor.

The Jerome Seydoux Pathé Foundation occupies the historic Gaumont Gobelins cinema building in Paris, that has been subjected to a spectacular renovation project by architect Renzo Piano.

Film restorations undertaken to date include Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux,” Claude Sautet’s 1983 “Garcon!” and Abel Gance’s lesser-known 1940 “Paradis Perdu.”

Now entering its third-year of activity, one of Sophie Seydoux’s main priorities is film restoration. Restoration of Abel Gance’s pic “La Roue” is its most ambitious project to date.

The pan-European project involves the French Cinematheque, Cineteca di Bologna, with which the Foundation has a close working relationship, German pubcaster ZDF (especially for the music), and the Swiss Cinematheque (which has an important color print).

“La Roue” was directed just before Gance’s most famous work, “Napoleon.”

“The movie is unbelievable,” enthused Seydoux. “It was made at the time when he had just come back from the U.S. and started to make movies with very speedy editing and close-ups. It’s all hand-colored, one of the greatest Abel Gance films!”

One of the key guidelines for the restoration process will be the playlist of music used on the pic’s world premiere at the Gaumont Palace in Paris, in 1923.

“Abel Gance is a director who is well known for constantly changing the final edited version. He was editing all the time,” Seydoux expained. “We are starting from the list of music to try to restore the movie on the basis of the music, rather than starting from the image. We have five different versions of ‘La Roue’ in France. And from those five different versions, we want to be able to get back to the original 1923 version. If you read his letters, it’s almost impossible to know what he did between 1922-23 in terms of re-editing his movie.”

The restoration is an ambitious 2-year project that will be completed by the end of 2017. Part of the restored film will be screened in Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato classic film festival in 2017, accompanied by a master class on the problems faced during the restoration.

The Cineteca di Bologna Cinematheque worked on other Foundation projects such as the restoration of Riccardo Freda’s “Les Miserables.”

Pathé produced 9000 films between 1896 and 1927; 2,000 still survive in the collection. At present, the Foundation is working on 400 films.

In addition to restoration activities, the Foundation screens silent films in its in-house 68-seater screening room, accompanied by live piano music. These screenings have been extremely successful, with over 17,000 admissions clocked up in 2015, Seydoux said. A new season of silent Hitchcock films, that began in September, 2016, has been consistently sold out. The audience for such sessions is highly diverse, ranging from film buffs, interested viewers and students. The Foundation also organizes special morning screenings, three times a week, for schools.

Seasons that have been particularly popular to date include those dedicated to the silent films of Hitchcock, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Each month, the Foundation gives carte blanche to another institution to arrange its own screening schedule during one week.

Sophie Seydoux revealed an amusing anecdote: “One day we asked the Australian Cinematheque to program a session They proposed to screen what we could call as “hot” movie from the 1910s. One day I was coming back from lunch at the Paris Cinematheque and I saw a big crowd….. I thought ‘My goodness, what’s going on?’ I asked and it turned out it was this Australian hot movie from the 1910s! And it was a huge success!”

Other successful sessions have been programs dedicated to female actresses in the 1920s. The Foundation also hosts a series of temporary exhibitions, featuring posters and other film-related materials. On the first floor, there is a permanent exhibition of over 150 cameras and projectors built by the Pathé film company in the early years of cinema.

Each week conferences are held, dedicated to different filmmaking techniques, moderated by the Collection’s coordinator. Weekly conferences are also organized about the building itself, which are highly popular amongst architecture students, to see the integration between the new and old. Three times a week, there are sessions with children, introducing them to film stock and all the related topics, given that in the digital world, they will most probably never work with celluloid film. These sessions also show how the accumulation of still images can create the illusion of movement. The sessions are divided between two different age groups – for 7 year-olds, who are taught about stills and frames, and the way of adding color in the early days of cinema. The other group, for 10-11 year-olds are given a camera and film and practice shooting films and then edit them.

Involving around 81 schools in the Paris region, the sessions are held twice a week with schools and once a week with the general public and only run during the school year.

Seydoux said that her main goals for the Foundation’s third year of activity include establishing a partnership with the L’Ecole de Gobelins, the prestigious and nearby film school dedicated to animation and photography,  including a showcase in June of the best end-of-course works by students, including films, videos, and still images.

Screening 35mm prints, rather than digital video, is another of the Foundation’s hallmarks. Very few cinemas in Paris still have 35 mm projectors. Seydoux has been pushing for Pathe-Gaumont commercial cinemas to keep some 35mm projectors, comparable to the phenomenon of vinyl records in the music industry.

“The last James Bond movie was shot in 35mm,” said Seydoux. “‘Star Wars’ was shot in 35mm and they went back to digital afterwards. There is something about 35mm which digital cannot compete with so far.”

As a purely private foundation, without public funding, the Foundation achieves an operating break-even by renting out different parts of the building for events, private screenings, cocktails and dinners.

The Foundation also maintains regular contact with cinematheques and other partner institutions around Europe, including the Cineteca di Bologna German Cinematheque, Royal Cinematheque of Belgium and many other institutions in Europe.

Seydoux said that she has also been in contact with institutions in the U.Sç But transporting copies from L.A .on a specific movie are very expensive, so she prefers to ship copes from sites closer to Paris, in view of the insurance and freight costs.

“Once I wanted to show silent movies by Maurice Tourner and wanted to organise a film series. I tried to see how much it would cost. It was impossible to even break even. It’s not because of the U.S. It’s just the distance. That’s why I try, for the moment to work solely with cinematheques in Europe. One day I think we will also show digital copies. At that time, we could work more with America on a larger scale.”

John Hopewell contributed to this article