In La dixieme symphonie, written and directed by Abel Gance in 1917 but not released until November 1918, music is central. The film is about the composing of a symphony that is performed in the movie theater, and at its high point the music takes precedence over the image.
Examining Gance's work in the context of avant-garde, Henri Langlois saw La dixieme symphonie as his first masterpiece. It is basically, though, a conventional melodrama. Enric Damor, a gifted composer, suspects his wife of having an affair with the man her step-daughter wants to marry (she is in fact being blackmailed by him). But this breakdown of family relationships provides a new source of inspiration - art produced through suffering - his tenth symphony, which he performs on the piano for an invited audience of friends and admirers.
A working note dated August 1917 suggests that Gance initially planned to use recorded sound but instead La dixieme symphonie became one of the first feature films to have a specially commissioned symphonic score, composed by Michel-Maurice Levy. The orchestra in the cinema thus reproduces what is supposedly being played within the film. The evident disparity here, between the piano in the image and the orchestral sound in the cinema, is aggravated by the fact that many cinema orchestras could not cope with a symphonic score. The disparity is quickly effaced, however, because what we actually see on the screen is less the performance of the symphony than a series of images that illustrate it. There are locating shots of Damor playing and of the entranced listeners, but the sequence consists principally of tinted images of a ballet dancer superimposed on an idyllic garden setting with a frieze of dancers, flowers, and bunches of grapes sat the top and bottom of the frame. The visual is thus an interpretation of the musical, breaking out from the narrative in which it is held. More precisely, music ceases to be simply the subject-matter of the film; it generates images that are presented as the visual equivalent of the musical.
The importance of La dixieme symphonie is that it achieved within mainstream cinema what was to become one of the great preoccupations of the avant-garde, the liberation of the image from the narrative and the theatrical. It was a move toward non-narrative form, toward the expressive and the rhythmical. The title itself is significant here. Damor is assimilated to Beethoven by superimposition's, but his composition is also subsumed into the film as extension of the Ninth. After the Choral, the Visual. The supreme orchestrator is not the composer but the director: the first image is of Damor with the death mask of Beethoven in superimposition, but the final one is of Abel Gance taking a bow, thanking the audience for their appreciation.
La dixieme symphonie illustrates, then, the extent to which cinema in its aspiration to be recognised as a popular art form was looking toward music as model and guarantee. They seemed to have a similar project, using rhythm, harmony, and tonal contrast as the basis of an appeal to feeling. Lyric poetry could also provide a parallel since it, too, played on the intuitive, but music seemed more appropriate and was more distanced from the literary. For Gance and many of his contemporaries in France, it opened out the possibility of a radically new theory of what cinema might become.
Source : IMDb