Movies and Film: Before the War

Before the War

Like Hollywood, the French film industry churned out a massive number of films in the decade before the outbreak of World War II. Mainstream studios produced many great films, such as Jean Epstin's L'Auberge rouge and Coeur fidle (both 1923). But the real story of French filmmaking in these years is the story of the avant-garde.

Avowing the Avant-Garde

Following the breakthroughs of the Lumire brothers and Mlis, the silent and early sound eras in France marked the emergence of the world's first bona fide cinematic avant-garde. Conscious of their public role as artists breaking new ground in a still unfamiliar medium, French filmmakers transformed film into a celluloid wonderland of aesthetic prowess. While some of these directors were truly independent, others, such as Ren Clair, maintained their ties with the major studios while taking film in often shocking new directions.

The most important figures from this era include directors like Spanish-born Luis Buuel (Un Chien andalou, 1928), Ren Clair (Paris qui dort and Entr'acte, 1924; Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, 1927), Jean Cocteau (Le Sang d'un Poete, 1930), and Man Ray (Le Retour la Raison, 1923). Abel Gance followed up his excellent anti-war J'accuse (1919) with the extraordinary 17-reel Napolon vu par Abel Gance: premire poque: Bonaparte (1927), an experimental epic featuring unprecedented innovations in editing, projection technology, and camera movement (one scene even involved strapping a camera onto a horse!).

Short Cuts

One of world cinema's first female directors, Germain Dulac (1882-1942) combined her public advocacy of female suffrage with a bold approach to impressionist filmmaking, producing visual feasts such as La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) and the surrealist La Coquille et le Clergyman (1927).

Short Cuts

Adaptations of literary works appear frequently in French film of the pre-World War II era. Jean Renoir's La Bte humaine (1938) adapts Emile Zola's popular novel of the railroads into a haunting visual spectacle featuring the superb acting of Jean Gabin.

The "Other Renoir"

Jean Renoir, one of history's greatest filmmakers, was born in 1894, barely a year before the Lumire brothers' first public showings of their films. Like Jean Cocteau's, Renoir's career provides an ideal example of the intimate relationship between film and other art forms in twentieth-century France. The son of the great impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Jean began his cinematic life by financing several films with money he had inherited from his famous father. His directing debut, La Fille de l'Eau (1925), while not distinguished, captures something of the visual beauty and the poetry of nature with which the august Auguste had embellished his canvases.

Renoir's career reached its peak during the 1930s, when he shot more than a dozen feature-length films that virtually redefined the art of French cinema. Toni (1934), La Chienne (1931), and Le Crime de M. Lange (1936) exhibit an unflinching willingness to confront deep-seated social tensions with wit and artistry. La Grande Illusion (1937) treats the complex human interactions arising from the adversity of a prisoner-of-war camp.

And the decade wraps up with La Rgle de Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939), universally regarded as Renoir's masterpiece, a film examining the self-destructive forces at work in French society; the film incited so much anger that it was successfully banned by the right wing the same year it was released.

Renoir came to the United States in 1941, the same year he released Swamp Water (1941), a mildly successful story shot on location in the dank fens of Georgia. Though he made some fine films during the next 30 years—The Southerner (1945), The Woman on the Beach (1947), The River (1951, shot in India), and his last film, Le Petit Thtre de Jean Renoir (1971)—most agree that his best years were behind him. Nevertheless, Renoir left behind a legacy of cinematic beauty that would have made his pappy proud.

The Real Poetic Realism

1930s France is especially renowned for introducing the cinematic world to poetic realism, a style of filmmaking of which Renoir's La Bte humaine and Gance's Paradis perdu (1939) are prime examples. Other important directors in this style included Marcel Carn (Quai des brummes, 1938; Le Jour se lve, 1939), Pierre Chenal (La Rue sans nom, 1933; Le Dernier Tournant, 1939), and Jean Grmillon (Gueule d'amour, 1937). Jean Gabin was the leading actor of poetic realism; the future editor of the Cahiers du cinma, Andr Bazin, would one day hail him as "the tragic hero of contemporary cinema."

Filmophile's Lexicon

Poetic realism is the term given to a wide-ranging group of films from the '30s and '40s that feature working-class milieus, pessimistic ambience, and a gritty workaday feel that reflects the mood of the realist novels and plays on which many of these pictures were based.

An unheralded master of French poetic realism was Alexander Trauner, a painter by training who sought to apply his expertise in design to the construction of ever more realistic movie sets, primarily for the films of Carn. For Trauner, the mise-en-scne of a shot should reflect the psychology of a film's characters, giving the audience a real feel for what's going on inside the actors' heads.

Trauner's greatest films in the poetic realist tradition include Quai des brumes (1938), Le Jour se lve (1939), Les Enfants du paradis (1945), and Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). Above all poetic realism is a "look," and there was no one better at fashioning this look than Alexander Trauner.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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