The silent era early French cinema


While film in America was rapidly transforming itself into an industry, in the rest of the world the cinema was more interested in personal expression and issues of national identity almost from its inception. The assembly-line model embraced by Hollywood was fine for turning out “product,” but throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the film medium was also seen as a potential art form, albeit with strong commercial overtones. Not that the financial aspect of filmmaking was being ignored—far from it. The serials of Louis Feuillade, such as Fantômas—À l’ombre de la guillotine (Fantômas, 1913), Judex (1916), and most notably Les Vampires (The Vampires, 1915), were shot entirely on location, featured thrilling crime narratives that captivated audiences, and were rousing box office successes in France and throughout the world.

At the same time, on the other end of the cultural spectrum, the film d’art was rapidly rising in prominence, using stage productions with theatrical actors to present classic plays on the screen. But the film d’art actually represented a drastic step backward in the evolution of the motion picture as an art form, for all its cultural pretensions. Audiences and directors alike came to realize that these canned stage plays represented an artistic dead end. Compared to the vitality and kinetic energy of Feuillade s serials, the film d’art, shot entirely on transparently artificial sets, seemed flat and uninviting, with camera movement nonexistent and cutting reduced to scene shifts from one static tableau to the next.

The major French companies, Pathé, Gaumont, and Éclair, were all hit hard by the effects of World War I and forced to cut back on production, as well as re-release earlier films to satisfy the demands of the box office. The comedian Max Linder, the French Chaplin, became a resounding success with local audiences, as a slick man-about-town inevitably involved in a series of comic misadventures. Other French films of note during this period include Albert Capellani’s Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1911), an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, as well as the first French newsreels, Pathé-Journal and Éclair-Journal, inaugurated in 1911 and 1912, respectively.

Abel Gance began directing in 1912 with a series of short, almost experimental films using colored tints and exaggerated camera angles to create a dynamic visual sensibility all his own. By 1917, with La Zone de la mort (The Zone of Death), Gance had become a major force in French cinema, a commercial filmmaker who was also a filmic visionary. Gance’s major work, one that would revolutionize the cinema, was undoubtedly Napoléon (1927, reedited 1934 and 1971), a sweeping epic on the life and times of the great French leader. The first version, a silent with an original orchestral score by Arthur Honegger, was conceived as a three-screen film, gesturing toward the multiscreen experiments of the 1960s, an indication of how far ahead of his time Gance really was. The three separate screens were positioned together to create one gigantic canvas, using three projectors to create either three individual images, or one giant panorama, or two framing shots on the left and right with another image in between, or any combination of these possibilities. Gance also used color tints stances—to achieve an intensity that had yet to be seen in the commercial cinema.

Although Napoléon was undoubtedly a work of personal passion for Gance, it was also a project that realized sufficient profits at the box office to justify its huge production cost. He called this three-screen interlocking process Polyvision, and it was, in many respects, the forerunner of the Cinerama process that was created in the early 1950s to lure television viewers away from their sets and back into movie houses. Gance’s enormously ambitious project used thousands of extras and gigantic sets; it ran twenty-eight reels in length at its initial release. The first version was undoubtedly the most effective of the many permutations that the film would go through in subsequent years; the 1934 recut version included newly photographed sync-sound sequences with the original cast members intercut with the silent 1927 footage; the 1971 version used hastily staged, flatly photographed material with new actors, intercut with both the 1927 and 1934 material, to the great detriment of the original film. In 1979, film archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow supervised the definitive version of the film in its original silent form with a running time of roughly five hours and a new musical score by Carl Davis (for a 1980 London screening), and later a score by Carmine Coppola for a series of screenings in 1981 starting at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The reception was rapturous and a fitting tribute to Gance, who lived to see the reconstruction of the film before dying shortly afterward at the age of ninety-two.

Dulac’s best-known films are La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1922) and La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928), but Dulac also made a six-episode serial, Âmes de fous (a k a Âmes d’hommes fous, 1918), unique because it combines the structural elements of the cliffhanger with the surrealistic and impressionistic techniques of experimental filmmaking. Âmes de fous includes atmospheric effects that serve to express an interior psychological state of female duality. Gossette (1923) is another little-known serial she directed. In the film, a young female heroine is kidnapped and drugged. Dulac used a wide-angle lens, repeated images, and distorting devices to render the subjective point of view of the central female heroine.

Dulac’s film career was diverse; she could work in the area of pure Impressionism, as in the case of The Seashell and the Clergyman, or in pure documentary, with the newsreels she produced at Gaumont, or in a sort of hybrid form between narrative and Impressionist filmmaking, as in The Smiling Madame Beudet and the serials she directed. Dulac was dedicated to freeing the cinematic art form from links to literature, theater, and standard narrative expressions. Like Maya Deren, a key experimental filmmaker in the 1940s in the United States, she lectured and wrote a personal manifesto of the cinema—a cinema based on dream, desire, and the language of form over content. The Smiling Madame Beudet is an exemplary manifestation of Dulac’s theory and perspective. It depicts a housewife’s psychological escape from a boorish husband. Here Dulac used technical devices of film that are the equivalent of poetic metonyms in language or experiments in texture and form in painting, such as double exposures, superimpositions, masks, distorting lenses, and uses of gauzes. These techniques display a filmmaker playing with form itself, not content with film’s subject-object relationship between viewer and screen. With The Seashell and the Clergyman, Dulac overhauls narrativity entirely and presents us with pure feminine desire, intercut against masculine desires of a priest. Above all, Dulac is responsible for “writing” a new cinematic language that expressed transgressive female desires in a poetic manner.

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