Notes on French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915 – 1929 by Richard Abel

February 23, 2012 — 1 Comment

The “First Avant Garde” and “Impressionist Cinema” (French 1920’s)

Appropriate labels for this era of French filmmaking??

Key filmmakers identified in this ‘wave’:

Abel Gance
Marcel L’Herbier
Louis Delluc
Germaine Dulac
Jean Epstein
Leon Poirier

These filmmakers contributed to this wave between 1919 and 1924. These films are characterised as spontaneous thoughts in animated images. (Emile Vullermoz)This time-line is suspicious due to its short time-length. There is a need to look at the surrounding time periods. Other filmmakers who come into the picture:

Dmitri Kirsanoff
Alberto Cavalcanti
Jean Renoir
Jean Gremillon
Carl Dreyer

Impressionist Cinema is a more problematic term. It refers to the pictorial, the contemporary, and the natural harmony of characters and landscapes.

“Impressionism made us see nature and its objects as elements concurrent with the action. A shadow, a light, a flower bed, above all a meaning, as the reflection of a mental state or an emotional situation, then, little by little, became a necessary complement, having an intrinsic value of its own. We experimented with making things move through the science of optics, tried to transform figures according to the logic of a state of mind.” (Germaine Dulac)

Impressionism has become, through the work of Henri Langlois and Georges Sadoul, linked with the concept of a subjective cinema. As in Impressionist and Symbolist art, the emphasis is on ones own inner feelings and imagination, over and above the demands of an external reality. Modernism is a term that refers to the departure from a system of representation and narration, to a concentration on the means of representation; technique, surface, pure presentation and formal construction.

For this era in French film, Abel prefers the term ‘narrative avant garde’. Abel argues that this era is more complex than suggested by accepted terms. He points out experiments in developing a mixture of styles or modes, different systems of continuity, ‘plastic harmonies’, patterns of rhetorical figuring, and complex narrative structures. He explains that this era, whilst recognized for obvious historical significance and a close connection to visual art, is largely under-estimated and misunderstood.

As early as 1918 Louis Delluc had made a distinction between filmmakers who wrote scenarios for the films they directed and those who adapted other writers work for their films. An auteur, in this sense, could exercise greater control over his film and identify more closely with the Romantic concept of of the individually unique artist. This distinction separates the narrative avant garde from commercial film practice, heavily dependent on literary adaptation.

An analysis of Bordwell’s reading of French Impressionism:

Bordwell breaks the era into periods according to the development of stylistic features.

1) 1918 – 1922: pictorialism; in which recurrent pictorial techniques were used to suggest a characters perceptions and psychological status.

2) beginning 1923: proliferation of rapid cutting, a form of rhythmic montage (Gance: La Roue 1923)

3) 1926 – 1929: stylistic diffusion (handheld camera, long tracking shots, absence of intertitles, widescreen formats)

Avant Garde filmmaking began to diverge into distinct but inter-related modes: documentary, abstract, Surrealist. The filmmakers saw this as an investigation into cinematic specificity. To quote Epstein:

“…a subject thus conceived as a ‘bass clef’, permitting the construction of plastic harmonies.”

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