Archives For French Cinema

“… plot – or rather, plotting – is not an insignificant matter for Denis. Her films strike us with their spare but strong moments of fiction – a murder, a fateful encounter, a confrontation, an escape – and also with the half-buried network of fictional connections that gives the films their tremulous ‘inner-life’ … she and her regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau work out this basic network or diagram of relations in the story: what does each character see, whom do they look that; what are the lines of desire, or hatred; who tells which part of the story; significant backstory elements connecting the characters in their shared over-lapping pasts; the real or imaginary status of each event. Yet, once this template, with its logic, is in place, Denis’ work as an artist seems top involve a process of complicating that network, confounding it, punching holes in it, making it mysterious. She too (like bluesman Robert Johnson) deliberatley creates “too many missing terms and too much dual existence” for us to grasp entirely.”

(Adrian Martin on filmmaker Clare Denis)


Epstein starts his essay with a metaphor describing the cinema as a siamese twin; connected at the stomach and sharing the base necessities of life, but sundered at the heart or by the higher necessities of emotion. One half is the art of film, the other the film industry. The term “photogenie” refers to the art of cinema and was coined by Louis Deluc. Photogenie in short, according to Epstein, refers to any subject (things, beings, souls) whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. Epstein sees cinema in the same conceptual light that modern or impressionistic artists (symbolists etc) see art. Arts purpose is not to narrate but to bring to life colour on the canvas. To use colour and light to illuminate perception and for painting to be purely and simply painting. In this sense, cinema is not to be concerned with narrative formulas, historical, moral or immoral novelistic subjects but should seek out that which is photogenic and purely cinematic. He also goes on to point out that cinema is the first real time-based art.

Epstein quite vividly describes the language of cinema, whilst acknowledging its primitive state (especially being that he was writing in the 1920’s). For Epstein, cinematic language is the transformation of ordinary into drama and character:

“…a close up of a revolver is no longer a revolver, it is the revolver-character, in other words the impulse toward or remorse for crime, failure, suicide. It is as dark as the temptations of the night, bright as the gleam of gold lusted after, taciturn as passion, squat, brutal, heavy, cold, wary, menacing. It has a temperament, habits, memories, a will, a soul.”

The lens of the camera can be directed towards increasingly valuable discoveries. For Epstein (and I whole-heartedly agree) this is the role of the film director. Cinema, however, is vulnerable and like a light that attracts bugs in the night:

“Of course a landscape filmed by one of the forty or four hundred directors devoid of personality whom God sent to plague the cinema as He once sent the locusts into Egypt looks exactly like this same landscape filmed by any other of these locust filmmakers. But this landscape or this fragment of drama staged by someone like Gance will look nothing like what would be seen through the eyes and heart of a Griffith or a L’Herbier. And so the personality, the soul, the poetry of certain men invaded the cinema.”

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.”