Tag Archives: La Grande Illusion
Let’s Talk About Poetic Realism
Adrian Nambo, a former student of mine from Harold Washington College, asked to interview me on the topic of Poetic Realism for a paper he recently wrote for another class. Because our interview nicely coincided with my "Classic French Cinema" posts from last week, I thought I would post our interview here today as a kind of postscript.
AN: There isn’t really much said about Poetic Realism on Wikipedia (which is a horrible way to look things up anyway), but can you elaborate a little more on it?
MGS: Poetic Realism was a movement that existed in France in the early sound era. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, it is a movement that is easy to look at but hard to define. This is because the conventions aren’t as clear cut as those of, say, German Expressionism or Soviet Montage. Nonetheless, I would define the basic characteristics of Poetic Realism as a focus on working class characters and the theme of doomed love, the blending of comedy and tragedy, the use of long shots and long takes, and narratives that function as critiques of society.
AN: French Impressionism is an influence of Poetic Realism correct? What influences did it have on the movement (i.e. what techniques, stylizations, and subject matter did it contribute to Poetic Realism)?
MGS: Both Impressionism and Surrealism, which were avant-garde movements in France during the silent era, were big influences on Poetic Realism. Impressionism used stylized cinematography, optical effects and editing to render reality as it is subjectively perceived by the individual. Directors like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Dmitri Kirsanoff would use superimpositions and slow dissolves, or would shoot the reflection of a subject in a distorting mirror, in an attempt to show the inner lives of their characters. Surrealism, as in the early films of Luis Bunuel, was all about the aggressive use of bizarre, dreamlike imagery to subvert the conventions of Hollywood-style “narrative continuity” filmmaking.
The phrase “poetic realism” is kind of an oxymoron because we think of poetry as being the opposite of realism. That is to say, poetry uses the figurative language of metaphor to communicate thoughts and feelings that can’t be expressed in a straightforward way. Conversely, when we think of something as being “realistic,” we tend to think of something that is being communicated simply and directly. So the movement of Poetic Realism basically synthesizes these two different approaches. It takes the poetic innovations that we associate with Impressionism and Surrealism and then weds them to the more realistic style of narrative continuity filmmaking. To give you a concrete example of what I mean, Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’atalante tells the story of the tribulations of a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon on a barge delivering cargo along the Seine River. The film was shot entirely on location (with a lot of shots done on a real barge) and the milieu depicted is that of working class people. So there is an impressive quality of documentary-like realism to the film. But then there are also these very poetic interludes like the scene where the husband jumps into the river and sees his wife’s image superimposed all around him as he swims underwater. This incredibly poetic scene makes us identify with the husband’s emotions and Vigo does it purely through images.
AN: Some major figures were Pierre Chenal, Marcel Carne, Jacques Feyder and Jean Gremillion. Can you tell me a little bit more about them and their work?
MGS: Marcel Carne is the major director out of the ones you mentioned. He made these great atmospheric crime films in the late 30s like Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve (both of which star Jean Gabin). I’ve often said that the reason why the French film critics were the first to identify the new trend of “film noir” in America in the 40s is because they had already kind of done something similar a few years earlier. Carne’s masterpiece though is Children of Paradise from 1945. A lot of critics consider it the apotheosis of Poetic Realism and it’s a movie that everyone needs to see. It’s an epic tale of doomed love set in the world of the 19th century Parisian theater. It was made during the Nazi Occupation and there are all sorts of subversive aspects to the film where the Occupation is being criticized in an oblique, allegorical way. It’s sometimes called the French Gone with the Wind but I think that does it a disservice. It’s a better film than Gone with the Wind! Thankfully, it has just been re-released in theaters this year in a brand new restoration, which will also be released soon on DVD and blu-ray. You can read all about that here: http://criterioncast.com/2012/02/27/janus-films-to-tour-new-4k-restoration-of-marcel-carnes-children-of-paradise/
I don’t think that Chenal, Gremillon or Feyder are very important directors. They belong more to the “tradition of quality” that was much derided by a future generation of French film critics. To me, the other great directors of Poetic Realism are Jean Vigo (as I mentioned), Julien Duvivier, whose masterpiece is Pepe le Moko from 1937, and, of course, Jean Renoir.
AN: I know Jean Renoir is one of your preferred directors, can you tell me about him and his films?
MGS: Renoir is one of the greatest directors of all time. The films he made in the 1930s are just indescribably great: Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Chienne (which translates as “The Bitch”), The Crime of Monsieur Lange, La Bete Humaine and his two supreme masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. As I wrote about those last two films elsewhere on my blog, “Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale.” He never judges his characters. They’re all flawed and they’re all likable. The Rules of the Game is like a Shakespeare play; it captures timeless truths about the workings of the human heart. I think it will be appreciated as long as movies are watched.
AN: In your class you had said that Jean Renoir is still seen as a Major Figure in film history, what influence has he had on films that filmmakers look back on?
MGS: Well, he’s one of those people whose influence is so pervasive that it’s almost invisible. But, for starters, Orson Welles was very much influenced by Renoir. A lot of the pioneering deep focus cinematography that Welles did in Citizen Kane was inspired by a similar use of depth staging that he saw in The Rules of the Game. And I think the depiction of war in Grand Illusion, in particular the blending of comedy and tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war, was a big influence on all subsequent war movies. Finally, I would just like to say that the adjective “humane” is the one that seems to be applied to Renoir more than any other and I think this is very apt. There are a lot of French movies, even today, that deal with extended families getting together for holidays or weekend-long parties that have this same quality and they seem to me to have their roots very much in The Rules of the Game. See for instance Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours or Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.
AN: What three films if you can name three, from this period do you think best represent the movement and why?
MGS: L’atalante (1934), The Rules of the Game (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945), for the reasons already cited above.
AN: What are your favorite characteristics and or techniques of this movement and why?
MGS: I love Renoir’s use of long takes and long shots. These are the “mise-en-scene” aesthetics that were famously championed by the critic Andre Bazin. Bazin thought that this style was the opposite of Soviet Montage, where the preference for rapid cutting was more conducive to propaganda and telling viewers what to think. Renoir has a lot going on in the foreground, middle-ground and background of his shots and, because he tends to hold his shots for a while without cutting, it gives viewers the freedom to kind of focus on whatever they want to. For instance, you can choose to look at a character in the foreground or one in the background. It’s like you’re “editing” the film yourself in your mind while watching it. This quality makes his films endlessly re-watchable for me.
AN: How did this movement influence Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave?
MGS: I think the focus on working class characters and the use of plots that revolve around social problems make Poetic Realism an influence on Italian Neorealism. (The key difference though is that the cinematography in Poetic Realism tends to be far more polished than the rawness of what you see in Neorealism.) The French New Wave was more obviously influenced by Poetic Realism. Remember that the directors of the New Wave started off as film critics and so they basically hero-worshipped the likes of Vigo and Renoir and explicitly quoted their films. (Truffaut’s 400 Blows, for instance, would be unthinkable without Vigo’s Zero de Conduite.) I would say that the New Wave directors were most influenced by how intensely cinematic and alive and personal the films of Poetic Realism are.
AN: Can you summarize real quick what Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave are if you haven’t already?
MGS: Italian Neorealism was a movement in post-war Italy where directors attempted to make films that were far more realistic, in terms of form and content, than what had ever been achieved before. The French New Wave was a movement of critics-turned-directors in France in the late 50s and early 60s who used filmmaking as a means of celebrating and critiquing the cinema itself. (That’s a bit reductive and simplistic but you said to “summarize real quick!”)
AN: Can characteristics of this movement be seen in film today? If so can you name a couple of modern films to reference from after that time period.
MGS: There isn’t much around today that looks like Poetic Realism. But, in addition to the French films I already cited above, I think that American directors as diverse as Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) have been specifically influenced by Jean Renoir.
AN: Is there anything you would like to add that I may have forgotten to ask or mention?
MGS: See the restored Children of Paradise as soon as you have the chance. You will thank me for it.
A Classic French Cinema Primer, pt. 1: Beyond the “Tradition of Quality”
The pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema remains unjustly neglected in a lot of critical and cinephile quarters today, in part due to the contempt shown for it by the Nouvelle Vague directors when they were still critics for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Francois Truffaut’s famous dismissal of the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which he contrasted with the more ostensibly personal and cinematic films coming out of Hollywood during the same period, has given an unfortunate and lasting impression that French cinema in the early sound era was a barren field. I would argue that, since the birth of the movies, France has consistently been one of the three greatest film producing nations – along with the United States and Japan. This list, which encompasses the early sound era through the birth of the New Wave (a separate silent French cinema primer will be posted in the future) is meant to spotlight just a few of the most essential and exciting French movies made during this period.
The list will be broken into two parts. Today’s post encompasses the years 1930 – 1945. Part two, to be published later this week, encompasses 1946 – 1959. As a self-imposed, arbitrary rule, each half of the list will contain no more than two films by the same director.
L’age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930)
Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is this hilarious Surrealist portrait of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famously bizarre images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.
Marius (Korda, 1931)
The first and best installment of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny Trilogy” (followed by Cesar and Fanny) is a sweet comedy/melodrama about the goings on in a Marseilles port-side bar. Marius is a young man who manages the bar owned by his father Cesar. He has an affair with local girl Fanny who, holding out hope for a marriage proposal, turns down the hand of the older, wealthier Monsieur Panisse. But, alas, like the song says, Marius’ life, love and lady is the sea. Hungarian born director Alexander Korda does a wonderful job of “opening up” Pagnol’s play, making a deft use of real Marseilles locations. Charges that the movie is “filmed theater” are misguided; Pagnol and Korda’s very subject is the theatricality inherent in human nature.
A Nous la Liberte (Clair, 1931)
Mostly known today as the inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times, Rene Clair’s classic comedy follows the exploits of two escaped cons, one of whom becomes a factory owner and one of whom becomes a worker in the same factory. Is there any real difference, Clair asks, between a prisoner and a lowly factory worker? The equation between capitalism and criminality is a bit heavy handed but this is never less than a total visual delight, from the slapstick humor to Lazare Meerson’s stunning Expressionist-influenced art direction (which, atypical for a “foreign film” of the time, received an Oscar nomination).
Zero de Conduite (Vigo, 1933)
Jean Vigo’s penultimate film, an unforgettable tribute to the anarchic spirt of youth, documents the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students and is based on the director’s own childhood memories. Vigo was way ahead of his time in blending experimental filmmaking techniques with narrative storytelling (check out the poetic use of slow motion during the pillow fight scene) and the end result is beautiful, strange, beguiling and unmissable.
L’atalante (Vigo, 1934)
L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo delivery trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. Vigo’s final film is one of the cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.
Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)
Grand Illusion is a comedy and a drama, a war movie and a prison break film and, finally, thanks to an 11th hour appearance by the lovely Dita Parlo, a very touching love story. There is also a healthy dose of social criticism in the story of an aristocratic German Captain (memorably played by Erich von Stroheim) who shows favoritism to an upper class French captive, indicating that the bonds of class can sometimes be tighter than those of nationality. But this is just one of many examples of Renoir explicating the “arbitrary borders” made by man in one of the few films that deserves to be called a true anti-war movie.
The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)
In this witty, innovative, trilingual take on the history film, three narrators – an Italian, an Englishman and a Frenchman – each tell the story of how four pear-shaped pearls ended up in the British crown. Writer/director Sacha Guitry manages, in a head-spinning hour and forty one minutes, to trace the pearls from one owner to the next over five hundred years of European history, allowing hilarious cameos by famous figures like Pope Clement VII, Catherine de Medici, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, Napolean and Queen Victoria. But in a movie whose real subjects are language and storytelling the pearls themselves are nothing more than a MacGuffin. Guitry himself plays the French narrator as well as three other characters in the flashback sequences; as he wryly notes, “We always lend our faces to the heroes of the story.”
Pepe le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)
One reason why French film critics were so quick to identify and appreciate American film noir in the 1940s is because it distinctly resembled, tonally and visually, many of the great French crime films of the late 1930s. One such film is Julien Duvivier’s fatalistic Pepe le Moko, the story of a charismatic Parisian gangster (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) hiding out in the Algiers’ Casbah, and the police inspector who attempts to reel him in. Algiers, an equally interesting Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, followed just one year later.
Le Jour se Leve (Carne, 1939)
One of the high water marks of the movement known as Poetic Realism (under which many of the titles immediately preceding and following it on this list also fall), Le Jour se Leve has it all: working class characters – with Jean Gabin as the doomed hero and Arletty as his love interest, atmospheric locations, a tragic crime plot, poetic dialogue by Jacques Prevert, and taut direction by Marcel Carne. Also like a ton of great French films of the era, this was soon banned by the Vichy government on the grounds that it was “demoralizing.” Maybe so but sometimes hopelessness can be romantic too.
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and couples getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.
Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943)
A series of anonymously written poison-pen letters are sent to various prominent citizens of a small French village. Chief among the targets of “The Raven,” the mysterious author’s pseudonym, is a doctor who is accused of adultery and performing illegal abortions. Both rumors and hidden secrets are brought to light by the letters, which threaten to tear the fabric of the community apart. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made this for a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France. Sensing that the movie in some way allegorized them, the Nazis promptly fired Clouzot and banned the film. When the occupation ended, Clouzot was prohibited from making movies for an additional two years by the French government because he had collaborated with the Nazis! The director would go on to achieve much greater fame for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in the 1950s but this refreshingly dark and bitter thriller, a film far nastier than its Hollywood counterparts of the time, remains my personal favorite.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945)
Robert Bresson’s second film features star performances (most notably a ferocious turn by Maria Cesares), an original diegetic musical score and relatively ornate dialogue written by none other than Jean Cocteau – all elements the director would soon eschew in the major movies for which he became best known. But Les Dames du Bois de Bolougne is still a terrific and very Bressonian film about a woman who hatches a revenge plot against her ex-lover that involves arranging a marriage between him and a prostitute. The timeless, dream-like atmosphere is alluring (the story takes place in the present but feels as if it could be taking place in the 19th century) and the ambiguously redemptive ending packs a wallop precisely because of Bresson’s de-dramatized treatment.
Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne, 1945)
The pinnacle of the Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert collaborations is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.