amid a decade of turmoil. Censorial trigger-happiness, subsequently evidenced in the banning of Renoir's La Règle du jeu, doubtless owed much to this precarious position.

L'Atalante owes much of its impact to the extraordinary performance of Michel Simon as the barge-hand Père Jules. Simon - Swiss, but at the very antipodes of the anodine cleanliness normally associated with that country - is the great visceral star of classic French cinema. Even at his most benignly disruptive, as in this him or Renoir's Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), there is something satyr-like and perturbing about him; in Carné's Le Quai des brumes (1938), where he plays the monstrous Zabel, driven nearly mad by his quasi-incestuous fascination with his goddaughter, his performance evokes depths of which scarcely any other French actor was capable. L'Atalante is among the most visually striking films of its period, thanks to the superb camerawork of Boris Kaufman in the night-time and dream sequences in particular. It was a comparative failure at the box office, though its classic status is now unquestioned.

Much more of a journeyman than either Clair or Vigo was Julien Duvivier, whose La Belle Équipe (1936) features one of the definitive performances from the working-class hero of the time, Jean Gabin, and replicates the debates and uncertainties surrounding the Popular Front government in its two alternative endings - one affirmative of solidarity, the other homicidal and elegiac. Duvivier's artisanal competence and lengthy career, much of it in Hollywood, make of him, as it were, the anti-Vigo, and there has perhaps been a consequent tendency to underrate his work, which does a film like the Algiers-set drama Pépé le Moko (1937) little service. Pépé le Moko, like La Belle Equipe, stars Gabin, who in the later film dies a violent death as he was so often to do on screen, notably for Carné in Le Quai des brumes and Le Jour se lève (1939). The critic André Bazin memorably described Gabin as 'Oedipus in a cloth cap' - a reference to his archetypal role as a decent man of modest origins driven to madness and despair by the malignity of fate. Celebrated for his on-screen outbursts of anger, he was to undergo a class metamorphosis after the war, featuring (significantly thicker-set) in more bourgeois roles and thus becoming an icon of social change in France.

The relationship between literature and the cinema became an increasingly complex one during this period. Marcel Pagnol not merely adapted many of his own works for the screen (such as César, 1936, later to be 'adapted back' into a stage play), he was also to become one of the most important producers of the classic years, and an early practitioner of location filming. Sacha Guitry's coruscating theatrical dialogues made his plays natural choices for screen adaptation; the use of off-screen sound in Le Roman d'un tricheur (1936) and his free reworking of French history in Remontons les Champs-Elysées (1938) illustrate how his early disdain for the medium gave way to an innovative use of it, by turns frolicsome and sardonic. His career, like a great many others, never fully recovered from his collaboration with the Germans under the Occupation.

Jean Cocteau's later interest in cinema was prefigured by Le Sang d'un poète (1931), one of the most celebrated cinematic products of the pre-war avant-garde. The literary figure whose trace is most perceptible in the 1930s films still watched today, however, never himself directed a film. Jacques Prévert, Surrealist expulsee and Marxist fellow traveller, made his name as a writer of film scripts before becoming even more widely known as a poet in his own right. His best-known work was for Marcel Carné, the apostle of what André Bazin was to dub 'poetic realism'. This term relates to an aesthetic that has much in common with the Hollywood genre of film noir, not least in the jadedness and pessimism of the world it evokes. Drôle de drame (1937) is a preposterous fantasy set in a half-Dickensian, half-Surrealist London, with Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet. Jouvet's sardonic, haughty demeanour here perhaps figures his slightly condescending attitude towards the filmic medium, for he had long been renowned as a serious theatre actor, above all in the works of Jean Giraudoux, and came belatedly to the cinema, which he always professed to regard as a commercial rather than an artistic medium. Le Quai des brumes and Le Jour se lève, both starring Gabin, take place on studio sets designed by Alexandre Trauner in which every detail is at once plausible and charged with poetic significance. The mists that cloak the port of Le Havre in the earlier film, like the wardrobe with which Gabin walls himself up in his attic room in Le Jour se lève, suggest a mood of exhaustion and defeat over and above their realistically motivated place in the films. Le Quai des Brumes pits Gabin against Simon in their only screen appearance together, and made a star of the young Michèle Morgan to whom Gabin famously says, 'T'as de beaux yeux, tu sais/You've got lovely eyes, you know.' More interesting formally is Le Jour se lève, unusually for its time told largely in flashback (which apparently confused many spectators). Gabin's nemesis here is the splendidly yet repulsively oleaginous Jules Berry, star also of Le Crime de M. Lange and Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir (1943). Carné has become a byword for cinematic fatalism, the doomed love so characteristic of his work being associated by Edward Baron Turk with his homosexuality. The three years that separated La Belle Équipe, in its happy ending at least the apotheosis of Gabin triumphant, from the same actor's tragic demise in Le Jour se lève were the years during which France slid from the initial optimism of the Popular Front to the verge of war, a congruence of cinema and history that powerfully reinforces the individual fatalism so clearly present in much of Carné's work. Yet viewing his films is a less uniformly

dispiriting experience than this may suggest, for their dialogues are studded with the mordant wit so characteristic of Prévert.

This is still more in evidence in Prévert's only script for Jean Renoir, almost universally regarded as the greatest of French directors. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, about a publishing firm whose workers form themselves into a cooperative when their dastardly boss Batala (Jules Berry) absconds owing money, is both one of Renoir's finest works and the film that most clearly embodies the exhilaration of the early Popular Front period. The film is celebrated above all for the so-called 360° pan around the courtyard immediately before Lange, the gentle author of escapist western novels, shoots Batala, who has come back to help himself to the cooperative's proceeds. This shot evokes the sense of community and solidarity that motivates Lange's shooting and, thanks largely to Bazin's masterly analysis of it, has become a classic of political cinema.

Renoir's subsequent work may lack the overt ideological edge of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, but as a cinematic anatomy of a society, and a class, on the brink of collapse it is without rival. La Grande Illusion (1937) counterposes the realities of national rivalry (between France and Germany) with those of class conflict. Set in a German prisoner-of-war camp for officers during the First World War, it strikingly prefigures the conflict that was to erupt two years after its making. The aristocrats de Boieldieu/Pierre Fresnay and von Rauffenstein/Erich von Stroheim have in common a civilised, chivalrous lifestyle and ethic clearly doomed by the looming realities of twentieth-century warfare, and one in which their less opulent fellow soldiers, such as Maréchal/Jean Gabin, cannot share. The 'illusion' of the tide thus seems to be that national loyalties are more important than those of class, yet the film's setting, and continuing relevance in the Europe of today, suggest that questions of nationhood are not to be so easily discarded. La Marseillaise ( 1938) -designed as the apotheosis of the Popular Front, in fact its artistic swansong - depicts the French Revolution as the achievement of ordinary women and men, in a reaction against the 'great names' school of history that places it at the opposite extreme to Napoléon.

Renoir's filming is characterised by a stylistic openness and a collaborative use of actors that enable him to articulate the social contradictions of his time with remarkable subtlety. Martin O'Shaughnessy's observation that La Marseillaise can be seen as 'the welding together of two conflicting gendered stories' - a 'male narrative of coming of age' and one in which 'women are seen to play an assertive, powerful and violent role' (O'Shaughnessy, 2000: 137) - foregrounds the otherwise largely neglected importance of gender in Renoir's work. Ethnicity too, notably through the anti-Semitic remarks of which Rosenthal/Marcel Dalio is the target in La Grande Illusion, is a prominent issue.

These potential conflicts, in addition to the pervasive theme of class, help us to understand what Renoir meant when he said of France before the Second World War: 'We are dancing on a volcano.' That remark could serve as epigraph to his outstanding work, La Règle du jeu (1939). An aristocratic country-house party is the setting in which all manner of repressed conflicts - sexual, social, ethnic, class-based - come to the surface. This happened in the cinema too; riots broke out on the film's first screening in Paris and it was banned successively by the pre-war and by the Vichy and Occupation governments. The savagery with which Renoir anatomises the hypocrisy and bad faith of pre-war French society may take some time for a contemporary audience to appreciate. The film features no truly major star (Gaston Modot, Julien Carette and even Marcel Dalio were all minor ones at best), relying rather on the group dynamic that, from Le Crime de Monsieur Lange onwards, is so characteristic of Renoir's work. The world it evokes will seem impossibly stylised and mannered to most contemporary audiences, for whom elaborate amateur theatricals and the etiquette of pheasant shooting are unlikely to be familiar territory. The film's visual verve, however, is apparent at first viewing, notably in the rabbit hunt scene near the beginning and the frantic chase through the corridors of the château towards the end, two scenes that echo and mirror each other. Hunting is a leitmotif of La Règle du jeu, all at once visually (as in the two scenes just mentioned), emotionally (to the pursuit of game corresponds the pursuit of love, both likely to lead to bloody consequences) and in the wider social context (the pursuit of territorial ambition was even as Renoir filmed pushing Europe towards war). The film's astonishing unity-in-diversity helps to explain Pierre Billard's judgement that Renoir's 'freedom kills the myth of representation', so that he 'takes his place in the cinema of modernity twenty years ahead of his time' (Billard, 1995: 341). Neither truly 'classic' - though the summit of the French cinema that generally goes by that name - nor yet 'modern(ist)', La Règle du jeu marks the transition par excellence from one kind of cinema to another.

That judgement, of course, is necessarily influenced by the immense historical rupture brought about by the outbreak of war, which makes La Règle dujeu's transitional status only too apparent. It was one of 51 French films - along with Le Quai des brumes and Renoir's 1938 Zola adaptation La Bête humaine - to be banned by the censor just before war was declared, while the first Cannes festival, due to take place in September 1939, had to be cancelled. The decade that was ending so ominously had nevertheless been a productive one for the cinema. The Conseil supérieur du cinéma, set up in 1931, had shown the beginnings of state and governmental interest in this (comparatively) new art form, and the founding of the Cinémathèque française in 1936 went on to reinforce this, providing the institutional context within which generations of young critics and film-makers would get to know not only French, but European and American cinema. Between 94 and 158 films were produced each year during the decade (not counting 1939 which, for obvious reasons, was 'incomplete'), and something of the order of 225 000000 admissions were annually recorded. It might have been thought that the social and economic disruption caused by wartime and the Occupation would have a calamitous effect on the nascent industry, but as we shall see that was to be only part of the story.

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