The Silent Period

The two best-known names in French silent cinema are those of Lumière and Georges Méliès. This is largely because between them they permit the division of the field into two conveniently complementary halves. Lumière allegedly described the cinema as 'a fairground showman's trade', and the brothers, initially at least, saw their short films as valuable publicity for their photographic business. Their titles, such as Sortie d'usine/Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory or Arrivée des congressistes à Neuville-sur-Saone/Debarcation of Photographie Congress Members at Lyon, suggest the careful documentary observation of bourgeois life that caused them to be hailed as the first cinematic realists. Renoir, Duvivier and Truffaut are among the leading inheritors of this tradition.

Méliès, on the other hand, was a conjurer and illusionist whose short films now appear as naive precursors of Surrealism. Le Voyage dans la Lune ( 1902) parodies the ambitions of scientists and shows an oddly winsome form of sadism in the scene where a space rocket lands in one of the moon's 'eyes', causing it to weep. Le Royaume des fées (1903) features a line-up of 'fairies' more reminiscent of dancing showgirls. The fantastique tradition in which Méliès's work is now generally read can be traced through Cocteau and the Surrealists to culminate, in a manner technically at least far more sophisticated, in the extravagant illusionism of a contemporary film-maker such as Léos Carax.

This binary reading is given further credence by the differing fortunes of the filmmakers. Lumière retained his fortune thanks to a swift move out of film-making into production and, once the market became saturated, concentrated again on the photography business. Méliès, bankrupted by changing public tastes and the First World War, wound up living on charity in a home for retired artists. Realism/ the bourgeoisie/money as against imagination/bohemia/impoverishment - the dichotomy is a seductive one, but open to criticism and modification. For one thing, Méliès also filmed studio reconstructions of real-life events (including the coronation of Edward VII). For another, the Lumière films are not of interest solely as items of documentary record. L'Arroseur arrosé of 1896 is probably the first cinematic comedy, with a closely structured symmetrical narrative. For yet a third, the bourgeoisie and money were to make their most serious appearance with the foundation of the Pathé Frères company in 1897, followed by Gaumont.

Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont were businessmen, who left the film-making to others: for Pathé, the main director was Ferdinand Zecca, whose five-minute shorts included such titles as Les Victimes de l'alcoolisme (a compressed retelling of one of Zola's great novels, L'Assommoir). For Gaumont, it was his erstwhile secretary, Alice Guy, who was the first professional woman director anywhere in the world. Pathé succeeded where Méliès had failed disastrously and Lumière got out scarcely in time, in becoming the first major French cinematic entrepreneur. By the early 1900s, Pathé had branches all over the world, and was particularly well established in the USA; the studios were turning out something like ten films a week. The role of the multi-media conglomerate - Pathé had started out as a phonograph manufacturer - dates back almost as far as the cinematic medium itself. The interpénétration of realist observation and constructed fantasy, neither readily conceivable without the other, was to prove a guiding principle of that medium and of its major French practitioners. 'Lumière' and 'Méliès' increasingly appear as complements rather than irreconcilable opposites, both in different ways digested by the 'dream factory' (the very expression is redolent of their interdependence) that the cinema industry early became.

That similarity is all the more obvious when one remembers that these early films, irrespective of who made them, were at first a fairground attraction, literally in the case of Lumière, whose films travelled around the country, while Méliès showed his films in his theatre, where they gradually supplanted performing magicians. These early films were very short, and tended to fall into the following types. The first type was what Lumière called vues, landscapes, buildings, the roads of Paris, official occasions such as royal visits or parades. Similar to this was the dramatisation of news items, such as, for example, the Russian Revolution of 1905. A more moralising documentary type, of which Zecca's film on alcoholism, mentioned above, is a good example, is the cautionary tale. In what was still a religious country, a fourth type was the religious film. But the more frequent type was the comic film, which has remained the most popular French genre to this day.

A new development occurred in 1908 with the creation of the Société du Film d'Art. The purpose of this organisation was to lift film out of its popular origins in fairground entertainment, and to give it cultural (for which read middle-class) respectability. These films, often historical epics, as was the case with the first one, L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise, are the forerunners of the tradition de qualité of the 1950s and the heritage film of the 1980s and 1990s. This expansion of the French cinema marks a high point. French films accounted for something like 60 per cent of the world market. Pathé had built his own filmstock factories, so he was no longer dependent on American filmstock; indeed, there were twice as many Pathé films on the US market as all American-produced films put together. A further example to add to the dominance of the French industry in the pre-war years was that the first global star, established around 1910, was the Gaumont comic Max Linder, arguably the first film star, even before the notion of the film director had taken root.

Nevertheless, with hindsight, historians of the French cinema have isolated a number of important directors: Léonce Perret was a realist; Albert Capellani tended to make literary adaptations and historical epics; and, perhaps the most important of these pre-war directors, there was Louis Feuillade, at once a senior executive with Gaumont and an idol of the Surrealists, who found in his bizarrely stylised Fantômas series (1913-1914) and Les Vampires (1915), the dreamlike amalgam of reality and imagination that was their artistic ideal. Les Vampires' black-tighted femme fatale and mysterious criminal mastermind are precursors offilm noir - evidence that the European cinema was to exercise a significant influence over Hollywood as well as the other way round.

French dominance was to change dramatically with the First World War, as a result of which the studios lost staff, and the French industry never fully recovered. The 1920s were, nevertheless, a time when cinema began to interest artists and intellectuals. As the post-war industry expanded, even if never recovering its hegemony, film magazines were established and a star system took root. If serials seemed to remain extremely popular, with some 60 of them produced in the first five years of the 1920s, there was an extraordinary variety of films, including the most important development for many French film historians, a film avant-garde, linked to writers and intellectuals. Along with Soviet cinema and German Expressionism, French Impressionist cinema, as it is usually called, constitutes the major French contribution to the development of cinema as an art, along with Surrealist film, with which it is sometimes linked.

The Impressionists were Dulac, Epstein, Gance and L'Herbier. Germaine Dulac (along with Alice Guy) is the best-known woman silent film-maker, whose avant-garde psychodrama La Coquille et le Clergyman (1927) aroused controversy little inferior to that provoked by Bunuel's Surrealist classics Un chien andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930) a few years later. Perhaps more powerful now is the explicitly feminist La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923), whose heroine fantasises about killing her oafish bourgeois husband and about love affairs with tennis stars who walk out of the pages of her women's magazine. Jean Epstein made three major films in 1923 alone, but his greatest is perhaps the 1928 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, a horror film that still manages to disturb.

Abel Gance was, along with Marcel L'Herbier whose L'Argent (1929) is a virtuoso updating of Emile Zola's novel, the most epically ambitious of the silent directors. He had made a four-hour epic, La Roue, in 1923. But nowhere is his ambition more apparent than in the five-hour Napoléon (1927), whose use of split screen (up to three images side by side), superimposition and ultra-rapid montage evince a grandiose ambition often compared to that of the film's subject. Gance provided the film with a soundtrack in 1934, but it was not until Kevin Brownlow restored it to its full length in 1981 that Napoléon could be seen by a contemporary audience as its maker had intended. The heroic populism much in evidence in the film was to make of Gance an ardent supporter of Marshal Pétain, and his post-war unpopularity was neither aesthetically nor politically surprising.

The advent of sound cinema marks a break for the French industry, but it is important to recognise that many of the directors who are more familiar from their work in the 1930s, began their careers with sometimes substantial films in the silent period. Jean Renoir's Nana (1926) is an adaptation of a Zola novel. Jacques Feyder, a Belgian, who began his career in 1915, made, amongst others, a silent adaptation of the Carmen story (1926), and an adaptation of another Zola novel, Thérèse Raquin (1928). René Clair, best known for his musical comedies Sous les toits de Paris

(1930) and Le Million (1931), began his career with a zany Dada-Surrealist film Entr'acte (1924), but also produced two superb comedies, Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (1927) and Les Deux Timides (1928), a Keatonesque comedy starring the protagonist of Bunuel's Un chien andalou, Pierre Batcheff, a matinée idol who was perhaps the only major star of the 1920s to straddle the divide between avant-garde and commercial cinema.

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