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EXPERIMENTAL FRENCH DOCUMENTARIES, 1947–58

February 26, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Experimental French Documentaries, 1947–58

These notes accompany screenings of Experimental French Documentaries on February 27 and 28, and March 1 in Theater 3.

As indicated on MoMA’s film calendar, the films in this program represent a kind of hybrid nature, suspended somewhere between experimental/poetic and documentary. Ultimately, I felt they were worth showing, that the filmmakers were deserving of recognition, and our Documentary Fortnight exhibition provided a good excuse to offer the program as a sidebar. I am also asking the audience’s indulgence in that only one of the films has English subtitles. They are short and, for the most part, visually stunning.

Jean Epstein (1897–1953) was born in Warsaw but came to France as a youth, and there got a degree in medicine. (Appropriately, his first film, after meeting the pioneering Auguste Lumiere, was a documentary on Louis Pasteur.) Epstein was never a “commercial” director, his most famous film probably being his Poe adaptation, La chute de la maison Usher (1928). He was also briefly a part of Alexandre Kamenska’s Films Albatros, the gathering of Russian Empire émigrés in Paris in the 1920s. (We are planning a major retrospective of these films for the coming winter). The words that come to my mind in viewing Le tempestaire are “elemental” or “primal.” In some ways, Epstein anticipates Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s vision of the abstract beauty of the sea (The Silent World, World without Sun), and echoes Slavko Vorkapich’s Moods of the Sea (which is coming in late April as part of our survey of the American avant-garde). Le tempestaire does, indeed, teeter between an exquisite documentary vision of the sea and fantasy.

There seems to be some dispute on proper accreditation on Les desastres de la guerre and Le charmes de l’existence. Both Jean Grémillon (1898–1959) and Pierre Kast (1920–1984) are in the mix, but sources differ on who was responsible for what, always a rocky road for auteur theorists. Grémillon was much more important in film history, his career dating back to the early 1920s. He was a dominant figure during the Nazi occupation, perhaps second only to Marcel Carné (Children of Paradise) in prominence, but like Carné, most of his postwar films were disappointments. In a sense, Kast’s career never got off the ground. He made over two dozen films, but about half of these were shorts. Of the features, few, if any, are known outside France. However, these two men were able to collaborate on two extremely beautiful and unusual documentaries.

Les desastres de la guerre explores Goya’s great and terrible painting with some images perhaps too horrific for art. Other such films—Robert Flaherty’s look at Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or some shorts by Carl Th. Dreyer—pale by comparison with Goya as filtered through the filmmakers’ camera, prowling up and down and about. The nightmare images could be refugees from the SyFy Channel or The Walking Dead, if they weren’t so intrinsically beautiful. By contrast, Les charmes de l’existence offers the beaux-arts splendor of fin-de-siècle France, when sensuality and spectacle seemed to rule and the cinema itself was being born.

Georges Franju (1912–1987) only made eight theatrical features, but he is considered a major figure. Part of his importance is that he was until 1949 (horror of horrors) a film archivist, working with Henri Langlois as co-founder of the Cinémathèque Francaise. In the decade beginning in 1949, he made 13 short films, of which the first and last are included in this program. (He would also go on to do much television work in the 1970s.) La premiere nuit is quite a lovely, eerie evocation of the Paris Metro, very much in keeping with the New Wave aesthetic of shooting on the “streets” of Paris. Franju’s composer, Georges Delerue, would soon be working for Resnais, Malle, and Truffaut. (A quarter-century earlier, a very young Franju had made another short called Le metro, now presumably lost). Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts) is perhaps the director’s most famous film, and for those of us who are animal lovers, it is as much an evocation of Hell as anything Goya ever did. Could Goya have even imagined men who sing while they slaughter?

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