Fernand Léger Ballet mécanique 1924

  • Not on view

This film remains one of the most influential experimental works in the history of cinema. The only film made directly by the artist Fernand Léger, it demonstrates his concern during this period—shared with many other artists of the 1920s—with the mechanical world. In Léger's vision, however, this mechanical universe has a very human face. The objects photographed by Dudley Murphy, an American photographer and filmmaker, are transformed by the camera and by the editing rhythms and juxtapositions. In Ballet méchanique, repetition, movement, and multiple imagery combine to animate and give an aesthetic raison d'être to the clockwork structure of everyday life. The visual pleasures of kitchenware—wire whisks and funnels, copper pots and lids, tinned and fluted baking pans—are combined with images of a woman carrying a heavy sack on her shoulder, condemned like Sisyphus (but through a cinematic sense of wit) to climb and reclimb a steep flight of stairs on a Paris street. The dynamic qualities of film and its capacity to express the themes of a kinetic 20th-century reach a significant level of accomplishement in this early masterpiece of modern art.

Publication excerpt from Circulating Film Library Catalogue, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984, p. 167.
Additional text

He grew up in a small town in France, but Fernand Léger was urban to his core. Modern machines, products, technologies, speed, and mass media thrilled him, and he found their most concentrated expression in the city. From his base in Paris and influenced by stays in cities like New York and Chicago, he spent his career developing a visual language for his time. “If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it….” he wrote. “A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist.”

Though he was a painter, Léger experimented with other mediums. He made his foray into film in 1924 with Ballet mécanique (Mechanical ballet), on which he collaborated with artists Dudley Murphy and Man Ray. It opens with a shot of a woman on a swing. Back-and-forth she goes until—suddenly—three bottles of wine, a triangle, a straw hat, and a smiling mouth flash by in rapid, disjointed succession. A brief pause. The camera lingers on the mouth until another burst of disparate images races past. Soon these images—among them kitchenware, machine parts, people, geometric shapes—become kaleidoscopic, multiplying across the frame. Toward the film’s end, Léger includes a headline that screams in block letters: “On a vole un collier de perles de 5 millions” (Pearl necklace worth 5 million stolen)! Like nearly everything else, these letters and numbers break apart, dancing and blinking across the screen.

Avant-garde musician George Antheil composed a live musical accompaniment for Ballet mécanique, its staccato rhythms and forceful momentum a livewire complement to the film’s frenetic pace and frequently splintered imagery. Eschewing linear structure, Léger instead sought to capture the pulsating energy of modern urban life and the explosion of modern commercial advertising with a cacophonous overload of fractured, flashing, dancing, jumpy, repeating, speeding images. Ballet mécanique careens by like the city at rush hour. And just as we receive the sights of bustling urban streets as fleeting impressions, so does Léger present us with an assemblage of glimpses—imbued with his optimistic view of modernity and its boundless possibilities.

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