Introduction: A Migration of Styles
We’ve read all about the era of Great American Screenplays, from the screwball comedy to the Western, to the film noir. We’ve reviewed such classics as The Philadelphia Story, Stagecoach, and The Maltese Falcon. We even spent some time dabbling in the momentous watershed year 1939, reviewing standards of American cinema like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But, what was going on elsewhere in the wide world of film? Had Hollywood monopolized the movie medium, barring any other nation or culture from contributing to the art form? Obviously, the answer is no. In conjunction with our travels through 1930s and 1940s American cinema, we have already visited (briefly) the samurai film of Japan. 1930s and 1940s American cinema was having a huge impact in that distant island across the Pacific, with the stylistic contributions of storytellers like John Ford greatly influencing the Japanese cinematic masters like Akira Kurosawa. But what about elsewhere…say, Europe?
Well, the American cinema of that era would play its important role there, as well. The mass global exchange of human resources that occurred immediately before and after World War II created a permeation of styles, motifs, and themes that solidified film’s “new world order.” All revolutions from that point on—from Spanish Surrealism to the French New-Wave to the American digital blockbuster—must be seen in conjunction with this new bedrock foundation created by post-war global reciprocity, a reciprocity based on suffering and recovery, Nuremberg-like international justice, imperialism, and the evolution of technology in the face of Cold War and nuclear deterrence. Simply put, ideas and people globalized, and film was not exempt.
Perhaps no other film style or genre influenced the post-war landscape more than film noir. (It’s important to note that noir is more a style than a genre). The French noticed it very early, hence their coining its name: “black film.” The British would embrace the approach with open arms, and the Italians would use it to further hone their own signature artistic movement: Neo-Realism.
But, American film noir did not act as a lone influence. After all, how does one jump from expressionistic detective stories to Reconstruction realist dramas? This is clearly a long bridge to cross.
This is why it is now imperative to visit 1930s France. We’ve already talked about 1930s Germany; the Expressionism of German filmmakers traveled with them as they migrated to the United States and blended it with the gangster film in order to create film noir. It is no question that American noir was born of German Expressionism. Was, for example, British film noir born in the same way? Surely, they were; at least, indirectly. Without the success of the American tradition, the British noir tradition may never have begun, and since the Americans were indebted to the Germans, so, too, must the British have been.
But there is much more to it than that. In his book, European Film Noir, film director Andrew Spicer argues that as American film noir is to German Expressionism, then British film noir must be to French Poetic Realism. I would argue, even further, that French Poetic Realism and American film noir (and, by extension, German Expressionism), worked together to drastically change the landscape of post-war European cinema. Film noir would live on with practical immortality because of this marriage with the French tradition. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the French noticed this American trend first.
So, before we go any further in this blog, we must look at the Poetic Realism of 1930s French cinema. In studying this, we will study some of the greatest films ever made, and the path to film competency will broaden significantly.
The Significance of French Cinema (cannot be overlooked)
It’s important not to gloss over just how important French cinema is to the competent film connoisseur. The Road to Competency is paved with great films, and many of its landmarks are masterworks of the French language. Even the first great film, the first landmark, as it were, Arrival of a Train at La’Ciotat Station, was French. The structuralist masterpiece A Trip to the Moon—that ushered in a new way to tell stories through the medium, an escape from film’s natural documentary confines—was French. These early French silent masterpieces were of paramount importance in the evolution of film, as, I hope, was made obvious in my essays on montage theory.
More particularly, France was home of the first movie theaters, making it the birthplace of cinema not only as a technology, but as an experience. Where Edison and Muybridge and others were creating moving pictures, they involved what was called the “peepshow” technique. Meanwhile, in Paris, the Lumière brothers invented the cinematograph, allowing multiple people to watch at once. Their films—including Arrival of a Train—were shown to the public in auditoriums, exposing hundreds of people at once to the new miracle of photographic technology. Hence the legend: when that Train arrived at La’Ciotat on the screen before them, the audience screamed.
Georges Méliès, with A Trip to the Moon, and his movies that preceded it (there were plenty), broke movies free from the fundamentally documentary premise of pre-modern cinema. He began to tell adventure stories, stylish, choreographed, and ingenious in their application of film tricks. Hence, France not only invented the public movie as a technology; it invented it as an entertainment.
The impact of the French on cinema is not exclusively ancient, its tradition in excellence survived through the silent era and beyond. French epics like Abel Gance’s Napoléon made underachievers of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and subtler, more intimate pictures like Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice were paving the way for the Poetic Realism that is the focus of this essay, even as they were contributing to the humanist documentary that was so central to artistic silent cinema.
French cinema would closely follow world politics as France was pulled in pieces by the ravages of two world wars. Out of its ashes, several key movements would rise that would impact the cinematic landscape permanently. Among these styles and movements were the minimalism of Robert Bresson, the French New Wave, and the “cinema du look”. Some of the greatest film critics of all time (including the incomparable André Bazin) would put together the classic magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, which would work legitimize these styles. Everything in world cinema hinged on the approval that was granted it by the French. Everything.
The Birth of Poetic Realism
In 1927, the American dropped a bomb on the world of cinema after the release of The Jazz Singer. As with the literal bombs of World War I and World War II, the way that the world adjusted would forever alter the course of cinematic style and the filmmaker’s approach to it as an art form, as a means of documentation, and as a form of entertainment.
Andrew Pulver, in an article in The Guardian published in 2011, stated two responses to the influx of sound in movies that occurred in France: the birth of filmed theater (Pulver particularly references Marcel Pagnol’s adaptations of his own plays), and the birth of the French musical, in particular, the works of René Clair.
That these two genres would come to existence after 1927 should be obvious. Failed attempts at filmed theater were abundant in the pre-sound era. Directors in England and the United States, including Thomas Edison’s production company, filled the playbills with Shakespeare adaptations. Clearly, it is difficult to bring to life theater in silent film, considering the purely verbal medium that theater (particularly in the mainstream) is. What was established early on when it came to “filmed theater” was that there was a severe lack of transferability between the media at their purest levels. Film and theater speak different languages, using a different vocabulary to communicate their respective messages. This is why I, personally, don’t subscribe to the theory that “theater and film” make up the seventh art (essentially, the “performing arts”).
Theater being more of a composite of other art forms (literature, dance, music, etc.), it did not work well in a pure film context even after the introduction of sound. The commentary of André Bazin best explains this lack of compatibility. In reality, it wasn’t until Laurence Olivier made Hamlet that the bridge between these two media was found. Bazin admitted as much; and he would know best: his career began in 1943, immediately after the interesting and first post-sound decade. Regardless of the medium’s failure, filmed theater was an inevitable dabbling after movies became talkies.
The other, the musical, was also an inevitability. These musicals, furthermore, were not as much a failure. As a matter of fact, the first great musicals—along with The Jazz Singer—were French: movies like Le million and Under the Roofs of Paris, both made by René Clair. These musicals embraced a romantic image of France, one that aesthetically fit as a backdrop to the choreography and music by which its performers moved.
However, the French, it seemed, wanted something else, something darker, that, despite the darkness, could still embrace the elegance of their culture. They were certainly no different than the rest of the world in this regard: the Americans were embracing gangster movies and film noir, Germans were moving toward Expressionism and horror movies, and that is just a sampling. The reality of the world, as always, could not help but infuse itself into even the most hopeful of artistic expressions.
So, though filmed theater and the musical would make their plays for stylistic dominance, one filmic approach reigned supreme in 1930s France. This was called “Poetic Realism”.
As the darker (yet equally beautiful) equivalent to the more jovial musicality of other French films in the talkie era, Poetic Realism was the most respected alternative in artistic circles. But, its resurgence did not exist in a vacuum. Its father was French Impressionism, an avant garde movement in the silent era (and shortly thereafter) that was focused on film narrative, the camera’s obsession with telling a story from the first-person. As was stated by Richard Abel, it was a loose and unorganized attempt by French filmmakers to explore “the process of representation and signification in narrative film discourse.” This representation and signification was performed in a variety of ways, from focus on mise-en-scène to intellectual montage, from high shots to low shots, from pictorialism to rhythmic juxtaposition of shots. In all, the art was characterized more by its goals than by its style, which makes it all the more difficult to pigeonhole, despite the best efforts from such film scholars as David Bordwell.
It is the narrative element of French Impressionism that carried over into Poetic Realism, and which separated it from all other forms of cinema. Take, for example, the predominant genres in the United States around the same time. Film noir and gangster films were focused more on style than substance, telling a story that was as dependent on its visuals than it was on its characters. The Western was focused on permeation of the American myth, a pitting of heroes against nature and the establishment of a national identity in a microcosm. The screwball comedy was about relationships, as well as a social dynamic based on class distinctions of all sorts of varieties. The works of French Impressionism, and later Poetic Realism were focused on the individual.
Poetic Realism, in particular, was about one sort of individual: the proletariat layman, dealing with milieu in the pre-war darkness of Depression-ridden France. They embraced realism: an appeal to what real life is like, rather than the stylized and fiction-based worlds that so engaged the American people.
“Poetic” “Realism”: A Paradox?
Isn’t it oxymoronic to say something like “poetic realism”? It most certainly is, and that is what makes this genre so beautiful to watch. Like film noir, this genre takes full advantage of the black and white schema, including the symbolic embrace of polarity. So, while the film is focused on the realism of the human condition, it is also infused with a gorgeous poeticism, one rooted in representation. In this regard, poetic realism is definitely the progeny of French Impressionism.
Part of the poetry is very similar to the poetic aestheticism of the American Western, only far more urban. Rather than pitting humans against nature (a foray more mythical than humanist), the humans in these French films are pitted against modernity.
It is the poetic nature of the film, its symbolic representations of the sort of challenges that befell the French citizen between the World Wars, that brings it so much life. It also is where the films that define this movement find the most diversity of flavor. Some films of the era were highly dramatized, like Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, others more comedic, like Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Still others took full advantage of the “poetic” side of poetic realism, as Jean Vigo did in L’Atalante, and others were strikingly similar to the genre films in the American film noir tradition (movies like Pépé le Moko by Julien Duvivier and Le Jour se lève by Marcel Carné).
Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why the movement is known more for its actors than its style. Truly, directors like Renoir, Vigo and Carné are the beginning, middle and end of French poetic realism, the cœur et l’âme du réalisme poétique. But, there was a uniformity of style there, at least as far as I see it. It was this focus on the individual, generally a male tragic figure, obsessed with romance but beset by trial. It creates tragedy almost Greek in its conclusion: in a large amount of these dramas, the tragic figure meets a terrible end, whether that be death, loss or some other sad fate. It is probably more an exception than a rule that the films of this movement had a happy end, the unfortunate victory of the realist over the poet.
It was in and by this mix of poetic representation and realism (the structuralist documentary, as it were) that the French masterworkers of the 1930s were able to do so much. Indeed, it was a palate where love and pain could flourish, where tongue-in-cheek satire could work alongside a comedy of errors, and where the romance of a river boat could divide and unify the joys of new love. It was much an introspective look at humanity generally as it was a look at the French, but it was the latter, I think that makes it so memorable. The movement is at the heart of French filmic expression, and would highly influence every French approach in generations to come, including the minimalism of Bazin and Bresson, and the New Wave of Godard and Truffaut.
Like film noir, poetic realism is more a style than a genre. That should be clear from the list I provided above; and in subsequent reviews you will come to see just how diverse the genres that touched this movement were. However, like film noir, there is a stylistic centricity. Generally, this centers on themes and motifs that permeate the pictures themselves.
Surely one of the primary motifs of Poetic Realism is the aforementioned distinction visually drawn between man and modernity. There are other ways that this distinction is drawn, ways less urban than those of shipyards and theater halls. In perhaps the greatest film of this movement, The Rules of the Game, this distinction is shown in a country manor estate, which includes the incredibly famous hunting sequence in the wilderness outside the mansion.
Another particular theme of the genre was its embrace of quasi-noir styles, particularly in questions of lighting and art directions. Again, this was focused on the need to convey ideas about certain social conditions. The darkness of film noir fit well as the parchment upon which this new film vocabulary was written. Surely the visual expressions were similar to that of film noir—though less Expressionist—with its harshness of lighting. However, there was significant contradistinction to the verbal element of noir. Poetic Realism (while equally reliant on the convergence of great writing with great photography) was far more, well…poetic. There is a certain melodrama to the dialogue in poetic realism, a certain literal vocabulary to go along with the new film vocabulary of the the movement.
The new film vocabulary was, like the literal one, inherently French. In particular, the filmmakers of the poetic realism market were focused on telling stories of doomed romance. Along the way, the French continually divorced themselves from the Hollywood tradition, which was inspired more by the Byronic Romanticism than the realist side of pessimism. There would never be a “re-marriage”, as it were. The path of French filmography would forever diverge from that of the United States, and along with the United States, would influence the cinema of other nations in its own unique ways.
This divergence was not only incidental, but inspirational. It was the uniqueness of French cinema that inspired the entire recreation of cinematic expression that was the French New Wave thirty years later. It was indicative of an artistic independence that would come to define French film regardless of the time period.
I personally, find this independence of style a beautiful thing. There is something gorgeous about the pain of living seen through the lens of the French poetic-realist auteurs. And the lack of narrative conformity with the Hollywood way is perfectly in line with the nature of the subject matter on the screen. The films are about independence, about humans existing in a world that is unforgiving—beit through social pressures, tyranny, economic struggle, or broken hearts. These are individualized conflicts; their generalized applicability is rooted in this individuality. An opaque approach to create an “Everyman”, rather than a “Unique man”, would fail where the films of poetic realism succeeded.
These movies are beautiful, thought-provoking, dramatically engaging, and, at times, even quite humorous. They are fantastically tasty slices of cake, or “tarte”, I guess.
In studying these films, we will have entered into a new realm of the cinematic story. Well on our way to film competency, we will study some of the greatest movies ever made. We will only do four reviews in conjunction with this essay on French Poetic Realism, but they are going to deep. They deserve to be deep. These are films that deserve multiple viewings. One of these has even been deemed the “French Citizen Kane“, and has been, in the eyes of many great critics, considered the greatest movie every made. Indeed, we shall linger on this one.
We shall also read about some of the most important players in this movement, in particular, the great directors Renoir, Carné, and Vigo. There will also be conversation about several great French actors, including the man that is unanimously considered the greatest French film actor in history: Jean Gabin, who was indeed the Humphrey Bogart of his industry.
So, before further ado, let us dig into some of these masterpieces of French Poetic Realism.