Impressionism and the new avant-gardes: French cinema of the 1920s

Impressionism and new forms of cinematographic research replaced industrial film in France in the 1920s. The production of French films in the 1920s dropped dramatically. Cinema was produced much more in the United States and Germany.

Pathè and Gaumont, which had been the first industrial film production companies in history, took care themselves to the distribution and production of technical materials, abandoning the production of films. They had replaced Melies‘ artistic cinema and the other artisans of the cinema of the origins, they had established themselves on the market with arrogance to produce films for the general public. But things hadn’t worked out the way they thought.

Industrial films were often very expensive and financial failures were frequent. Executives at Pathé and Gaumont had understood that there was a lot less risk involved in distributing than making new films.

Although in the mid-1920s France produced only about fifty feature films and the United States 729, there was a great cultural ferment on the streets of Paris and other cities. More film clubs were born than in any other part of the world. There was the opportunity to attend debates, film reviews, avant-garde magazines were born.

The France that had invented cinema continued to love it above all as an art form. The French were interested in discovering cinema and establishing a link between this art and the intellectual world.

Impressionism and French art cinema

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French cinema takes the form of new avant-gardes such as impressionism. The first films were made that reflect on cinema from a theoretical and artistic point of view. Cinema is conceived as art, research and experimentation, the directors were not mere artisans but developed a theoretical and critical awareness of their art.

The French Impressionist directors were the creators of the most original and avant-garde ideas of the 1920s. Cinema was conceived as a mix of other arts such as music and painting, while the connection with the theatre was rejected. The art that most resembles cinema was music because it was a temporal and rhythmic art. Instead of musical notes it lives on figurative rhythms, creative combinations of multiple elements, dynamic rhythms of light and images.

Cinema as symphony and rhythm

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Human bodies, sets, objects, camera movement move in the film. All these elements intertwine and add to each other, producing a coherent show through the spaces of the image. Cinema is a great symphony, to be built with rhythm and musicality. The music of the montage is within the individual shots. Rhythm of sequences, scenes and shots that make up the symphony of the entire film. But also the rhythm and timing of the stories told.

Abel Gance gives a very meaningful definition of cinema. He says: “it is the music of the light”. A definition on which the greatest directors in the history of cinema will also agree in the following years. The director Delluc theorises that the main quality of cinema is photogenic instead. He defines photogenic every character, object or landscape that enhances its moral quality through the reproduction of the cinematic image. A way of filming a subject in its immediacy and its deepest authenticity.

Impressionism and the nineteenth-century tale

The cinematographic impressionism of French directors is mostly concerned with nineteenth-century stories told in a traditional and romantic way. Fairly stereotyped stories capable of reaching a large audience. These are dramas that tell of social constraints, moralisms that cause personal dissatisfaction and the inability to achieve one’s desires.

These are films that today appear very dated like Rose of the Rail, by Abel Gance, the story of an incestuous passion of a railway worker for a young woman. Or L’Herbier’s Futurism, which tells the story of a deceptive and manipulative woman. Films superficially inspired by popular fiction and decadent literature.

Other works are more successful, such as Fever of 1921, and The Smiling Madame Beudet, of 1937, both by Delluc. The Fall of the Usher House in 1928, by Epstein, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Other films focus on the cinematic potential of investigating the psyche and inner world of the characters. Like Abel Gance’s 1916 experimental film Dr. Tube’s Madness or L’Herbier’s Eldorado.

The cinema of Abel Gance

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Some directors, such as Abel Gance, claim a more original personality. Gance creates large frescoes, expensive films from a production point of view, which experiment with new languages and new potentials of cinema. For example, the accelerated assembly of mechanical components in action in the film Rose on the rail. The director focuses on rhythm and movement with footage of contraptions in action.

A cinematic montage made up of shorter and shorter shots and a fast pace. Napoleon, since 1927, is the most expensive blockbuster of the time in France. The film chronicles Napoleon’s military achievements with a special focus on his individual history. There are also flashbacks from when he was a boy that delve deeper into the psychology of the emperor.

The scenes dedicated to the French Revolution mix with the character’s narrative, culminating in grandiose battle scenes. Although it is a film that tells a piece of French history in a traditional way, there are a long series of techniques and directorial inventions in it. It is one of the peaks of experimental cinema in the history of cinema. Perhaps the film that he experiences best in the period of silent cinema. Abel Gance’s camera is extremely dynamic, his movements are more elaborate than in any other film seen before. For the first time we see the split screen used in an exemplary way: the projection is divided into three screens at the same time.

Marcel L’Herbier

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Another very interesting director of French Impressionism is Marcel L’Herbier. His cinema is a search for complex images that are enriched with models taken from other arts. In his film Futurism there is a sequence in which he tells a science fiction experiment that allows the resurrection of the protagonist.

Accelerated editing gives the scene a hypermodern style that connects to technological processes. Images of the mechanical equipment of the laboratory in a crescendo of visual effects of great rhythmic intensity. Images, details, lights and chromatic effects that show a great expressive and dynamic force. Sci-fi and modernist sets that represent the future perspective of the film. A universe stimulated by the artistic innovations and the modern taste of the Paris of 1924, where a great exhibition dedicated to innovative arts is held.

The film sets seem to take us into a large art gallery. There is a variety of architectural styles influenced by Art Deco, Futurism and Rationalism. In 1929 L’Herbier made Money, a very expensive film that tells the mechanisms of economic power and its conflicts. Filmed in huge spaces with images of great breadth and spectacularity, rather than experimenting on editing L’Herbier focuses on narrative effects and the dynamism of the camera. Modernist shots that develop an idea of cinema inherited from Futurism, composing complex and rigorous figures.

The impressionism of Epstein, Kirsanoff, Cavalcanti

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Jean Epstein, on the other hand, alternated his activity as a director with that of a theorist and writer. His cinema is a search for moods, fleeting impressions, the mutation of feelings that follow the psychological dynamics of the characters.

An impressionism that focuses on the flow and becoming of things, with a light touch, investigating human feelings and sensations. Absolutely special films dedicated to mysterious characters, their psychological crises and their inner changes. As Faithful heart, from 1923, a film with images and close-ups of rare beauty. The woman the protagonist of the film is in love with is married under coercion by an overbearing drunkard. The protagonist ends up in prison and when he leaves he finds his beloved woman with a newborn baby. The two lovers dream of changing their lives but the bully controls the woman’s life with violence. A melodrama set in Marseille, in a port where gigantic ships and fishing boats move behind the characters. Masterful framing and editing, full of inventions and poetry, sudden ignitions of rhythms. A poignant and melancholy visual symphony, a masterpiece of French Impressionism, made with very few means and enormous inspiration.

Jean Epstein also realises Beautiful nivernese, from 1924. The three-sided mirror from 1927 presents the protagonist with 3 different images through the gaze of three women with exceptional narrative ability.

Other films by him, such as Finisterre from 1929, and the Sea of Crows from 1929, are poems about nature and the sea that go beyond a simple documentary. These films transform the image into a search for truth. Directors who develop a similar style are for example Cavalcanti and Kirsanoff, who strive to create a cinema in balance between documentary and fiction, mixing reality and staging, acted materials and documentary films, to create extraordinary visual symphonies. A style that many years later would be developed in a different form by independent directors such as Franco Piavoli.

Kirsanoff makes amazing visual poems. He transforms reality into musical rhythms. In the 1925 film Menilmontant, for example, he is looking for the invisible in a rigorous way, giving up telling any story to concentrate on experimenting with optical effects. In a similar way Alberto Cavalcanti, in the 1926 film In the harbor, mixes micro-stories and searches for rhythms and visions to make cinema a revealing tool of reality.

With Rien que les heures in 1927, he creates a visual symphony dedicated to the city of Paris. Fragments of metropolitan life, real situations, apparently random heterogeneous images, scraps, fragments of stories linked together to tell a story of chance and fate. Cavalcanti prefers secondary images and less frequented itineraries. A narrative and avant-garde, experimental cinema, characterised by a great research which, however, did not meet the success of the public, remaining long forgotten.

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