16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance

What Do Those Old Films Mean?
Each part 26 Min., Dir.: Noël Burch

Return to main: What Do Those Old Films Mean?

Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide

Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below

Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World

Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Born Yesterday

Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History

Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags

If one were to pinpoint a single, underlying historical cause to explain the long the tradition of popular political consciousness in France, it would be the national bourgeoisie’s need to mobilise, again and again, the ordinary people of the cities. In 1789, 1830, 1848 and finally, at the end of the century, in the battle to separate Church and State it was necessary to enlist the urban masses in order to defeat the dwindling, but at least until 1906, still very real power of the aristocracy and the Church. 1789, moreover, had failed to bring about a radical land-reform. Most French farmers did not own the land they worked until the late nineteenth century, when the landowners sold their holdings in favour of more lucrative investments. This slow structural evolution of the rural world towards the family farm could only accentuate the peasants’ traditional conservatism, supporting Church and Manor against the forces of reform and revolution.

These complex class divisions had been particularly acute since the crisis of 1869-1871: the defeat by the Prussians at Sedan, the fall of the oppressive Second Empire and the final triumph of bourgeois Republicanism, the dashing of the hopes placed by an embryonic working class in the Paris Commune.

The most powerful tool of national unity forged by the bourgeoisie in the years following the bloody massacre of the Communards was the Radical Party and its “left” offshoot, Radical Socialism. Liberal and reformist in essence, both groupings had one distinguishing feature which enabled them to reach well beyond the middle classes they represented: their populist style, their gift for appealing to the grudges of the working masses, to their anti-clericalism as well as to their legitimate aspirations towards democracy Republicanism).

Despite the defeat of the Commune, the French working classes continued to be at least as combative as any in Europe. True, the trade union movement lagged far behind that of Britain, where the power of organised labour led to better living conditions, but also to greater aspirations toward respectability, with the working people torn between Temperance and the gin mill — in contrast with the uninhibited celebration of wine which has never ceased to be at the centre of the French worker’s savoir-vivre. In France, workers had cultivated traditional forms of resistance — in which café-life played an important part — to such a degree of perfection that one can actually speak of a form of workers’ control over the conditions of exploitation. Such resistance effectively helped to delay the coming of the large factory, and French (especially Parisian) manufacturing continued to be dominated by workshop and cottage industry well into the twentieth century.

Until the turn of the century, a French syndicat (union) tended to be an informal, temporary grouping of workers with strike action in view. Working-class consciousness was largely confined to Anarcho-syndicalism: the bitter lesson of the Commune had discouraged broader socio-political ambitions.

In more ways than one, the French nineteenth century does not end until the First World War, when rural society emerges at last from its savage isolation, when modern working-class consciousness is forged: the French Revolution had taken one hundred and thirty years to accomplish its mission.

Getting Down to the People

One cannot overestimate the importance of populist styles and attitudes in the formation of French cultural sensibility, at least since Rabelais. Modern literary populism goes back to Eugène Süé (Les Mysteres de Paris 1843) Victor Hugo (Les Miserables 1862) and Emile Zola. By the turn of the century it was omnipresent, feeding on the vocabulary and speech-patterns of the people, on their memories of the Commune, their antimilitarism and anti-clericalism, their street- and café-lore. It thrived in every quarter, from the political style of Radicalism to the poems of a déclassé anarchist, such as Jehan Rictus or the songs of a royalist chansonnier like Aristide Bruant.

Is there a common denominator between the populism of Ferdinand Zecca, the former music-hall stage manager who made hundreds of films for Charles Pathé and, say, that of Anatole France in Crainquebille (1901), his tale of a barrow monger victimised by an officious gendarme? No doubt. But Anatole France was a refined, maverick intellectual, an astute observer of popular street life (and one of the first French literary figures to take an interest in the lowly film). Zecca’s populism, on the other hand, though also to some extent an outside view - that of the parvenu distancing himself from his origins - retains a raw innocence that surely accounts for its international appeal with audiences composed almost solely of the poor.

It was as much the popular ”vulgarity” and ”triviality” of the films themselves as the foul and noisy squalor of the fairground stands and early local cinemas which kept the French bourgeoisie, and especially its intelligentsia, away from cinema for so long. It is true that an aesthete like the young Louis Delluc was drawn to other forms of plebeian entertainment, shunning the legitimate stage of the pre-war years in favour of music-hall or sophisticated cabaret (e.g. Le Chat Noir). But even his populist tastes did not extend to the greatest film-making of those early days (Zecca, Méliès, Max Linder).

That cinema had more to offer than the dry lessons of the travelogue only dawned upon most of Parisian society in 1916, with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, ”one of the first of the domestic dramas of the well-to-do… presented without moralising and from their own point of view,” according to the American film historian, Lewis Jacobs. This tale of the brutal outrage perpetrated on a flighty Long Island socialite by a decadent Asian playboy (too shocking to be released in most of the United States) appealed to a Paris bourgeoisie starved for pleasure on account of the war, and who recognised in this innovative film the sophisticated sensationalism of ”their” théâtre de boulevard. At exactly the same moment, the adolescents who were soon to found Surrealism (Aragon, Breton, Ribemont Dessaignes...) were cutting their anti-bourgeois, anti-rationalistic teeth on the vaguely anarchistic film serials (Fantômas, Les Vampires) being churned out by Louis Feuillade for his working-class audience.

It was to take an imagery far more ”exotic” and primitive to satisfy Louis Delluc’s craving for otherness. The lively Westerns directed by Thomas H. Ince and often starring William S. Hart, with their simplistic vision of frontier life, their idealisation of rugged individualism, enabled him to reconcile the sensibility of his sex and social class with the emotional need to identify with a popular audience. Delluc did not, however, confuse populism with slumming, and had only scathing remarks for the smart set who went to see screen serials and melodramas for laughs.

When American troops arrived in France, with their artillery and their jazz-bands, bringing new hope to a war-weary people, there appeared the first signs of that typically French cross-class fascination with the Hollywood movie which is still in evidence today. Delluc was not so much “the first film critic” as the first in a long line of French film-buffs. Through his writings, it is easy to see how a male fascination with the rough-and-ready myths of the New World dovetail perfectly with the eternal bourgeois bad conscience, always ready to prefer Mistinguett to Sarah Bernhardt, Dashiel Hammet to Marcel Proust.

Another generation, this time of intellectuals, had begun to direct films during the war. As Parisian art and literary values found expression in the films of Abel Gance, Marcel L’Herbier and others, Delluc compared their elegant ”European” visual styles unfavourably with the more ”artless” qualities of Hollywood. His own films were uneasy attempts at the ”American look” within a very French tradition of naturalist melodrama.

Authentic literary populism also found its place in films after the war. A new ”poetic realism” appeared in the works of Jacques Feyder (Crainquebille, Visages d’Enfants) and was to culminate in the Thirties, with Renoir, Duvivier and Carné.