Earlier this summer, Bertrand Tavernier produced an incredibly niche documentary, My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour memoir echoing the first-person style inspired by Martin Scorsese. MJTFC is a proper inside-look at French films and their directors. Naturally, summer presents the most opportune time to binge your favourite shows and movies. And Netflix reigns supreme for me in this regard. Still, at times I tire of Netflix and the lot. In order to locate a finer quality of content, or at least something new, it may be more productive to look backwards instead of forwards. MJTFC is a solid survey for an expert of film history, but not everyone is a cinephile. And if you haven’t seen any films from France’s poetic realism era, now is as good a time as any to get your feet wet.
At first glance, the phrase ‘Poetic Realism’ seems confusing. I get it. Poetry is usually thought to be the opposite of realism. In other words, poetry utilises the figurative language of metaphor to convey feelings and thoughts that can’t be presented in a matter-of-fact way. Conversely, something realistic is stripped of complexities until the emotions are laid bare for the audience to absorb. Realism hearkens to the vulnerability of the auteur and a willingness to express the topic with objectivity. So the movement of Poetic Realism essentially combines these two different methods. It blends Surrealist innovations with the more pragmatic mode of sequenced filmmaking.
If you haven’t seen any films from France’s poetic realism era, now is as good a time as any to get your feet wet.
The majority of these films were produced in the early sound era while the French film industry awaited the onset of WWII, providing discouraged if not outright cynical perspectives of prewar French culture, dark imagery, and a general apprehension. Poetic Realism has a tendency to emphasise working class narratives that function as critiques of society. The movement’s premiere films focus on a use of long shots, the confluence of tragedy and comedy, and the theme of doomed love. Still, there’s something truly optimistic about such consistent aesthetic preferences and a devotion to art in the midst of hostility. Here are my five favorite films from the era.
5. L’Atalante (Director – Jean Vigo, 1934) Vigo’s final work and perhaps the most prototypical film to begin your survey of French cinema. L’Atalante artfully pivots into a thoroughly chaotic tone, upending the typical poetic realist style – yet somehow the contrasting nature of the work plays seamlessly into a story that is as compelling as it is unorthodox.
4. Le Grand Jeu (Director – Jacques Feyder, 1934) A precursor to the American melodrama and one of the foremost examples of romantic misery in the poetic realist era. The French Foreign Legion takes centre stage in this film about the pitfalls of love and fate.
3. Pépé le Moko (Director – Julien Duvivier, 1937) Pépé le Moko is an anomalous gangster film and the obvious complement for Le Grand Jeu. French cinema in the 1930s was characterized by theatrics which were intermittently diluted by sorrow. In this case, Duvivier positions the protagonist, Jean Gabin, in between freedom and love.
2. La Règle du jeu (Director – Jean Renoir, 1939) Jean Renoir’s depth of staging and use of foreground, middle, and background are unmatched. La Règle du jeu, or The Rules of the Game, is one of my favourite films. Renoir is particularly skilled at rendering a humanist landscape in true documentarian form within the opaque confines of fiction. The Rules of the Game is the supreme critic of European societal division and somehow an equally comical and pensive reflection of humanity’s shortcomings.
1. Children of Paradise (Director – Marcel Carne, 1945) You have to be pretty brazen to critique the Nazi occupation of France, during the Nazi occupation of France. Carne bundled his evaluations into a three-hour epic split into two periods, Boulevard du Crime (Boulevard of Crime) and L’Homme Blanc (The Man in White). Children of Paradise is a masterpiece that tells the tale of a beautiful escort and her four suitors.