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Ripping Open the Set

French Film Design, 1930–1939


Ben McCann

French film design throughout the 1930s was not just descriptive, but also expressive: sets were not merely part of the background, but were vital components of a film’s overall atmosphere, impact and critical afterlife. This was a period when sets were ‘ripped open’, as painted backdrops were replaced by three-dimensional constructions to ensure greater proximity to reality. Accomplished set designers such as Alexandre Trauner, Jacques Krauss and Eugène Lourié crafted a series of designs both realist and expressionistic that brought out the underlying themes of a film’s narrative and helped create an exportable vision of ‘Frenchness’ that influenced other European and American film design practices.
This book details the elaborate paraphrasing tendencies of French film design in the 1930s. The author explores the crucial role of the set designer in the film’s evolutionary process and charts how the rapid development of studio practices enabled designers to become progressively more ambitious. The book examines key films such as Quatorze juillet (1932), Un Carnet de bal (1937), La Grande illusion (1937) and Le Jour se lève (1939) to demonstrate how set design works at establishing time and place, generating audience familiarity and recognition and underpinning each film’s visual style.


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This book is based on a doctoral thesis completed at the University of Bristol between 1998 and 2003, and I was fortunate to receive a great deal of help and encouragement from many people. I would like to thank the University of Bristol for providing me with The Ashley Watkins Scholarship during the first year of my thesis, and also the Arts and Humanities Research Board for their subsequent three-year scholarship. The staf f at the University of Bristol Arts and Social Science Library, the Bibliothèque de Film, the Forum des Images and the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, and the British Film Institute in London were all tremendously helpful in tracing documents and material for me. Dave Sansum at the University of Bristol Language Centre was most accommodating in locating and making copies of French films. At the University of Bristol French Department, I would like to thank Ted Freeman, Richard Hobbs and Tim Unwin for their advice and adminis- trative help. I am also extremely grateful to John Adams, Birgit Beumers, Liz Bird, Margarida Dolan, Sue Harris, Sarah Street, and Carolyn Wilde for their comments and advice. Particular thanks go to William Baltyn, Craig Morrow and Andrew Watts. I would particularly like to record my debt to my supervisor, Peter Hawkins, whose encouragement and support benefited me greatly. I would also like to recognize my immense gratitude to the late Jill Forbes, whose guidance, encouragement and enthusiasm for my...

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