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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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Chapter 1 1930s Set Design: Contexts and Practices


From Caligari’s Cabinets to Meerson’s Maquettes While our story begins at the very start of the 1930s, with the rapid evolu- tion and sustained preeminence of French studio-designed sets, several important developments had already occurred throughout the 1920s that strongly inf luenced the evolution and future direction of French decor practice. Before looking closer at these specific cultural circumstances and industrial responses, it is worth brief ly revisiting Georges Sadoul’s arti- cle, ‘Apropos Several Recent Films’, published in Commune in November 1936, and his relieved description of the sets in Pension Mimosas (1935), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935), Jenny (1936), and La Belle équipe (1936) as being completely dif ferent from ‘the badly patched background f lats which ordinarily make up the decors of the French cinema’ (Sadoul 1988: 219). These settings were part of the typical French studio repertoire that consisted of ‘dining and drawing rooms, kitchens, prisons, winter gardens painted on pliable canvas-covered frames’ (Barsacq 1976: 37). While it is true that such painted sets and trompe l’oeil perspectives were default scen- ery modes for the likes of Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca, Sadoul and Barsacq’s acknowledgement that French decor practice from 1910 to the early 1930s had been mired in the conventions of fin de siècle theatre is, as we shall see, partly inaccurate. As early as 1914, the painted scenery that had characterized film’s first twenty years or so was gradually replaced by constructed plywood and staf f (a mixture of hemp...

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