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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 2 1930s Set Design: Conventions and Codes


The ‘Good’ Set: To Be Seen or Not To Be Seen? Colin Crisp has identified the central problematic when analyzing the working practices and output of 1930s French studio designers as follows: ‘[S]hould their contribution be noticeable, striking in its aesthetic appeal, or invisible, merging imperceptibly into the communal contributions of their colleagues […] should the sets determine the visual style of the film and comment on the action, or should they constitute a neutral environment integrated into the action’ (1995: 367). What, precisely, is the function of decor? Is the set supposed to simply be there; ‘not only entirely integrated with the narrative but also pass[ing] before the eye of the spectator unob- served’? (Af fron and Af fron 1995: 44). Or should decor create and sustain mood, embody the atmosphere of the narrative, perhaps even be read as ‘autonomous designs […] liberated from narrative logic’? (Fischer 2003: 137). Interviews with many of the set designers of this period ritualistically give the same response to these sets of questions – the work of the designer is to seek invisibility and self-ef facement, and their design accomplish- ments should serve to prop up the story and not to overbalance it with excesses of style, artifice, or overblown symbolism. Decor that must pass unnoticed and not draw attention to itself, and yet determine the mood and atmosphere of the film: this seeming contradiction was forever being worked through by designers throughout the 1930s. As we have already seen, as studio shooting gradually...

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