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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 3 1930s Designers: Praxis in Practice


Designers in France in the 1930s looked to adopt and refine particular tech- niques that would allow them to establish their reputation as the creators of memorable visual styles, to shore up their vocational credentials, and to consolidate their individual ‘touch’. Looked at from this professional viewpoint, issues of personal pride and the preservation of this particular ‘touch’ that could be guaranteed from assignment to assignment should not be underestimated. Despite the collaborative, non-threatening conditions in which they worked, designers – many of whom came from a theatrical or painterly background – were nonetheless conditioned to a thought- process that encouraged and demanded visual f lair. An imposed ideology of self-ef facement was counter-intuitive, incompatible even, and required designers to work hard to stamp their work with a recognizable brand with which to dif ferentiate their style and touch from their contemporaries. This represents the f lipside of the vertically integrated Hollywood system, for designers in France were not part of that production-line commodity approach that guaranteed an endless supply of work. The role of designer was thus full of artistic tensions that required a complex negotiation of structural and ideological contradictions. As Colin Crisp has commented: ‘A decor which obtruded to the point of being symbolic would mean fewer spectators, financial crisis for the producer, and no more work for the set designer’ (1993: 372). Working essentially from project to project, then, meant that such ad hoc industrial conditions were hardly conducive to long-term job stability. Nonetheless, the most accomplished designers...

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