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Ripping Open the Set

French Film Design, 1930–1939

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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 6 Cityspaces: Paris Plays Itself

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O Paris, O ville infâme et merveilleuse — Père Jules (Michel Simon) in L’Atalante Quand on se promène au bord de l’eau Comme tout est beau Terre nouveau Paris est loin, comme une prison — Jean ( Jean Gabin) in La Belle équipe In 1930s French cinema, Paris is ubiquitous. As Colin Crisp reminds us, the capital ‘is so insistently present [in the 1930s] as almost to coincide with the notion of France itself ’ (2002: 58). This is part of a wider rep- resentational bias in French cinema; apart from during the Occupation, French cinema has always been ‘predominantly Parisian’ (Hayward 1993: 163), in ways that are not only filmic, but also institutional, economic, and structural. Although it might not have taken the lead directly from Carné’s 1933 frustrated question, by the end of the 1930s, it is certainly true that a significant part of French cinema had ‘gone down into the street’ (admit- tedly by rebuilding those streets in the studio) and had proposed multiple readings of Paris and the dynamic circulation within the boulevards and back streets of the urban centre. Geof frey Nowell-Smith has argued that the most ef fective ‘city films’ are those in which the city acts as ‘condition- ing factor on the fiction precisely by its recalcitrance and its inability to be subordinated to the demands of the narrative’ (2001: 104). In this sense, the city becomes not just the arena in which fictional events take place, but a protagonist of the...

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