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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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Bibliography

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Abel, R. (1984). French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929. Princeton: Princeton University Press. —— (1988). French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology 1907–1939. Volume 2: 1929–1939. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Adair, G. (1995). Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema. London: Faber and Faber. Af fron, C., and Af fron, M. J. (1995). Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Agel, H. (1959). Les Grands Cinéastes. Paris: Paris Editions Universitaires. Aguettand, L. (1932). ‘Le décor de cinéma doit s’adapter à l’esprit du scénario et du réalisateur’, Aguettand Archives, Box 78, File B7. —— (1943). ‘Conférence sur le décor de cinéma à la Maison des lettres’, Aguettand Archives, Box 86, File B7. Albera, F. (1995). Albatros: des Russes à Paris 1919–1929. Milan: Mazzotta and Ciné- mathèque Française. Albrecht, D. (1985). Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies. London: Thames and Hudson. Albrecht, D. (2000). ‘Dr Caligari’s Cabinets: The Set Design of Ken Adam’. In M. Lam- ster (ed.), Architecture and Film, pp. 117–28. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. Alekan, H. (1991). Des Lumières et des ombres. Paris: Librairie du Collectionneur. Altman, G. (1933). ‘Quatorze Juillet ou le rêve d’un Paris qui meurt’, Le Monde, 21 January, n.p. —— (1939). ‘Le Jour se lève: une oeuvre noire et pure’, La Lumière, 16 June, p. 5. Amengual, B. (2002). ‘L’ambigu réalisme de Jean Grémillon’, Positif, 494, 76–81....

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