A note on 1920s film historiography in Paris and Marcel L’Herbier’s ‘L’Homme du large’ (1920)

Since last summer I have been increasingly interested in exploring the works of the French 1920s avant-garde directors – Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Abel Gance, Louis Delluc and Marcel L’Herbier – beyond the most well known films from this period, which were programmed in the first year of my film and media studies program in Copenhagen in 2005/2006: films such as Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928) or Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926). While those films were absolutely eye-opening to me back then and left me with a completely different view on what film could be I never made the effort to dig as deep into that period as I would have liked. Film-viewing-wise, I remember I was mostly busy watching Italian classics and exploitation cinema back then.

However, all that changed when I began reading up on early film history writing and the recognition of film as an art form last year as a part of my research. In particular I became interested in the gradual discursive change toward film and the perception of film as an art form and its institutionalization in French film criticism, theory and ciné-club culture in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. In this respect, one of the critics and key figures of this moment whose early film histories have interested me in particular is Léon Moussinac. Moussinac belonged to the inner circle of film critics and theorists in Paris and was a militant supporter of film as an art form, playing a central role in recognizing for example Soviet cinema as such – in particular Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein – through his central engagement in the communist ciné-club Les amis de Spartacus, which was launched in the summer of 1927. Probably the best introduction to this period and its milieu has been written by the American film historian Richard Abel in his book French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929 (Princeton University Press, 1987), which in retrospect regards this particular period with its cinephile cinema-going habits and critic-filmmaker figures as a ‘first wave’ preceding the later French Nouvelle Vague and its mixture of popular cultural and neo-avantgardist attitudes. A little introduction to Moussinac written by Abel can be found here. In French, perhaps the sociological analysis proposed by film conservator and historian of the French National Library Christophe Gauthier in his La Passion du cinéma: ciné-clubs, cinéphiles et salles spécialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929 (AFRHC/EDC, 1999) remains one of the most engaging studies of the period which I have come across, partly because it investigates the links between collection building in the 1920s ciné-clubs and film preservation extensively.

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moussinac

Léon Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925)

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Léon Moussinac wrote several film histories throughout the 1920s, both general ones and film histories focused on national cinemas, on for example Soviet cinema (Le Cinéma Soviétique, Librairie Gallimard, 1928). Arguably, his most influential film histories are the early Naissance du Cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925) and Panoramique du Cinéma (Au sans pareil, 1929), because of their discernment of a set frame of reference for films which in the eyes of the 1920s cinephiles had contributed to the establishment of film as an art form (these books can still be found at quite reasonable prices online!). What I find particularly fascinating in reading these books today is the detailed insight they give into the canon formation and appreciation of silent films which are still with us and which continue to be taught as key films in the history of cinema, while at the same time, they may give an impression of some of the films which tend perhaps to be forgotten today and enjoyed only within specialized circles. Furthermore, it is intriguing to  go through them because they nourish an understanding of how contemporary film theory in its conceptualization of film as an art form laid the foundation for film history writing. The structure and content of Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma is for example particularly interesting in this aspect, with an opening statement which serves to legitimize film as art, by proposing a list of films that are particularly artistic and a theoretical conception with which to discern then.

The book opens with the kind of statement which is for the most part abandoned in film history writing today (and for a good reason I would say, but arguably a quite necessary form of history at its time) because of its teleological conception of history. As Moussinac writes on page 7:

We are living in admirable and profoundly touching times. In the great turmoil of the modern an art is born, develops, discovering one after one its proper laws, marches slowly towards perfection, an art which will be the very expression, bold, powerful, original, the ideal of the new times. And it is a long hard stage, towards the beauty, in which too few yet believe because they have not fully understood its astounding truth. (Own translation).

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Nous vivons des heures admirables et profondément émouvantes. Dans le grand trouble moderne, un art naît, se développe, découvre une à une ses propres lois, marche lentement vers sa perfection, un art qui sera l’expression même, hardie, puissante, originale, de l’idéal des temps nouveaux. Et c’est une longue et dure étape, à la beauté de laquelle trop peu croient encore parce qu’ils n’en ont pas compris pleinement la formidable vérité. (Original quote).

This is followed by a little list which indicates the most important stages (étapes) in this development toward the birth of an art form consisting mostly of European (French, German, Swedish) and North American fiction films, with a strong emphasis on the French avant-garde represented by the films of Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Jean Epstein. That the films of the latter were recognized as particularly artistic pertained to a view which became increasingly common on French film criticism, theory and distribution at the time that conceptualized as of French films as particularly artistic. This is visible in Moussinac’s Naissance du Cinéma in its extensive use of the notion of photogénie as the foundation for its theoretical conception (‘conception théorique’). This term, while used with subtle and important differences in nuance in the writings of Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc and Moussinac, sought to capture or formulate the subjective experience of a particularly beautiful cinematic moment, usually of a very short duration: a gesture, an expression or for example a detail in cinematography and mise-en-scène which appears striking because of a particularly aesthetic quality. The identification of these moments of cinematic beauty what was led the French cinephiles to make their lists of the most artistic films, in contemporary film reviews which would then serve as support for a historicisation of film art’s development.

It may seem somewhat dubious that the French tended to acknowledge their own cinema as a particularly artistic one in this period (and it may very well be the case to some extent, given that this historical view excluded so many other films) but I think it is quite important to keep in mind that the dynamic of this conception of cinema which is visible in for example Moussinac’s writings cinema may be regarded – in line with the argument in Abel’s history of the period – as very much similar to that of the later “second wave” – the Nouvelle Vague. Here seemed quite simply to be a group of individuals – more or less like-minded – who missed something more daring from their own cinema production, being – in the case of some – fascinated by developments in American, Soviet and Scandinavian cinema, thus promoting at the same time film art through film criticism/theory and filmmaking. It is exactly because of these qualities that I have begun seeking out the 1920s French avant-garde films to a greater extent, to gain insight into how a common conception of film history as it continues to be taught today emerged. Of course, it is also to watch some truly remarkable films!

Thus, yesterday evening I had the immense pleasure of watching Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Homme du large for the first time (1920). This is in some respects a breakthrough film for L’Herbier being a great success with contemporary film critics and with a general audience. It is a powerful drama about a little family living by the seaside, in which the father – Nolff – badly wishes to get a son, in addition to his daughter, with whom he can share and teach his passion for the sea. However, when finally the son – Michel – is born, he is drawn instead to the city from which the family had moved to live itself by the sea. Developing a more and more intense antipathy towards his father who remains blindly faithful and loving of his son almost regardless of his conduct, Michel eventually ends being tangled up in the seedy city life and its violence, ignoring at the same time – to the agony of his sister – his mother’s increasingly grave illness. The film is told in a complex flash-back structure where the father is first seen living as an hermit, because of the break with his son, to then look back at the development of their relationship and their eventual break-up. It contains many emotionally strong scenes, and is visually stunning, with an incredible use of colors (according to L’Herbier’s notes) to depict the sea, complex editing between locations, inter-title design – sometimes in split-screen, super-impositions and framing, of which I have included some examples of screen caps below.

As Moussinac noted in Naissance du cinéma, what gave the film its great quality was its depiction of the sea and role in the story (p. 119):

Thus, what often gives L’Homme du large, its emotion, is this constant presence of the sea which shakes the drama, penetrates it, invades it, dominates it even, gives it its terrifying bursts, its endlessness. The sea’s voice is real, one is subjected to its grave tremendous tone, a sort of pedal (pédale) which upholds the chant of beginning at the end of the film. (Own translation).

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Ainsi ce qui procure à L’Homme du large, souvent, son émotion, c’est cette présence constante de la mer qui secoue le drame, le pénètre, l’envahit, le domine même, lui prête ses sursauts terribles, son infini. La voix de la mer est réelle, on subit sa note grave prodigieuse, sorte de pédale qui soutient le chant du commencement à la fin du film. (Original quote).

The film is released in a highly elegant double-DVD set from French Gaumont together with L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Each film is accompanied by a detailed booklet, containing reproductions of the original poster art, elaborate notes on the restorations – particularly interesting with regard to L’Homme du large‘s colors – and historical articles, for example Henri Langlois’ praise of L’Homme… Highly recommended!

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L'homme du large 4

When Nolff learns that his wife has given birth to a boy, he proposes a clear division of their education between them: his wife can take care of their daughter, while Nolff himself will educate their son to become “- a free man, a sailor!”. Here, an inter-title appears simultaneously with the action in split-screen.

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L'homme du large 2

The terrified look of Michel’s sister Djenna set to the background of the sea, as she gathers courage to go into town and bring back her drunk brother to their mother’s sickbed.

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L'homme du large 1

One of the film’s stunning visual features is its use of masks in different shapes and super-impositions; in one of the most dramatic scenes for example, a cross suddenly appears super-imposed over the sea.

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