André Antoine and the Realist Tradition
After its humiliating defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, France went through a social revolution. Over the next twenty years, many of its long-standing artistic traditions, such as the classical style of Academy painting, would be cast off in favor of new approaches, such as Impressionism. Live theater was one of the few holdovers from the pre-war era — formulaic pieces spoken by actors in dull declamatory style. But change was coming, voiced by the prophet of naturalism, novelist Emile Zola. “A work must be based in the real . . . on nature,” Zola wrote in Naturalism in the Theater. Zola explained that a playwright must observe facts, with no abstract characters or invented fantasies. Rising to meet this challenge, actor, and theater director André Antoine (1858-1943) founded the Theatre Libre, essentially a community theater, dedicated to showing new work by innovative writers. Antoine also staged works by controversial playwrights from outside of France, such as Ibsen and Chekhov. Under Antoine’s guidance, French theater became serious and legitimate. What is less known about Antoine is that he was also a film director, and a vital link in the development of the ‘realist tradition’ that has so enriched world cinema(…)
Antoine and others of his time realized that film’s ability to record unplanned spontaneity could add an entirely new dimension to storytelling, greatly increasing the sense that what you were seeing was really happening. Film shot on location could do this in ways that stage and theater productions could never approach. Eager to harness this ‘reality effect,’ and confident with their ideas on how films should be made, Antoine and his followers set out to make their mark in film history.(…)
The first film screened as part of this program was Germinal (1913), directed by a student of Antoine, Albert Capellani. An adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, the film describes the struggles of miners rebelling against the harsh working conditions in Montsou, a coal-mining town in the north of France.(…)
It’s hard for modern eyes to grasp how radical a film Germinal was when it was released in 1913, film’s annus mirabilis, the year when successful ‘feature length’ films forever changed people’s opinions about how long films could be. Over two hours, Germinal is drastically longer than the twenty-minute films audiences were used to seeing. Even more of a shock for audiences in 1913 was the film’s content, a frank examination of a working class struggles against often-brutal working conditions. Amid vivid landscapes in exterior shots, the film sometimes falls back to theatrical roots, with interiors that are obvious painted sets. Allowing for these occasional lapses, Germinal can still be enjoyed as a prototype for the realist tradition that would flourish and mature over the next twenty years(…)
While his student Capellini was directing Germinal, André Antoine was producing plays in Paris as manager of the Theatre de l’Odéon. With his attention to quality rather than profitability, Antoine’s theatrical companies were always one step away from bankruptcy, and by 1915, with his company deep in debt, he resigned. Freed from his obligations as manager, Antoine accepted an offer to direct an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ Les Frères Corses (The Corsican Brothers). Dumas’ novel of revenge and vengeance is a complicated series of flashbacks set inside a framing device where Dumas becomes a character in his own story, traveling to Corsica and interacting with the characters. (…)
Antoine’s next film was Le Coupable [The Guilty] (1917), a story about a magistrate who finds himself in the position of judging a young man whom he realizes is his son, a product from an illicit affair. Finding himself more the guilty party than the young man on trial, the judge begins a long confession to the court. By using the gritty, unsentimental shooting locations on the Seine and the streets of Paris, Le Coupable often captures the energy and look of a documentary. Also of interest are the scenes of the boys in the reformatory. When a boy tries to smoke a cigarette, the ‘realness’ of scene is striking. By their very nature, children have ingenuity about their acting that makes them perfect for the realist film. Antoine was one of the first directors to understand this, and his films begin a long realist tradition of using children in stories that demonstrate society’s corruption of the innocent. With Le Coupable, Antoine sets the stage for future films like De Sica’s Shoeshine and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
In 1917, Antoine filmed Les Travailleurs de la mer [Toilers of the Sea] (1918) from the Victor Hugo novel. The least well known of Hugo’s major novels, Les Travailleurs is a character study about a sailor who takes it upon himself to salvage a wrecked ship out on a desolate reef. The dramatic highlight of the film is a battle to the death between the sailor and an octopus guarding a section of the reef. The best parts of this film are the segments detailing seaside life, and the interactions between the sailors and the villagers.(…)
In 1920, Antoine filmed L’Hirondelle et la mésange (1920). The producers shut down this production when the rushes of the film looked too much like a documentary, and Antoine was never able to complete the movie
L’hirondelle et la mésange
André Antoine had an inspiration; instead of making a movie from a literary source, why not film a story organically, almost as it happened? He later explained: “I had the idea of making a film on the life of the canal boatmen of Flanders . . . We left Antwerp with a barge and reached L’Escaut . . . Since we filmed everything in movement, the photography had a splendid relief. The story was rough, a very simple drama; just man who, one night, sinks into the mud, and the next day the barge continues on its way, peacefully, in the light and the silence. It was very beautiful.”
For this ‘barge-life’ movie (a European subgenre of realist melodramas, set in rivers or canals), Antoine mixed professionals with actors taken from real life. Much of the footage is the simple recording of the day-to-day activities of life on a river. The shooting was stopped near the end of production by horrified producers, who were unhappy with the documentary-like footage. There was some kind of rough-cut screening of the material for a Paris cinema club in 1924, then the film disappeared. In 1982, six hours of film was brought to the attention of the Cinématèque Française. Realizing its value, the archive entrusted the material to editor Henri Colpi, who (using all notes and information available as a reference), cut the finished film down to 78 minutes.
The story follows a family living on two barges, the Hirondelle and Mésange, (translated, the names mean “the Swallow and Titmouse” — joined together they function as one large boat). The captain and husband, Van Groot (Louis Ravet) takes on a new pilot Michel (Pierre Alcover). At first the new man seems to be getting along well, perhaps good husband material for the wife’s sister Marthe (Maguey Delyac), but later Van Groot sees Michel make sexual advances to his wife Griet (Maylianes). The animosity deepens when Michel sees that Van Groot is a smuggler, and tries to get a piece of the action. Van Groot catches Michel trying to steal from him, and his punishment is along the lines of the ‘code of the river.’ Simple. Absolute. Almost mundane. The river keeps flowing, life moves on.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Antoine would have done if he’d had the chance to edit the same material, but in any case the results are dazzling. A blend of documentary and story, L’Hirondelle et la mésange (1920), is by far Antoine’s best film, a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Ironically, since it was never released until the 1980s, its influence in film history will always be in the vein of ‘what could have been.’ If the film had been a success, perhaps Antoine would have been encouraged to make more films in this style. But the reality is that Antoine was trying something too radical for its time.
However unseen, L’Hirondelle et la mésange anticipates a film made fourteen years later by a someone who had absorbed all the lessons silent film could teach him. Pouring all his emotion, energy, and conviction into his last project; this filmmaker would die of tuberculosis at the tragic young age of 29. The film is Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.
Language(s):silent – french intertitles