Poetic Realism: The Fatalistic Optimists from France

Poetic realism became known as a cinematic style which emerged during the 1930’s in France from a group of filmmakers.  The influence of poetic realism derived from the elements of literature, Impressionism and Surrealism. From great literature came the scripts and stories for this movement. Great writers like Emil Zola and Leo Tolstoy had their tales appear on the screens of French theaters.

From Impressionism, the Poetic Realist infused their films with “stylized cinema, optical effects, and editing to render reality as it is subjectively perceived”.  Impressionism dealt in over emphasized movements and scenery that were indicative of the mood or perspective of a character. These techniques were translated into the fantasy-like worlds of Poetic Realism.

Surrealism also had a part to play in the creation of these poetic and fantastic worlds. The dream-like quality present in the Surreal movement found its way into Poetic Realism through bizarre and incongruous scenes and sequences. A move towards subverting narrative continuity facilitated the use of Surrealism and Impressionism as many filmmakers wanted to distance themselves from the American Hollywood style of straight forward narrative. Surrealism also found importance in this movement, due to the perspective of people at the time who saw their world as gloomy and harsh. In a world recovering from The Great War and heading towards a second one, the outlooks of many were full of anxiety and dread; especially the nation of France as it would find itself as an easy victim unready to stave off the coming army.

Another influence came out of the studio system in France, which was experiencing a revolution of sorts as producers, directors, and other filmmakers went independent and started making the films they wanted. The independent move allowed the filmmakers to shoot for more than just entertainment, so they shot for art. Images became visual poetry, figurative notions, and metaphorical allegories as they presented the lives of their characters; the working class.

The juxtaposition of the surreal and the plainly real, became its own oxymoron as the blue-collar workers took center focus in worlds that were portrayed with a fantastical and poetic undertone. Not only were the clear majority of these characters seemingly regular people of the working class, but they also fell into other tropes. One such trope from this movement was the pinning lover. The pains of love show up in films from all the greats of this era; L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), Le Jour Se Léve (Marcel Carne, 1939), Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne, 1945) and the iconic Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937). Often these love affairs were seen as doomed and would not find a happy ending.

Another trope often found amongst the characters of Poetic Realism was the criminal. The dramatic tension often found its roots in the main character running from the police or other authority figures. This added a layer of grit and oftentimes surroundings that at first glance may not seem wonderful, but through the use of movie magic become places of wonder and beauty. This stylistic effect added to the incongruous nature of Poetic Realism. The shabby and often poor surroundings never hindered the poetic and allegorical aspects of the diegetic world, because these films found a perfect balance between hopelessness and awe.

Film Still JENNY from Director Marcel Carné

The short list of filmmakers moored to Poetic Realism were often seen as transitional or pre-genre filmmakers. Marcel Carne’s films, for example, were seen as proto-noirs by being atmosphere crime films, which were only heightened by the stylized lighting and sharp realism. While his films often are used to question his great prowess as a director the films themselves are masterpieces. Jenny (1936) was his first major film, and it was followed by Drole de drame (Bizarre, Bizarre, 1937) Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Hotel du nord (1938), and Le Jour Se Leve (1939); all of which were steeped in his particular style. His most famous film Les Enfants du Paradis (the Children of Paradise, 1945) was not only his masterpiece, but perhaps the last great Poetic Realist film. The film, like many of Carne’s told the story of doomed lovers who battled Carne’s most persistent themes of “fate, destiny, and life-as-theatre“.

An idiosyncratic technique often used in his films was the tracking shot, which allowed a focus on décor just as much as the actual action of the film. The shot and the mise-en-scene become as much an “object of action” as a spectacle. Carne also made sure that all of his films were stacked with some of the most professional and competent artists of the time. Most of his films were written by Jaques Prevert whose writing was so well done the two artists are seen as equal parts of why these films were masterpieces.

Poetic Realism also saw works from directors Jean Vigo and Julien Duvivier. Vigo did not have quiet as prolific a career as the other directors, with only a handful of films under his direction, but his 1934 film L’Atalante  is thought to be the first Poetic Realist film and the one of the great French masterpieces. Vigo’s style and films aired on the surrealist and sometimes absurdist side of poetic. L’Atalante is the story of a newly-wed couple who live and travel on the canal boat that the husband is captain of. The mundane characters and their struggles  align this film with the Poetic Realist sect and the images Vigo creates are of a haunting and ethereal beauty contrasting to the mundanity of the characters life.

Julien Duviver as both writer and director had a much longer career and canon than Vigo. Pépé le Moko is often thought to be his finest work, but around it lies years and a large variety of genres that all make up this great director’s career. Duviver started making films around the 1920’s and his style even then harkened to the yet-to-come Poetic Realist movement with its fatalistic themes and shadowed ambience. His films from this period include La Bandera (1935) and La Belle equipe (1936) and plenty of others before his career turned to other styles of film. His versatility as a director would take him to every genre of filmmaking and back as his career continued to wow audiences and garner him great success.

The greatest of the Poetic Realist, though, was Jean Renoir. His films were iconic and uphold the lose tenants of this movement with their allegorical infusions that showed the fatalistic tendencies of the time mixing with a “great generosity of spirit“. With such a large oeuvre expanding beyond and past this movement his films became influences for later filmmakers like those to come in the French New Wave.

It was his use of longer shots and more objective image creation that would be one style choice picked up by the French New Wave. In this way he allowed the audience to merely view his characters as they traversed their world, often at many different levels and distances from the camera, and actions in a distant and observable sense without passing judgment over them. His use of the depth of shots allowed the viewer to observe what they pleased as many actions would occur in one shot.

The poetry of his films appeared through the use of mise-en-scene aesthetics, which created beautiful imagery that the camera could focus on and have the characters play in and around. His great films from this movement include Boude Saved and Drowning (1932), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Le Bete Human (1938), La Grande Illusion (1937), and The Rules of the Game (1939).

This short time in film history saw some of the greatest French directors and plenty of amazing films. It paved the way for the French New Wave and many of their styles and focus as well as gave them inspiration and mentors to look up to. The films of this movement are of a variety of genres, and yet they all have links through their use of shadows in the background of life while splendor lived all around in the picturesque nature of the world. Poetic Realism is the perfect term to describe a movement of people who showed off this contradictive attitude.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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