Dreamweaver

10th May 2013

Has there ever been a better time to love the cinema? Sure, it would have been cool to hang out on the Left Bank in ’56 and argue about Ray and Fuller with Jean-Luc, Francois and the gang. And I would dearly like to have shared a pint with documentary makers John Grierson, Basil Wright, Paul Rotha and Humphrey Jennings at a Soho hostelry in the late 1930s (assuming, of course, that they were talking to each other). But if what you care about is actually watching films, then with the DVDs available today and with streaming and specialist cinemas and TV channels and festivals, access to an astounding range of films has never been easier. That said, there are still some areas of film history that are far less well-served than others – and for me one of these is French silent cinema of the 1920s. Which is why it is particularly good news that the 4th Fashion in Film Festival, which opens tonight, is devoted to the work of Marcel L’Herbier. Here’s the slinky, sensuous trailer.

The Wikipedia entry on L’Herbier is a good place to start to get to know him, as is a fine introduction by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Meet Marcel L’Herbier. Here are extracts from the Festival’s introduction to the filmmaker:

From his obsession with innovative lighting and camera work and highly stylised mise–en–scènes complete with décor and costumes designed or adapted specifically for the screen effect, L’Herbier is best known for his interest in developing a language that would be cinematic in essence (which in France was at the time described by the elusive term photogénie)…

During the silent period, L’Herbier’s ambition for the cinema was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a cinéma totalwhich would synthesise all the arts and draw together architects, artists, set designers, couturiers and costume designers. Among the many major cultural figures he collaborated with were the artists Fernand Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, the composers Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger, the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, designers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara, and couturiers Paul Poiret, Lucien Lelong (L’Herbier’s cousin) and Louiseboulanger. Paired with his multi-disciplinary collaborative approach, it was L’Herbier’s desire to legitimise and ennoble cinema as the ‘seventh art’ that helped establish him as a seminal figure within Paris’s vibrant cultural milieu of the inter-war years.

Using art, fashion and design as the prisms through which to examine L’Herbier’s diverse body of work, Fashion in Film’s season highlights his lifelong interest in cinematic style and aesthetics. As the costume designer Jacques Manuel once observed, costume for L’Herbier was so often a way of  ‘feeding’ the ‘mechanical eye’ with evocative surfaces and textures, a way of testing the formal elements of cinema itself such as movement, rhythm, light and shadow.

Screenings over the weekend are as follows (and I’m frustrated that I am filming in Wakefield – of which more anon) and so will miss these first showings. But I intend to catch several of the programmes next week, and will do another post about L’Herbier’s films later.

18.30, tonight, Friday 10 May: L’Argent (1928), BFI Southbank.

14.00, Saturday 11 May: L’Epervier (1933), Ciné Lumière.

14.00, Sunday 12 May: Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931), Ciné Lumière.

If you are unable to get to these screenings, there is a glorious Masters of Cinema DVD of L’Argent (1928) and in the States The Late Matthias Pascal is newly available on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, reviewed here by The New York Times.

Image: filming L’Epervier (1933), courtesy of Bibliothëque du Film (BIFI), Paris; © Brigitte Berg, Les Documents Cinèmatographiques.

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