Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The history of French animation

I was at the Tampere Short Film Festival last weekend, the festival I've attended to for the last 20 years, with some (one or two) one-year pauses. This year I was particularly interested in the three-show series consisting of old French animated films, ranging from Émile Reynaud's cartoons from the 1870's to films made just after WWII. There were many films I hadn't previously seen, even though some of the films were familiar to me.

The earliest examples were pretty crude, as you can imagine, but there's also a sense of invention and real magic, especially in the two films by Émile Cohl, his first, Phantasmagorie, from 1908, and a later one, called Les Locataires d´à côté from 1909. The latter one is a good example of early Surrealism that still flourished in commercial cinema during that time.

The second screening of the series was the best. There were the best-known examples of French art animation, like Berthold Bartosch's Expressionistic L'Idée (1932) and Alexandre Alexeïeff's Night on a Bald Mountain (1933). The most striking example - and one I had never seen - was La Joie de vivre (1937) by two British artists, Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin. It's timeless, could've been made in the sixties or seventies - or even now, with some alterations. It's made in a free-flowing, fluent and fast style, with only outline drawings. I can find only one link with an extract from the film, and the quality is poor, but it's here nevertheless.

The third screening consisted of films made in the fourties, during the war and just after it. The most interesting of these was Jean Painlevé's clay animation, Bluebeard. It was a wild experience, utterly unrealistic, in weird colours, with crude and grotesque humour reminiscent of Rabelais and his Gargantua and Pantagruel, with heads being chopped and all. Painlevé has seen a renaissance in later years, with a DVD collection of his short films having been released; he was a Surrealist, but also a scientist, who used his fellow Surrealists' ideas in his scientific films, the best-known of which is probably Le Vampire from 1945, a horror documentary about a blood-sucking bat.

Also Paul Grimault's two films in the screening were very good, reminding one of the best American cartoons of the era, with only more artistic ideas thrown in - for example L'épouvantail/The Scarecrow from 1943 in which the devoid landscape is an echo from Surrealist paintings.

One of the most interesting and most boring films in the screening was André-Édouard Marty's Callisto from 1943. The ancient tale of Greek antiquity was told in art deco style, with a very slow pace, in artistically high standard, but also with boring rigidity. It was said that Marty made this in order to show how the French should be making animations in the new Europe (we have to remember that the Nazis were on the winning side in 1942 and 1943 when this was made). I made a quick association to Finland and thought that this is how Finnish animators could've worked had there been any animation industry in the country in the 1940's. (I had especially sculpturer Wäinö Aaltonen in mind - he never made any cartoons, that's for sure, but I think the Founding Fathers of Finland might've called for him, if there had been a need.)

Émile Cohl's Fantasmagorie:

Grimault's L'épouvantail:

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