Overview of the French Avant-Garde
Overview of the French Avant-Garde
Special Feature──Research on the development of Pre-War Japanese Avant-garde Cinema: Discussing Avant-garde Cinema in Germany, France, and Soviet Union (II)

Translated by Tung Yung-Wei (童詠瑋)

Narrowly speaking, the term of “avant-garde cinema” refers specifically to the films shot by a group of French radical directors in the 1920s. Therefore, it is said that the French avant-garde contains the most abundant schools. It was France, where the German Absolute Film Movement, which took place a little earlier, made its greatest impact as well.

For instance, Five Minutes of Pure Cinema (Cinq minutes de cinéma pur, 1926) by  Henri Chomette, the elder brother of René Clair, drew inspiration from Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (Symphonie Diagonale, 1924) and expressed such visual composition of light and shadow and lines with real shots. In fact, the reason why Chomette would be asked to make films was also because several earlier avant-garde filmed had undoubtedly aroused people’s interest towards such new form.

However, the above-mentioned argument is even more so the key to justifying the high correlation between the term and the French avant-garde films in the period, which is the various and abundant schools.

The first school partially experimented new creative methods in the narrative films, with Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier being the recognized leaders. The second one basically embraced total abstraction, mainly contributed by Man Ray’s short films. Perhaps, Chomette could be somehow counted as one of them as well. The third one sought from and constructed the individual ideas by the materials from the real object or real scene shooting. The representatives include Fernand Léger and Germaine Dulac. The fourth one, Surrealist cinema, could be viewed as a certain ending of the avant-garde films, and Luis Buñuel is surely the most important director within. As a matter of fact, the directors could not be precisely categorized and might also overlap different schools. For example, we could find the prototype of the Surrealist cinema in Clair’s debut, The Crazy Ray (Paris qui dort, 1925, but public screening came later), which depicted a scientist’s invention of ray which could freeze the time. Moreover, there are directors who could be hardly categorized, such as Alberto Cavalcanti from Brazil, Jean Vigo, the genius who died at an early age, Jean Cocteau, the poet, and Jean Epstein, the film theorist.

Speed Impressionism

If we follow Gilles Deleuze’s suggestion, these experimental films could all be called  as “Impressionism”. He also found a philosophical expression for the type of films with every kind of skill, the mathematical sublime. Furthermore, he selected several films to prove the statement and induced two types of machines existed within. One is the small simple machine, the automaton such as dance, dancers. Dancers themselves  could be the kinetic unions which start movements. The other type is the epic one which runs on the equipments and the energy machines such as steam engines, trains. Movements lead to the mathematical concept since they could be divided and recombined.

Nevertheless, Deleuze’s conclusion mainly focused on the fiction films. Even if mentioning the avant-garde works, he only focused on several ones, such as Ballet Mechanique (Ballet mécanique, 1924) by Léger and Clairs’ The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte (1924). As for Man Ray’s (who came from the United States, but his few films were all made in France)  Return to Reason (Le retour à la raison, 1923), which mainly exposed the real objects, it was somewhat an accident. In fact, the film was an outcome of accidents, according to Man Ray himself, and the title of the film is also meaningless.

Plastic Impressionism

On the other hand, Léger also paid attention to the close combination of object-human-theater, which could be obviously found in his subsequently well-celebrated but only film, Ballet Mechanique. However, before he made the symbolic French avant-garde film, he had already warmed himself up by designing the set for L’Hebiere’s The Inhuman Woman (L’inhumaine, 1923). The emotionally-vulnerable leading male character, who was fond of making all kinds of experiments, decorated his lab as a world coming out of Léger’s paintings. The set scenery of The Inhuman Woman was only partial realization of Léger’s ideals. The strong visual elements were emphasized by the character’s walking into the set with considerable Expressionist style due to the contrast in size. Humans were yet relatively divided from objects or scenery.

[Click here] The Inhuman Woman (L’inhumaine, 1923)

As a result, when Léger started to made Ballet Mechanique, the proportions between the elements of humans and objects were comparable. Besides, human bodies were divided into more fragments and merged with parts of objects. In addition to the major roles these two elements took in the film, humans and objects could be the metaphor for each other, as intersubjectivity. Furthermore, Léger was perhaps concerned about the difficulty for the audience to associate humans and objects, especially for those who were not familiar with his paintings, so he added another series of geometric figures. There was resemblances between a triangle and the close-up of a woman’s mouth, between the circles and all kinds of round utensils (like pots, dishes). The geometric figures thus became the key to connect humans and objects. According to Léger’s description, “The film is above all proof that machines and fragments of them, that ordinary manufactured objects, have plastic possibilities.” Humans were like objects, which also brought objects to life.

[Click here] Ballet Mechanique (Ballet mécanique, 1924)

Optical Impressionism

The reason why Clair was viewed skillful is mainly because in the short film, which could be divided into two parts, the first half has always made the audience on the edge of understanding and incomprehension. For example, there is a scene where two men were playing chess on the roof (played by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp). The streets of Paris were superimposed on the chessboard, which surprised them. When a jet of water sprayed onto the chessboard from nowhere, they found that Paris was flooded with water. Meanwhile, a floating paper boat was superimposed to symbolize the flooded street. We seem to be able to find the connection between these images. However, just when the audience found the logic of understanding, there was an image of a balloon person deflating like a refusal of the audience’s thinking.

It is followed by the famous dancer scene, where the director filmed the dancing from  “below”. The dancing skirt which spread out with the movements looked like a blooming flower from underneath the skirt. When there was a spontaneous voyeuristic feeling aroused at a certain point, the scene turned to shoot the dancer from the front, but it was very vague due to the light. While the camera slowly tilted up from the dancer’s feet to the chest, the scene was cut off. Not until the next shot tilted down from the dancer’s head do we surprisingly realize that it had been a dancer with big beard dancing the whole time.

Although we have always used the term “impressionism” to vaguely summarize the goals of the French Avant-Garde Film Movement, this group of artists who both made creations and discourses actually had a definite term themselves, “photogénie”. Yet, the term is equally ambiguous, so that Epstein loved to use it, and so did Louis Delluc, but not necessarily the same implication.

Total Cinema?

In Epstein’s writing, Bonjour cinéma in 1921, “photogénie” was depicted as an opposite concept against literary and narrative. The term is useful because it is ambiguous. Epstein was royal to it, with no intention to define its meaning. He thought of it as a unique characteristic of cinema, a poetic one, beyond description like poetry. “Photogénie is to cinema what color is to painting and space to sculpture. It is the essence of the art.”

“Photogénie” is ambiguous and could be achieved in all available and even imaginable ways. There were Gance’s experiments as well as Epstein’s almost unrestrained use of superimposition in The Faithful Heart (Coeur fidèle, 1923). He superimposed the close-up of the leading woman on the scene of waves for such a long time in order to emphasize her longing and deep love for the leading man. Or as the lens seemed to have been coated with vaseline or covered by plastic bags so as to simulate the viewpoint of starfish in The Sea Star (L’étoile de mer, 1928). For Léger, it is “the ‘light’ that activates the most inanimate objects and endows them with the value of cinema. For them, “photogénie” might be the ultimate expression they had aimed for, reflecting the real essence of cinema. As a result, Léger again declared, “I view the revolution of the cinema as ‘making us see all those things mentioned only in words’. By projecting those new elements into a unique vision and the frame of film, you will have your own tragedy and comedy. Normally, we only say that a dog’s walking on the street, but when it is projected on the screen and seen by people, the audience’s reaction is so strong as if they have found a dog.


Consequently, we could vaguely see why the Surrealist cinema had become the end of avant-garde films. The techniques that have been tried and the after effects are all integrated into the experience and written down in the manual of film technology. As a result, it is hard to say that there are many original cinematic techniques in films like An Andalusian Dog (Un chien andalou, 1929) by Buñuel. But he and his collaborator Salvador Dalí emphasized the automatic writing of cinema. It could even be said that he had shown his helplessness towards the interpretation of the film. The avant-garde mainly lies in the further derivation of the collage and juxtaposition than the above-mentioned directors or films. For instance, when a woman found her armpit hair had disappeared, the man who was staring at her had hair (similar to her armpit hair) on his mouth. After the man wiped the hair off, his mouth were gone as well. The woman then quickly wore the lipstick to make its color stronger. What is the scene trying to say with such combination of elements that seem to be somehow related and completely unrelated? No wonder the film leads to a beautiful and solid metaphor of Surrealist cinema: an umbrella and a sewing machine’s encounter on a hospital bed.

In fact, just as Buñuel did not expect his film to be recognized by the public (it was regarded as a betrayal by his surrealist partners, because he surely had satisfied the taste of the middle class to receive praises), the avant-garde naturally ended the puberty of cinema in the the special period of the handover between the silent film and the sound film. With the arrival of the latter, cinema had grown up as well, and the various explorations in the silent film era had paved the stepping stones for the coming-of-age. From “photogénie” to “cinématographie”, the challenge faced by the first generation had actually overcome: what should we put onto the enlarged screen to search the uniqueness of cinema?

  • This article is an inviting article from ET@T’s criticism project “Archive Eyes: Taiwan’s Avant-Garde Culture and Its International Perspective” (2018-2020), which was subsidized from “Visual Arts Criticism” project in 2018, by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
  • Sponsors of “Visual Arts Criticism” project: The National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), Winsing Arts Foundation, and Ms. So Mei-Chi.

Editor: Yeh Hsing-Jou
Proofreading: Yizai Seah

作者 Author
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin