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  • “Crippled by Sight”:Detail in Au bonheur des dames
  • Caitlin McGrath (bio)

Is not Zola the M. Lumière of his art? And might not the sight of the Cinematograph have saved the realist from a wilderness of lost endeavour? As the toy registers every movement without any expressed relation to its fellow, so the old and fearless realist believed in the equal value of all facts. He collected information in the spirit of the swiftly moving camera, or of the statistician. Nothing came amiss to him, because he considered nothing of supreme importance.

O. Winter, “The Cinematograph” (1896)

In his critique of the cinematograph, the enigmatic O. Winter draws a comparison to Emile Zola and then compares both machine and author to a statistician.1 His chief complaint is with art forms that fail to separate wheat from chaff; art that presents the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. This negative reaction to the cinematograph is atypical for cinema’s novelty period, when observers and critics tended to revel in the technology’s verisimilitude—the amazing lifelike qualities of leaves rustling in the trees or ripples in water.2 Winter’s reaction and the conjoining of cinema and realist literature in the figure of Zola raise questions about the recording of the perceptual experience of urban modernity in literature and on film. As his disparaging analysis of the cinematograph and Zola continues, Winter draws these disparate realms together by emphasizing what he thought they could not do:

Hence it is that M. Zola is interesting only in isolated pages. His imagination is so hopelessly crippled by sight, that he cannot [End Page 641] sustain his eloquence beyond the limit of a single impression. Suppose he does astonish you by a flash of entertainment, he relapses instantly into dullness, since for him, as for the Cinematograph, things are interesting, not because they are beautiful or happily combined, but because they exist, or because they recall, after their clumsy fashion, a familiar experience.

(“The Cinematograph,” 16)

The notion that Zola is “crippled by sight” reveals a crucial question that also preoccupied contemporary perceptual psychologists: When does the ability to see (and record) become overwhelming? Winter uses the phrase to describe the conceptual failings of realism and the cinematograph, but is there also a literal sense in which vision became overwhelmed at the turn of the twentieth century? Is Zola’s and the Lumières’ inability to assimilate a profusion of visual information an isolated event or a widespread condition? I would like to connect Winter’s censure of a formless and disconnected vision in realism and the cinematograph to descriptions of such pathological perceptual failings as the newly diagnosed disease agnosia, which William James, Sigmund Freud, and others studied.3

Ultimately, however, this article focuses not on the cinematograph of Winter’s day but rather on how certain conditions of the modern urban environment, which served as fodder for Zola, the Lumières, and perceptual psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, instead function as a productive lens through which to investigate another confluence of Zola and cinema—Julien Duvivier’s 1929 adaptation of Zola’s Au bonheur des dames. Duvivier uses sequences of spectacular visual display filmed in an actual Parisian department store for the updating of this particular Zola tale, whose theme is that the modern urban individual must either assimilate into the new world or be left behind. More than demonstrations of technical virtuosity, these sequences present a visual manifestation of character psychology, used in moments when a character’s reaction to urban space is pivotal to the storyline. Furthermore, they tend to echo a contemporary scientific and sociological fascination with describing modernity’s impact on the individual. Zola’s novel represents the department store as an emblem of industrialization and technological modernization, and Duvivier visualizes this concern through expository sequences characterized by sweeping pans, extended tracking movements, superimpositions, dissolves, and unusual framing. In other words, the world that Zola describes through its impact on his characters’ psychology is brought to the screen using techniques that underscore the perceptual challenges inherent to the modern environment and specifically to the department...


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pp. 641-664
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