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Reviewed by:
  • Pierre Batcheff and Stardom in 1920s French Cinema
  • Vicki Callahan
Pierre Batcheff and Stardom in 1920s French Cinema. By Phil Powrie with Éric Rebillard. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. xviii + 254 pp., ill. Hb £70.00.

Phil Powrie and Éric Rebillard's examination of the actor Pierre Batcheff opens up unique pathways into terrains embracing both the woefully overlooked — stars in the silent and early sound era of French cinema — and the justifiably well worn — the surrealist cinematic landmark Un chien andalou (1929). By offering a carefully detailed look at Batcheff 's film roles and critical reception during his short but prolific career (1923–32), the book reveals a significant star of French cinema as well a crucial collaborator on Buñuel and Dali's surrealist masterpiece. Batcheff, an 'unwilling star' (p. 1) who felt trapped in the romantic pin-up roles of the jeune premier, is situated starkly at the threshold of several key aesthetic and cultural divides, crossing the avantgarde and the commercial cinema, silent and sound film genres and performance styles, and nineteenth-century and post-First World War notions of masculinity. The pivotal text here is, as one might suspect, Un chien andalou, and Powrie and Rebillard, quite correctly, devote two chapters to a compelling (re)reading of the film, one attuned to Batcheff 's persona and performance, and to the actor's larger creative contributions to the production — prior accounts of the film typically bear Buñuel and Dali's authorial stamp exclusively. Here the authors note not only the film's oft-discussed play with gender roles, but more importantly they situate their analysis within the context of Batcheff 's star figure and performance style. Useful parallels are [End Page 265] made with Batcheff 's previous roles as well as with silent comedic stars Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, thereby underlining the radical destabilization of gender, genre, and star that takes place in the film. Powrie and Rebillard present an entirely fresh reading of Un chien andalou, one that is more aligned with broader cultural concerns around gender and genre than we find in previous readings, with their narrower focus on narrative structures (especially with respect to psychoanalysis) and aesthetic contexts (surrealism and the avant-garde). Using the surrealist masterpiece as a textual hub for Batcheff 's career, the authors argue that he should be seen as a fluid and 'uncanny body', representing the transition from post-First World War masculinity, inflected with a certain passivity/effeminacy ('the sanitised ephebe') represented in his jeune premier roles, to a 'newer pre-(WW2)war masculinity, that of the proletarian man of action' (p. 198) as foreshadowed in his Un chien andalou performance. With their book on Batcheff, Powrie and Rebillard have done important groundwork in establishing key issues with regard to stars, performance, and masculinity in the silent/early sound era, and their efforts should serve to provoke further explorations in this area.

Vicki Callahan
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


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pp. 265-266
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