- The Social Architecture of French Cinema: 1929–1939 by Margaret C. Flinn
The role of — and techniques behind — set design and studio recreations of (usually Parisian) urban spaces have been fruitfully explored in multiple recent studies on 1930s [End Page 423] French cinema, and Margaret C. Flinn’s ambitious project is a further contribution to this growing scholarship. Flinn defines the ‘social architecture’ of her title as ‘the literal construction of place’ and ‘the metaphorical ways in which the formal structures of films, their narratives, and their representations are organized’ (p. 2); thus, films possess a readable architecture in which the nexus of the narrative, the visual, and the representational works to create collective social identities within French society of the 1930s. She contends that urban landmarks buttress spatial verisimilitude and shows how the murky grisaille of poetic realism can be read ‘as the dispersal of the subject into space’ (p. 179). Flinn also explores the knotty concept of space and place in film, elegantly interfacing with ‘spatial turn’ theories by Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre, and Verena Andermatt Conley. I also liked her overview of 1930s French documentary filmmaking, and in particular the notion that the documentaire romancé (‘in which the factual and non-factual narrative commingle’, p. 32) shares similar representational attitudes towards authenticity as, say, Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939). Key films of the decade are analysed anew, such as René Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and Quatorze juillet (1932), both of which depict the capital with ‘an excessive reality’ (p. 42); Julien Duvivier’s allegorical social organizations are reframed to ask specific questions about the specificity of French national space; and a revealing section looks at the intersection between urban non-lieux and the flâneuse in Au bonheur des dames (dir. by Julien Duvivier, 1929) and, most notably, L’Atalante (dir. by Jean Vigo, 1934). Here, Flinn borrows from Marc Augé, demonstrating how Vigo’s film turns a place defined by its monuments and recognizable urban ciphers (which is to say, Paris) ‘into something entirely other, even attractively alien’ (p. 113). Two other highly informative chapters focus on architectural documentaries of the 1930s and on politically engaged films (such as Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s Le Temps des cerises (1937)) that transform the individual worker into a mass, mobilized architectural form, creating a set of utopian conditions ‘in which the crowd functions as a building block of social cohesion’ (p. 138). Perhaps of greatest value is the discussion of citational visual practices in Jean Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932). Flinn’s skilful reading reveals how the deployment of documentary footage by Renoir is both politically and aesthetically charged; it either ‘reference[s] some work of art’ or ‘situate[s] the film’s narrative within the city of Paris’ (p. 61), and thus creates a dense intertextual web of familiar artworks and urban markers that anticipates André Malraux’s 1947 Le Musée imaginaire and its transformation of Paris into a living museum of cathedral, galleries, and parks. With a comprehensive bibliography, readable style, and pertinent screengrabs, this book opens up new pathways for understanding and appreciating the complex terrain of 1930s French cinema. It will inspire readers to see Flinn’s case studies with fresh eyes.