Quote of the Day: Clair on Barsacq

This is René Clair’s introduction to Léon Barsacq’s Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions. It’s so lovely I wanted to share it.




Barsacq’s sketch for René Clair’s LE SILENCE D’OR — an ancient movie studio recreated in a modern movie studio.

Scenery? In the theater, scenery is normal, since the stage is surrounded by walls that it would be better to hide behind some kind of decoration, such as a painted backdrop or black velvet curtain.

But in films, where, like fables, “the stage is the universe,” why talk of scenery? The term is as inaccurate as the term “staging a film,” when there is no stage. Film “scenery” is not decoration; it’s generally a construction, a living room or a restaurant, for example, that tends to look the way the same living room or restaurant would look in reality. Now we need to know what we mean by “reality.”

A photograph is not reality but a reproduction of reality that we take for reality because of a convention we are so used to that we no longer recognize the deception involved. We refuse to throw away this piece of cardboard if it bears the features of someone we love, but to a dog, a photo of his owner is just a piece of cardboard.

From the very birth of moving pictures, a dialectic developed. The Lumière brothers, who came to films from photography, focused on aspects of reality (today their followers talk of cinéma-vérité). In turn, Méliès, who came to films from illusionism and the theater, was less interested in reproducing what he saw than in transforming it into what he imagined. A magician, he produced as if from a hat a surreal world that prefigured both the distortions of Caligari and the contemporary fantasies of science fiction. Between these two extremes lies the concept of “imitated” reality, the equivalent of sculpture as opposed to a plaster cast.

In this area, the set designer, however realistic his sets, can impose a style. The height of art is reached when this style relates so closely to that of the work itself that the audience pays no special attention to it. So we could say with a minimum of paradox that in films, the most successful set is the least noticeable one.

barsacq1PORTEBarsacq design for PORTE DE LILAS, AKA GATES OF PARIS.

Léon Barsacq enjoyed that kind of success, and yet, to a trained eye, whatever he designed revealed his touch. So, for the film The Gates of Paris, he built a whole series of streets and alleys whose reality, I think, few spectators would suspect. But when we tried to cut some shots of a real street into the shots of our fake streets, we had to give up the idea. The styles were too different. We might say that reality paled alongside its imitation. “You wouldn’t recognize her,” we sometimes say about a pretty woman surprised by a newsreel camera. Make up her face, light her properly, and you’ll recognize her. The same is true for sets.


Barsacq sketch for LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.

Here a master of the art tells the story of these great make-up artists of reality, the film set designers. This book written by Léon Barsacq in the last years of his life preserves the memory of works existing only as a few shadows on a fragile strip of film. What castles built for a few hours, what phantom towns, what still-new ruins! In Hollywood they used to take tours through these plywood and plaster cities, those imitation streets where the fake patina of paint was covered by the patina of time. A Romantic poet could have dreamed among those decrepit buildings that once imitated the past, later caricatured it, and today have disappeared. Fiction or reality? Méliès or Lumière? In our own memories, the real world where we thought we lived blends with the world of illusion.


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