A Trip to Le Musée de la Cinémathèque in Paris

A trip to Le Musée de la Cinémathèque in Paris

It’s no surprise that so many filmmakers and actors come from Paris, or that so many films are set in the city – the boulevards of Paris beg to be filmed. From the heights of Montmartre and the hundreds of Places to the roundabouts of the city centre, it’s only a short métro trip (or a rather long walk) to La Cinémathèque française, a living monument to the importance of French cinema. The cinema tradition in France began with what is widely considered the birth of narrative cinema and brought independent film to the masses through the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave). France remains one of the largest film consumers and producers today and is the site of some of the most important film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival.

The Cinémathèque, which contains the collections of Henri Langlois and Lotte Eisner, two early-twentieth-century Parisian cinephiles, was a space frequented by virtually every important French filmmaker after the second World War. The new, imposing postmodern construction by Frank Gehry now contains a museum, an extensive library of tens of thousands of films and documents on film, and a cinema which shows films from every era and holds a variety of film events and festivals. Visitors can visit the museum, see a film, or even enter the library. With filmmakers like Bresson, Clouzot, Godard, and Truffaut as frequent guests in their days and a new, educational space which continues to be a resource for film enthusiasts, the Cinémathèque is one of the, if not the, most important film institutions in the world.

The Musée and Early Film History

Despite my limited time in Paris this past weekend, I took a break between visiting some of the most famous icons in the world and rewatching Godard’s Breathless (1960) with a bottle of wine to make the long walk out to the Cinémathèque. It was worth my time.

The Musée is home to some of the first artefacts in cinematic history. Artefacts from early cinema line the entrance to the dimly-lit exhibit: props, posters, and cameras of all shapes and varieties are found here, including those designed by Thomas Edison, Reynaud, Marey, and the Lumière brothers. Some are rather impressive apparatuses, with knobs, gears, and large viewing lenses; others are small enough to be held in the hand.

This collection of cameras and early photography caught my attention, specifically because of its relation to the primarily technological understanding of early film. In the study of early film history, one of the most divisive questions is about the origins of cinema. There are two schools of thought: those who see cinema as the logical extension of the newfound technology of photography — that moving pictures naturally came after stationary photos — and those who see cinema as a new medium of visual storytelling, in the vein of theatre. The first group focuses on how the invention of the camera allowed for a greater ability to capture and document the outside world, while the other focuses on the presence of actors, plot, and what is being captured. For the latter group, cinema’s link to the theatre is clear through the presence of the director, actors, screenplay, and audience. This debate can be simplified to the question: was early cinema a technology or an art?

That the Musée firmly stands behind the first viewpoint becomes obvious during a quick walk-through of the rooms containing Langlois’s collections. Cinema is presented here as a logical consequence of photography, a stance which the signs and written materials in the exhibit clearly underscore. One of the first posters – “Les débuts du cinéma américain et anglais” (“The beginnings of American and English film”) – discusses Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in the 1880s with successive stationary photographs and how Edison’s “Kinetoscope” in 1894 marked the emergence of the industry of cinema.  The exhibit, which wanders through glass-case-lined rooms, tells the history of cinema starting with the oldest and most primitive cameras, accompanied by examples of the kinds of media they were used to show, and progresses chronologically. Interactive exhibits allow the visitor to play with the technologies on display by turning cranks to spin early devices or leaf through photo-slides. After these basic technologies, the Musée then turns to what it considered the birth of narrative cinema, that is, films which tell a story. Displays of “Edison’s Very Latest” Kinetoscope, plates of successive stationary photographs, and reproductions of early film experiments lead naturally into another room that introduces Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first films. The Lumière brothers, inventors of the “Cinématographe” in 1895, have been credited by some as the founder of narrative cinema, as their early films involved people in basic scenes: the arrival of a train, workers leaving a factory, or, in 1895, the famous slapstick short, Arroseur et arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener), in which a boy sneaks up and sprays water on an unexpecting gardener. This progression, from early photography to film, appears to be a simple process: as a visitor, the exhibit felt natural and presented a unified and straightforward version of history.

I do, however, take issue with this presentation. The Musée’s focus on the technological aspect ignores the creative process of cinema. The importance of cinema as a creative and innovative art form is at stake here: cinema, in my view, was not merely a new tool for looking at the world and capturing it, but an entirely different method of expression. Reading the texts provided by the Musée, I began to question once more what it is that fundamentally separates Edison’s device from Muybridge’s, and the latter’s from the much earlier technologies of “magic lanterns” or from shadow puppetry? Although the Musée does display a few of these earlier manifestations, it virtually ignores the question of cinema’s artistic side, choosing instead to present a simplistic view of the progress of early cinematic innovations. My point here is that there is nothing that fundamentally changed between Edison’s device and Lumière’s, which finally allowed stories to be told on-screen.

The other issue with this exhibit is its somewhat anachronistic view of the history of early cinema. The signage and progression creates an image of film history as a natural process, one which presumed from the beginning that film and movies would eventually be the logical output. This could have been avoided had the exhibit spent more time analysing the competing products. Although Edison’s and the Lumière brothers’ devices are compared side-by-side, this juxtaposition felt, at times, as if the display were there to support a thesis of cinema as a sort of technological evolution. This is the same issue present in natural history museums: how do you tell the story of human evolution without unintentionally furthering the idea that humans were the result of a systematic and planned chain of events? Presenting the idea of cinema, as we know it today, as an evolution of photography ignores the fact that photography also developed independently, and as a separate art form, and that it still exists today.

Whereas the Musée presents and embraces the technological developments as the origins of cinema, there is another way to look at this early film history. The goal of cinema, over the first several decades, was to align it with a more theatrical aim. This is obvious if we look at how films themselves progressed. In the early 1900s, films like Méliè’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) began to capture audiences with their elaborate costumes, visual effects, and interesting, if primitive, plots. The goal here was not to astound audiences with flashy technology, but to tell a story through this newfound media. The early technology essentially enabled more complex narrative elements to be shown on screen: first, longer films, then individuals scenes, eventually the additions of sound and colour – all of these technological improvements enabled creative output. Although early audiences may have marvelled over the technology, it was the innovations in storytelling which kept them coming back: cinema, like the stage, was a space for performance and creativity, not one which replaced theatre, but rather developed alongside it. Even today, many theatre actors become film actors (and vice versa), but this does not mean that they are synonymous; the methods and techniques remain fundamentally different.

Of course, my critique of the Musée’s display can only go so far. A museum of film history has to include early artefacts, which of course include the technologies which birthed the seventh art. Furthermore, it would be difficult to make a display of theatrical cinema, since the display of theatre pre-cinema would necessitate the use of technology that did not yet exist. My wish is that the Musée points out to the uninformed visitor that there is another way of thinking about the birth of cinema, specifically, one which explains the importance not only of Edison and Lumière’s technological advances, but also of cinema’s artistic quality.

The Musée’s collection of these early cinema technologies is, however, rather impressive. In addition to dozens of early recording and viewing devices, excerpts of early films are played throughout the exhibit and are used to demonstrate what these devices were capable of. There are also props from various films, including props from Méliè’s A Trip to the Moon and Lang’s Metropolis (1927), original movie posters for D.W. Griffith’s films, early artwork for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and the original mysterious box from Un Chien andalou (1929).

Special Exhibit: Henri-Georges Clouzot

A special exhibit, beginning in August 2017 and running until the end of July 2018, marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977). Clouzot, writer and director of The Wages of Fear (1953), Diabolique (1955), the documentary The Mystery of Picasso (1956), and the unfinished Inferno (originally scheduled for 1964), is also famous for being a rival of Alfred Hitchcock. Both are said to have competed for scripts and even for the title “Master of Suspense.” Curated by Noël Herpe and Florence Tissot and drawn from the Cinémathèque’s collection of letters, photographs, and artwork, the Musée’s exhibit builds up Clouzot into the kind of character who could be found in one of his own films. The introductory sign mentions his “vertigo and madness” and his “quixotic goal” for “an ideal form…capable of embodying truth.” These dramatic statements pale in comparison to the final description: Clouzot, for the creators of the exhibit, is an “unfulfilled Dr. Mabuse, successor to the Fritz Langian tradition of the all-powerful director – yet whose excessiveness oddly catapulted him into the heart of modernity.”

The exhibit, loosely divided into the various areas of film in which Clouzot dabbled, stresses his almost authoritarian presence behind the camera. Signs bearing titles like “Directing the actors” and  “Directing the audiences” demonstrate how much control he wanted over his films. This tyrannical approach to directing, the exhibit warns us, led to his downfall, although the curators are mysteriously silent on this matter other than brief hints of his “deliciously detestable” personality in the eyes of the press. This does not stop the exhibit from providing the visitor with an oddly alarming warning in the final sentence of the introductory description: “An air of damnation looms over an artist when he starts taking himself for God.”

On display in the special exhibit were some of Clouzot’s early screenplays, his artwork, and heavily scribbled-on documents. I was particularly drawn to his sketches of scenes, some of which showed an extremely high level of detail, including camera angles, prop and character placements, and even suggestions for where shadows should fall. Accompanying these are a number of his “studies,” i.e.  experiments with photography using different angles, lenses, colours, and shadows. The most noticeable feature is that they are largely of naked women in various “artistic” poses: photographs of women in black and white through a window, back–lighted images of nude women behind veils of flowers or wearing see-through silk, or overly-saturated shots in strange, yet revealing, outfits.

In a now-canonical essay written in 1975, Laura Mulvey introduced the idea of “male gaze,” a term she used to describe the portrayal of women in traditional cinema. Women, Mulvey argues, are almost exclusively framed in film as the objects of male desire, a male audience, and even a male camera. This is seen, for example, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), where the male character, L.B. Jeffries, watches other women in his apartment complex through the lens of his camera, and in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), where the protagonist, Mark, uses camera to observe, film, and even kill the female characters. This male gaze is the one constant in Clouzot’s “studies” and is manifested in many of his later works. Several of his films deal explicitly with male characters’ psychologically and physically abusive relationships with women; Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Diabolique, and La Prisonnière (1968) all frame women as the targets of male gaze and male violence. And yet, the exhibit fails to mention this problem explicitly, choosing instead to display Clouzot’s male gaze as merely a film director’s quirks.

Actually, Clouzot’s “studies” are paralleled nicely in the main exhibit, which (possibly unintentionally) displays the level to which male gaze has always been in present in cinema. Those familiar with cinema history would probably recognise the famous early shorts: a horse running, a man and woman kissing, a man flexing, etc. The Musée, however, also showed a side of early cinema that is less well known: the sheer quantity of early films of naked females. The early filmmakers, who were exclusively male, appear to have been fascinated with the female body: an early Kinetoscope film featured a naked woman walking across the screen, turning, and walking up two steps, thus displaying multiple angles of her body. Several other films merely display a naked woman turning around; later films feature women dancing and playing with their dresses. Film posters from just after the turn of the century also display women, often posing seductively or wearing minimal clothing. Furthermore, the cameras on display bore an uncanny resemblance to the devices used by Mark in Peeping Tom, a film which calls attention to the way in which the camera is a male tool used to observe females. The use of these cameras, namely, to make early erotic films, shows how Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze has always been present in cinema.

Clouzot’s “studies” and his often problematic films can be directly correlated with his tyrannical presence behind the camera. His male gaze, it seems, did not stop at observation, but extended to a possibly violent stage. The Musée points out his problematic behaviour, but also immediately defends it as the mere quirks of a tortured genius: “Once while casting for a film that was never made…[he] walked onto the set and slapped an actress who was auditioning. Journalists wrote about his brutal treatment of Brigitte Bardot and Bernard Blier. Was he trying to stage himself as a demiurge ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of obtaining a truth?” In addition to the mystifying element of such an pronouncement, it seems as though curators were willing to overlook Clouzot’s frankly obvious misogyny. Instead of demanding accountability for his treatment of actresses, the exhibit seems to have been trying add to this mysterious image of Clouzot. Deliberately provocative statements – he was a “total master of his creation yet held hostage by his demons” – function more as rhetorical devices than as information, and at times, the exhibit worked more like a psychological exposé than an explanation, and yet an exposé which, even in 2017, fails to critically examine the acts of the director. Such a lack clearly points to the importance of the “MeToo” movement in Hollywood and beyond: until we can at least critically and openly examine the misogyny behind the camera without falling back on glorified ideals, there remains a lack of accountability in the way we treat these figures. I would have liked, and to be honest, would have expected, to have seen some form of recognition of these problematic elements, especially in an exhibit which so clearly revels in the personal and psychological motives of such a figure as Clouzot.

Final Thoughts

Despite the perplexing nature of the special exhibit on Clouzot, the Musée was well-organised and provided clear and interesting information. I particularly enjoyed the accompaniment of the early cinema devices with representative short films and the presence of explanatory signage throughout the exhibit. I was, however, slightly disappointed at how abruptly the display ended. The exhibit primarily focussed on early cinema, starting in the mid-1800s, and only extended until the early 1960s, one of the latest objects being Mrs Bates’s skull from Psycho (1960). There were virtually no artefacts from many of the French cinema greats after 1930 – nothing from the entire Nouvelle Vague, for example. The reason for this gap in film history is still unclear to me, since the Cinémathèque owns many original documents, films, and other artefacts from these later periods and would more than likely be able to put together an extremely interesting and well-curated exhibit from those records. I speculate that since the museum is mostly drawn from the private collections of Langlois et al., who began collecting in the 30s, the Musée chose to focus on the periods which came before Langlois’s donation.

However, the presence of some objects, in particular, Mrs Bates’s skull, seems to have the sole purpose of slightly diversifying the collection in order to draw visitors – a photograph of the skull is, after all, one of the first images to be found on the Musée website, as if trying to attract film buffs who would be otherwise uninterested in paying to see old cameras. Another possibility is that these later periods are shown exclusively in the special exhibits in order to attract visitors to return to the museum in the future. This absence, however, does not outweigh the impressive collections of early cinema history on display, and the Musée still merits a visit from every cinephile, albeit a visit with a critical eye.

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