French Film Archives

Lucy Moyse Ferreira and I kicked off the New Year with a research trip to four film archives in and around Paris: CNC, Lobster Films, Gaumont-Pathe Archives and the Cinémathèque française.

Our mission was mainly to look into fashion films from the silent period between 1895-1930, though we could not help adding to the list a few examples from the 1930s, 50s and 60s (in fact, one of the most curious ‘discoveries’ for us was Jacques Baratier’s film Eves futures from 1964, which wonderfully captures the mystery and uncanniness of shop display mannequins as well as the inherent brutality of their manufacture).

The majority of the ‘silent’ films we saw were produced by the then- leading French motion picture companies Pathé Frères, Gaumont and Éclair. While watching we concentrated on the following questions and problems: what is fashion film and what types of film can be considered as such?; bodily and camera movement or the lack of; types of interior and exterior mises-en-scene; techniques of staging and choreographing bodies in spaces; colour technologies and conventions; editing techniques; the presentation of detail; and formats.

Among the earliest films we saw were Lumière’s one-shot scenes of circus acrobats performing tricks with hats, and two of the Greffulhe home films showing the ‘Divine Comtesse’ whose wardrobe was on display at Palais Galliera in Paris and the Museum at FIT in New York in 2016. Though this is only speculation, the films may have been made by the photographer Nadar who was a family friend of the countess (click here for our conversation with Mariann Lewinsky about these films, which she presented in Bologna’s 2014 season of Il Cinema Ritrovato).

The bulk of our films were newsreels and ‘cinemagazine’ items from between 1910 and 1930, generally ranging between 1-3 minutes in length. The vast majority were rather frontal, magazine-like presentations of the latest novelties, ones where models posed directly for the camera, often framed within oval or circular vignettes. With or without the help of intertitles, they drew attention to silhouettes and overall looks as well as materials and details. Among the longer reels were ‘process’ films showing the ‘behind the scenes’ of production, the ‘the making of’ garments such as straw hats and shoes. A few of the films we saw were shot directly at fashion salons – namely, Poiret’s, Drecoll’s and Lucile’s – clearly carefully staged but also less structured (by the way, I am told that this exhibition currently on at The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum  has several newsreels from Poiret’s salon on display.

With regard to presentational conventions, it was interesting to see the development of bodily movement (in contrast to that of the camera) in the silent period was not from static to dynamic but rather the opposite – in many of the 20s films the models’ movements were quite severely constrained compared with the earlier films from the 1910s which tended to made a deliberate point about the fact of motion. The relationship between motion and stillness in these films is indeed fascinating, and definitely worth exploring further.

Finally, more than half of the films were saw were – unsurprisingly – in colour (go to Eirik Frisvold Hanssen’s article explaining why fashion films and colour were a match made in heaven). In the films we examined, the colour techniques used were predominantly stencilling and tinting, but there was one example of a Lumière Autochrome film from 1937, one of Technicolour from 1930, and one striking example of the Keller Dorian technique, which originated in France but was later purchased by Kodak and renamed ‘Kodacolor cine film’. The latter was no other than a film of Sonia Delaunay’s ‘simultaneous fabrics’ (which I date at 1926/27), which she almost certainly worked on directly in some capacity and which she used in her lectures about the influence of art on textile design. If film colour is of interest, go to Barbara Flueckiger’s fantastic website which showcases examples of some 230 individual film colour processes!


Marketa Uhlirova