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From Sketch to the Screen: Jacques Colombier

Our series on production designers continues with a major École des Beaux Arts graduate who worked from the 1920s - 60s.
Ehsan Khoshbakht
The enormity of screen space in films shot in the extra-wide cinemascope format tends to intensify the power of architectural lines and volumes shown within the frame. No matter how many characters are crammed in a shot, there is always some room for the immobile architecture of the film to be seen, felt, and even attain a narrative function. Look at the first two images above—elevation of a three-story building and the plan of the alley in which the building is located. They belong to the production of a swashbuckling vehicle for French star Jean Marais, La Tour, prends garde! (1958), designed by Jacques Colombier. Now, if one compares them to the images of the constructed sets below, there are some revealing facts about the nature of film architecture to be noticed: the camera and lighting are extensions of an art director’s imagination, and thanks to them a partly constructed set comes to life and finds an instant identity.
The director of the film, George Lampin, is not a household name among cinephiles. Probably his only “right” directorial decision on this film—which was known in English as King on Horseback—was to hire a kid by the name of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was a year shy from being discovered by François Truffaut for The 400 Blows. Yet, one cannot think of two more disparate films: Truffaut’s is a poignant and semi-documentary tale of a boy’s maturity in Paris, while the Lampin’s, with its vicious royalists, courtesans, and shiny costumes, belongs to a tradition obsessed with gloss, quality and Frenchness. Designer Jacques Colombier, subject of this short inquiry, was part of that tradition.
Jacques Étienne Colombier (1901-88) entered École des Beaux Arts and studied painting, a common background for many art directors of early French cinema. Fresh from school, he joined his brother, film director and former drawer and caricaturist Pierre Colombier (1896-1958). Within a few years, Jacques was the leading set designer of the Joinville Studios.
Having the Hollywood studio system in mind, especially the autocratic process of designing at MGM, mastered by art director Cedric Gibbons, Jacques Colombier gained an almostabsolute control over various aspects of design and building process, with all architectural elements and pieces of furniture properly stored and indexed for reuse whenever they were needed.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Colombier developed close associations with a small group of filmmakers and formed an engaging, if sometimes unadventurous, approach to set design, which he practiced until the day he chose to retire. His filmography, though far-reaching in number of films, is rather easy to pigeonhole based on his extensive and sometimes overlapping collaboration with these four filmmakers:
1. The Pierre Colombier Years (1925-38): Though the 13 films two brothers made together as director/designer team are now nearly inaccessible outside of film archives, the production stills show very little attempt for creating depth or interwoven spaces. Yet, the world of these two-dimensional films with their painted backdrops should be subject for further research.
Ignace (1937)
2. The Maurice Tourneur Period (1930-34): An excessively busy, 4-year stint with Maurice Tourneur which later extended to a one-off collaboration with Tourneur’s son, Jacques (Toto, 1933). During this period, Colombier was generally unhappy with major design trends in French cinema which were introduced by Russian or Eastern European émigré set designers. He complained that the national tendencies are ignored, only to be replaced with “a bland international look” (Dudley Andrew, p.177).Thus, following the transition to sound, Colombier tried to apply more “Frenchness” to his set designs. Paradoxically, this revival of French traditions meant returning to theatrical methods in opposition to the spatial qualities of vast, moving spaces which were practiced by émigré designers.
Accusée... levez-vous! (1930), the first of the seven films designed by Colombier for Tourneur, perfectly demonstrates the limitations of an attempt to revive the old school. A far cry from the vivid Paris of Lazare Meerson/René Clair or the overtly dynamic Paris of Alexandre Trauner/Marcel Carné, here the role of the city is pushed to the background or it is completely driven out of the picture. There are no sewers, rooftops, or sleazy bars in Colombier’s Paris.
“It's nice to hear French music once in a while, isn't it?” the owner of a musical hall in Accusée asks his starlet. “Yes, people must be getting fed up with jazz,” the starlet responds. However, even if Colombier really believes in such ideas of purification, the setting of the musical hall—the main place where the story unfolds—is more or less a rip-off of the American backstage musical, with a steel spiral staircase in the center and camera’s gaze fixed on dancers’ naked legs in descent.
3. The André Cayatte Years (1946-58): A relatively more realist period in Colombier’s career with films chiefly about moral dilemmas of the Occupation years and the failing of judicial system. Here, Nous sommes tous des assassins (1952) is a classic example: started off as a Clouzot-esque version of Self Made Hero, with a criminal guising as a Resistance fighter, soon shifting to a prison drama about the inhumanity of capital punishment. This sense of unevenness in the narrative also divides the design into two disjointing halves: one, inspired by Roberto Rossellini, relying on real, open spaces and a post-liberation cityscape, while the other, a prison set, returns to more conventional concept of film set as stage.
Nous sommes tous des assassins
4. The Gilles Grangier years (1943-65): The most accessible and arguably the most entertaining of Colombier’s films were ensued in collaboration with the Richard Thorpe of French cinema, Gilles Grangier, especially when the team of Grangier/Jean Gabin/Colombier was cheerfully engaged in revamping French genres films. Colombier, having no shame to be part of what Truffaut attacked as "Une certaine tendance", seems to be at ease with giving up the idea of being a production designer and instead settling on being mere decorator, something he is extremely good at. He was a window dresser, doing his best to present the main goods the films were trying to sell—the stars.
Yet, one feels Grangier never explored the full potentials and dramatic possibilities of what Colombier offered him. Take Le cave se rebiffe (1961) for instance: an old time crook (Gabin) returns home to lead an operation of forging Dutch bank notes. At some point, early in the film, there is a scene when two characters walk into a bedroom, a space directly coming out of The Lady from Shanghai with multiple mirrored walls and a secret door behind them leading into a big private lounge with low ceiling held by wooden beams and horizontal glass windows open to a mountainous landscape. This is the kind of space a director like Julian Duvivier would turn into a nightmare space, with a good dose of erotic innuendo, despair and death. This is the kind of space an Edgar G. Ulmer would make three films in, one romance, one horror and one psychological melodrama. Grangier, a victim of his own restraints, never returns to that room or opens its door for a second time.
Frame assemblage: Le cave se rebiffe
In between his major team works, Colombier managed to engage in some one-off collaborations with eminent Frenchmen such as Sacha Guitry (Le destin fabuleux de Désirée, 1942) and Marcel L'Herbier (Au petit bonheur, 1946). He designed two films for Abel Gance (Un grand amour de Beethoven, 1936, and Le voleur de femmes, 1938) and even worked with a visiting Robert Siodmak in La vie parisienne (1936). Among these, somehow, his most memorable film, if not his best set, remains Edouard et Caroline (Jacques Becker, 1951).
Le cave se rebiffe
Though the arrival of designers like Colombier could mean the rejection of a more diverse, spatially rich architecture brought into French cinema by émigré talents, still, his designs have a clear place in our cinematic imagination, connected to some of the most thoughtfully made films of the period. The fact that Colombier ceased working just when the French New Wave was blooming tells us a great deal about the kind of cinema he could or wanted to design, a cinema for which the decorator is as precious as production designer, and most of the time they are the same.


From Sketch to the ScreenJacques ColombierGeorge LampinPierre ColombierMaurice TourneurAndré CayatteGilles GrangierSacha GuitryMarcel L'HerbierAbel GanceRobert SiodmakJacques Becker
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