Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Georges Franju's La première nuit (1958) is free to watch below.
La première nuit (The First Night) began from an idea by singer, actress, and writer Marianne Oswald, who worked (with Rémo Forlani) on what would become the script of Georges Franju’s first fully fictional short film. The protagonist is a ten-year-old boy (Pierre Devis) who, every day, is diligently driven, back and forth, from home to school. One morning, through the car window, the boy sees a beautiful, blonde-haired girl (Lisbeth Persson) exiting the subway. In the evening, when the classes are over, the hero outsmarts his chauffeur and follows the girl into the metro. Her train, however, departs before he’s able to jump on. The boy starts wandering alone, traveling from station to station, until the metro closes its doors. He falls asleep and sees the girl, appearing and disappearing four consecutive times, at different spots of the metro. With echoes of Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935), La première nuit is a poignant treatise on dreams, first love, and the relationship between cinema and childhood.
In La première nuit, the Parisian metro is filmed as a fascinating labyrinth, energized by the constant movement of trains, elevators, and passengers. In this underground cave, everybody seems to have a train to catch, a place to go, a definite destination—everybody except our hero. Once he’s lost sight of the girl, the boy walks alone among the crowds, intrigued by all the mysteries and activities hidden below the world’s surface. Lost and spellbound, like a flâneur in a foreign city, he strolls and explores the corridors and corners of this nocturnal, subterranean, twentieth century metropolis.
The protagonist’s sense of wonder as he discovers this new universe is reflected in the ways the space is depicted. There’s nothing narrow or claustrophobic here; rather, the metro is portrayed as an astonishing architectural set, full of vanishing points. In breathtaking wide shots, the selection of extraordinary angles, combined with the use of deep focus and wide lenses, serves to magnify the space, presenting it in all its grandeur and dynamism. Structural elements, graphic designs, and human figures trace multiple lines—diagonal, horizontal, vertical—that animate the image, turning it into a vibrant blueprint.
The poetry of La première nuit owes a great deal to the cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, who would re-team with Franju for Head Against the Wall (1958) and Eyes without a Face (1959). In the 1920s, Schüfftan had invented a special effects technique—the Schüfftan process—used in, among others, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a film beloved of Franju. La première nuit takes great advantage of both Schüfftan’s mesmerizing architectural eye and his expressive lighting craft. The endless assortment of lamps, bulbs, fluorescents, and neons that adorn the metro are made visible in many shots, seemingly suggesting a realistic approach to lighting. However, the tone and intensity of the light, as well as the complex patterns guiding its distribution and diffusion, have little to do with the blinding, unflattering, homogeneous illumination that the real, visible light sources alone would provide. In fact, Schüfftan turns the Parisian metro into a space that is both selectively hyper-lit and entirely ultra-cinematic.
In La première nuit, shadows, rather than obscuring or blocking our vision, often allow us to see further. The metro becomes a site of enhanced visibility, prone to projections, hallucinations, lyrical associations. In a remarkable series of shots, the hero’s highly contrasted shadow is casted over a map of the Parisian metro; the black shape raises its head, following the blinking lights that signal the different stations, as if trying to decipher a treasure map. Under the boy’s enchanted gaze, the successively flashing paths traced by the various metro lines remind us of wondrous constellations of stars flickering in the firmament.
In La première nuit, shadows also unleash the potentialities of multiplication and dissemination. In one shot, we witness how an empty platform is progressively populated: first, our hero’s huge shadow appears on the wall; then, the boy himself comes into view, walking behind his own shadow, casting yet a second—smaller and lighter—shadow. During her third apparition, both the girl’s figure and the banister on which she reclines are doubled and magnified in a ghostly fashion by their shadows. All this shadow-play finds a beautiful match in the intense work with light reflections: projected onto windows, vaulted ceilings, and white tiles, these luminous traces are scattered, forming impressionistic patches, painterly fleeting figures that resemble the sparkles glimmering upon the sea on a sunny day.
Franju was a friend and admirer of the French crime fiction writing team Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who worked on the scripts of both Eyes without a Face and Spotlight on a Murderer (1961), as well as earlier providing the source material for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Under Franju’s express request, they wrote this epigraph for La première nuit: “It only requires a little imagination for the most ordinary gestures to suddenly take on a disturbing significance, and for our everyday surroundings to engender a fantastic world. It is up to each of us to awaken the monsters and fairies …”
These words of introduction have set the basis for many commentaries on the film that emphasize, precisely, the transformative aspect of the space. Indeed, La première nuit starts by depicting the Parisian metro in its everyday activity and, by the end, this space has turned into an oneiric landscape, the scenery of the child’s dreams. But it’s already in the realm of the quotidian that Franju finds the seeds of fantasy. The continuous focus on signs and posters, as well as the emphasis on seriality, become the two main recurring strategies to strengthen the tension between a documentary side and a fictional side, while liberating the surreal potentialities of the place.
La première nuit has no spoken dialogue, but the film is neither silent nor wordless. Words—informing, exhorting, forbidding—are displayed on panels and signs; they are printed on graphics, posters, advertisements. At the end of Philippe Garrel’s Emergency Kisses (1989), once the central, romantic conflict is resolved and the film is almost over, the female protagonist (Brigitte Sy) sees her amorous rival (Anémone) at the metro station. Sy is on the opposite platform, sitting below a huge sign that reads: ALARME. The effect of this word is uncannily disturbing. Likewise, La première nuit presents a maze of messages and signifiers (“the sun on your walls,” “it’s orange once more,” “Flossmatic,” “climb forbidden,” “danger”) that, once projected into the fiction, operate a poetic, surreal effect of displacement—while inviting us to decipher them in relation to the plot’s events.
Franju’s second strategy involves the use of serial repetition. I’ve already commented on the serial layering of shadows, reflections, and a variety of light sources. But serial repetition is everywhere in this film: queues of passengers, strings of stairs, corridors that give way to more corridors, tubes that connect with other tubes, metallic structures that replicate the same template again and again, identical posters arranged in a row, lines of pristine tiles, lines of trains, and lines of carriages. Seriality is the main aesthetic marker of La première nuit and the central motif of its graphic compositions.
When the metro’s closing time approaches, the transportation activity lessens and the space is progressively emptied out. A group of women, running to catch the last train, pass the boy who walks in the opposite direction. Franju introduces two spectral shots of the space: the camera, in slow motion, sways from side to side as it moves along the corridors, revealing nothing but lines of identical lamps, posters, cables, and tiles. Our hero hides from a security guard patrolling on his bike, and peeps at a small group of workers lined-up along the rails, operating soldering machines that produce a line of identical sparks. Later, the boy ventures into a tunnel and dodges a group of rats. Finally, he falls asleep among the lines formed by banisters, escalators, and tiles. This dormant city with its motors in stand-by distills an eerie calm. Only the skeleton of its seriality survives.
The note that appears just after the Boileau-Narcejac epigraph has received less attention; over the first shot, it reads: “This film is dedicated to all those who have not disowned their childhood and who, at the age of ten, discovered love and separation at the same time.” And yet, those words prefigure the film’s most crucial preoccupation. How to portray the child’s simultaneous encounter with love and separation? How to render this “at the same time”? Much of the charge carried by La première nuit hinges precisely on this quest that Franju undertakes, almost as if it were a challenge.
To affirm that, at the core of La première nuit, there lies an inquiry into time could seem paradoxical, especially in the light of the filmmaker’s own declarations (in Marie-Magdalene Brumange’s Franju. Impressions et aveux): “[Space] is indeed my problem and also my terrain, since I make films. On the contrary, I’ve always had the impression that the Time problem, which is a concern of literature, does not concern me at all.” However, what Franju does in La première nuit is to deal with the problem of temporal simultaneity by spatializing it, transforming it into a problem of mise en scène, of bodies in space, of movement and stillness, of relative positions and variable speeds.
After the boy falls asleep on a switched-off escalator, the oneiric section of La première nuit begins. The entrance of the music triggers one of those everyday gestures that, in the words of Boileau-Narcejac, “suddenly take on a disturbing significance.” In this case, it’s the combination of a human and a mechanical gesture: the kid wakes up, starts moving and, a few seconds later, the escalator does the same. One movement cancels the other: straight and stern in his upper body, marching like a zombie, our hero moves his legs, but all this walking takes him nowhere. In cinema, this figure of faux movement has its own history of rich variations: it’s a call to dream, to hypnosis, sometimes to death; a trope for the subject’s loss of control over his own body and mind, for his submission to a higher force.
Stalled in-between those two directions, time freezes, opens up a hole, gives birth to a new space. In this space, bodies appear and disappear in trains that circulate at a torpid speed, without a driver. In a carriage, facing the window, the girl’s spectral figure stands alone. Rigid, immobile, with her glance fixed on an indeterminate point, she doesn’t seem to notice the boy, whose bewilderment obtains no response. As soon as the train vanishes with her inside, another train arrives. There she is again, in the exact same position. This time, however, she does look at the boy; she even smiles at him, gently. The kid starts running, at a slow pace that matches the train’s decreased speed. This second materialization, accompanied by Georges Delerue’s romantic musical theme, stretches its duration beyond any realistically plausible time frame.
In these two apparitions, Franju recreates and intensifies an idea prefigured at the film’s opening. The girl’s specialness, her beyond-this-world quality, is already emphasized in the inaugural shots: when the hero sees her for the first time, she appears detached from the rest of kids; the boy, glued to the window of the car, is instantly smitten by this vision—by this hieratic, unreal, fantastical presence, spit out by the mouth of the metro. As she passes next to the vehicle, the girl turns toward the boy and smiles unsparingly for a brief moment, before resuming her brisk walk to school. It’s this fleeting instant, this primal scene of discovery and separation, this experience of finding and losing love at the same time, that the film keeps repeating and re-enacting with each one of the girl’s appearances and disappearances.
The girl comes into view again, briefly, for the third time. She’s reclining on a banister on the metro’s first floor, looking and smiling at the boy from this elevated position. Then, she vanishes. Another train arrives and, this time, it stops at the station. The train’s doors open, as if inviting the boy to jump in. Once he is inside, the automated lock makes an abrupt sound, securing the door—this everyday gesture, which we have already seen, is now imbued with a menacing resonance. Standing next to a window, the boy travels in the phantom carriage of this empty train to an unknown destination. Soon, a second train circulating through a parallel railway approaches the first. In a single, marvelous shot lasting 55 seconds, Franju depicts the most beautiful of the girl’s apparitions.
With his back to us, the hero observes this other train passing by slowly, carrying the girl in one of its carriages. Driven by mysterious forces, isolated in different spaces, the two children travel face to face. The girl’s train runs at a variable speed, constantly advancing and receding. Her image slides gracefully, from edge to edge of the frame, sometimes visible, sometimes blocked by the boy’s figure. Until, suddenly, as if gravity had been supressed, her carriage performs a fantastical movement of ascension and detachment. Only afterwards do we grasp the nature of this movement: her train has taken an elevated detour. But, for a brief moment, it feels as if she’s been swallowed by the film and propelled into outer space. We are left with the shadows of a black, deep hole, projected onto the hero’s face, wet with tears.
One of the most poignant aspects of La première nuit is its portrayal of the boy’s impotence in this situation. This is perhaps the deepest link between childhood and cinema: the child who, in evading his chauffeur, escapes from the adult world, from the world of parents, finds himself in a similar scenario of subjugation when pursuing his dreams in a dark room. Prior to the girl’s third apparition, our hero is shown sitting on a bench, his torso bent, head resting in his hands. The camera pulls in slowly; in close-up, he raises his head and reveals a face covered in tears. The girl appears and vanishes, but the boy doesn’t move a muscle. The camera pulls back, opening up the image dominated now by the gesture of resignation drawn by the boy’s bare hands. As in one of those strange, lucid dreams in which the dreamer understands he is dreaming, our hero seems to know that the blonde girl is out of reach. The only thing he can do is to keep running alongside this vision, to keep staring at this girl who looks back at him with tender eyes and a sweet smile—hold onto her image a bit longer, until the train that brought her to him takes her away.
In a scene of Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931), the heroine played by Joan Crawford approaches, in wide shot, a railway. There’s a cut that introduces a new perspective: Joan, a small figure at the bottom of the frame, raises her head toward the train window that looks like a screen displaying her fantasies. As the train advances, different windows pass by, offering diverse views (a luxurious meal, a woman getting dressed, a shower scene, a couple dancing). This fragment of Possessed is used at the start of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006) as an example of everyday reality elevated to a magical level, becoming “the screen of her dreams.” This clip is preceded by Slavoj Žižek’s powerful statement: “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” I’ll add: at the same time.
In the first part of Franju’s film, the hero discovers the Parisian metro to be a huge, subterranean city. In the second part, he rediscovers it as cinema. The oneiric section of La première nuit is nothing but that: a train progressing like a film strip in a moviola, a train spitting out and swallowing up images—a train of shadows. The “first night” is this night of the primal cinema experience, to which we keep returning.