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From Sketch to the Screen: "La Chartreuse de Parme" (1948)

A look at the stunning, tyrannical set design by the immensely talented Jean d'Eaubonne in Christian-Jaque's 1948 adaptation of Stendhal.

The bloodless Cahiers du cinéma wars induced a vague but hugely influential criterion for what was to be considered good and bad in film. Elaborate sets, one of French cinema’s major traits that, in certain genres, could compete with Hollywood, were deemed stifling and were rejected in favor of urban spaces and real locations.

The infamy that Cahiers du cinéma’s critical bombardment brought to certain filmmakers, at least among a small circle of cinephiles, took years to reverse. While Cahiers du cinéma happened to be more generous to American cinema, fewer French directors were allowed to enter their cannon. If, for instance, one Robert Bresson did, otherwise many Jean Delannoys did not. While the art of some great filmmakers was acknowledged and they were given the throne, many others, who were less stylistically consistent, fell into oblivion.

Today, more than half a century after the Cahiers wars, and regardless of their accomplishments, revisiting what was rejected (Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Dellannoy, René Clément, Yves Allégret) may seem as urgent as what was alternatively celebrated. Throughout the years, one of my personal preferences for returning to the classic era of French cinema has been following the architectural trends in those films with their dense spaces, wide use of existing decorative elements, paneling, fireplaces, mirrors, and ornamented surfaces, all now part of a bygone era.

“The question is not one of architecture but of existence,” wrote Cahiers critic Ayfre Amédée1. Mine, at least in these series of posts exploring the grand sets of cinéma de papa, is of architecture.

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An example of the forgotten splendor of architectural films is Christian-Jaque, the director of some 70 films made between 1932 to 1985, who, not so fortuitously, started as an architect. After studying at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, Christian-Jaque’s early affiliation with cinema in the late 1920s happened to be working as production designer for Julien Duvivier. Later he turned to direction and had success in pleasing both critics and the audience before, during and after the war. Already established as a major figure in French cinema, in 1948 he directed La Chartreuse de Parme, a Franco-Italian co-production based on the story of the same name by Stendhal, which chronicled the life a debonair Italian nobleman, played by James Dean’s and Alain Delon’s precedent, Gérard Philipe.

If it took 52 days for Stendhal to write the book, making the film, thanks to a detailed recreation of the castles, prisons and bars by Jean d'Eaubonne, turned out to be a longer creative process. Jean d'Eaubonne (1903-71), who graduated from the same school as Christian-Jaque and apprenticed with him in the ateliers of the legendary set designers Jean-Barthélémy Perrier and Lazar Meerson, was invited to design the sets for La Chartreuse de Parme. Around the same time that Jaque’s career took off as a director, D'Eaubonne proved to be almost a divine gift to French cinema whose design perfectly matched the world of collaborators such as Jean Cocteau, Jean Grémillon, Raymond Bernard, Marcel Carné and Max Ophüls. For the latter figure, D'Eaubonne, with a nod to theatre, designed La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1951), Madame de... (1953), and Lola Montes (1955), and conveyed a sense of baroqueness which was further explored in director’s dazzling tracking shots.

During the 50s, in any of D'Eaubonne’s portable walls, heavy doors, half-built staircases and smothering curtains, a sense of oneness, an almost sculptural approach to space grew (D'Eaubonne had actually studied with the sculptor Émile Antoine Bourdelle). His saw the cinematic space as one piece carved from a bigger entity rather than assembling pieces and creating a collage of spaces for the story. Many of these qualities are perfectly manifested in La Chartreuse de Parme, a film one can watch for its set as much as its actors, gorgeous photography or the renowned story.

La Chartreuse de Parme’s design is aligned toward creating long corridors and suffocating rooms of one-point perspective which stage a corrupt, treacherous world and set apart the lovers in the story. The vigorous architecture of the castles, in contrast to the pastoral landscape, remains hostile to any idea of love and serenity. A tower imprisons Fabrice, the protagonist, and huge dance halls separate him from his love. In a sense, the whole film is divided between stunning, tyrannical shots of architecture with close ups of angelic Philipe. Like the cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville and his iconography of Delon against a backdrop of cold, bluish, steely modern architecture, Jaque’s hero is detached from his surroundings. Thus the last shot of Fabrice is almost devoid of any ornaments and leave us with an iconic face fading into the darkness.

1. Ayfre, Amédée: 'Neo Realisme et Phenomenologie', Cahiers du Cinema 17, November 1952

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