I wouldn't have been altogether surprised if Marcel Carné's first film, a short documentary from 1929 called Nogent, eldorado du dimanche (Nogent, Eldorado of Sunday) had not been particularly interesting. I don't find his first feature, Jenny, all that captivated either (although his second, the loony comedy Bizarre, Bizarre (a.k.a. Drole de drame), is a delightful surprise from the man about to become famed for doom-laden romantic tragedies), and this was a documentary by a man with no reputation in that medium and no experience of professional cinema.
But Nogent is both charming and very interesting. Carné the weaver of wistful and misty romantic tragedies produces a film which prefigures the nouvelle vague, ciné-verité and his own school of poetic realism. A few years later Carné would be working as assistant to masters like Feyder and Clair. Looking at this little gem, one wonders if they shouldn't have been working for him.
But let's not get carried away. What we have here is a miniature, a plotless portrait of a place unfolding over a single Sunday, though no doubt filmed over many. A montage of dynamic steam engine stuff is interspersed with shots of a deserted Paris. Typewriters squat in rows, snug beneath their covers, waiting for the resumption of the working week. Everyone is off to outlying little towns like Nogent-sur-Marne to spend their day off engrossed in a medley of dancing, fishing, messing about in boats or—riding tiny bicycles?
This is one of those watery resorts we see celebrated a little while later across the border in friendly neighboring Germany in Robert Siodmak's People on Sunday, and you can trace it through Renoir's Une Partie de campagne and Duvivier's La belle équipe and numerous other films which document the leisure activities of the un-leisured classes.
The twenty-year-old cineaste points his little camera at every activity of interest, and every photogenic moment, from light glinting on water to athletes swinging overhead. There is a risk that this kind of filmmaking can devolve into unthinking travelogue. And there's certainly the possibility that it's all much more interesting to us today because it's a little slice of history, a dancing, splashing snapshot of the time when anybody with a few sous in their pocket got out of the city on Sunday to chase romance and fun. But the material is nicely assembled in a way reminiscent of musical movements, themed around different activities, and the director hurls his camera about handheld or tied to swings, lies on his back in the grass as rowing teams carry their canoes overhead, and generally bends, stretches and crumples the plastic qualities of the medium in every way available to a man with only a few sous in his pocket but with a universe of ideas in his shiny little head.
Carné's personality comes across, for sure. The romantic dreamer swoons over shots of lovers holding hands, and an accordionist who plays us out over the fade to black, his instrument still glinting in the setting sun. And even as he twirls among the waltzing couples, he seems very taken with the male athletes and the crowds of young working men out for a good time. This may be his most gay movie, in a totally unstated way.
And the director's artistic future can be glimpsed, but only in a distorted, rippling reflection, like those he films in the Marne river. It was the young man's dream to take the camera out of the studio into the streets, and capture life as it was lived. But as he entered the industry, traditional industry practices had to be adopted, so Carné was drawn into the shadowy embrace of the sound stages, but he took the outside world with him: hence all those gigantic, minutely detailed and precisely accurate reconstructions of real Paris locations which his production designer, the wizard Alexandre Trauner, built for him. One way or another, the camera of M. Carné was going to capture the world.
I expect that dog's quite old now.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.