Léonce Perret and the beauty of the world

While the frivolous definition of cinema formulated by Truffaut – to make «des jolies choses avec des jolies femmes» – can be applied to Perret’s films (and often in his comedies, lovely women have lovely things done to them, such as, for instance, Léonce stroking their feet), nonetheless, this is secondary. In the first place, these film do lovely things with light and shadow (with the transparency and density of the image). The main interest is clearly to fully exploit the potential of this new medium in order to reproduce preexistent light-play in a luminous and homologous manner. Perret’s cinema is clearly the direct continuation of this sort of play. In other words, cinema from the Teens is both part of and a record of the general medialization of the visible world, undertaken in the 19th century, with its great projects for mise-en-scène that always resorted to light effects: railways, buildings, gardens and promenades, the new artificial illumination of private spaces and of the city. No other era has reached a similar sophistication in the direction of light, or drawn so much beauty and pleasure from the relationship between exterior and interior, from the interplay of architecture and light, particularly in Paris: the great train stations with their dark grid-like iron structures, the shiny spaces covered by glass, the atriums with rose windows; the Eiffel tower, an optical construction of sky and iron; the houses with balcony railings forged in hundreds of different patterns; the balustrades, roofs, and shutters; the shady avenues and parks. Perret’s films allow us to savour this light-play, reviving in a spectacularly fresh manner the effects that we no longer notice out of habit.

Perret’s films are beautiful and visually gratifying. Nothing in them betrays an attempt to escape their time towards the future. On the contrary, they refer to their world and their era in an actively harmonic relationship; it is here that their substance, strength, and beauty lies. In one of Perret’s marital comedies, a lady makes herself beautiful before her vanity table, she then relaxes, smiling at her own reflection in the mirror. It is with this sort of warm and affectionate gaze that Perret’s films capture and reflect the visible world of the Belle Epoque and its generous, conscious manner of representing visual beauty.

The conservation policies of Langlois and at Gaumont allowed a great number of Perret’s films to survive, in the form of negatives, meaning in black and white without intertitles. The rediscovery of Perret’s comedies and dramas can be attributed to the Nederlands Filmmuseum, and in particular to Hoos Blotkamp and Eric De Kuyper who, during the early nineties, restored the Dutch positive distribution prints, which were the only existing copies bearing the original colors. Our retrospective was carried out with the joint support of the Cinémathèque Gaumont and the Cinémathèque Française, who participated in the difficult task of restoration with enthusiasm and tenacity. We would particularly like to thank Martine Offroy from Cinémathèque Gaumont, and Claudine Kaufmann from Cinémathèque Française.

Research of non-filmic materials regarding the films of Léonce Perret was essentially conducted in two different directions. Typewritten scripts and Brochure de la Société des Etablissements Gaumont, which contained detailed synopses as well as information on the length and coloring of the film, were found within the Léon Gaumont foundation (item «scénario Gaumont»), at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris. Sometime the intertitles and cut-ins were mentioned in the text. The scripts discovered at the foundation were actually typewritten after the fact, once the film was finished, and then deposited at the Bibliothèque National de France in order to protect against falsification. Other paper and photographic material was consulted at the Musée Gaumont in Paris, which holds numerous brochures, photographs, posters, and programs from the Gaumont-Palace.

Mariann Lewinsky