André Sauvage 28.06.13

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In the 1920s and early 30s, there was a fortuitous collision: cities soared upwards and outwards and silent film reached its apogee, before sound came along to ruin the spectacle. To avantgardists of the time, there was no medium more alive to the chaos of the metropolis than the moving image. In New York in 1921, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler forged the genre of the city film with Manhatta, dragging the new portable Debrie camera on to rooftops to revel in the vertiginous views and the tiny silhouettes below.

Over the next decade, plotless, lyrical or quasi-abstract urban travelogues sprang up all around the world: Walter Ruttmann's 1927 ode Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which hurtles along train tracks and into steaming factories; Joris Ivens' day in the life of a wet Amsterdam (Rain, 1929) and Man with a Movie Camera, in which Dziga Vertov deployed cinema's full arsenal to extract Soviet city life on to celluloid. Long-forgotten French director André Sauvage is rarely listed among the pioneers of the city symphony but a recent DVD release of his 1928 cine-poem Études sur Paris proves he should be. Unsurprisingly, given the city's heritage as the birthplace of the flâneur, its band of street prowler-photographers (including Atget and Brassaï) and the thriving artistic scene in Montparnasse in the Twenties, Paris proved a popular subject for urban film poets (Eugene Deslaw, Alberto Cavalcanti among them). Sauvage's little-known portrait – the only surviving feature of six that he directed – towers over them all.

As in Ruttmann's tour of Berlin, Sauvage starts on the city's outskirts, gradually inching closer to its core. His mode of transport is the leisurely barge (compared to Ruttmann's breathless train) and his camera floats through the northern suburbs, before alighting at the Seine and drifting (in proto-Situationist mode) through Montparnasse and St Germain, out to Montmartre and the city's industrial, neglected edges before wandering back to the centre. Famous sights flash by, but never gratuitously. (Notre Dame's gargoyles get a memorable cameo) Sauvage is as interested in giant hoardings advertising soap, market stalls and construction sites as he is in grandiose facades. Chimneys – especially on industrial skyscrapers – figure frequently, bellowing out that most cinematic of elements: smoke.

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That Sauvage was a photographer too shows in his blink-quick cutting. His scenes rarely last more than a few seconds and in hectic moments, take full advantage of the city's topography, darting from the pavement to car tracking shots to snatched skyline vistas and aerial street views. Sauvage, unlike many cine-poets, was not an out-and-out lyricist or romantic. Neither was he interested in tidy choreography or a dizzying, exuberant whirlwind tour. He favoured a much more personal, haphazard form of film poetry: a scrap book of glances, reflections, fragmented statues and bystanders' legs. Surreal happenings are never far away: a mannequin creepily revolving; a close-up of a turtle crawling along the street or a mass of wiry grey hair that turns out to be an old man's beard. When Sauvage uses filmic tricks (reversing, speeding up or superimposing footage), it's rarely to rev up the city's tempo in the way Ruttmann and Vertov do, but to make Paris seem ever so slightly alien.

The new score by techno DJ Jeff Mills amplifies this. A classical option is on offer, but Sauvage is not turning in his grave at the contemporary intervention, which brings a bit of dystopian Detroit (the musician's home town) to the grand old city. Sunday promenaders stroll to Mills' syncopated, woozy beats, while during the film's central crescendo, the bustle of traffic and people quivers to a heady, throbbing pulse. In one of the film's most delirious sequences, a phantom ride through a pitch-black underground canal is punctuated by shafts of light and smoke, made all the more sublime by Mills' soundscape. Like any city symphony of that era, no small part of the allure of Études sur Paris lies in the fact that it's a time machine. The fate of what was to befall the city only 12 years later hangs in the air, emphasised by the score's bleak tones. Études transports us back to a carefree Paris and operates like a rudimentary, lyrical version of Google maps; Sauvage's intertitles indicate the location and we drift along.

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Image

Carlotta Films

 

Words

Isabel Stevens

quotes story

A scrap book of glances, reflections, fragmented statues and bystanders' legs

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