Blessay 26: La Premiere Nuit

When the average feature film length ( 90 to 120 mins ) was established, in the mid-twentieth century, you would have thought short films, under 45 mins, would have died out. But they were, and still are, produced. Fledgling directors make shorts because it’s a way to learn their craft, they’re cheap to produce and act as a calling card for the industry – a means of obtaining funding for a feature.

What’s often overlooked is that short films are a legitimate artistic form in their own right. Like the poem and the short story they are not made with any commercial success in mind. It’s as difficult to get a collection of poetry or short stories published as it is to have a short film screened and distributed. Of course it can be slipped onto YouTube, that huge repository of the bad and the beautiful, but a screening in a cinema or a review by professional film critic is very rare. Most short films, like poetry and short stories, will not make you any money and receive little, if any, critical attention.

There was a time when directors built up a substantial body of short films and continued making them once they’d ‘graduated’ to features. I’m thinking of French Cinema of the early nineteen fifties continuing into the sixties and seventies. Particularly the work of Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Alexandre Astruc, Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Georges Franju. All these directors created remarkable short films, often comparable in intensity and ambition to their features.

From 1949-58 Georges Franju only made shorts. Nine years of documentaries that ended with Les Premieres Nuit ( documentary in style but fictionalised. ) If I had to choose my favourite short film ever then it would be this 20 minute film. You can argue that Resnais’s Night and Fog, Marker’s La Jette, Vigo’s Zero de Conduite or Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou are more important and influential films. That is probably true. And they are certainly poetic. But for me La Premiere Nuit is a film poem.

To say what is a film poem is difficult. It’s not a technical matter of a density of lines and verses being comparable to abstracted imagery and film editing. It’s more a filmmaker’s inwardness of sensibility achieving a heightened mood and impression. You can take a moment in many films ( great, good or even routine) and say that one scene or sequence creates an epiphany, and isn’t that poetry? Well, yes and no. One of the highest accolades to bestow on any work of art is to describe it as poetic. But when you have a conciseness of form and content, within 20 minutes, feeling like the camera has been used like a pen on the single page, then you have the hypnotic La Premiere Nuit.

Alexandre Astruc said in his 1948 essay Birth of a new Vanguard -The Camera Style.

‘Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but of true writing. The auteur writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.’

Astruc is seen as anticipating the French New Wave and his literary models were prose experimentalists like William Faulkner.

‘For me the fantastic is above all realism. I detest fiction…I love what is realistic because I think that is more poetic. Life is much more poetic than anything you can imagine.’

That’s Franju about his attitude to filmmaking. An approach that has been termed surrealist. It is. But not in the more obvious surrealist way. Franju’s fantastic realism, tends to probe the surface of things, to reveal the poetry of our everyday actions. And those real actions are more poetic if they’re distilled to reveal a core of dreamlike strangeness. Which is the stuff of La Premerie Nuit.

The film’s story is simple. A rich young schoolboy is attracted to a girl he sees on the Paris metro. Her presence makes him cry. One evening he escapes the comfort of his chauffeur driven car to search the railway for her. Exhausted he falls asleep on a stopped elevator. He dreams of entering an empty train, running parallel to another train, and sees the girl looking at him, as both trains almost waltz together. She is sped away. The boy wakes up. It’s morning. The shift workers and cleaners are coming. The boy leaves the metro. He enters a park and walks slowly by the trees now bare of their leaves.

Franju was blessed by good child actors, the photography of Eugen Shuftan, the editing of Henri Colpi and music by Georges Delerue. All contribute so hauntingly to the atmosphere of La premiere Nuit. Franju’s employs his collaborators to help convey, with great exactitude, time, space and place.

I first saw La Premiere Nuit when I was 17 or 18 at the Merseyside Film institute Society. The film’s sense of sexual awakening disturbed and captivated me. Nothing of any real sexual nature happens. All is intimation, suggestion and yearning. A pre-pubescent fantasy in very mundane surroundings. No dreamy irrationality or madness here. Only an eiree first encounter underground, where life, as normal as that above you, goes on.

I love critic Raymond Durgnat’s speculative remarks on Franju. His other anarchic, surrealist intentions for La Premiere Nuit.

‘Let’s hope, though, that the boy becomes a confirmed truant, keeps slipping away from home and school, until, in the end, his dreamtime can synchronise with the city’s day. But that’s an even longer journey; one on which most sensitive people lose their way, becoming, for example, merely poets.’

If La Premiere Nuit is a film poem then it is also a deep call to escape the constrictions of normal bourgeois life and retain a capacity to dream. And Franju played a small part in the crucible of my growing up, that eventually turned me into a mere poet.

If you want you see La Premiere Nuit, then it’s been uploaded twice on YouTube. One poor print with a TV logo in the corner. The other a 16mm print that’s visually cleaner, however the sound is a little better on the TV copy. Please don’t watch it on a tablet or phone. This exquisite miniature’s not to be compromised by a tiny screen. Try and stream it through to a TV monitor.

However I would really advise you to wait till the middle of August for the BFI is about to release a DVD/Blu-Ray re- mastered edition, where La Premiere Nuit is to be coupled with Franju’s wonderful ‘horror’ film feature Eyes Without a Face.

Don’t forget, it’s never too late to escape and take up poetry.

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