Film Posters in France, 1930s – 1960s

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Beginning in the early 20th century, major studios like Gaumont, Pathé Frères, and Paramount commissioned posters to advertise their films. They occasionally hired established advertising poster artists like Achille Mauzan and Leonetto Capiello to do a poster for a silent film, but compared to the posters that advertised products or promoted concerts and dances at the music halls, film posters were extremely conservative, generally emphasizing portraits of one or more actors in a scene from the film. A similar policy continued through the 1920s and 1930s and into the postwar years. Early exceptions included the Cubist-inspired poster that Jo Bourgeois created for Marcel l’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine for which the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens designed the sets (Fig. 1). Others were Ram Richman’s) expressive and psychologically complex poster for Jean Grémillon’s Daïnah la Métisse of 1931 (Fig. 2), and Bernard Lancy’s dramatic poster for Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, which depicted a soldier who encased within him a dove that was wounded on a strip of barbed wire, thus portraying the difficulties of establishing peace between France and Germany, who were the World War I protagonists whose complex relations Renoir depicted (Fig. 3).


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Designing film posters was a distinct profession and film poster affichistes rarely ventured into other realms of commercial art or even advertising posters. For the most part, film posters done between the 1920s and the 1950s were never experimental. They were only rarely impacted by the Art Deco style that A.M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu and others poster artists exemplified. This was due primarily to the kinds of films that the French industry made. Producers and directors like Marcel Pagnol, known for his Marseille trilogy – Fanny, Marius, and César – among other films, saw the film medium as a way to disseminate theatrical plays and consequently had little inclination to explore techniques that were uniquely cinematic (Fig. 4). This lack of filmic experimentation was also evident in the many historical costume dramas and light comedies, although in the 1930s a school of filmmaking that film historian Rémi Fournier Lanzoni calls “poetic realism” developed. Jean Gabin or his female counterpart Arletty starred in many of these films. “Poetic realism’ was not a precise term but it did differentiate a class of dramatic and occasionally comedic films from their less substantial predecessors. Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows, Children of Paradise, and Daybreak (Fig. 5) are good examples of this genre.


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Consequently, there was little room for experimentation among the poster artists who were obliged to promote the principal actors and also to create some interest in the film by depicting a particularly engaging image that characterized it. Among the numerous affichistes who specialized in this type of film poster, many of whom were active in the 1930s and a number of whom continued into the 1940s and 1950s, were Bernard Lancy, who began his career in the 1920s as did Jean A. Mercier; René Peron; Henri Cerutti; Roger Vacher: Jacques Bonneaud: René Ferracci, who began by designing newspaper ads for films; Jean Mascii; Joseph Koutachy, also a landscape painter; Georges Dastor, a painter as well: and Claire Finel, a rare woman in the field.

Artists who followed this approach after the war and who, in some cases, continued into the 1980s include Jean Jacquelin – also a designer of product and travel posters as well as lingerie advertising for Scandale; Pierre Pigeot; l’Atelier Fourastié; Constantin Belinsky, known especially for his B-movie posters); Boris Grinsson, a Russian whose family left at the time of the Revolution; Clément Hurel; Michel Landi; and Yves Thos. A typical example of posters that descended from the cinematic tradition of poetic realism is l’Atelier Fourastié’s realistic poster for René Clément’s Battle of the Rails, a film about the French Resistance that was released just after the war ended (Fig. 6).


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Besides the rare exceptions to this style in the 1930s, there were a few more in the 1940s and 1950s, when the style was still dominant. Jean Colin, best known for his advertising and cultural posters, began his career as a film poster designer and introduced a more conceptual and designerly direction to the genre during the war, even though it was not followed up by others and Colin moved on to other endeavors. The 1950s saw the introduction of films by directors such as Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati, who worked outside the mainstream studio system on films with low budgets that were more experimental in nature. Pierre Étaix designed a poster for Tati’s film Mon Oncle that conveyed the image of the director’s alter ego, Mr. Hulot (Fig. 7).


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Bresson’s scripts were philosophical and his directing was exemplified by a spare visual technique. Originally a painter and photographer, he had a keen visual sense. Paul Colin, the prominent advertising and music hall poster artist of the 1930s, designed posters for Bresson’s early films. Colin’s poster for his 1956 film A Man Escaped did not portray any actors but instead showed only a rope hooked to a wall, indicating that someone had climbed up the rope and over the wall (Fig 8). Such a depiction of a film’s theme with no portraits of actors was extremely rare during the 1950s and even more so later. In the late 1970s and 1980s, a very different affichiste, Savignac would design posters for several of Bresson’s films. By this time, Bresson’s technique was less spare and his choice of scripts covered broader themes. Though Savign
ac’s posters were not gags as his advertising ones were, they conveyed graphically a sense of black humor that Bresson surely felt was appropriate to the films (Fig. 9). Savignac also designed posters in the early 1960s for several comedies by Yves Robert such as War of the Buttons, which provided more leeway for gag images (Fig. 10).


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Raymond Gid studied architecture but pursued a career as an advertising artist and book illustrator. He designed posters for several directors, notably Henri-Georges Clouzot, who specialized in thrillers, and Jean-Pierre Melville. Both were to have an influence on their younger counterparts of the nouvelle vague (new wave). Gid’s technique of loosely applied paint that was evident in these posters was clearly related to the School of Paris artists. For Clouzot’s film Diabolique, he designed two posters that incorporated collage and conveyed a sense of mystery that suggests the influence of Surrealism (Fig. 11). His 1947 poster for Melville’s The Silence of the Sea, a World War II film about the precarious situation of some French Resistance members, features a specter-like German officer emerging from a dark background and creates a sense of ominous mystery (Fig. 12). Similar in atmosphere is the film poster by the prominent designer of advertising posters, Bernard Villemot, for Georges Franju’s, 1959 film Head Against the Wall. Villemot interprets the theme centering on two patients in a mental hospital, one of whom commits suicide, by depicting a man heading towards the unknown in a tunnel made of colored panels (Fig. 13). A counterpart to these serious portrayals was cartoonist Maurice Siné’s comic poster for Clouzot’s film about spying, Les Espions (Fig. 14)


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Unusual graphic images were also evident in posters for several films by the novelist, poet, playwright, and artist Jean Cocteau. His first cinematic experiment was Surrealist-inspired Blood of a Poet in 1930. He returned to the medium in the 1940s with several feature-length films. Two –Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus – were financed by the independent producer André Paulvé, who also produced Jacques Tati’s initial film Jour de Fête. Jean Colin designed the poster for Cocteau’s first feature film The Eternal Return, while the stage and costume designer Jean-Denis Malclès (1912-2002), created an ornate poster for Beauty and the Beast. Unlike any other cinema posters, it was a romantic depiction of the two main characters that had the quality of a fairy tale illustration. The fairy tale theme was supported by the decorative three-dimensional typography (Fig. 15).

Cocteau’s Orpheus was a modern version of the Orpheus myth for which several different artists designed posters. One was a typical 1940s-style emotional depiction of the stars – Jean Marais, who appeared regularly in Cocteau’s films, and Maria Casares – while two others were experimental – one a collage poster that combined photos of the lead actors with classical sculptures and images of two dead figures sprawled on a set of decrepit steps (Fig. 16), and the other, also a collage, that featured the automobile in which Orpheus is whisked away by a Princess who represents Death.


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The 1950s was a time of transition for French cinema. The 1930s and early 1940s was considered a Golden Age but the sensibilities that produced the films of that period had begun to change, partly from the plethora of foreign films, particularly American and Italian, that began to flood French screens (Fig. 17), and partly from the societal shift to a modern consumer society that called for a sensibility more attuned to a fast-paced exploration of contemporary life.


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These two factors were important influences on the emergence of the, nouvelle vague, a group of young filmmakers, mostly connected to the critical journal Les Cahiers du Cinéma. Central to the nouvelle vague was the theory of the auteur or author, which attributed the identity of a film to a single person just as a writer was considered responsible for the structure and contents of a novel. These young directors did not emerge from the existing studio system but rather from film criticism and theory, thus providing an intellectual basis for creating films that was not evident in the prior era. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows, and films by Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette among others were identified with the nouvelle vague.


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Related to it were two other phenomena. One was the documentary films of anthropologist Jean Rouch that moved away from traditional ethnographic films to focus on contemporary experience with a technique known as cinéma verité along with a variant – the personal cinema of Chris Marker. The second was the films allied with the literary movement known as the nouveau roman (new novel). The
writing was matter-of-fact and unemotional just as the related films were. Alain Resnais is the director associated with these films such as Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Fig. 18), although some were directed by novelists themselves such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.

One might have expected the posters that promoted these films to have introduced some new graphic techniques just as the filmmakers were inventing techniques like jump cuts, nervous camera work, and sometimes elliptical plots. But this was not the case. If anything, the posters associated with these new tendencies were less engaging visually than those that advertised films of several earlier generations.

First, most of these films were produced outside a studio system where a considerable budget for advertising was built into the production cost. Second, there was no counterpart movement in graphic design or commercial art that could have resulted in posters that were as inventive as the films. This was not the case in West Germany, where the promotion of films, both domestic and foreign, corresponded with the emergence of a new cadre of young graphic designers such as Hans Hillmann and Heinz Edelmann. In fact, posters for the French nouvelle vague films that were shown in West Germany were far stronger graphically than posters for the same films shown in France. The same was true in Poland, where graphic designers worked for the state film agency. Since there was less pressure to promote the films and more inclination to interpret them, Polish film posters reached a high level that was comparable to the quality of the films they announced.

By contrast, in France, it seemed that little attention was paid to the film posters of the new young directors. A seasoned affichiste Clément Hurel designed the poster for Godard’s Breathless but he didn’t appear to have understood the film’s aesthetic. The film is an intimate black and white study of two young people, one an American woman who sells newspaper on the street and the other a French criminal on the run. Although it is more about the relationship than a dramatic plot, Hurel’s poster falls back on old clichés to show the criminal being shot in the back as he runs from the police. That image is joined to a large face of the lead actress Jean Seberg with a look that is anything but intimate. The designer also played with the lettering, perhaps imagining that scattered letters in different colors serve as the graphic equivalent of Godard’s jump cut technique (Fig. 19).


Fig. 19

In many instances photographs replaced artwork on the newer posters but the photos were generally uninteresting. Surprisingly, some of the nouvelle vague films such as Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins were promoted with posters that evinced the same visual style as their counterparts in the 1930s (Fig. 20). They aimed to heighten the emotional intensity of the newer films without recognizing the sensibilities that rejected the narrative style of the earlier ones.


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One exception among the newer films was the delightful feature Qui êtes-vous Polly Magoo? Directed by the American photographer William Klein (b. 1928) in 1966, it is a biting satire of the fashion industry with stark black and white images that parallel the aesthetic of the fashion magazines Elle and Jardin de Modes. There are several variant posters for the film, all of which are laid out like magazine pages. One features a large stark black and white photograph of a fashion model accompanied by stills from the film. Another sets a photograph of models in striped dresses against a comparable background (Fig. 21), while a third incorporates a photograph of the models with large san serif letters that take up almost half the poster. The innovative graphics may be attributed to the fact that the film was made outside the world of cinéastes and was more reflective of a contemporary fashion aesthetic than a cinematic one.

Several factors become evident when examining the French film posters in this period of around forty years. First is that the technique of film poster design was highly developed by the 1930s and producers included generous budgets for hiring artists to create dramatic depictions of the films. During this period, the poster reigned supreme in France as an advertising vehicle. Such was also the case in the 1940s and into the 1950s at which time, poster advertising began to decline and magazine and television advertising came to replace it. The second factor is that the few posters that broke new ground in promoting films made little impact on the standard techniques of representing a film. Finally, at the moment in the 1950s when the nouvelle vague transformed filmmaking and made French cinema a world leader, the posters that advertised those films seriously declined in quality and fell far behind the cinema posters in some other countries including the posters that advertised French films. Nonetheless, the trajectory of film poster advertising during this period from the 1930s to the 1960s tells us a great deal about the tenuous relation between the quality of films and the posters that promote them.


©2015 Victor Margolin