Montparnasse: an affectionate survey of a famous artistic and intellectual Parisian district in the 1920s

Eugène Deslaw, “Montparnasse” (1929)

Come take a tour of Montparnasse as it was in 1929 with Eugène Deslaw to guide you. At the time, this district in Paris was the centre of French artistic and intellectual life and Deslaw captures this aspect of Montparnasse very well, emphasising a number of famous cafés, clubs and streets frequented by famous writers, painters and philosophers from around the world, particularly the United States.

The film begins with unusual bird’s-eye views of traffic  in Montparnasse from some distance: the camera is often held on the side as well as from above and at one point in the introduction, it shyly peeks from behind a vehicle. The camera takes in a number of streets by their street-signs and quickly settles on landmarks that would have been known to artists, intellectuals and the general public alike. Soon our gaze is lavished on street life: people walking in the streets, children playing with toy boats in the ponds and fountains, women traders in street markets, and gentlemen studying pictures in a flea market on the street. Close-ups of pedestrians, including some famous artists of the time like the Japanese painter Fujita, the Spanish film-maker Luis Buñuel and three Italian futurist painters Russolo, Prampolini and Marinetti, are included. Deslaw prefers to hone in on the unusual, like a flock of goats being herded through traffic and pedestrians, or a display of five wistful-looking dolls on a table, or a machine claimed by its advertisers to read fortunes in people’s hands. He has an eye for street art, African tribal art, visual pornography of a tasteful kind and city architecture in which geometric patterns or exuberant baroque swirls might be found. The last couple of minutes in the film focus on people at an outdoor café and their activities: people-watching, writing, conversing with friends, playing finger-shadow games.

In the space of 15 minutes, we probably see much more of Montparnasse than many modern tourists might of the district in one day: the film flits very quickly with quick editing from one spot to another. Certain motifs such as nude art or particular architectural patterns become the basis for a collage of images that’s quickly replaced by another collage based on another theme. The camera rarely lingers for long on any one particular shot. Some unusual filming techniques such as a pan-around that turns dizzy might be used but on the whole the film relies on linked linear sequences of shots done fairly quickly.

It’s an affectionate survey of a particular part of Paris as it appeared to Deslaw in the 1920s and for that reason has historical value for students of Parisian culture and intellectual life. The film does not linger on particular landmarks or streets so any distinctive Montparnasse atmosphere is not obvious to viewers. There is little shown about the less glamorous and perhaps seedier, more rundown parts of Montparnasse; no suggestion that there might be the odd gangster or two, or a political dissident trying to flog Marxist texts to impassive passers-by, lurking in the district. Such inclusions would have made the area much more interesting, complex and historically important as viewers would be left to ponder how the vibrancy of a district or city is influenced as much by its underbelly as its artistic, intellectual and cultural life, and the tensions between these sub-cultures and the mainstream culture of Paris.

Most of the music soundtrack consists of songs or instrumental pieces popular during the 1920s and I think I recognise a few tunes from old Warner Bros Bugs Bunny cartoons of my distant childhood. Apart from this and some early traffic noises, the film is silent. For some modern viewers, that will be a problem as the film carries no title cards to indicate which parts of Montparnasse are being visited and why they and not others are the subject of the film’s interest.

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