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Poor Pierrot (Pauvre Pierrot | 1892)

Émile Reynaud | French Republic | 1892

During a quiet night, Harlequin jumps the fence to enter Columbine’s garden. This first sequence of rudimentary images is the earliest proof of an animated moving picture. The director was the celebrated French inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud, the man that gave the world the first animated public projection, the same man that was to die in utter obscurity over a quarter of a decade after that. The Théâtre Optique, perfected on the basis of the Praxinoscope Theatre in 1888, allowed Reynaud to showcase full stories, each drawn on over 500 glass plates. Supported by live music, in 1892 a new form of entertainment was established – going to the movies.

From the original shows in the 1890s, it took animated film another fifty years before it gained full public support, but quite a few less before it tackled adult themes. In the wake of technological transformation in the late 19th century, Reynaud’s work could be seen as off-track. The display of moving live action images was regarded as the ultimate pinnacle to reach. While Le Prince, Friese-Greene, Dickson and others already had managed to capture successful sequences of moving photographs, Reynaud was still playing with painted images. Through the prism of time, his work appears to be almost pointless. At first sight, he did not bring anything new to film. The concept that to create motion one requires a plethora of multiple images moved in rapid succession existed for centuries. Creating a machine that would be capable to move those images so that the eye interprets the result as a single image in motion predates even the early works from Muybridge. So, why is Reynaud’s work still worth a place in the cinematic canon?

The answer to the question above does not reside with the method of production, but rather its content. Poor Pierrot, the only film preserved to this day from the three originally showcased at the Musée Grévin in Paris in 1892, is a work that contains all of the key characteristics of modern film-making. The most important of these is the plot. Here, Reynaud relied on the traditions of pantomime to create a show. The story is quite simple: Harlequin visits Columbine during the night, but what might seem for them to be a night of adventure and fun is interrupted by Pierrot. As the romantic lover walks in, he spoils the girl with flowers and gallantry. It is quite clear, though, that as far as she is concerned he is an ultimate bore, and so she departs leaving Pierrot heartbroken in the moonlight. In the second act, we meet him again, but this time he is drunk and passionate. As he serenades, he feels a tap on his shoulder. As he looks back, there’s nothing behind him. Then there’s another one, and still Pierrot is unaware of Harlequin’s company. Needless to say, the plot works in the best traditions of pantomime, and Harlequin’s victory is rewarded in the end, for he is the one to enter Columbine’s home, while Pierrot is losing his wits in the middle of the night.

Reynaud’s choice of subject matter displays a high degree of commercial maturity. During nearly a decade of playing at Musée Grévin, he had entertained about half a million spectators with his “absolutely unprecedented show”[1] at a salary of “500 francs a month and 10 percent of the revenue generated by the fifty centimes’ additional admission charge for the show”[2]. They key to this success was the uniqueness of the show. As Jonathan Crary concludes, “contemporary audiences […] did not regard Reynaud’s handmade cartoonlike shorts as an inadequate or incomplete from of cinema but as attractions in their own right with their own particular pleasures”[3]. The brilliance of judgment on Reynaud’s part is how he brought a new product to the market to a public that was already used to pay for a pantomime performance.

The importance of films such Poor Pierrot in the cinematic canon comes primarily from the fact that they shatter the long held assumption that cinematic audiences emerged as a well-defined cohort primarily based on a technically curious public. Whereas, in part, Reynaud’s work attracted a similar public as well, the key difference is that it also called to a group that was hungry for art as entertainment. But it is important to note that this is a slightly different audience to the one that attended vaudeville acts, a slice of the public that in the end were central to the success of moving images in the United States in the late 19th century. The consumer of ‘art as entertainment’ here is closer to the public that would be attending full theatrical performances. Though far inferior in grandeur, Reynaud was competing technically against works such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The key battle the early days cinematic auteurs had was to convince the public that film as a medium was as capable of creating an artistic experience as powerful as any theatrical performance. Reynaud’s work stands solid as one of the first works to achieve this, long before any similar attempts. The use of music and partial dialog (through song) only but add to the film’s unique role in the history of cinema.

In an essay exploring the relationship between cinema and photography, Tom Gunning claims that “for Bazin the painted colors and entirely nonindexical animated drawings of Émile Reynaud’s Pantomimes Lumineuses may be more essential to the history of cinema than the abstracted motion studies of Marey[4]. The conclusion is testament to the fact that Poor Pierrot achieves what cinema is always in search of: a reproduction of the living experience. From the very start, contemporary reviews believed that Reynaud’s work was capable of giving a “complete illusion of life”[5]. Predating a true understanding of how the body acts in motion, these images still manage to ignite the human imagination into transforming dreams into reality. By the end of the feature we forget the technical world of film-making and only remember a good story that made us laugh.

[1] Courrier des théâtres; p. 4. Paris: Le Figaro no. 303, 29 October 1892.
[2] Schwartz, Vanessa R.. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris; p. 181. Berkeley - Los Angeles - London: University California Press, 1998.
[3] Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture; p. 266. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.
[4] Gunning, Tom. What's the Point of an Index? Or, Faking Photographs. In Beckman, Karen and Ma, Jean (eds.). Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography; p. 37. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.
[5] Courrier des théâtres; p. 4. Paris: Le Figaro no. 303, 29 October 1892.

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  • French Republic

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