Poetic Realism

What is Poetic Realism? (Definition and Examples)

Poetic Realism (1930-1939)

The Poetic Realism film movement, which started in 1930 and extended through the end of the decade, was full of characters living on the fringe of society, whose lives, to be frank, sucked.

They pined for the good life, but that life eluded them; they waxed nostalgic, but they settled for being angry, bitter, and disappointed most of the time.

In the films of the Poetic Realism Movement, things usually didn’t turn out well for the characters because of their less than optimistic outlook. When someone gives up on life, that’s pretty much time for the big FADE OUT.

Idealism? Hope? Sunshine and rainbows and unicorns? Were unicorns even a thing in French in the 1930’s. Probably not.

Waxing Poetic

So what is this Poetic Realism we speak of? We’ve already talked about the realism and the decided lack of unicorns or anything remotely happy in the films of the time, but the poetic aspect of the movement refers to the film’s aesthetic.

When you have set designers at your disposal such as Lazard Meerson, and such respected, revered, and prolific composers such as Georges Auric, Maurice Jaubert, and the extraordinary Arthur Honnegger, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty.

While these angsty, depressing opuses were beautifully lit, well-designed, visually arresting, and an aural feast for the ears, according to some of the movement’s critics and scholars alike, the overall production values, weren’t so great.

Perhaps the reason behind the lack of production values was because, to be honest, depression, kvetching and complaining about life for an entire movie is a hard sell no matter what era in which you live. (See Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself.)

Poetic Realism Directors

The most influential directors of the time included the stratospheric likes of Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier,  Jacques Prévert, Jean Vigo, and Marcel Carné.

Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir was the most revered director of the time. He was born in Paris in 1894 and died in 1979 in Beverly Hills.

He was the son of legendary artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

What makes him so impressive is that his body of work started in the silent film era and until his final film in the 1960’s. That’s quite a stretch. He received an honorary Oscar in 1975 for his contributions. In 2002, a BFI critic poll named him the fourth greatest director of all time.

Julien Duvivier

Julien Duvivier was born in Lille, France in 1896 and passed away in 1967. He started in the business as an actor, but then moved onto writing, and directed his first feature film in 1919. His first “talkie” was David Golder (1930).

His film La belle equipe(1936) was the embodiment of Poetic Realism; the story centered around some down-and-out workers winning the lottery, but their success doesn’t last very long. Before you know it, they’ve lost everything and well, that was pretty much it. The ending was so depressing that it was changed to reflect a happier ending. One of the many actors he worked with throughout his career included the legendary Maurice Chevalier.

Marcel Carnè

Marcel Carnè, who lived from 1906 to 1996, started in the business as a film critic and rose through the ranks to become an editor for prestigious French cinema magazines, but during that time, he was also served as a camera assistant, and by the age of 25, directed his first short film.

In 1936, he embarked on a twelve-year collaboration with surrealist Jacques Prèvert; his films Le Quai des brumesand Le Jour Se Lèvewere hailed by one critic as one of the movement’s greatest classics.

Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo, whose father was a militant anarchist, and who lived a very short life (1905-1934), due to complications to Tuberculosis, spent most of the time on the run with his parents. He only directed four films, including À propos for Nice, La Natation par Jean Taris, Zero de Conduite,and L’Atlante.

Despite his tragically abbreviated career, his impact has been profound; his only feature film was his only feature film. That being said, two film organizations have named awards after him and they are given out annually to celebrate French filmmakers.

Poetic Film Movement On-Screen Talent

Some of the actors who graced the films of Poetic Film Movement included Jean Gabin, who was well-known not only for his film work but also for his relationship with the legendary Marlene Dietrich; stage actor Michel Simon; legendary Academy Award Winner Simone Signoret; and Michèle Morgan, who was considered to be one of the greatest French actresses of the 20th century, and won the first-ever Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Fun fact: Ms. Morgan, might have lived to the age of 96, but she only celebrated 24 birthdays. She was born on February 29th, 1920. She died in 2016.

Poetic Film Movement Filmography

Some of the most important films of the Poetic Realism Movement includes:

L'Atalante (1934) by Jean Vigo
La Bandera (1935) by Julien Duvivier
La Belle Équipe (1936) by Julien Duvivier
Les Bas-fonds/The Lower Depths (1936) by Jean Renoir
Pépé le Moko (1937) by Julien Duvivier
La Grande Illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir
La Bête humaine (1938) by Jean Renoir
Le Quai des brumes (1938) by Marcel Carné
Hôtel du Nord (1938) by Marcel Carné
La Règle du jeu (1939) by Jean Renoir
Le Jour se lève (1939) by Marcel Carné