10 great French avant-garde films of the 1920s

A century ago, French artists and filmmakers showed the way towards a dreamlike, confrontational, nonsensical cinema, from The Seashell and the Clergyman to Un chien andalou.

Un chien andalou (1929)

Chance was vital to both Dada and surrealism, and it was something of a happy accident that each movement’s flirtation with film happened in France in the 1920s. Paris had long been the world’s artistic capital, but ‘les années folles’ witnessed a cross-pollination across the artforms and a greater willingness to experiment. In the case of film, this meant an eagerness to challenge the conventions of the classical narrative style.

Filmmaking was expensive, but equipment was in ready supply, as French cinema recovered from the wartime abeyance that had allowed Hollywood to assume predominance. The fact that cinema was still silent abetted the efforts of those seeking to create ‘cinéma pur’, while Louis Delluc and Ricciotto Canudo ensured there would be a ready audience at their ciné-clubs. Yet the first attempts to launch a Dadaist cinema came in Zurich, where Swede Viking Eggeling and German Hans Richter sought to forge a universal pictorial language from abstract geometric shapes in Rhythmus 21 (1921) and Symphonie diagonale (1924), which were feted when they were screened at Dadaist soirées in Paris.

Driven by the pacifist sense of betrayal that had arisen during the First World War, Dada was a rebellion against the establishment, and its subversive anti-real aesthetic offered filmmakers a chance to break from the literary and theatrical tropes that had shaped mainstream linearity and find new ways to explore the dynamics of movement that were so central to modernism.

When the Dadaist impulse sparked by Tristan Tzara began to wane around 1922, many of its adherents drifted towards André Breton’s surrealists, who shared a disillusionment with logic and reason, but rejected nihilist absurdity in order to fathom ‘amour fou’ and the dream-world of the subliminal mind. This shift towards a raw cinema that defied interpretation was evident in the decade’s later avant-garde films, which also resisted the coming of sound. However, key players like Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger and Man Ray did join forces with Richter for a last talkie hurrah, the 1947 feature Dreams That Money Can Buy.

As the Jim Jarmusch-scored compilation Return to Reason (2023), which brings together four of Man Ray’s films, pops up on Mubi, we celebrate one of the first great convulsions of experimental cinema.

Le Retour à la raison (1923)

Director: Man Ray

Le Retour à la raison (1923)

On arriving in Paris, the American photographer Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) signed Dadaist Francis Picabia’s guest book, ‘Man Ray, Director of Bad Films’. Known for having stumbled across a method of camera-less photography, Man Ray hoped to recreate the allusive poetry of his rayographs on film and achieve ‘cinéma pur’ by dispensing with such bourgeois trifles as setting, character and plot. 

He was goaded into action when Tristan Tzara listed a Man Ray film on the programme of the last Dada happening, Soirée du Coeur à barbe, and the Philadelphian hurriedly improvised a three-minute item by combining moving images of a carousel, an egg crate and the naked torso of model Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse) with rayographs formed by sprinkling salt, pepper and pins on undeveloped photographic paper and exposing it. The ironically titled blur of light, shape and movement proved a Dadaist triumph when the celluloid split during the screening.

Ballet mécanique (1924)

Directors: Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy

Ballet mécanique (1924)

The driving force behind this meld of Dada and constructivism was American composer George Antheil. Seeking to produce a film accompaniment to a composition inspired by the noises of everyday machinery, he advertised for collaborators, and Man Ray and director Dudley Murphy responded. The former was replaced during planning by cubist painter Fernand Léger, who had become fascinated by technology while recovering from a First World War gas attack. His 5,000 francs funded the film, but the project lost Antheil when he feuded with Murphy, who some claim became the film’s principal creator. 

Léger’s input is evident in the 300+ shots that rattle past in a 16-minute paean to modernity that presents exasperatingly repetitious motion without emotion. Among the human elements are a Charlie Chaplin puppet, Alice Krin’s face, a woman on a swing and a Sisyphean laundress ascending a staircase. But whirring machines, domestic objects, lettering and coloured geometric forms dominate a choreographed kaleidoscopic collage that is organised by its relentless rhythm.

Entr’acte (1924)

Director: René Clair

Entr'acte (1924)

In 1924, Francis Picabia teamed with composer Erik Satie and the Ballet Suédois’s Jean Börlin to create the ballet Relâche. He also decided to produce a short film for the interval and pooled ideas with Satie and René Clair, who had just made his directorial debut with the sci-fi farce Paris qui dort (1924). 

While Picabia sought to rile the surrealists by creating a work of instantist spontaneity, Clair imposed his sense of self-reflexive mischief by spicing up the vaguely plot-driven action with uniquely cinematic transformations, superimpositions and shifts in speed. Consequently, the absurdist gags involving Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s chess game, a bearded ballerina, a huntsman and an ostrich egg, and the climactic hearse chase are interspersed with defamiliarising views of Parisian landmarks – all in order to justify Picabia’s claim: “Entr’acte does not believe in very much, in the pleasure of life, perhaps; it believes in the pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire to burst out laughing.”

Anémic cinéma (1926)

Director: Marcel Duchamp

Anémic cinéma (1926)

The Dadaist pioneer of readymade art and kinetic sculpture, Marcel Duchamp had befriended Man Ray in 1915. In New York, they attempted to create stereoscopic images by photographing optically fused spirals painted on to revolving transparent planes. However, this roto-relief experiment nearly killed Man Ray, when one of the glass plates flew off and struck his head. But he bore no ill will and offered his Parisian studio and camera expertise to help Duchamp realise his sole directorial venture (which he signed ‘Rrose Sélavy’). 

With its near palindromic title, Anémic cinéma examines the visual and verbal relationship between numerous oscillating discs, some containing words and some spiral motifs. As the flat design discs spin, they present an illusion of depth, while the print discs combine in a display of punning wordplay that is both ingenious and indecent in its teasing nonsensicality.

Ménilmontant (1926)

Director: Dimitri Kirsanoff

Ménilmontant (1926)

Estonian exile Dimitri Kirsanoff played cello in a Parisian cinema orchestra and his sense of musicality informs this neglected masterpiece. Charting the fortunes of two orphaned sisters (Yolande Beaulieu and Nadia Sibirskaïa), the storyline couldn’t be more novelettishly melodramatic. Yet, this 38-minute film is virtually a textbook of 1920s silent cinematic techniques. It even anticipates the poetic realism that became a dominant artistic style in France the following decade. 

The accelerated montage employed in the frenzied axe attack echoes Abel Gance’s railroad epic La Roue (1923) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) before four axial cuts emphasise the horror of the scene. Expressionist shots of an avenue of trees transition through dissolves that typify the in-camera techniques championed by impressionist instigator Louis Delluc. Influenced by F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), Kirsanoff eschews intertitles and employs a handheld camera for the city sequences to achieve his own brand of unchained subjectivity. Moreover, the scene in which the older sister frets in bed while her sibling is being seduced reflects the oneiric preoccupations of surrealism.

Emak-Bakia (1926)

Director: Man Ray

Emak-Bakia (1926)

Impressed by Man Ray’s portraits of his wife, Rose, retired stockbroker Arthur Wheeler funded his second film, which presaged his more surrealist endeavours, L’Étoile de mer (1928) and Les Mystères du château du Dé (1929). Taking its title from Wheeler’s rented villa near Biarritz, Emak-Bakia (the Basque for ‘Leave me alone’) combined Dadaist rayographs with representational but non-objective shots of people, vistas and everyday objects. 

Through canted angles, rapid cutting, slow motion, distortion and superimposition, however, this 18-minute cinépoème offered an abstract reflection on light, shape, motion and random chance, whose purpose was to make the viewer “rush out and breath the pure of the outside, be the leading actor and solve his own dramatic problems”. Moreover, by deriving their own meaning from such celebrated images as the eyes painted on Alice Prin’s eyelids and Jacques Rigaut’s dancing collars, the spectator could participate in the filmmaking process and fulfil “a long cherished dream of becoming a poet, an artist himself”.

Les Nuits électriques (1928)

Director: Eugene Deslaw

Les Nuits électriques (1928)

Ukrainian projectionist and critic Eugène Deslaw (born Ievhen Slavchenko) started making films with La Marche des machines (1928), a five-minute collaboration with famed cinematographer Boris Kaufmann that invoked the spirit of Léger and László Moholy-Nagy in using unconventional framing and editing techniques to take modern life’s mechanical pulse. The same principles of rhythmic choreography were more deftly employed in his 13-minute follow-up, which owed much to Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale. 

Captured in Berlin and Paris, the images explore the impact on the modern cityscape of neon lighting, with photorealist shots of signs advertising entertainment and temptation being juxtaposed with distorted human figures, blurs of glare, dazzling shots of moonlight shimmering on rippling water, and foundry sparks showering into the darkness. Particularly striking is a sequence in which footage of a merry-go-round is intercut with a spinning spiral. Initial screenings were accompanied by a rumorarmonio, an instrument designed by futurist Luigi Russolo to imitate the sounds of urban life.

The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

Director: Germaine Dulac

La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928)

When Germaine Dulac agreed to direct a screenplay by Antonin Artaud, her impressionist aesthetic clashed with his surrealist sensibility. He had wanted to star opposite former lover Genica Athanasiou as the cleric whose simmering passion for an aristocratic woman is consistently thwarted by an older man. Dulac followed Artaud’s instructions and used montage, superimpositions and displacement shots to depict the clergyman’s subconscious lustings in dreamlike settings. But he accused her of feminising his satirical tirade by adopting a musical approach to material that demanded psychological darkness. 

Dulac prefaced the premiere at the Studio des Ursulines on 9 February 1928 with the intertitle, “Not a dream, but the world of images itself taking the mind where it would never have agreed to go, the mechanism is within everyone’s reach.” A riot erupted nonetheless (with Dulac being branded “une vache”), prompting the British Board of Film Censors to declare the picture “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”

Un chien andalou (1929)

Director: Luis Buñuel

Un chien andalou (1929)

Outside Sigmund Freud’s theories of the repressed unconscious, it’s hard to pin down the precise sources of inspiration in this seminal surrealist romp. But Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí clearly saw Buster Keaton pulling a piano with a rope in One Week (1920), although they added the rotting donkey carcasses and the bemused priests. 

Funded by Buñuel’s mother, the 16-minute film retains its power to disconcert, with the eyeball razor slice and the hand wound infested with ants epitomising its depiction of raw sexual desire (and dread) and irrational (and misogynist) violence. Using montage, dissolves, superimpositions, slow-motion, discontinuous editing and parodic intertitles, the Spaniards created an oneiric scenario upon which free association imposes a mythical illusion of narrative logic. Yet, while they insisted the content was bereft of rational explanation, the pair still hoped it would scandalise. When it was positively received, Buñuel ensured that his next film, L’Âge d’or (1930), was “a desperate and passionate call to murder”.

À propos de Nice (1930)

Director: Jean Vigo

À propos de Nice (1930)

Although it premiered in May 1930, Jean Vigo’s debut was filmed on the fly the previous winter and captures a roaring 20s spirit, so it just squeezes into this list. Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) had previously adopted the ‘city symphony’ approach in capturing a day in the life of Paris. But this is a more leisurely stroll around Nice, even though Vigo’s cameraman, Boris Kaufman, was the brother of Dziga Vertov, who had made the ‘kino-eye’ classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929). 

Anxious to avoid producing a standard travelogue, Vigo attempted a political statement by contrasting the luxury of the tourist hot-spots with the deprivation in the working-class districts. Denied access to the casinos, he pushed Kaufman and his hidden Kinamo camera along the seafront Promenade des Anglais in a wheelchair, and this subversive spirit filtered into the surrealist sight gags and the castigatory shock cuts, as Vigo strove to initiate a social cinema that caught both life and death unawares.