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Anyone interested in the history of cinema and the power of the filmed image should watch Lumiere!, a fascinating montage of restored 50-second movies shot by the Lumiere brothers and their team of cameramen between 1895 — the year of their first public screening in Paris — and 1905. Edited and commented by Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, this eye-opening selection of 108 films, ranging from documentary sequences to staged comic sketches to what could be the first-ever car stunt (prosthetics included), is essential to understanding both the origins of moviemaking and how much the Lumieres contributed to the birth of a new art form.
Silent film purists may take issue with the fact that Fremaux — who heads up the Lumiere Institute film preservation center in Lyons — opted to provide a running commentary for all the footage, along with a musical score with works by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens (whose Le Carnaval des animaux accompanies the animated logo for the Cannes festival). But Lumiere! is perhaps less destined for specialists of early cinema than for students or cinephiles, allowing them to see some of the world’s first movies on the big screen while learning a few things in the process.
To that extent, Fremaux’s analysis and explanations are very much welcome, beginning with details about how Louis and August Lumiere — two Lyonnais brothers who, along with their father, ran a photographic plate manufacturing business — tested their prototype movie camera (the Cinematograph) by filming workers exiting their factory at the close of the day. That movie, entitled Sortie des Usines Lumiere a Lyon, is now considered the first in a series of 1,422 films they would shoot over the following decade — although Fremaux demonstrates that there are actually three different versions of the “first film,” and that what was supposed to be a simple documentary scene was shot several times in order to get it just right.
The notion that the Lumieres didn’t randomly shoot things, but that they paid specific attention to staging, framing, lighting, perspective and camera movement — that they were, in essence, directing — runs through the rest of the movies presented, with Fremaux pointing out details of the mise-en-scene techniques on display. In one film, featuring August Lumiere’s daughter playing with a cat, we see an early use of the close-up well before D.W. Griffith employed it in The Birth of a Nation. In films shot in Paris and Marseilles, we see how the Lumieres designed the first lateral tracking shots by fixing the camera on a train, boat or streetcar to reveal the passing landscape (the shots were known as “panoramas”). Other movies, such as a flood scene in Lyon or a scene of laundresses working by a river, underline the crucial importance of camera position and placement in capturing the totality of an event.
Fremaux also shows how the Lumieres were some of the first filmmakers to direct comedy, beginning with the famous The Gardner (L’Arroseur arrose) sketch that they would shoot several versions of over the years, with each one improving on the precedent. For those movies timing was essential, and in several other early comedies — including a few where they inserted knee-slapping spectators into the frame, in what looks like a primitive example of the laugh track — we can see how the directors made the most out of the short time frame their film stock allotted them.
There are many such tidbits throughout the 90-minute feature, with the footage presented in crystal-clear 4K restorations courtesy of L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna. Some films, such as the famous L’Arrivee d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat — the one that made a Paris audience flee to the back of the theater in fright — may be familiar to anyone who’s taken Film 101. Others, like a staged car accident where a man has his limbs severed and screwed back on (call it Gone in 50 Seconds), are veritable discoveries for the uninitiated. It’s an altogether engrossing crash course in the birth of movies, and if Fremaux makes anything clear in his survey, it’s that the Lumieres were not only cinema pioneers — they were perhaps the first auteurs.
Production company: Sortie d’Usine Productions
Director: Thierry Fremaux, with films shot by Louis & August Lumiere and their cameramen
Executive producer: Maelle Arnaud
Editors: Thomas Valette, Thierry Fremaux
Composer: Camile Saint-Saens
Sales: Wild Bunch
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