Obituary: Jean Dreville

Artists who refuse to be categorised are usually the most interesting, though they pay for their independence by a certain public and especially professional benign neglect. Such was the fiercely individual nature of a fine film director, Jean Dreville, whose utter uniqueness in the world of French cinema is equalled only by that of Robert Brasson.

Perhaps his uncompromising character was the result of having escaped the rigours of formal French education: he was a sensitive child, and his sympathetic father, Alexandre, a mining engineer but also a poet and journalist, allowed him to have private lessons at home. As a youth he was interested in art and photography, and he began his working life as a draughtsman, poster designer and photographer. His father also introduced him to the profession of journalism, and in the early Twenties Jean Dreville founded three reviews of the cinematic art, of which Cinegraphie (1925- 27), a counterblast to the triviality of Cine pour tous, became the first serious magazine of the cinema, not only in France, but in Europe and the world.

In a rare 1976 interview, Dreville describes the problems of early movie appreciation:

In the Twenties, people were attracted by a film's title or by a favourite actor. The director was of no importance to the general public: even great artists like Fritz Lang were not credited on posters or in reviews, that just outlined the story. Only Cecil B. DeMille ("Cecil Billet de Mille") and a few other movie tycoons were granted that privilege. But the critics in those days felt they had a duty to educate the public, and introduced technical terms like travelling [tracking shot], "subjective cinema" and fondu-enchaine [lap- dissolve or cross-fade], or enthused about the first uses of flash-back.

Through such informative reviews,

the general public began to recognise and respect the role of directors like Abel Gance, Marcel L'Herbier and the young Rene Clair.

Among the contributors to Cinegraphie were Alberto Cavalcanti, Edmond Greville, Henri Chomette - the pseudonym of Rene Clair's younger brother, less well-known, so inevitably nicknamed by Dreville "Clair Obscur". The great Surrealist poet Robert Desnos followed Dreville's example, writing brilliant innovatory film criticism for a wide range of newspapers until his deportation and death in 1944. Indeed, nearly all the Surrealists were influenced by Dreville and created epoch-making short films and texts that used cinematic techniques of cutting and distortion.

Jean Dreville began his cinematic career by making shorts, including the first documentary about the making of a film: the 1928 Autour de l'argent, which followed the day-by-day creation of Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1929). During the Thirties, he made a string of successful comedies including Touche-a-tout, whose title Dreville used as a sly reference to himself - Jack of All Trades; and, one might add, Master of All.

In the late Thirties films about Russia were popular, with their appeal to the Front Populaire, and Dreville cashed in with Troika sur la piste blanche (1937) and Nuits blanches de St Petersbourg (1938). In the same year, he shot a remake of Raymond Bernard's 1927 silent feature Le Joueur d'echecs ("The Chess Player"); Bernard was one of the directors he had praised in Cinegraphie.

During the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period, Dreville turned to more realist themes, and to war films. Nineteen forty-two saw the success of Les Affaires sont les affaires ("Business is Business"), a slyly ironic comedy about wartime profiteering. In 1945 appeared La Ferme du pendu with Arletty - one of the early films noirs. La Bataille de l'eau lourde ("The Heavy Water Battle") was a smash hit in 1948, a spy thriller set in occupied Norway in documentary style, about the Allied attempts to wipe out a Nazi heavy-water factory. It is one of Dreville's most perfect films, later made into The Heroes of Telemark (1965) by Anthony Mann, with its superb location shots ruined by an insipid Hollywood "love interest". These realistic compositions led Dreville to produce some fine aviation spectaculars like Escale a Orly (1953) and Normandie-Niemen (1960).

But there was always a lighter vein of music and laughter, especially after Dreville's collaboration with the popular singer, lyricist and actor Noel-Noel, with whom he made La Cage aux rossignols ("Cage of Nightingales", 1945) and above all Les Casse-pieds ("Tiresome Types", 1948), a typically sarcastic squib about the boredoms of life in high society. It won the Prix Louis-Delluc and the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais.

Dreville had always been a fan of Abel Gance, whose Napoleon he reviewed in 1927. He too made a magnificent excursion into historical films, in La Reine Margot (1954) with Jeanne Moreau, still a young starlet, as Marguerite de Valois and the unforgettable Francoise Rosay as Catherine de Medicis. Dumas' novel has a very turgid plot, but Dreville slices through the opacities with crisp wit, sharp, cutting and irreverent portraits of royalty worthy of Goya. Margot, said by Montaigne and Brantome to have been the most beautiful woman of her time, has some nude scenes; we do not, alas, see Jeanne Moreau in these, but a quite satisfactory stand-in.

The French television Canal Plus had the nerve to re-issue this masterpiece in the same week, May 1994, when Patrice Chereau's inflated mega-project of the same title, with a sulky Isabelle Adjani, knocked the French public dead with boredom. Forty years on, the more modest resources of Jean Dreville and a fine cast of supporting actors, including Daniel Ceccaldi as a sissy Duc d'Anjou and an already over-acting, grimacing Luis de Funes as Rene achieved a superb piece of authentic historical reconstruction. Jean Dreville, the neglected independent, won the encounter hands down.

James Kirkup

Jean Dreville, film director: born Vitry-sur-Seine, France 20 September 1906; married secondly 1960 Veronique Deschamps (one daughter); died Vallangoujard 5 March 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015