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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.