Obituary: Alexandre Trauner

David Shipman
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:29

Alexandre Trauner, painter, designer, art director: born Budapest, Hungary 3 September 1906; twice married; died Omonville-La-Petite, Normandy 6 December 1993.

NO CITY has been more eloquently expressed on screen than Paris, from Rene Clair to the nouvelle vague directors, who rediscovered it by sending their cameras out into the streets. Clair did not consider doing this: his great designer, Lazare Meerson, recreated Paris in the studio. .

Meerson's pupil Alexandre Trauner distilled a Paris even more Paris than Paris - one that was uniquely his, in the wonderful batch of films written by Jacques Prevert and directed by Marcel Carne. Some of them starred Jean Gabin, and just as his monolithic presence was essential to their romantic, poetic, humanist and doomed world, so were Trauner's mordant, teeming sets: the bridges over the canal in Hotel du Nord (1938); the hotel towering above the square and the factories in Le Jour se leve (1939); and, above all, the great boulevard of 19th-century Paris in Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), started during the Nazi Occupation while Trauner, a Jew, was in hiding. The failure of Les Portes de la Nuit (1946) ended the Carne-Prevert collaboration, but Trauner's evocation of the Boulevard de la Chapelle was complete and magnificently witty.

Trauner had moved from the capital for Carne, to a fogbound Le Havre in Quai des brumes (1938), but again on this coast - Brest - he was required to match his seedy cafes with real streets and clifftop locations for Jean Gremillon's Remorques (1941). He did so again for La Marie du port (1950), which marks a decline in Carne's work, notable only - despite Gabin - for its portrait of this small harbour town, but they were agreeably reunited for the misanthropic Juliette ou le Clef des Songes (1951), in which Gerard Philipe wanders through a pays sans memoire.

During this period Trauner began working with Orson Welles on Othello, which was not completed till 1952 - since when its merits have been much disputed, though not its visual quality. It could not be said that it opened up an international career, since Trauner's contribution to the Carne-Prevert films had brought him universal recognition, but thereafter he was the preferred designer of most American directors working in Europe. Significantly, Billy Wilder chose him for Love in the Afternoon (1957), which was what Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn were doing in a hotel on the Place Vendome. From this point on, since the rules of movie-making had changed, Trauner was more likely to be found scouting locations than in his studio. He collaborated with Wilder on some of his best movies - including The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961) and Kiss Me Stupid (1961), taking him respectively to Manhattan, a divided Berlin and a dullsville American small town. .

Another leading director, Fred Zinnemann, moved Trauner to Belgium and the Congo for The Nun's Story (1959) and to Spain for Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Apart from the films with Wilder, Trauner showed little interest in working in the United States, but remained in demand from Hollywood talents, including Anatole Litvak (Aimez-vous Brahms? / Goodbye Again, The Night of the Generals), William Wyler (How to Steal a Million) and John Huston, for whom he created the mystic world of Kipling's adventurers in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). .

Trauner worked several times with Joseph Losey, and arguably his selection of the Palladian villas of the Veneto is the sole redeeming feature - Mozart apart - of Don Giovanni (1979). His career turned full circle when Luc Besson sent him back to the drawing board to create the sinister Paris underground of Subway (1985) - and when Bertrand Tavernier asked him to design a studio Paris for Round Midnight (1986). But of his late work, the fly-blown small African town in Tavernier's Coup de Torchon is as memorable as his great work for Carne and Prevert. He was buried next to Prevert in the village of Omonville-La-Petit.

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