Set design, spatial configurations and the architectonics of 1930s French poetic realist cinema
The aim of this study is to demonstrate that 1930s French poetic realist cinema is
characterised by a highly readable set design. It is a decor imbued with meaning -
not a silent shell, standing detached from the action but rather the amplifier of
narrative concerns. The thesis develops the claim that the decor is freighted with a
powerful dramaturgical and symbolic charge, whereby the figural dimensions of
everyday decor fragments anthropomorphise into powerful signifying elements.
Stylised studio-bound spatial configurations define the film's visual ambience,
enhance its emotional dimensions and function as amplifier of the story.
In order to identify the importance of decor as an interpretative matrix of poetic
realism, I shall show how poetic realist decor is the confluence of orthodox
architectural practice, personal temperament and an appeal to popular memory. By
examining the design practices of individual set designers, the thesis will provide
evidence for the capacity for architecture to act as resonator of mental impact. The
study will show how the set designer emotionalises architecture, investing it with a
strong spatial, visual and performative presence.
Although other critical studies of poetic realism have recognised the distinctiveness
of the set design, they have not fully examined the architectural specificity of the
films. The thesis contends that the director-designer collaboration sought to distil a
visual concept from the thematic and psychological concerns of the screenplay. This
interface between story and style will be demonstrated by a move from the general to
the specific, looking at depictions of the city, a rhythmic recurrence of decor
fragments and the micro-dimensions of the object. Ultimately, the set design and
architectonics of poetic realism are performative in the sense that they can represent
a discourse of their own, producing an engaging dialogue with more traditional
modes of film performance.