Thierry Fremaux on ‘Lumière,’ the World’s First Film, the Artistry of Louis Lumière

Fremaux presents “Lumière!” a 114-film omnibus at the 19th UniFrance Rendez-Vous

Thierry Fremaux
Copyright: Marcel Hartman

PARIS — “Just saw this so wonderful masterpiece for competition this year in Cannes,” announced Thierry Fremaux, as on Friday he bounded into a theater at the Gaumont Capucines, just down from the Place d’Opera in Paris.

Fremaux, as so oftenin public, was of course joking. He was at the cinema wearing his other cap as the director of Lyon’s Lumière Institut, to present and provide live commentary to “Lumière!” an omnibus feature film of shorts shot by Louis Lumière and his operators between 1895 and 1905. Some distributors who caught the presentation instanced it as a highlight of the UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, of which it formed part.

As Fremaux commented in Paris presenting “Lumière!” most people can name around five Lumière shorts, with “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” and “The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station” near the top of the list. A few might be able to get up to 10. But Louis Lumière and his team shot 1,422 between 1895 and 1905. 114 of the 50-second shorts are showcased in “Lumière!” which is edited and narrated by Fremaux. Sold by Wild Bunch and world premiering at the Toronto Festival, “Lumière!” forms part of a drive to bring the Lumières’ work to a far wider audience. It would be a spoiler to go into too much detail about “Lumière!” But here are five things Fremaux said while presenting or commentating “Lumière!” about the movies of, for many, the world’s first filmmakers.

Though many people think they know what film’s title and when it was shot and can make a sporting guess at the film itself. If the world’s first film was one made for a mass paying public in a event dedicated only to film it is, many people would claim, “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” shot on March 19 1895. (In Paris, Fremaux preferred to talk about the “Lumière Cinematograph’s first film”) But there are three versions, “Lumière!” showing them all. None of them are dated,  the case it seems of most of Lumiéres’ films. A contemporary report talked about the film shot on March 19 featuring a horse, so that rules out one version, which has a dog but sans horse. The other two versions must be judged by which looks more likely to have shot in March, from the workers’ clothes and the shadows they cast. What this uncertainty almost certainly means is that, after making what’s said to be the world’s first film, the Lumière brothers also made the world’s first remake, Fremaux joked.

Commentating “Lumiere!” in Paris,  Fremaux’s major point in Paris – and one presumes in his narration in the film – was that the Lumières didn’t just turn their camera on reality; rather, they actively directed, and were artists. Fremaux described several of the movies in the feature as “masterpieces.”  One case in point: “The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station.” “The use of the diagonal make the film’s dramatisation all the more powerful,” Fremaux commented. It also served an aesthetic effect. “There’s dark and black towards top left. White and grey in the bottom and right. Louis Lumière was a photographer before becoming a cineaste and knew how to compose an image and showed he could shoot motion,” Fremaux said. He added: “This is one of his most famous films and one of his first masterpieces.”

“L’arroseur arrosé,” where a boy steps on a gardener’s hose, may be the world’s first fiction film. It was certainly a comedy. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumiére’s brother, captured at breakfast with his wife Margaret and son André in “Baby’s Breakfast,” may have been the world’s first lead actor. The first Razzie candidate almost certainly appeared in a short capturing the Lumières’ father Antoine playing cards and drinking beer, served by a manically gesticulating waiter. “The film was not meant to be funny, but it was,” Fremaux commented in Paris.

Having shot films and organised the first dedicated paying movie screening, on Dec. 28, 1895, at the Salon Indien du Grand Café, the Lumières’ third achievement, Fremaux argued, was to take the Cinematographe to the world, dispatching operators abroad to shoot and screen shorts, and sell the Lumière Cinematographe, a three-in-one camera-printer-projector. This lead to some memorable pieces, included in “Lumiere!”. Alexandre Promio, one of the most skilled and hard-working of Lumière operators who has merited a book-profile in his own right, shot the Venice Grand Canal, capturing the mildewed grandeur of its buildings from a boat. He wrote to Louis Lumière saying that maybe he had been too audacious, if Lumiére didn’t like the film he should destroy it, but asking Lumiére not to fire him for shooting it, Fremaux recounted. It remains one of the most memorable of early Lumière films. Lumière operators shot around the world, from London to New York, Martinique to Vietnam or Chicago, filming a police march-past. The films shot in New York and Stockholm were shown in Rome and Madrid. “That makes cinema one of the first big world movements of people,” Fremaux commented.

“The Lumières wanted the cinema to be a witness of its time,’ Fremaux added. Cinema was  born during the Belle Epoque, a period of progress, prosperity, peace and scientific invention. In their movement in frame, the bustling streets, the scenes of France at work, the Lumières’ French films captured the energies of their time. The working spilling out of the Lumière factory are not bedraggled proletarians but operatives at a factory pioneering photographic innovation.
But. once abroad, the Lumières’ focus changes, if subtly, producing what could also be called some of the world’s first social-issue movies. If one of their shorts captured French soldiers training, leaping athletically onto the back of a stoic horse, there is surely a sense of irony that, when filming Spanish troops, the soldiers are shown at play, uniformed but dancing, in multiple anarchic dance style. The Spanish hardly suggest a serious fighting force: This, the film suggests, is a nation hellbent on leisure.
Another short depicts the wife and daughter of the governor of Indochina, today’s Vietnam, in lovely white dresses, tossing food and coins of little value to kids in the street who scrabble around in the dirt to grab them like animals. “It is one of the best testimonies of what colonialism was at the time, and made in 50 seconds,” Fremaux observed.
“From the Lumières onwards, cinema was a way to understand the history of the world,” said Fremaux. It was also at times a way to suggest the need for change.