(5 stars out of 5)
Entr’acte (1924) Directed by René Clair
This zany and neurotic cinematic dance should have been simply an avant-garde piece that serves as its title well describes, a prologue and intermission for the Ballets Suédois in their Dadaist ballet production Relâche, and yet the indomitable experimental artfulness of this surrealist short film broke the barriers of its ontology for which it was created, it subverts its own irrational limits, consolidating itself as one of the most refreshing and illustrative works of the modernist avant-garde within the filmic medium. The social alienation, chaos and uncertainty left by the Great War, stimulated various young rebels to proliferate a reaction to the disinterest and apathy of bourgeois art to the multidimensional problems that plagued a Europe traumatized and stupefied by the horrors of war. From the geometric incoherence of Cubism to the accelerated fascination of the mechanical and kinetic progress of Futurism, all the avant-gardes, although expressed in different media, shared a univocal purpose: to deform classicism, to assault Renaissance art and provoke a radical change that would give way to a new configuration of interpreting reality, a kind of anti-art that opposes the obsolescent and antiquated norms. The French filmmaker René Clair is not the most famous when we specify the philosophy of Dadaism, nevertheless this film, which he directed at the request of Francis Picabia for a ballet performance, is one of the most descriptive works of the avant-garde transcendence that took place in the cinema of the 1920’s. Let us say that it is the ideal specimen to enlighten someone who does not know or refuses to accept the importance and greatness of the manifestos that proclaimed irrationality as the new art.
Entr’acte is the film that does not necessarily establish René Clair as an internationally prominent auteur, but seen today, in contemporary times it is in my perspective the film that obliterates the false conceptions that many of his detractors have about his vigorous cinematographic work, and certifies him as an auteur of extraordinary ingenuity who still deserves absolute recognition by cinephiles. When speaking of the sound experiments that emerged in the bewildering early 30’s, when the industry was in utter obfuscation by the drastic linguistic regression of cinema, René Clair is one of the indisputable names that first comes to mind to mention some of the filmmakers who had a crucial impact on the development of the audiovisual medium; the sophistication in the experimental and visionary use of the synchronization of sound and images that can be seen in the musicals directed by Clair are enough to make legitimate his artistic intelligence. Drawing a parallel between these two periods in Clair’s filmography is necessary, for the energetic virtuosity found in Entr’acte is one of his earliest examples of his inventive skill in exploring the medium. In other words, it is the prelude to the immeasurable value that the Dadaist mark left him to venture boldly into non-conformist territory and to remain constantly in experimental practice.
With its brief minutes, the invigorating essence of the absurd inherent in the materialization of cryptic Dadaist compositions full of disruptive ideas is expressed here at the service of the potential of the cinematographic apparatus. It is a mad agglomeration of anti-narrative irrationalities flowing under the regiment of disorder. It may sound contradictory, but the force of the images is of such mordant audacity, that it manages to establish a pattern of behavior that persuades its own anarchy and transmits it to us as if it were a homogeneous structure. The specificity of moving pictures has been an object of study for film theorists since the genesis of cinema, and consequently much of the experimental cinema of the silent era has a kind of modus operandi inclined to seek that specificity in practice. If Clair understood anything about the artisticity of cinema, it was that movement was its primary nature, and hence, as Jean Epstein would say, ”it is photogenic.” The core that gives vitality to this film is indeed the itinerant motion, the uncontrollable behavior of the displacement of objects and people within the frame. That stands out ridiculously well in the formalism with which the aesthetic content of this opus is impregnated; there are optical tricks that play with the deceleration of the frame rates, and those temporal variabilities, metric incisions, dynamize the functions of its filmic language with faultless execution.
René Clair approaches the specificity of Dadaism by contrasting it with that of cinema, and that is what makes it a mind-bending masterpiece of French cinema. It is deliriously entertaining, like a roller coaster ride that leaves you woozy but with an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. A city symphony has never looked so expressively Dadaist as this one. Essential cinema.