Carolina López Caballero - In Praise of the Shadows - Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, Irlande) - Exposition du 4 novembre 2008 au 4 janvier 2009

   Carolina López Caballero connaît bien l’œuvre de L. Starewitch. Déjà en octobre 2000, Carolina a organisé à Sitges dans le cadre du Festival International de Cinéma de Catalogne une rétrospective proposant vingt-trois films (des périodes russe et française), une exposition de marionnettes et de décors et l’édition d’une brochure sur L. Starewitch et son œuvre ; voir :

   Puis de janvier à mars 2008, une nouvelle présentation de quinze films, dont les dernières restaurations, au Musée d’Art Contemporain de Barcelone ; voir :

   Plus récemment en 2014 Carolina López a été commissaire d'une grande exposition à Barcelone : "Metamorphosis, Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers".

    Voici le texte publié dans le catalogue In Praise of the Shadows :

The Four Films in the Exhibition. A Review.
By Carolina López Caballero[1]

Le Roman de Renard / The Tale of the Fox (1929-1941)

 This is Ladislas Starewitch's only feature-length film and the most ambitious piece he ever completed. Le Roman de Renard is a Herculean work of stop motion animation which features more than one hundred animal puppets dressed in medieval costumes — themselves worthy of an Oscar. The Starewitch family started work in 1928 with pro­ducer Louis Nalpas. Under the direction of Ladis­las, his wife Anna Zimmerman produced the wardrobe, while his daughter Irène penned the script and assisted with the camerawork. The animation was ready in under two years; however, the definitive soundtrack did not arrive until 1941. Starewitch obsessed over the cinematography and wanted the sound to be of the same quality as the image. Despite numerous difficulties, and with World War II still raging, Starewitch (with new producer Roger Richebé) managed to finish the film, with a full soundtrack and dialogue in French, more than ten years after filming had begun. Another less finished version exists in German (Reineke Fuchs) from 1937.

The film tells the story of a cunning, treacherous fox who succeeds in becoming prime minister after abusing the trust of all of the other animals, including the lion king. In terms of storyline and technique Le Roman de Renard / The Tale of the Fox is a detailed and elaborate work; it is also visually stunning. It is a tale of tales, the narrative a kind of matriuska where stories are contained within stories. At the beginning of the film, a monkey cranks up a cinema projector and begins to narrate the principal story of the fox, however, within the story each animal has his or her own story to tell about the misdeeds of the fox, and furthermore, for every short story the fox's lawyer tells another in defence of his client. The stories take place within stage sets which are more elaborate than any seen in his short films, and he uses puppets of different sizes to get more expressive shots. "Ces acteurs auront des jeux de physionomie qui feront com­prendre aux spectateurs ce qu'ils pensent." ("These actors will have facial expressions which will allow the audience to see what they are thinking.") American slapstick and the best of Soviet editing are combined in the final scenes of the film, which are full of action and humour.

Starewitch, a great lover of moralising tales, never missed an opportunity for political commen­tary. On this occasion, in the final sequence of the film, he satirises the pact between Pétain and Hitler during World War II with a similar pact between the lion and the fox. The film was cen­sored in countries like Spain and Italy for its antifascist overtones, but nevertheless enjoyed excellent international distribution elsewhere.

The artificiality of the medium of film is acknowledged throughout: from the beginning where the monkey narrator starts the film projector, until the end, where a pair of hands (those of the director presumably) positions the card saying “fin”. There are anachronistic details which also draw our attention to the fact that this is a work of fiction; for example, the radio broadcast where a commentator describes the fight between the wolf and the fox, when we are supposed to be in the Middle Ages. Another example is the system of levers that the fox uses to defend his castle — which looks like a complex industrial mechanism for shifting railway tracks — a little incongruous in a medieval castle.

For the definitive French version, some extra scenes were recorded to enhance the sound, such as the scene of the cat singing to the queen. Starewitch loved silent cinema and believed, like Jean Renoir and F. W. Murnau, in the possibilities of a language which was yet to be fully exploited. Thus he accepted the arrival of sound, yet more out of obligation than as an artistic choice. In his second talkie (in contrast to his first, La Petite Parade / The Little Parade, which according to Starewitch "est un film muet, que l'on pourvoit aujourd'hui d'une partie sonore nullement prévue lors de la réalisation" ("is a silent film, parts of which are today provided with a soundtrack that was not foreseen during its making") the sound in Le Roman de Renard is an integral part of the film.

The sinister effect caused by animal characters who, despite being dressed as men and women retain certain animal movements and gestures, is unique and characteristic of all of his work. The anatomical accuracy of his animal figures, the realism of their fur coats and other details, e.g. the sighs of the love-struck queen, the vixen suckling her young, etc., brings something sensual and tactile to the cinema screen, more sophisticated that anything since achieved by computers.

Comment naît et s'anime une cinémarionnette is a moving document for animation lovers, showing the author manipulating the puppets from Le Roman de Renard with his daughter Irène, whose name would appear alongside his own in all of his subsequent films.

Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot (1933)

Starewitch's most famous short film. A sick little girl, whose mother scrapes together a living by making dolls, asks for an orange which her mother cannot afford. Her faithful little cloth dog decides to attempt to fulfil her wish, but has to overcome a myriad of difficulties, including at one point meeting the devil himself. The sophistication of, for example, the sequence filmed in the city with its back-projected recordings running in the back­ground is reminiscent of avant-garde films such as Walter Ruttman's Berlin : Die Symphonie der Groβs­tadt (1927). The shots of Paris, which forma back­drop in some scenes, are on a par with Sur les Toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930) or The Seventh Heaven (Fran Borgaze, 1927).
(An interesting anecdote —Starewitch makes a cameo appearance as a police­man.)

The melodrama of the opening scenes and the appearance of the puppy protagonist could be off­putting to a contemporary audience; yet, immedi­ately after this, the film wins viewers over, thanks in part to the appearance of the fantastical, evil creatures encountered by the puppy, very close to the world that Tim Burton and Jan Svankmajer have created in their work. Starewitch's artistry and technical virtuosity has been admired by filmmakers like Nick Park and Terry Gilliam. In fact, Gilliam has said that this film is in his top ten favourite animations of all time, and is reput­ed to have said, on seeing the original puppets, that he would love to have worked with the Russ­ian master.

Starewitch, for his part, was familiar with the work of artists like Grandville, Rackham and Kley. Starewitch had successfully employed in earlier works the literary device whereby a young girl sleeps while wonderful things take place. These include the wonderfully titled La Reine des papil­lons / The Queen of the Butterflies (1927), where a young girl becomes queen of the butterflies for one night; La Voix du rossignol / Voice of the Nightingale (1923), where another girl cannot tell if she has dreamed the story of the nightingale or if it actual­ly happened; or L'Horloge magique / The Magic Clock (1928), where a little girl is transformed into a princess. In Fétiche, when the little girl wakes up, she finds the puppy in her arms and wonders whether the whole adven­ture was actually a feverish dream.

Fétiche was so successful that the puppy starred in a series of subsequent short films with titles like Fétiche prestidigitateur / The Ringmaster (1934) and Fétiche se marie / The Mascot Wedding (1935). While these other films are also of high quality, they fail to match the mastery of the original and are more childish in character. They announce what would prove to be the overall tone of the final episode of Starewitch's career. Fétiche, the puppy dog rag doll, with all his fears and weaknesses, is neverthe­less the strongest character of all Starewitch's films. Perhaps today, had he had a little more com­mercial sense (in the style of Walt Disney), he would have the Mount Olympus of theme parks dedicated to his works, and have seen his image converted into lucrative merchandise.

Le Rat de ville et le rat des champs / Town Rat, Country Rat (1926)

Starewitch's extraordinary adaptation of La Fontaine's fable (1621-1695) about rats living in the so-called “roaring twenties”. The film illustrates the sharp contrast between town life and country life. The country rat is bowled over by the specta­cle of traffic and by the incredible music hall with its naughty dancers (one of whom could well have been inspired by the exotic Josephine Baker), although in the end he realises that the city is not for him. It is a hymn to modernity, a work inspired by the glamour (and the misery) of the entertain­ment business. The film is entertaining, and short — an ideal introduction to Starewitch's world for a contemporary audience. This was not the first time that Starewitch had extolled the virtues of the countryside by juxtaposing it with the evils of the big city. In Dans les Griffes de l' araignée / The Claws of the Spider (1920), for example, he shows the tragic end that awaits a fly who decides to leave his vil­lage for the bright lights of Paris. Le Rat de ville et le rat des champs / Town Rat, Country Rat is an adap­tation of the original fable with some new and fun twists. The city rat has a car accident in the coun­try, and the country rat tows him back to his man­sion in Paris where he is invited to partake in the snobbish, seedy atmosphere of the big city. The Parisian night holds many attractions, including the music hall, its beautiful women and in particu­lar, a star performer with whom the country rat becomes besotted. Yet behind the scenes, the glamour vanishes as the village rat fails to win her over and, to make things worse, has the tip of his tail cut off when it is mistaken for a worm. Having had enough, the village rat goes back to the coun­try – despite the protestations of his host. Stare­witch the moralist is also Starewitch the party king. His works are full of music and dance (even his silent films feature music bands and groups) and musical scenes often form the culminating moments of technical virtuosity in his films.

Amour noir et blanc / Love in Black and White (1923)

A satire on Hollywood and its genres with puppet caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, Mary Pickford and others. The typical love affairs of show business are presided over by two cupids – one white and one black – who compete with each other to see who is more successful. At the start of the first reel we witness a dog-drawn cart filled with boxes of puppets (and driven by a monkey) crashing into a travelling theatre troupe. One by one the protagonists start climbing out of their boxes, but the real action takes place in the wings where a jealous cowboy and a clumsy doll with a bowler hat (unmistakably Chaplin) try to put an end to the performance, turning the set into a pile of broken props. The encounters and misunder­standings between the characters (some of whom are black) are a blend of the three great genres of the period: comedy, melodrama and the western. A rat – like the one we later come across in Le Rat de ville et le rat des champs / Town Rat, Country Rat – plays the prompter in this disastrous perform­ance. Many scenes are filled with elements derived from American comedy. As in Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot, the parallel plots and chase scenes are full of movement. During the 1990s one of the film reels was re-discovered and restored.

Carolina López Caballero, 2008

First published in Paolo Colombo, William Kentridge, et al., In Praise of Shadows, exh. cat. (Milan : Charta, 2008)

Copyright : Carolina López Caballero. Translation by Jonathan Brennan, Courtesy of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.


[1] In Praise of the Shadows, catalogue de l’exposition organisée à l’Irish Museum of Modern Art de Dublin, Irlande, du 4 novembre 2008 au 4 janvier 2009, 152 pages.

  • François Martin : Ladislas Starewitch, « Cinema… makes the dreams of the imagination visible », pp. 48-51 ; Biofilmographie, pp. 145-147
  • Carolina López Caballero : The Four Films in the Exhibition, pp. 52-57

A propos de cette exposition, voir :