Outtakes: Poetic Realism

moving away from the fantasy world of popular cinema "L'atalante"  

What it is…

A label applied to a loosely related set of films made predominantly in the studios of France during the 1930s. As the paradoxical title indicates, it had one of its feet in realist presentation that aimed to engage with real conditions of France during the time and the other in a poetic approach to cinema, through which filmmakers sought to express personality and commitment.


its pioneers were...

Poetic Realism took its inspiration both from realist literature that was popular in the decades before it as well as the experimental, impressionist works that explored the possibilities of the medium. It could be said that its weary world view was shaped by the effects of the Great Depression and the general cultural disillusionment after World War II. Leading filmmakers classified under Poetic Realism are Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier.

Why it is important...

The movement would influence two major sets of films that would be made in the near future — the Film Noir movies of Hollywood, which accentuated Poetic Realism's style and heightened its disenchantment with the world, and Italian Neorealism, which, too, dealt with problems plaguing Italy following the Second World War — which in turn have profoundly changed the course of cinema.

Where to find it...

Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) centres on a group of French prisoners-of-war belonging to various social classes held in a German encampment during World War II. The film takes a detached perspective of war, brooding over its harsh, unfair equations and reflecting on the end of a historical, aristocratic era, where war is neither an honorable exercise nor a game among equals.

How it is characterised…


The films associated with Poetic Realism attempted to move away from the fantasy world of popular cinema. Characters in these films were those not generally represented by mainstream cinema — working class, the poor, outcasts. These works attempted to look at the harshness of everyday life with a humanist eye and often had a downbeat ending. Dread of the urban and nostalgia for a lost past were two of the most prominent themes dealt with.


Poetic Realists drew upon the innovations of the Impressionists (and sometimes were part of that movement as well, like Renoir) and their films exhibit a keen sensitiveness to light and shadow. Films were generally shot outdoors or within studios with soft lighting and were marked by charismatic, naturalistic acting. There is an undercurrent of comedy in these films that tends to balance out the weight of tragedy.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 3:39:31 AM |

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