André Antoine’s fifth film looks surprisingly modern today. Never released at the time production was completed in 1920, it wasn’t pieced together until the early 1980s when the Cinémathèque française sifted through six hours of perfectly preserved footage using Gustave Grillet’s script and the director’s detailed notes as a guide. Finally, audiences were able to see this gem of a time capsule.
Antoine’s portrait of Flemish bargemen centers on Pieter van Groot and his wife Griet, who live on their barges l’Hirondelle (Swallow) and la Mésange (Titmouse) with Griet’s sister Marthe, carrying goods up and down the rivers and canals between France and Flanders. Their work is important because they carry coal and construction supplies to areas still rebuilding from the devastation of World War I.
Part of the life of a typical bargeman, the film’s intertitles tell us, is a little smuggling on the side to make ends meet. Pieter smuggles diamonds and Griet fine lace. One day Michel, an unemployed sailor wandering the docks of Antwerp, spies Pieter talking furtively with a diamond merchant. The next day Pieter advertises for a barge pilot to replace the one who just left. The ruggedly handsome Michel appears with excellent credentials, and his quiet, gentle self-assurance charms Pieter, who hires him on the spot. “You’re a real seaman,” Pieter says, “but we’ll turn you into a freshwater fish.”
With the subtlest of looks and gestures it becomes apparent that the young Marthe is also taken with Michel. Griet’s instincts, however, make her wary. As the new party prepares to head out from Antwerp toward France, the four visit the city, and Antoine’s camera makes a priceless record of the town’s Ommergang festival, with its huge merrymaking crowds and gigantic floats.
Pieter thinks Marthe and Michel would be a perfect match, but Griet holds back. And to complicate matters, even though Michel coyly agrees to propose to Marthe, we sense that he has more than a passing interest in Griet. When Michel becomes aware of Pieter’s hiding place for the diamonds he plans to smuggle into France and how Griet has cleverly hidden the lace, the quiet boatman becomes a potential danger to his adopted family.
As an experienced dramatist Antoine understood how dramatic plots work and how they can be manipulated. He consciously manages the narrative of The Swallow and the Titmouse in an unusual way. The first part of the film moves slowly and inexorably like the boats moving upriver. As we near the end the events pick up speed and the twists come faster, terminating in a shocking resolution. As Antoine once wrote about the film, “The story was a very simple drama. It ended with a man getting stuck in the mud one night, and the next day, the barge was again calmly on its way in the light and silence.”
In 1914 Antoine abruptly left a thriving career in the theater to make his first film, The Corsican Brothers, based on the 1844 book by Alexandre Dumas. The film’s release was delayed by the outbreak of the Great War, and it wasn’t seen until 1917. He followed it in 1917 with Le Coupable and 1919’s Les Travailleurs de la mer from the Victor Hugo novel. After The Swallow and the Titmouse in 1920, Antoine directed La Terre, based on Émile Zola’s novel. His final film was a 1922 adaptation of an Alphonse Daudet story, L’Arlésienne.
Considered by many to be the father of modern theater, Antoine sought to bring a greater realism to the stage, which in the late nineteenth century was still characterized by declaimed dialogue, mannered gestures, and fake-looking sets. Art movements of the time were influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, which stressed the importance of the environment in the development of human character, personality, and reasoning. That in turn influenced the emphasis on realistic and natural surroundings in the arts. In painting, this impulse away from high-flown subject matter was expressed in the anecdotal subjects that became a characteristic of the impressionists.
Antoine sought to create a naturalist theater, bringing the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, and other proponents of naturalism to the French stage. Notoriously, Antoine’s realism went so far as to include live chickens in an adaptation of Zola’s La Terre. He built realistic sets enclosed in all four walls and rehearsed in them before choosing one wall to eliminate for performances, originating the concept of the “fourth wall” in modern theater and cinema.
In 1887, he founded the Théâtre Libre in Paris in order to have the freedom to produce plays of his own choosing. He also developed a small repertory company that was essentially the avant-garde of its time. Then, in 1914, Antoine left the stage to embark on a career in film that was to be as innovative as his career in theater.
Naturalism in film for him meant shooting only in real locations, no sets. He also sought nonprofessional actors who wouldn’t have to unlearn bad habits. He used innovative techniques like shooting the same scene with more than one camera and creating special effects in the camera rather than in postproduction. In his short, untutored career he became a master of pacing, shot selection, the use of subtle, restrained performances, and visual storytelling.
Antoine was so successful in his realistic depiction of life on the canals of Flanders that producer Charles Pathé dismissed the film as a “documentary” and refused to release it. So it sat on the shelf for sixty-three years until the discovery of the original footage, which was edited together by editor and director Henri Colpi. The newly constructed version was shown at the Cinémathèque for the first time in March 1984.
As precipitously as he left his theater career in 1914 to turn to cinema, Antoine ended his film career in 1922 with L’Arlésienne and turned his attention entirely to writing film and theater criticism. For twenty years, his commentary was published by L’Information, and from time to time in other journals. Two volumes of his memoirs were published in 1928 and appeared in the journal Théâtre from 1932–33. He died October 21, 1943.
Antoine has been widely recognized and appreciated as a pivotal figure in modern theater. However, it is only with the reconstruction of The Swallow and the Titmouse that his contributions to cinema have begun to be recognized.
His work is uncanny in its modernity. The steady, procedural pace of the daily tasks of the bargemen in The Swallow and the Titmouse prefigures the ascetic style of Robert Bresson. Antoine’s use of a hidden camera to film performers in a crowd unaware it is being recorded was not unlike the guerrilla techniques of French New Wave filmmaking. And the unexpected violence of the film’s conclusion is surely worthy of Luis Buñuel. In the gallery of underappreciated twentieth-century filmmakers, André Antoine occupies a prominent place.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with live music by Stephen Horne and Diana Rowan