The films of Boris Barnet, free spirit of Sovietism, to discover at La Cinémathèque française

How to steer your artistic boat and chart a personal path in times of strong political storms and ideological petrification? The Soviet filmmaker Boris Barnet (1902-1965) answered this question in the best possible way: with his atypical work, carried out without the shocks of history affecting his profound gentleness and temperance. The Girl with the Hat Box (1927), The House on Rue Troubnaïa (1928), Le Faubourg (1933), Au bord de la mer bleue (1936), up to La Petite Gare (1963), in addition to their inexhaustible formal volubility, are all films touching the heart of human nature, in those fallible and imperfect zones which give so little traction to propaganda. All things which we will be able to convince ourselves of thanks to the retrospective that La Cinémathèque française is currently devoting to him, until March 10. To find our way, we can refer to the work Boris Vassilievitch Barnet , a copious biography published by Editions de l’Œil (448 pages, 40 euros), the first in French, by the historian Bernard Eisenschitz, illuminating, with supporting archives, the journey of the filmmaker, or of an artist during the time of the Soviet Union.

In forty-five years of career, the artist has known everything, been through everything: the twists and turns of Sovietism, revolutionary impulse – he volunteered in the Red Army at 18 -, totalitarian turn, leaden screed and thaw included. But also the successive changes in the cinematographic medium, the flagship of modernity and the art of the masses, which he seized at the height of silent films, before crossing the barrier of talkies and then color with consistency. Before even picking up the camera, he was a theater stagehand, a nurse on the front line, a professional boxer, and started on the sets as an actor, spotted by Lev Koulechov to play a cowboy in his “American” pastiche The Adventures Mr West’s Extraordinaries in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). So much so that he subsequently had no trouble placing the actor at the center of his production, making him his unit of measurement and his mobility his main vector.

To the great collectivist destinies, Boris Barnet always preferred the characters one by one, individuals taken on a village or neighborhood scale, depicted down to their faults with a very particular roundness, and irresistible humor. His first silent films, already dazzling, were comedies of the “New Economic Policy”, making fun of the petty bourgeoisie that had arisen under his leadership. In The Girl with the Hat Box , a little seamstress cheats her bosses, stingy milliners, to accommodate a homeless worker with them, on the basis of a false marriage contract which will turn out to be a real love pact. The House on Troubnaïa Street follows the arrival in Moscow of a small peasant girl, who is immediately exploited by her landlords, a couple of unscrupulous shopkeepers, before she emancipates herself by joining the workers’ union.

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