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French Communiqué (1940)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of French Communiqué (1940)
35mm, black and white, 15 mins
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti
Commentary WriterRobert Sinclair
CommentatorLeo Glenn

The early weeks of WWII as seen through the eyes of the French.

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The overall purpose of French Communiqué is to bring home to a British public the extent to which the French army is ready, prepared and able to defend France and, ultimately, Britain itself should the need arise. However, the overall tone of the film is neither bombastic nor jingoistic, and, when any jingoistic or over-solemn note appears in the film, Cavalcanti usually seeks to undercut it in one way or another. Such sedition is, for example, apparent in the section of the voiceover commentary in which the narrator talks up the power of the French guns on the Maginot Line. As images of the immense guns are shown, emphasising the power and magnitude of the weaponry, the voiceover becomes increasingly highly strung, declaiming: "Keep back, Fritz!", "Stay away, Otto!", in a somewhat manic manner.

As is typical of many of his films, Cavalcanti also indulges in considerable experimentation with sound, and a wide variety of music is employed in the soundtrack, from jazz to Wagner, providing the film with the kind of rich aural texture characteristic of Cavalcanti's work. The overall approach of the film is most reminiscent of a film that preceded it: Spare Time (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1939), which Cavalcanti produced. French Communiqué deploys an observational, cinéma vérité style similar in many respects to that of Spare Time, and seems to carry on the influence of the Mass Observation movement. For example, much of French Communiqué features shots of French soldiers seen on duty, and artlessly relaxing in one way or another.

Throughout, the film attempts to make the British audience for whom it is intended identify with these Frenchmen as ordinary people, rather than heroic fighters. Again the similarities with Spare Time are evident, and it should be remembered that that film drew criticism from some members of the British documentary film movement because of the decidedly unheroic way in which the British working class was depicted in the film. Of course, Cavalcanti and Jennings rejected these criticisms, which could, however, have equally well been directed against French Communiqué, had that film featured British rather than French soldiers.

One of the most successful aspects of French Communiqué is its portrayal of the French countryside, and, in this respect, the film displays a decidedly pantheistic dimension. Images of the countryside appear throughout, as the film conjures up a rural French idyll which is about to be shattered by the coming war.

Ian Aitken

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (15:30)
The GPO Film Unit: 1940