Poirier, Léon


Poirier, Léon
(1884-1968)
   Director and producer. Born Louis Marie Léon Poirier, Léon Poirier was the nephew of impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. Poirier had early artistic ambitions himself, and he began his career in the theater, where he produced plays and managed theaters before opening his own theater, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1913. The Théâtre featured performances of the Ballets russes, among other things, but had to close for financial reasons. He was hired on at Gaumont in 1913 to direct films and write screenplays, and he remained there in that capacity until he enlisted in the army to serve in World War I. Films directed by Poirier from the period 1913 to 1919 include Le Nid (1914), Le Trèfle d'argent (1914), Le Jugement des pierres (1914), Monsieur Charlemagne (1914), Cadette (1914), Ces desmoiselles Perrotin (1914), L'Amour passé (1914), and L'Aventure de la petite duchesse (1914).
   In 1919, Poirier returned to Gaumont and replaced Louis Feuillade as head of production. Like Feuillade, he continued to direct, although he never matched Feuillade in terms of number of films made, diversity of films made, or significance of films made. He left Gaumont in the mid-1920s to pursue directing independently. Poirier's later films include Âmes d'orient (1918), Le Penseur (1920), Narayana (1920), L'Ombre déchirée (1921), Jocelyn (1922), Geneviève (1923), L'Affaire du courrier de Lyon (1923), La Brière (1924), Verdun, visions d'histoire (1924), Le Coffret de Jade (1929), Cain: aventure des mers exotique (1930), La Voie sans disques (1933), L'Appel du silence (1936), Soeur d'armes (1937), Brazza, ou l'épopée du Congo (1940), Jeannou (1943), and La Route inconnue (1949).
   For the most part, Poirier had a unique style of directing that has been seen as symbolist or impressionist. His work included literary adaptations, such as Jocelyn (1922) and L'Affaire du courrier de Lyon (1923), and these films might be seen as a continuation of the film d'art tradition. His war film Verdun, visions d'histoire is also highly impressionistic. Some of his work also had nationalist tendencies. L'Appel du silence, a biopic about Charles de Foucauld, and Brazza, ou l'épopée du Congo are orientalist films that portray Africa through a highly exotic gaze and that glorify conquest and empire. Jeannou, his very controversial film, is overtly Pétainist.
   Probably Poirier's most significant Africa film was not a narrative film but a documentary. La Croisière noire (1926) documented a continental North-South car rally, undertaken to bolster public support for France's colonial enterprise. Poirier rode with the Citroën team during the rally and "captured" Africa along the way. The film is also highly orientalist and seemingly propagandistic. It was an enormous success, and the images of Africans in it influenced fashion and home décor for years afterward. From that point of view, also, the film was a success in that it accomplished the mission it had been given.
   Poirier retired from the cinema in 1949, after making La Route inconnue (1949), a semimystical film about the three major religions. The film was not a success and probably prompted Poirier's retirement. Critical opinion of Poirier's work since his retirement has been mixed. There are some who see him as a great and innovative film-maker and who put aside the political criticisms of his work as either misguided or irrelevant. Others, however, do not see great artistic merit to Poirier's films and find the content and point of view to be sufficiently problematic to override any artistic merit that might be argued. Time will tell where Poirier ultimately falls in the canon of French cinema.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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