Sunday, 22 August 2010

The first romantic comedy - 1909 - Le baromètre de la fidélité (The Fidelity barometer) - Georges Monca

1909 was a pivotal year in film history. Film was moving away from the trick film as well as witnessing directors attempt to tackle more complex themes and genres such as tragedy. In Le baromètre de la fidélité, we have the great comic of this era attempting to expand on the slapstick humour he perfected in films such as Début d'un patineur, thus allowing him to take advantage of film’s rapidly increasing length.

This would involve engaging in a different type of humour than that found in his earlier slapstick films. The humour in his earlier films is immediate and obvious, whereas in Le baromètre de la fidélité the film’s comedy simmers for the majority of the film before coming to a highly amusing end.

Film historians rightly comment on the technical innovations that various early silent films employ. But the narrative techniques that film develops during this period are often overlooked; for example, in Le baromètre de la fidélité, Linder opens the film with detailed exposition, giving the scenario that the film focuses on greater weight.

In this opening scene, we see Linder and his wife happily canoeing down a river in wedded bliss. When we meet them in the next scene, they are clearly bored and frustrated with one another. As the two scenes are juxtaposed with one another, the frustration they experience in the later scene becomes both heightened and comic. If Linder had made this film a few years earlier, he may not have been able to employ this useful device.

The opening scene is also shot in an exotic, open location that is deliberately contrasted with the claustrophobic exterior of their living room in the next scene for another reason as well. The exotic location of the opening scene will have impressed contemporary audiences and added another layer of interest for them. Whereas Melies continued to work within the confines of the trick film genre, Linder was a more pragmatic operator who was happy to absorb and explore techniques and subject matters that were outside the confines of slapstick humour. It is therefore unsurprising that he would become film’s biggest star by the turn of the century.

Once the film moves from its exotic location to Linder’s living room, the film centres on a fidelity barometer. I have googled this unusual term and cannot find any precedent for it in an article online. (Can any French readers tell us if this device had been employed by a French writer before Linder?) The Linder’s are given a long tube filled with clear liquid and told that their fidelity is proven as long as the liquid stays clear.

It is clear that the setup will result in disaster, but it is the way that the film goes about delivering its climax that is both satisfying and amusing. Yet again, Linder’s physical movements are impeccable in these final movements, every gesture is so considered as he manages to deliver his inimitable performance without ever over-exaggerating or playing down a particular comic moment. Linder succeeds where so many other actors fail in silent film: communicating with his audience without them ever wishing he was able to utter a single word.

Although we would struggle to find a fidelity barometer in a modern day romantic comedy, the entire structure of Le baromètre de la fidélité is genre specific to the romantic comedy, with several considerable exceptions. As with film of the same year Princess Nicotine, the humour is dark and sassy. Its brand of humour makes it a forerunner for the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. The film oozes with a level of charm and cheekiness that you will rarely find in a modern romantic comedy; for example, the lack of moralising makes a most welcome change.

For a man who had and would continue to make his name in the slapstick genre of comedy, Linder is remarkably at ease in what can be considered as one of the first romantic comedies.


  1. What a sublime opening shot. Taking up a quarter of the screen time of the entire piece with that gliding river scene suggests a deliberate artistic consciousness that was harder to spot in some of the earlier Linder films... Again, it seems that film is entering its first mini-maturity here.

    The moment that camera dips under the tree branch, in particular, is stikingly ahead of its time. A similarly mobile camera still takes the viewer by surprise in Murnau's 'Sunrise', 18 years later!

    The rest of the film aint half bad, either.

  2. The opening shot is breathtaking, and comes as a great surprise to those of us who have only seen Linder's earlier films. There is definitely a sense of Linder's increasing confidence in experimenting with the medium of film...he will soon be directing his own films and his increased level of input in the creative process certainly benefits the quality of his movies.

    Linder embodies what you rightly describe as film entering its first mini-maturity. His earlier films were hilarious but one-dimensional, this film increases both the scope and depth of his subject matter.

    I have yet to see Munrau's 'Sunrise', but I will now most certainly lookout for the shot that you mention.

    Finally, returning to the opening sequence, it is the most peaceful sequence of film we have seen thus far. Its quiet and stillness contrasts markedly with the hyperactive energy we have witnessed in many of the films so far. As film's length increases exponentially over the next three years, this shot hints at the philosophical depth that film is capable of.

  3. Paul Merton has done some excellent shows for the BBC on the history of Silent Cinema. His most recent had an excellent analysis of Linder. Details here:

  4. Many thanks for this useful link. I appear to have missed the show, but I will keep an eye out for it online.

    I am very pleased to hear that Merton is drawing attention to one of cinema's key figures.