The Ballet Relâche: Entr’acte in Context


On November 27, 1924, curious Parisians arrived at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. They were ready to take part in what they all hoped would be a scandal – the premier of Francis Picabia, Jean Börlin, and Erik Satie’s ballet, Relâche (the title of the ballet literally translating into “Theater Closed”) – but were instead disappointed when they learned that the evening’s ballet was cancelled. “Another joke of those Dadaists: how ironic,” thought the elegantly dressed patrons as they clambered back into their coaches and cars; “the ballet Relâche was really relâche.” Surprisingly, the joke was unintentional; on the night of the performance, the spectators arrived to discover that the choreographer/lead dancer from Rolf de Maré’s Ballet Suédois, Jean Börlin, had fallen ill.9 The music, dubbed “pornographique” by Satie himself,10 was promoted as the next big succès de scandale. The work finally premiered a week later to an excited and raucous audience. When the curtain rose after the overture, the audience members found themselves staring at the movie screen as the “flick-flick” of the film projector began casting the first images of what is referred to by film historians as René Clair’s Entr’acte onto the screen.11
Figure 1
The opening projectionette sequence, shown after the overture to Satie and Picabia’s Relâche, is a kind of cinematic overture to the ballet aimed at the audience to let them know that the evening will be full of assaults, jabs, and surprises at the expense of those who paid to be in attendance. The projectionette provides a microcosmic view of the cinematic style René Clair employed for Entr’acte. This short cinematic introduction opens with shots of a monkey oscillating between scenes of clouds and chimneystacks. The camera jump cuts to images of a cannon rolling around on a rooftop, while Satie and Picabia bounce onto the screen in slow motion, jumping, and carrying on in front of the cannon. They inspect the weapon and its munitions, load it, and fire the cannon at the audience: a literal frontal assault [See Figure 1].

In short, the imagetrack of the projectionette adheres to what Dada and Surrealist film scholar, Rudolf Kuenzli identifies as the “Dada spirit of spontaneity and chance, which were the Dadaists’ strategies to disrupt logic and rational order.”12 The sequence perfectly encapsulates the Dada spirit throughout the film.

The premiere of Relâche, as described by Francis Picabia, marks the end of the Dada years. The collaborators’ scenario, choreography, and music were written to shock, disorient, confuse, and beguile. The ballet’s nonsensical scenario includes elegantly dressed men and women undressing and dressing all while “chain-smoking” cigarettes on stage, as well as other acts of ridiculous tomfoolery. At times signs deck the stage, taunting the audience with obnoxious sayings such as “Do you prefer ballets at the Opera? Poor imbecile!” and “Those who aren’t satisfied are authorized to go fuck off!”13

After the first act of Relâche, the audience was treated to the rest of the film directed by René Clair, Entr’acte. As the film begins, we see a variety of disparate shots: dots and halos, dolls with heads made of balloons inflating and deflating [See FILM CLIP 1], boxing gloves punching each other, a lit match superimposed upon the head of a man [See Figure 2], a view from underneath the skirt of a ballerina [See FIGURE 3], the camera then pans up the ballerina revealing that the ballerina is actually a man (Picabia) with beard and glasses.

Figure 2
Figure 3

The second part of the film, unlike the first, clings to a loose narrative: a huntsman tries to shoot an ostrich egg with a shotgun, but ends up being shot himself by Picabia who is perched on a nearby roof. The scene turns into a funeral procession with the hearse led by a camel [See FILM CLIP 2]. The procession moves forward to a park with a reproduction of the Eiffel tower. Suddenly, the hearse breaks loose; as it races out of control [See FILM CLIP 3], the funeral procession chases after it in slow motion. The casket falls out as the procession gathers around. The huntsman (played by Börlin) emerges from the casket dressed as a magician. With a tap of his magic wand, the astonished pursuers vanish one by one. He finally taps himself with the wand and disappears. A large white piece of paper with the French word “Fin” is displayed; a man bursts through it, and a pedestrian kicks him in the head [See FILM CLIP 4].14


Lasting roughly twenty minutes, the film is densely packed with about 300 shots. Picabia describes the film as “a true entr’acte, an intermission from life’s monotony and from all hypocritical and ridiculous convention.”15 Clair, while not officially involved in the Dada movement, happily took the chance to realize through film Picabia’s scenario. He had hoped, like the Dadaists, to create and mold a new (and irreverent) art for the new century. While relatively inexperienced, he remarkably managed to capture and enhance Picabia’s Dada scenario through his cinematic vision.

One of the most striking aspects of Clair’s film remains the director’s use of the camera to depict motion. Entr’acte has been universally acclaimed for Clair’s ability to capture movement and speed. In his filmmaking style, reminiscent of the comic chase scenes of internationally popular silent filmmaker Mack Sennett, Clair enthusiastically embraces the crude, low-brow, proletarian art of the nickelodeon rather than the high-brow, high-art amusements of the ballet patrons. Noël Carroll writes about Clair’s affinity to Sennett and their shared interests in deconstructing the pretensions of the upper class as follows:

  For Sennett… was devoted to attacking pretension. His representation of the bourgeois was generally ridiculous…. In Entr’acte that animus remains intact. Clair even retains Sennett’s use of the chase and of fast motion photography to reduce the bourgeois to physical absurdity. Clair adds slow motion to the chase for the same purpose.16

Clair’s inclusion of the prolonged chase scene not only serves as a nod to Sennett, but also appeals to the Dada sensibility.17 The allure of all things fast, mechanical, and modern pervades the film. From the opening flying shots over the rooftops, the cannon and jumping in the projectionette, to the famous funeral chase scene, Clair captures images of speed. Clair also incorporates cinematic and editing effects to create this illusion of speed. Rapid cutting increases the tempo of the film; as the action on screen intensifies, Clair cuts faster from shot to shot.

Figure 4
Few things pleased the Dadaists more than assaulting and mocking their audience, Clair’s nod to lowbrow filmmaking notwithstanding. The first cinematic portion of the film aims at disorienting the viewer from the onset by displaying senseless, disconnected images. As we have seen in the opening projectionette, the two authors of the ballet actually fire a cannon at the audience. Throughout the film, the camera performs dizzying maneuvers over the rooftops of Paris, and races down busy Parisian streets. The authors mock ceremony in the funeral procession, and (in classic Dada fashion) deliver to the audience a multitude of very obvious sexual puns associated with the phallic images of guns and cannons, the game of chess, an egg balancing upon a fountain of water, and the confusing gender identity of the ballerina [See Figure 4].

As soon as cinematic conventions had begun to become established, Clair and Picabia tore them down. They created an irreverent, satirical, fun-filled roller coaster ride of a film: a film that, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, “works hard at ‘deconstructing’ what had already become set as the conventions of the feature film and cinema experience.”18