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Je vous aime (1891)

Medium close-up of a man saying "Je vous aime".

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Medium close-up of a man saying "Je vous aime".

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1 January 1891 (France)  »

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I Love You  »

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The title, "Je vous aime," means "I love you" in French. See more »

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Demeny Close-Up
22 November 2013 | by See all my reviews

This early cinematic instance of a close-up—or, more accurately, a medium close-up shot of the chest and face of the maker of this film and others like it, Georges Demeny saying "Je vous aime" (French for "I love you")—was made at the request of Hector Marichelle, professor and director of the National Deaf-Mute Institute in France, who planned to use filmed speech to teach deaf students to speak and lip read. This required close views of the performer's lip movements. The project was given to Demeny by Étienne-Jules Marey, who headed the Station Physiologique in Paris and whose chronophotographic scientific research of motion is among the most important contributions to the invention of movies. Despite these educational and scientific beginnings, however, this project led Demeny to pursue and influence the commercialism of cinema.

Demeny as Marey's assistant at the Physiological Station was Virgilio Tosi says, "more than a mere second lead", especially given that Marey annually spent winters vacationing and working in Naples while leaving Demeny in charge of the Station. Demeny's interests were especially in physical education and, over the years, he and Marey photographed many gymnastics acts. Demeny assisted Marey from 1881 to 1894. In those years, they went from using a photographic gun to record images on rotating glass plates to using celluloid film rolls in the "Chronophotographe" camera. It was this project, initially for the education of the deaf, which led to their acrimonious divorce, as Marey continued to use film for his scientific research and Demeny pursued its commercial applications.

The films by themselves would be of little use for education. Although Marey was continually tinkering with his cameras and adopting new photographic processes, he seemed to be less interested in reproducing the illusion of motion. Although he made a projector as early as 1892, he was largely content with using a Zoetrope for confirmation and wasn't satisfied with a projector of his own until 1896. Demeny constructed a single-viewer device named the Photophone and, then, a projecting version called the Phonoscope. Like other early "movie" machines, these used images on a revolving Phenakistoscope disc and, in the case of the projector, added the principles of the magic lantern. Leopold Ludwig Döbler did as much with drawn animation in the 1840s, Franz von Uchatius in the 1850s, Henry Heyl with posed photographs in 1870 and Eadweard Muybridge with drawings based on chronophotography in the 1880s and early 1890s. Deac Rossell suggests that Ottomar Anschütz's work, especially, inspired Demeny. Demeny's Phonoscope was novel, however, in that, as Laurent Mannoni says, "For the first time chronophotographic pictures on a disc could be projected in sequence." To accomplish this, film positives were cut and pasted onto glass disks, which was an obvious obstacle to mass productions and was limited to the length of each rotation—before the scene repeated itself—to only a second or two.

The Phonoscope was first presented to the Académie des Sciences on 27 July 1891. A Parisian audience of 1200 saw the Phonoscope and 30 films on 6 December, and the device was exhibited again in Paris at the Exposition Internationale de Photographie from 20 April 1892. Images of the Phonoscope and of "Je vous aime" were also printed in the publications "L'Illustration", "Paris-Photographe" and "La Nature". Hailed as the "optical equivalent of the phonograph" (Braun), Demeny dreamed of his machine replacing still photographs in frames and albums at home and combining it with the Phonograph to complete the illusion. Other aspirations included peephole slot-machines and larger projections for public consumption. With investors, Demeny founded the Phonoscope, Living Portrait, and Animated Picture Company on 20 December 1892 to market it.

As Rossell's research shows, Anschütz had been marketing "Sprechende Porträts" months before Demeny's "portraits parlants" (both translate as "Speaking Portraits"). Anschütz's movies also appeared in coin-operated peephole automats in public parlours as early as 1891—anticipating the later Kinetoscope parlours and the failed plans of Demeny's group. Demeny's subsequent inventions for the intermittent movement of film and his contacts with two companies—the Lumières and Gaumont—seem of more original and lasting consequence to the history of early cinema.

His addition of a beater mechanism for intermittent movement to Marey's Chronophotographe, along with the Phonoscope, was marketed by Léon Gaumont in November 1895, but these devices were soon superseded by the Lumière brothers' reversible camera/projector Cinématographe. Before licensing and, eventually, selling his patents to Gaumont, Demeny looked to the Lumières for financing. In December 1894, Demeny showed his sketches for a "Grande Projecteur" to Louis Lumière. As Rossell reports, this large projector had "a new intermittent movement using a pair of claws motivated by an eccentric cam: the kernel of the later Cinématographe Lumière." With Léopold René Decaux, Demeny built his own reversible camera/projector, for Gaumont, in 1896. Gaumont eventually became one of the biggest movie studios in the world. Demeny's camera was used until 1914, including by Alice Guy, and the beater mechanism was widely used during the era, including in Edison's Vitascope.

The medium close-up also became popular in early cinema. The Edison Company used it to impressive effect on the screen in "The Kiss" (1896). Although Marey and Muybridge had photographed serial close-up images of hands and, in Marey's case, the human face, there was nothing proceeding "Je vous aime" for the close-up movie image being publicly projected. Despite Demeny's grimaced closed eyes—a consequence of trying to block out the sunrays reflected from the mirrors used to achieve the desired strongly lit facial features—and the film's brevity, it's not difficult to see how audiences would've been impressed and why it inspired such financial hopes. Regardless, Demeny was one of the most important pioneers in the invention of cinema—bridging the gap from chronophotography to cinema.

(Sources: "Picturing Time" by Marta Braun. "The Great Art of Light and Shadow" by Laurent Mannoni. "Living Pictures" and "The Public Exhibition of Moving Pictures Before 1896" by Deac Rossell. "Cinema Before Cinema" by Virgilio Tosi.)


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