The Anatomy of European Cinema
3. Partie d'Écarté/The Card-Players
directed by Louis Lumière (France, 1896)

Partie 1895
Louis Lumière: Partie d'Écarté (1896)
Partie 1896
Georges Méliès: Partie de cartes (1896)
Partie 1897
Unknown: Parte di carte (1897)

Paul Cézanne Les Joueurs de Cartes (1891-93)
Les Joueurs de Cartes

This little film of 1896, like the two foregoing ones, very quickly became a kind of classic, imitated by other film-makers and reworked in several later films. Scenes of people playing cards had been part of the principal stock-in-trade of "genre painting" since its inception, nearly always involving a group of men (although occasionally, as in the Italian variant on the Lumière theme pictured above) women may be present; the men are frequently shown drinking and smoking. In 1895, the same year as the cinématographe made its first appearance, a French painter who had until then struggled for any kind of acceptance, was the subject of a special restrospective exhibition in Paris organised by Ambroise Vollard. The painter in question was Paul Cézanne and the exhibition (there would be another in 1898) marked the beginning of his rise to fame. Antoine Lumière, the father of the two brothers and an avid art-collector, would doubtless have known of it and of one of the most famous of his paintings, Les Joueurs de Cartes, which exists in several versions, all painted between 1891 and 1893. Itself influenced by a French genre painting of 1635 (pictured below), it is today one of the most prized works of modern art (one of the canvases sold for a record 250 million dollars in 2014) and remains one of the most typical representatives of modern genre painting.

Le Nain Joueurs de cartes (1635)
Paul Cézane Joueurs de cartes (1891-3)
Aba Novák Card Players (1932)

The degree to which a genre composition of this kind will involve narrative varies greatly. Many Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth-century, for instance, included "narrative" elements both in the structure of the composition itself and in the coded symbolism of many of the elements of which it was composed (the pictures on the wall, the musical instruments, the books and other "props" visible in the scene). This "narrative" element becomes immediately more important in genre films simply because of the element of movement. In the course of a just a year, La Sortie de l’usine had developed elements of narrative in the course of the various remakes of the film and even the briefest glance at Lumière's "family" films, for instance, reveals that, as time went on, the degree of narrative included in them becomes steadily greater. If Repas de bébé (1895), one of the first films shown, was simply a record of breakfast being taken by Auguste, his wife and baby daughter, Querelle enfantine of 1896, showing two of the Lumière infants having a quarrel, already tells a story in a way that the earlier depictions of the Lumière children had not. And this fictional element is even more pronounced in "remakes" of the film, such as that by the British film-maker R. W. Paul (pictured below). One of the last of the Lumière family film (in 1899), L'Enfant et le chat involves a degree of quite apparent manipulation by the film-makers, in the course of which the cat is seen being thrown back to ensure the action will proceed and ends up by cratching the child and making her cry. It is in a sense a composition that has gone wrong but it gives us an important insight into the degree to which the earliest film-nmakers were concerned to ensure that "something happens" in their films and to which their films were indeed "compositions" with significant elements of narrative and not merely "slices of life".

Louis Lumière: Repas de bébé (1895)
Louis Lumière:Querelle enfantine (1896)
R. W. Paul: The Twins' Tea Party (1896)

L’Arroseur aroséOf the first ten Lumière films, only one is conventionally regarded as a fiction – Le Jardinier (the gardener) or, as it later came to be called, L’Arroseur arosé (the sprayer sprayed), a film of which Lumière shot at least two versions. A gardener is hosing the garden when a boy comes and treads on the hose, stopping the flow of water. When the gardener turns the hose towards himself, the boy releases his foot and the sprayer is sprayed. Realising what has happened, the gardener then chases, catches and spanks or sprays (according to version) the trickster. Yet this too was a Lumière family film, shot at their holiday home in La Ciotat and featuring their own gardener. It was even supposedly a prank that had actually been played by one of the Lumière children or at least so the gardener liked to claim in later years. In fact the source for the “gag” is known; it comes most probably from a contemporary comic illustration by the German graphic artist Hermann Vogel (1856-1918) although this was far from the first time that the gag had been featured in such illustrations. Viewed one way the film is a fiction; viewed another it is simply part of the series of films the Lumières shot illustrating their family life. Many other composed views share this ambiguity with respect to the suppposed fiction-non-fiction divide, as inded have many films throughout the history of cinema, whether purporting to be fictions with strong documntary elements (genuine or not) or purporting to be documentaries with distinctly fictional elements (intended or not).

Hermann Vogel L'Arroseur (1889)

As was the case with La Sortie de l'usine, there is more than one surviving copy of Le Jardinier. The earliest, filmed by Louis Lumière himself in 1895, is in this case the least developed and the least well designed. The gardener and trickster are simply shown in a straight line one behind the other whereas in both the later versions (1896-1897), more depth and variety is given to the scene by having the gardener to the fore, facing the camera, and the trickster well behind and more plausibly concealed,with his foot on the hosepipe. Presumably in 1895 Lumière was at some pains to simply make the situation very clear to the audeicne. A year later the gag (copied by almost everyother film-maker) was well known to everyone and there was no possibility of misunderstanding. A second element that is added in the two later versions is that the trickster is punished by being sprayed in his turn, giving a further dimension to the title that had by this time becme associated with the film - L'Arroseur arrosé or "the sprayer sprayed". The hosepipe and the treacherous jet of water would go on being used in films for years and years afterwards (and for all I know may still crop up from time to time); it is a classic trope of slapstick comedy. The improved mise en scène in the later films may possibly reflect the influence of Georges Hatot, who was employed by the Lumières at around this time, very specifically to produce films of fiction of various kinds.1

Félicien TreweyIt is very probably Trewey who was responsible (along with Louis Lumière who shot the film) before his departure for the film Partie d'Écarté. It is he who "plays" the card-player on the right(facing the screen) while Antoine Lumière, Louis' father, is the more heavily-built pipe-smoking player on the left. The third man at the table, watching the game and providing refreshments, is Alphonse Winckler, father-in-law of both the Lumière brothers. The part of the valet is "played" by the Lumières' valet, Antoine Féraud. I use the words "plays" and "played" because what is very clear about this film is that it is a mise en scène and not simply a composed view. Like the gardener and the trickster in Le Jardinier, La Sortie de l'usine, all of the people involved are playing parts in a meticulously devised drama, even if the parts they are playing are more or less identical with their real-life personae.

Félicien Trewey was a recently retired magician of some celebrity and a friend of Louis Lumière who had something of a weakness for magic.2 In 1896, Lumière appointed him concessionaire for the company in London, the first Lumière venture outside France, no doubt because Trewey had been well-known as a magician there but, before departing in February,he made a long stay at the Lumières' holiday home in La Ciotat, near Marseille (where Trewey had himself grown up)and made several films. The majority were reprises of his own stage acts - balancing acts(Assiettes tournantes, Jongleur au ballon), trick-writing (Écriture à l’envers), chapeaugraphy or manipulation of a felt hat (Chapeaux à transformation) and a similar manipulation of a roll of material in a parody of the famous Serpentine Dance (Serpent). There was however however also mime (Pierrot et la mouche) and slapstick comedy (Un prêté pour un rendu in which the valet Antoine Féraud also appears)and there was this film of a card-game.

Lumière's Partie d'écarté is perhaps the obvious model for the development of such genre narratives and genre fictions. While l'arroseur arrosé is a very straightforward "gag", taken as we have seen from an early comic strip, Lumière's scene of card-players. When we turn to La Partie d'écarté (1896) we are at once in the same world and a very different one. This too is filmed in the garden at La Ciotat; these too are the Lumière family and friends. To appreciate the film, it is not absolutely necessary to know how to play écarté but it helps because one then at least understands what the laughing is all about. Écarté is played, by two four players, with five cards (dealt in batches of three ands two). It is a game of "tricks" played, following suit in classic fashion, with the turn-up card representing trumps. The object is purely and simply to win five points which completes the levée (although a partie can also consist of several levées). After the deal, there is generally a process of exchanging cards with the remaining pack (the talon in French), the process from which the game gets its name - écarté means "thrown away" - in order, just as in "draw" poker, to try and improve their hands, a process that continues until one or other player calls a halt because he is confident he can make the majority of tricks with what he holds. If however one or other player feels he has a good enough holding to start with, then he declines the exchange process and play begins immediately. Which is evidently the case in the film. Normally the maximum it is possible to win on one deal is three points. Here however they seem to be playing that such a maximum also gains a fifth point and wins the levée. In the commonest and shortest variety of the game (5 à sec or cinq secs), that is the end of it and the winner pockets the money. To achieve a maximum, the player needs to win all the tricks (known as la vole), which scores two points, to hold the King of trumps which scores him a further point but he also needs - which makes the situation relatively rare - to have an opponent who also thinks he can win a majority of tricks with the hand he holds which can, if things fall right, bring him a fourth (and here seemingly a fifth) point. Here an accident of sort intervenes. Normally it would be the choice in the first instance of "premier joueur" (the non-dealer) whether or not they proceed to an echange of cards (l'écart) but Lumière, busy lighting his cigar and without even looking at his hand, evidently leaves it to Trewey, the dealer, who, showing obvious satisfaction with his hand, has no hesitation in deciding that they should play without echanging. This refusal to exchange by the dealer automatically gives the opponent an extra fourth point (and here seemingly a fifth) if he wins all the tricks. This then is the (relatively rare occurrence) shown in the film. A confident Trewey declines the exchange upon which Antoine, picking up his hand, discovers he has a whole sheaf of honour cards including the valuable King of trumps. So excited is he, he even half-shows the hand to his opponent (and the camera); any player of écarté would know that he is here declaring his King of trumps ("J'ai le roi") which he is obliged to do at this stage in order to get the point for it although he is not actually obliged to show the hand as he does. His trump holding ensures that he easily makes la vole, wins the levée and, as we see, pockets his winnings to the discomfiture of Trewey who has given the vital last point away by prematurely deciding against any exchange while Lumière was still lighting his cigar. La Partie d'écarté and the later Joueurs de cartes arrosés are again examples of how negligible the line is between "reality" and "fiction" in such films. The first film was marketed as a "family" film just like Repas de bébé (in the US it was shown as Messers Lumiere at Cards) and so is in no way different in kind. The card-players (Antoine Lumière and Félicien Trewey) are known to us as is the observer, M. Alphonse Winckler, a Lyon brewer, carefully pouring for the others a glass of his own patent tipple. Here however not only is the composition clearly staged (and not only to advertise the Winckler beer) but can readily be related to works of contemporary art that display similar scenes of card-players (in just the same way as Le Jardinier is 'based" on a contemporary comic-strip). It is in fact a complete and very carefully worked-out story that must have taken a certain amount of practice to tell within the one-minute time-frame. Lumière and Trewey are playing écarté; they cut for deal and Trewey deals turning over the last card (representing trumps). Clearly pleased with his hand, Trewey decides, while Lumière is busy lighting his cigar, against any exchange of cards (a decision that will cost him a vital point if he loses). Lumière then picks up his hand, evidently a stonker that includes the King of trumps (which has to be declared and wins him an extra point) and, when they play, Lumière wins every trick, meaning seemingly that he also won the partie, and he helps himself to the stakes. The servant has a good laugh at Trewey's expense because he has effectively given away the partie by his own over-confidence in his hand and his premature refusal of an exchange. With a little knowledge of écarté, one can virtually reconstruct the dialogue word for word and eevn wthout the knowledge, the broad lines of the story are clear. Whether this film is a "fiction" or a "non-fiction" is a matter of opinion and, in any case, of no importance; the categories are effectively an irrelevance.