Despite living only to the age of 39, Marie-Louise Iribe was a dynamic film pioneer who crammed multiple achievements into her short life, as an actor as well as director and producer. Ambitious and cultured, she formed her own production company, directed two features and was one of the few women directors who made the difficult transition from silent to sound film in the early 1930s. She emerged in an ebullient period of French cinema. In the first decades of the 20th century, film had not yet settled into any rigid structures, and that fluidity and openness encouraged the proliferation of small, independent production companies. The new nature of the medium also allowed a comparatively substantial number of women to make films, a state of affairs that came to an end with the invention of sound, which transformed the film industry and dramatically curtailed women’s participation for years.
Iribe was born Pauline Marie-Louise Lavoisot in Paris in 1894, to decorated officer Louis Lavoisot and his wife Jeanne. Her maternal uncle, Paul Iribe, was a famous illustrator and designer with close links to Coco Chanel. An early interest in acting led her to studying drama at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. She began acting both on stage and in silent films under the name Marie-Louise Iribe, and in the years 1913-1926 she appeared in films by René Le Somptier, Louis Feuillade, Gaston Ravel and Henri Fescourt. In 1919, she had a part in Jean-Joseph Renaud’s L’intervention de Protéa, the final episode of a popular serial about a female secret agent versed in martial arts. Two years later, she played Queen Antinea’s maid Tanit-Zerga in Jacques Feyder’s hugely successful adventure fantasy L’Atlantide, which also starred her first husband André Roanne.
In the mid-1920s, Iribe founded the production company Les Artistes Réunis, of which she was the director, with her second husband, actor Pierre Renoir. Renoir was the son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and brother of director Jean Renoir, who would become a major figure of French cinema in the 1930s, with films such as La grande illusion (1937) and La règle du jeu (1939). At this early point in his career, Jean Renoir only had three more or less amateur films to his credit. Financially ruined by his sumptuous but commercially disastrous Nana (1926), he happily accepted to take on the direction of Les Artistes Réunis’ first production, Marquitta (1927). This romantic drama starred Iribe as a street singer who has an affair with a prince and later becomes a celebrated singer while her former lover falls on hard times. The same year, Les Artistes Réunis also produced Chantage (1927), the first directorial effort of actor Henri Debain, who had appeared alongside Iribe in Marquitta. The script was penned by Pierre Lestringuez, a close friend of Jean Renoir’s, who had also worked on Nana and Marquitta. Like Marquitta, Chantage was a drama of love, theft and betrayal centred around a female character.
The following year, Les Artistes Réunis produced Hara-Kiri, also scripted by Lestringuez. Daringly expanding on the class and love tensions already explored in Marquitta, Hara-Kiri gave Iribe a meaty role, which she played with great intensity. Married to an older Euro-Japanese professor, young French woman Nicole Daomi falls in love with the son of the Japanese Shogun. Adulterous, interracial and interclass, their doomed romance transgresses all kinds of boundaries, and Nicole defies the social conventions imposed by an oppressive patriarchal order, both Western and Eastern. The film was initially directed by Debain, but Iribe took over when he was unable to complete the film. Although it is difficult to clearly determine Iribe’s contribution to the direction, contemporary critic Edmond Epardaud had no hesitation in crediting her for the exceptional ‘boldness’ and ‘independent spirit’ of the film, and praised her for what he called ‘an act of high intelligence and utterly feminine swagger’.
The last film produced by Les Artistes Réunis was the darkly enchanting folk tale Le roi des aulnes (The Erl King, 1930), entirely directed by Iribe. Her first and only work in sound film, it retains many characteristics of silent cinema, notably in the acting style, limited dialogue and emphasis on visuals. Featuring costumes and sets designed by Iribe’s uncle Paul, the film was inspired by a poem by Goethe, adapted by Lestringuez. The following year, Iribe made a German version of the film, Erlkönig, co-written by Peter Paul Brauer. This was to be her last contribution to cinema in any capacity: she died prematurely three years later. As her final film, Le roi des aulnes provided a wonderfully spectral swansong to a brief, but rich career.
Le roi des aulnes (1930)
Marie-Louise Iribe’s only solo directorial credit is a haunting, dreamlike visualisation of Goethe’s poem ‘Erlkönig’ (1782), and the song written by Franz Schubert in 1815. In Iribe’s version of the story, a man travels on horseback with his sick son to reach a doctor in a nearby town. As they ride through the forest at night, the boy has visions of the Erl King (a fairy king inspired by Danish folklore), but his father dismisses his fears, attributing them to the stormy nature around them.
As the father and son enter the forest after a slow, naturalistic beginning, the fairy world comes alive, and so does the film. Combining the period’s special effects with the forbidding atmosphere of a real forest location, Iribe powerfully conjures up the eeriness of the natural world in the darkness of night, in all its magic and terror. While the fairies he creates from leaves and spiders are tiny, charming creatures, the Erl King is a truly daunting presence, translucent and towering, and his death face, revealed in the final scenes, exudes a genuine sense of dread.
Essay published in the booklet for the Early Women Filmmakers Collection 4-disc Blu-ray released by the BFI, June 2019.
Picture credit: Le roi des aulnes (Dir. Marie-Louise Iribe, 1930).