The Making of Robert Lapoujade’s LE SOCRATE (1968): A Few Notes and Documents

Lapoujade’s greatest strengths are his refusal to produce digestible cinema and his passionate effort to create a dialogue with the audience.”

This is from the introduction to an 18 October 1968 episode of the TV show Cinéma critique (fig.1-2) devoted to the production of Le socrate (1968), avant-garde filmmaker Robert Lapoujade’s first feature. That episode is now available on France’s INA (Institut national de l’audiovisuel) website.

Figures 1-2. A 1968 TV show devoted to the making of Lapoujade’s Le socrate (1968).

Robert Lapoujade (1921–1993) is slowly being rediscovered. He began as a painter but eventually moved into experimental animation. Many of his earlier films were shorts financed by the Service de la Recherche of the RTF, France’s national public broadcaster between 1949 and 1964. Last year, there was a symposium in Paris devoted to these films (fig. 3; see the full program). I’m trying to do my part as well. I’ve written about his animated works as instances of “abstract realism.” I’ve also documented how he formed a transatlantic partnership with avant-garde musician Edgardo Canton.

Figure 3. Program for a 2021 symposium on the experimental cinema of Lapoujade.

I still haven’t seen his debut feature Le socrate in its entirety–it’s hard to find. But as an excerpt of the film reveals (see excerpt), it’s a highly unorthodox experiment in fiction filmmaking. We periodically see bursts of Lapoujadian animation integrated into a live-action narrative (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Cinéma critique shows Lapoujade as he directs a stop-motion animation sequence for Le socrate (1968).

During the Cinéma critique episode, Lapoujade presents his unique conception of animation–as an abstract realist form. Why use stop-motion animation in a live-action feature? His reply:

…[animation] is a means of rendering vision more precise. And thus to imperceptibly arrive at abstraction in cinema.”

As I first pointed out in my article on Lapoujade, this distinctive theory about the transformative power of art–to change the way we perceive the world, inviting us, through perception, to eventually ponder the world through an idea–was later articulated in an essay Lapoujade wrote for the October 1987 issue of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les temps modernes.

In short, he hoped to use Le socrate–a film about philosophy–to rediscover the phenomenological potential of stop-motion animation.

We learn from the Cinéma critique episode that Le socrate recounts the life of Socrates as a kind of modernized “imaginary” history. Socrates abandons philosophy and all his possessions and elects to live off the land. But he is pursued by a police officer, and the two embark upon an “adventure,” Lapoujade tells Cinéma critique. They eventually lose their ability to speak (fig. 5-6; see again the excerpt, beginning at 1:33). The film explores the very nature of language–just one among many themes in a work that seeks to critique the notion of the engaged philosopher and the role that philosophy plays in the creation of social hierarchies.

Figures 5-6. In Le socrate, Socrates (bottom frame, right) inspects the police officer’s mouth after he loses his ability to speak.

The film, which won a Special Jury prize at the 1968 Venice film festival, surely belongs to the May ’68 era of French cinema in which modernism became increasingly conceptual and political, as András Bálint Kovács argues in his historical survey, Screening Modernism (2007).

In any case, kudos to the INA for making this and other episodes of Cinéma critique available. The INA website now houses several hundred episodes of the show. You can consult the catalogue here. It’s a trove for anyone who’s interested in this period of French film history.

Note: sadly, all of the new materials shared in this post are en français, with no subtitles.

UPDATE. A friend and colleague of mine, film historian Andrea Comiskey, wanted to know whether Robert Lapoujade’s final film, Les mémoires de Don Quichotte, was available–and how she might obtain a copy and screen it. I’d never looked into the film. Now I have, and it turns out that it was never completed.

The story of the failed Mémoires de Don Quichotte project is told in a documentary entitled Lapoujade ou la renaissance (1987), directed by Christelle Vandenberghe. You can view the documentary here. Vandenberghe and her team track down Lapoujade. By the 1980s, he’d left Paris and filmmaking behind him and returned to his first love, painting. In the film, Lapoujade explains that he’d worked on Don Quichotte–an ambitious puppet animation–for five years, in the mid-1970s. But the financing dried up when the producer went bankrupt, and he was forced to abandon this labor of love.

The documentary shows what remains of the puppets Lapoujade designed for the project. Now lifeless, these figures are given a moment or two of life–in Vandenberghe’s film.

One of Lapoujade’s hand-made puppets for the failed project Les mémoires de Don Quichotte (from Christelle Vandenberghe’s Lapoujade ou la renaissance).