Film History Essentials: Je Vous Aime (1891)

(English: I Love You)

What it’s about:

The camera frames a man’s head and shoulders in close-up. Keeping the rest of his face immobile (with even his eyes closed as though to focus attention on one place only), the man exaggeratedly mouths the words “je vous aime.”

Why it’s essential:

The man in this film is Georges Demenÿ, who worked closely with Étienne-Jules Marey for 20 years, beginning when he enrolled as a student in one of Marey’s courses in 1874. In the early 1880s, the Municipal Council of Paris subsidized a lab site for Marey that was called the “Physiological Station.” Here, he was able to create an area that could accommodate the chronophotography of a large number and variety of subjects. However, he often spent part of the year living and working from Naples, leaving Demenÿ to run operations at the station as his trusted assistant.

Sometime in 1890 or 1891, Marey was approached by Hector Marichelle, director of the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. The Institute was the first public school for the deaf in the world, and had already been in existence for well over a century. Marichelle had the idea that it might be possible to use moving pictures of people speaking to teach his students to speak and to read lips. It was a radical notion considering the state of development of motion photography at the time, and a project with some potential for prestige. Marey assigned it to Demenÿ.

I can’t find any further information about the results of the project for Marichelle’s school, which suggests that it wasn’t very successful, but for Demenÿ it was life-changing. In addition to photographing speech, he developed an invention that he called the “Phonoscope” (pictured at right) in order to allow people to view his photographs in motion. The invention relied on a disc with images placed around the edge in sequence and rotated past the viewer in front of a light source. Of course, disc-based motion picture viewing was extremely limiting and could only accommodate durations of a second or two before repeating or changing out the disc. Still, the phonoscope had a certain versatility. It could be used by a single viewer through a peephole, or it could project images for a larger audience.

Demenÿ demonstrated the device at the Académie des Sciences in July, 1891, and showed a whole series of his motion pictures to an audience of over 1000 at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in December. These exhibitions were successful enough that Demenÿ patented the phonoscope in March of 1892, and in April he showed it off at the Exposition Internationale de Photographie. The phonoscope began to get attention in a variety of publications, and Demenÿ became fascinated by the possibility of commercializing his work. He asked Marey to order an additional six cameras to be sold, but Marey, ever the scientist and never the businessman, refused.

At the end of the 1892, Demenÿ went ahead with forming his own company, the Société de Phonoscope—a move which seems to have infuriated Marey. The two men, once such close partners, finally parted ways permanently in 1894, with Marey continuing his scientific work, and Demenÿ pursuing his dreams of fame and fortune in the burgeoning field of motion pictures.

Why you should see it:

Je Vous Aime may have had a greater impact on the course of Demenÿ’s life than it did on the course of film history, but this is the most detailed motion picture we’ve seen of a human face. In fact, though there are exceptions, it would be many years before motion pictures would regularly incorporate shots taken this close to their subjects. I don’t know how many of these Demenÿ made, or who chose their content, but out of all the words or phrases that exist, it’s interesting that the one we have is of him saying “I love you.”

Incidentally, although I can’t confirm this independently, one source suggests that Demenÿ’s eyes are closed here, not to focus attention on the movement of his lips, but due to the lighting required to make those movements visible: a set of mirrors reflecting sunlight directly into his face. This certainly seems plausible, given how studios set up for film production in the coming years would be designed largely to provide as much access as possible to plenty of sunlight.


~ by Jared on January 18, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Je Vous Aime (1891)”

  1. […] he was away, his assistant Georges Demenÿ was working on the lip-reading project (which included Je Vous Aime) for the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris that would eventually lead to the fracturing […]


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