Film History Essentials: Bataille de Neige (1897)

(English: Snowball Fight)

What it’s about:

Twenty or so people standing on either side of a roadway engage in a free-for-all snowball fight, pelting each other with abandon. Soon, an approaching cyclist comes down the road and finds himself riding directly between the two lines of people. Suddenly, all attention is on the cyclist, and he is bombarded mercilessly by all until he falls off of his bike. Jumping up, he scoops up some snow and dumps it on a man who has taken hold of his bike, then he quickly gets on it and hurries back the way he came, leaving his hat behind on the ground. The combatants continue their furious battle in his wake.

Why it’s essential:

While teams of trained filmmakers traveled all over the world, introducing the cinematograph to a global audience and sending films home for French audiences, Louis Lumière continued to film “views” wherever he happened to be. Sometimes he traveled, mostly around France (though internationally as well), but often his films were set closer to home. This snowball fight, filmed in late January 1897, took place around the corner from the Lumière factory in Lyon.

The immediate question, of course, is whether the snowball fight was a genuine, spontaneous event that Louis just happened to capture, or was it at least meant to appear that way? At the beginning of the film, there are already snowballs flying through the air, but no one seems to have much, if any, snow on their clothing. As a result, it looks like we are dropped into the middle of the action, but the fight has actually just begun. The camera is set up and rolling in a position to capture the battle, but also to foreshadow the arrival of the cyclist, who we can already see approaching from the beginning. The people appear carefully split on both sides of the roadway, which makes it seem like they’re divided into opposing “teams,” but of course, they’re really forming a gauntlet for the cyclist.

The Lumière brothers are certainly known to have presented films as “actualities” that in reality contained elements that were staged. In fact, this practice was not uncommon for any number of filmmakers throughout the early years of cinema. Not only did “non-fiction” films often contain staged elements, but some films that were entirely artificial were presented as genuine, claiming to depict current events, usually in some far-off location. In this case, however, the snowball fight was described as a scene comique when it was exhibited, and whether anyone thought that it was staged or not was really beside the point.

The approach, arrival, and rapid departure of the cyclist could almost qualify as a dramatic arc. The moment when he enters the fray is certainly the highlight of the film. Still, storytelling was almost never really a priority in Lumière films. Even in their films that could be described in narrative terms, the events on screen were usually meant to appear as natural and spontaneous as possible. Across many hundreds of films, there are of course some notable exceptions to this norm. However, in general, they sought to entertain the audience by showing them scenes that could be recognized as belonging to everyday life in the world around them, rather than to construct obviously fictional scenarios.

Why you should see it:

Looking closely at how the scene unfolds, almost everyone stays on their side of the road, at least at first, and they don’t stray far from their initial positions. Immediately, everyone is throwing snow at everyone else, the people next to them as much as the people across from them. The effect of this is that snow seems to be flying everywhere, in all directions and from all directions.

Meanwhile, the one person that moves is the well-dressed man in the mustache, who runs up the road towards the camera, and then crosses over just in time to hit the cyclist point-blank with a snowball (which is really what knocks him over). At that point, several people advance out into the road, mostly to hit the fallen cyclist. As the cyclist leaves, the scene becomes a bit more active, with a few more people crossing back and forth, and some chasing others.

It’s impossible to know how much of the general action was directed or planned, and how much was ad-libbed. Either way, the result looks like a real snowball fight rather than a performance, but the action is still very easy to follow. It gives the impression of chaos without being truly chaotic. More than anything else, though, it just looks like group of people having fun. I somehow doubt the snow stopped flying the moment the camera stopped rolling.


~ by Jared on March 2, 2023.

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