One of the most significant pieces of experimental filmmaking, Ballet Mécanique takes the viewer into a realm that transcends the rigid patterns of rational thought. French artist Fernand Léger created this early modernist masterpiece in collaboration with American filmmaker Dudley Murphy by straying from traditional film narratives.
In an idyllic black and white garden, a young woman with a blissful smile swings softly to and fro. She swings to and fro, throwing meandering glances, swinging to and fro. Suddenly an image of a hat. Wine bottles. A close-up of lips smiling. Lips smiling. Flashback to the hat. Lips smiling. Wheels spinning. A kaleidoscope of oscillating spheres undulating. Triangles, circles, pulsating, pulsating. Mechanical forms, rotating, whirling, gyrating.
For 12 minutes, Ballet Mécanique (1924) inundates the viewer with thrashing images and lightning events. At first, the film is challenging—even maddening—but try keeping up with its staccato rhythms and you might escape into a realm that transcends the rigid structures of the rational mind.
Instead of creating a typical film narrative, French artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) composed a cacophony of imagery in collaboration with American filmmaker Dudley Murphy that begins and ends with a Charlie Chaplin figure, referred to as Le Charlot. Originally, a musical score by American composer George Antheil was intended to accompany the short film, but the piece premiered in a silent version and wasn’t shown with music until the 1990s.
“Ballet Mécanique is a significant moment in film history due to Léger’s pure experimentation with form and content,” says Anne Morra, associate curator at The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film, which acquired the work in 1935. “Even though this experimental film is more than 90 years old, it seems more relevant than ever with its dependence on absolute imagery; mimicking 21st-century modes of universal communication.”
Although Léger was deeply influenced by cubism early on while working in Paris, he became increasingly interested in machines and modern technology after serving in World War I. This fascination led to the painter’s “mechanical period,” which lasted from about 1918 to 1923, and is characterized by works that consist of bold colors and geometric elements— including the cone, cylinder and sphere—as well as tubular human forms on a seemingly shifting plane.
With fragmented imagery of gears, turbines, pistons, motors and levers saturating Ballet Mécanique, it’s no surprise that the film emerged from this period. Even in his later works, Léger continued to demonstrate a steadfast awe for modern innovation and a humanistic vision of urban life in the machine age.
By juxtaposing mechanical elements with whirling wire whisks, a shot of a car running over the screen, a repetitive sequence of an older woman with a sack over her shoulders climbing a flight of stairs, hyperactive text and dancing body parts, Léger propels the viewer into a world of motion and chaos that mirrors the entrails of the mind.
“Léger was one of the main proponents of the Cinéma Pur movement along with René Clair and Hans Richter. There were other artists, too, who wanted to eliminate what they viewed as traditional interferences in their films such as plot, narrative and editing to manipulate the story,” explains Morra. “Instead, the filmmakers who followed this movement began to experiment with what their cameras—in other words, technology—could do in terms of achieving effects. They used close-ups, wide angle shots, double exposures, edited film out and inserted it back into the film upside down or backwards.”
The shifting speeds and rhythms in the film instill a certain kind of abandon in the viewer rarely experienced within the constraints of everyday life. In this sense, Léger’s approach is an example of Dada, an art movement that emerged in Europe and North America amid the horrors of World War I. The artists of Dada didn’t have a common style or aesthetic, rather they shared a desire to rebel against dominating societal values, conventional hierarchies of art and rational thinking itself. Key figures—including Hugo Ball, Emily Hennings, Marcel Duchamp and Hannah Höch—sought to create a new kind of art by developing processes that embraced chance, absurdity and spontaneity, a kind of “anti art” as some called it.
Cinematographic contributions to Ballet Mécanique by American visual artist Man Ray means that traces of surrealism also manifest throughout the film. Ever-shifting perspectives collide with nonsensical imagery to form an irrational visual vocabulary found almost exclusively in dreams. It’s not so much about trying to understand or explain the mechanical dance as it is about letting the rational partitions of the mind dissolve to allow subconscious associations to emerge.
Even though it’s been nearly a century since Léger created Ballet Mécanique as a depiction of the complex relationship between humans and machines, the frenzied energy of the film continues to reverberate today. In the midst of the film’s mechanical disorder, Léger seems to have unlocked a fertile space for interplay between thoughts and sensations, fearlessness and absurdity, the conscious and unconscious. And in a world where truncated messages, likes and hearts, and incessant notifications are vying for our attention, this experimental masterpiece is a reminder of the importance of breaking from the chains of conventional reasoning every so often to enable moments of free improvisations and unbound exploration.