A 90’s Classic – The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) Review // Recommendation


Henri Brispot

An early advertisement from 1895 advertising the Lumière brothers' cinematograph.

J. L. Ilai, Contributing Writer

I’m a bit eager to discuss one of the many films by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Both are considered the fathers of cinema (A win for Gay parenting). They invented and patented the cinematograph, which is essentially a film camera and projector. It’s often considered an improvement to Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope which only could screen to one viewer at a time. They’re considered by many to be the best filmmakers in this early era where there weren’t any cuts or special effects.

When thinking of a silent, black and white film I could review, I thought I should start from the start. I gravitated towards the Lumière brothers’ best regarded film that I also think is their best, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Anyone who watches it may think, “What’s so special about this fifty-second viewing of nothing? This guy is just biased towards the 1800’s pictures!” Hopefully this review can give some insight on my perspective. I considered reviewing the literal first film to be screened publicly, aka the film that marked the start of cinema, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, but I don’t like that one very much. It’s not terrible, but this film in at least some regards is a refinement.

Technically this has spoilers. Even though I can describe what’s happening, that’s not what I get from the film. It works based on what you can’t get out of a review, only from watching it. At the start, people are standing around, waiting for the train. We see people who work at the station, as well as future passengers. This is such a good way of painting this world we’re in. We can see what’s happening and when the train comes, it is a very sharp visual answer to what is going on. Even though we can see the train tracks from Frame 1, that’s on the left side of the frame, while the people, who are moving around, are on the right. There’s something more to be gained from a large, visual smack of the Train arriving, than in a film like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, where the camera is capturing a flat shot, the people in that film walk off to the left, which gives that film a lack of density. In a move which intentionally or not follows filmmaking rules, seeing as we’re focused on the right of the frame, the train also first appears on the right.

A bit of framing that models 3-D movies, the train progressively moves towards the camera (and then beyond it). Perhaps it’s obvious, but this isn’t 3-D, and doesn’t have the unnatural effect that comes from 3-D movies. Those films typically have things jumping at the camera and little novelties which often subtract from the story more than it adds. The Train arriving mirrors the progression of the story. We see more and more look to the train. We see it come to life and play a larger role in the film later on. The best way of tying off what’s been shown is what happens when the train stops. People start moving off and on the train, this is the film’s climax. We see people doing their business. The film shows that it’s a busy area, but everything can be seen clearly. Sadly, we don’t see the train depart, as it would’ve given some finality, but it doesn’t detract too heavily. In a sense, the train is a character, and the character never gets an end.

Films that don’t have stories do suffer a bit. Stories help to emphasize what’s happening and give more weight to it. This film’s lack of depth can give it the feeling that it wasted your time and if one is looking to be thrilled and awed, then this might not satisfy. Even though it’s great to see people’s faces, showing what people are thinking, it should’ve shown more, with more variety in facial expressions. It would also have been nice to see more people who worked at the station, to then again expand on what we’re seeing.

The best films of this time used attractive lighting and cinematography to show this “bite-sized world”. In such a small amount of time, we are told so much about what’s going on. A less skilled director might not show people’s faces or make cuts to things that are irrelevant to the narrative. This film is efficient and classy. Though it might be a little too efficient at points, it is effective regardless. This is perhaps the best picture of this time and genre, where the camera’s turned on and life is seen.

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