L'Arroseur Arrose

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(The Sprayer Sprayed)

France, 1895

Director: Louis Lumière

Production: Produced by Louis Lumière to demonstrate his cinématographe; black and white; running time: approximately one minute. Released June 1895 in Lyons.

Cast: François Clerc (The gardener); Daniel Duval (The boy).



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At the Annual Meeting of the French Photographic Society held in Lyons 10–12 June 1895, Louis Lumière presented a series of short, one-minute films to demonstrate the technical qualities of his recently patented cinématographe, which was uniquely both a camera and a projector. In a varied programme he not only showed the potential of his invention to record everyday scenes both public (La Sortie des Usines Lumière) and private (Le Goûter du Bébé), but also, and ultimately of more momentous importance, established that no obvious distinction could be made between these observed and unrehearsed events, and an event stage-managed for the camera. With Le Jardinier et le petit espiègle, subsequently to become better known as L'Arroseur arrosé, Lumière created the first comic sequence to be recorded on film, and in so doing heralded a generation of silent slapstick movies.

The film depicts a gardener innocently watering a vegetable patch, when a mischievous boy surreptitiously cuts off the water supply by treading on the hose. The bemused gardener looks down the nozzle of the hose to determine the cause of the interruption, at which point the young prankster releases the water. It then gushes up to soak the gardener and to knock off his hat. After a short chase the boy is caught and duly spanked, and the gardener resumes his task.

The origins of the film have been disputed. According to Lumière the sequence is simply a re-enactment of an actual prank played by his younger brother Edouard on the family gardener François Clerc. However according to Georges Sadoul, the filmed sequence, if not the event itself, may have been inspired by a well-known comic strip cartoon frequently reproduced in late 19th-century children's books. He cites as an example the cartoon strip composed by the artist Herman Vogel and published in 1887 by Quantin. Here the narrative, illustrated in nine images, is titled L'Arroseur, and relates precisely those events depicted in the film, so that the cartoon sequence could easily be mistaken for the story-board for Lumière's production. In this respect L'Arroseur arrosé may be considered the first example of screen adaptation.

The sequence was filmed at the family home in Lyons in the spring of 1895. François Clerc duly played out his role as the gardener, but the part of the boy was acted not by Edouard who was considered to be too young, but by Daniel Duval, a juvenile apprentice carpenter at the Lumière factory. A single fixed camera records the carefully staged events.

In contrast to the other demonstration films which were no more than a recorded fragment of a larger event, L'Arroseur arrosé is complete and self-contained. The simple cause and effect narrative, presented from a single omniscient viewpoint, takes the audience through a variety of emotions, in an expressive use of space. The opening frames establish the gardener in his normal routine occupying the left-hand side of the screen. This normality is subverted by the arrival from the right of the mischievous boy who invades the gardener's space to interrupt the water supply. The audience is now privileged with information denied the gardener and can anticipate the comic outcome of the unsuspecting victim looking down the hose. However the audience is momentarily deprived of its omiscient viewpoint when the gardener, clearly intent on retribution, chases the prankster out of camera-shot. The two characters return now closer to the fixed camera position so that the punishment of the naughty boy can be clearly seen. With the closing images showing the gardener once more watering his vegetable patch, and the guilty boy banished from the screen, normality has been restored and traditional morality upheld.

Although Lumière made other comic sequences such as Chez le photographe and Charcuterie mécanique, it was L'Arroseur arrosé which captured the imagination of the early cinema audiences. The sequence was quickly imitated by Georges Méliès with L'Arroseur in 1896, and in 1958 François Truffaut paid homage to Lumière's pioneering achievements with an affectionate pastiche of the gag in his film Les Mistons.

—R. F. Cousins