Eugène Pirou

French photographer, pornographer

Though Eugène Pirou has long been recognised as one of the pioneering filmmakers in France, his work as a stills photographer is less well known. He was working as a portrait photographer from at least the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, where he took pictures of the slain communards. In 1888 he photographed General Boulanger in full uniform, and the following year was present at the Paris Exposition, where E-J. Marey's chronophotography was on display, and perhaps this is where his interest in moving photography was initiated. In 1896 he wrote to the Eastman Kodak company asking for information about the Edison Vitascope, but nothing seems to have come of this and he teamed up with Henri Joly, who had developed a projector. This allowed Pirou to be one of the first rivals to the Lumières in Frances, presenting films at the Café de la Paix in Paris in April 1896. By this time he had dubbed himself as the 'photographe des rois' and appropriately the first films he made were of the visit of Tsar Nikolas II to France in October 1896, showing various official activities. But Pirou's real importance is in pioneering another type of production, the risqué film. In the autumn of 1896 he produced Le Coucher de la Marie, in which Mlle. Louise Willy recreated the most sensational part of her eponymous stage hit, where she performed a striptease.

The resulting film was unusually long at sixty metres (around three minutes) and was such a sensation when shown in Paris (along with the films of the Tsar's visit) that Pirou opened at two other venues in the city and even exhibited at the Casino in Nice. Anxious to cash in, other filmmakers including Georges Méliès and Charles Pathé also made striptease films, and so was launched an entire genre of risqué films, known in France as scènes grivoises d'un caractère piquant. Such films were not always welcomed, and one of them (probably the Pirou title) had to be withdrawn from a London music hall in January 1897 after protests from the more respectable clientele. Léar, the director of Le Coucher de la Marie, may have been a trader in pornographic pictures, another of Pirou's business interests, thogh Léar went on to make the first film of the life of Christ. It is not clear what happened to Pirou after the turn of the century, but his place in film history was assured; in the brief period 1896 to '97 he had made over fifty films (frames of which are preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale); other achievments in these years include pioneering the amateur film business, and also (probably for the first time) enticing a theatrical star, Cecile Sorel, before the camera.

Stephen Bottomore