Josephine Baker and Pierre Batcheff in La Sirène des tropiquespurchase PDF
Authors: Phil Powrie And Eric Rebillard
La Sirène des tropiques was Josephine Baker’s first feature film, made as a result of the extraordinary success of La Revue Nègre in Paris in 1925. This article sets the context for the revue in the post-war fascination for all things American, incorporating original archive work on the trade press of the period. It then explores Baker’s persona as a stereotypical contrast between nature and culture as mediated through the spaces used in the film (the tropics and Paris). It shows how the sequence on the transatlantic liner where she becomes more black by rolling in coal, and then white by rolling in flour, complicates the over-simplified nature/culture binary. A second complication is the on-screen relationship between the two stars, Baker and Pierre Batcheff, one of the leading French stars of the 1920s. Batcheff was also ‘Other’ by his Russian associations and his acting style. This makes Baker more ‘Other’ than she might otherwise have been; but it also legitimizes the way in which the narrative punishes her: she doesn’t get her man, and over-determinedly sacrifices herself for his happiness. The article explores the hypothesis that her punishment would have seemed acceptable for audiences of the period, for two ultimately xenophobic reasons. First, because the narrative makes her more ‘western’, destroying the comfort of the nature/culture binary. Second, because she draws attention away from the leading man by being excessive in her acting style, thus undermining Batcheff’s agency.