François Boyer: A Letter to Marcel L’Herbier

Trying to find information about François Boyer and his life, I took a research trip to Paris in the spring of 2018. One of the most interesting findings in the archives was an original letter by François Boyer, formally addressed to Marcel L’Herbier (1888-1979) via an inititial “Cher monsieur”. 

It is a letter handwritten and signed with a black ballpoint pen on one sheet of rather thin stationery. It seems like it was written hastily, since the handwriting is hardly legible in some spots, some words are missing accents and other words are crossed out in a sloppy manner. The letter has been folded twice, as there is a horizontal and a vertical crease. The backside shows marks of two paper clips, which might mean that additional documents were attached to the letter at some point. What documents and/or photo/s might have been attached and whether they were part of the original letter is unknown. Also, the letter shows Boyer’s address in the top left corner – 46 Rue Bonnenfant, St. Germain-en-Laye – but not Marcel L’Herbier*s, which was probably on the missing envelope.

The letter is dated May 26, 1962. It answers L’Herbier’s request for Boyer to join his team of writers for his film project about impressionist French composer Achille-Claude Debussy, which came out in 1963 (Hommage à Debussy). L’Herbier was a prolific French director, author, screenplay writer and film producer, as well as pioneer of French television. From the date of the letter we can gather that he was then no longer principal of the national film school IDHEC in Paris, which he founded in 1943, but was already president of its administrative council. 

At this point, L’Herbier had long earned prominence for several of his silent films, such as El Dorado (1921) of L’Inhumaine (1924), and also for sound films such as Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (1930) or La Nuit Fantastique (1942). At the time Boyer wrote to him, he was one of the most prominent and influential French first-Avantgarde cineastes, writers of cultural programs and films for television, and writers on cinema in general.   

This shows, on the one hand, that Boyer knew and worked with some of the most prominent film-makers of the time. On the other, it might also explain Boyer’s very polite, if not reverent, and apologetic tone in his letter. After all, Boyer had decided, after “long consideration”, to decline L’Herbier’s invitation to join the team. Thanking L’Herbier for showing faith in Boyer’s abilities by offering him the project, he explains “with much regret” that he does not think himself capable of doing a good job “in the area that you [i.e. L’Herbier] are suggesting”. Boyer says he thinks he is “too instinctive, too disrespectful, and maybe, deep inside, a little too… primitive to know how to treat a topic of such amplitude and of such ambition.”   

He continues to explain how he would have approached the subject very differently, focussing “only on the man himself, and more precisely on what was non-conformist and insolent about him – and about his life. I would have liked to do the opposite of romantic biographies, where we see the artist exist only through [emphasis in the original] his love relationships – Berlioz by Christian Jaque [sic.], Beethoven by Gance, Schubert etc. – and show an artist exists despite his passions or at least outside of them.“

This is a topic that would not be well received at the time he wrote the letter, he states, and L’Herbier’s “optics seem to me infinitely preferable”. Contributing to L’Herbier’s project, “I would very much risk being more damaging than useful, – certainly very much against my will”. Boyer then asks for L’Herbier’s understanding, claiming that “I wish too much to see the success of your ‘Golden Age’ to run the risk of hindering it, however slightly.”

What is highly interesting about this letter – apart from proving a relationship between Boyer and one of the central figures of French culture and cinema of the time that goes beyond the two men’s initial contact at the IDHEC in the 1940ies – is what it reveals about Boyer’s own creative and aesthetic approach. In his work, he looks for the non-conformist, the irreverent and the insolent, he says. Indeed, this is a prevalent principle in many of his works, in his novel Forbidden Games, in his play Dieu aboie-t-il? (God, does he bark?) but also in many of the screenplays he wrote. Much of his characters’ lives is, in fact, centered on the question of how they can exist in, resist, reshape, or escape the oppressive systems they are a part of, and how they can be themselves (just like how, according to Boyer, Berlioz was his own man and artist and not only definable via his relationships). There is often a palpable tension between the family or society and the individual protagonist/s that structures many of Boyer’s plots as well as his storytelling in books and films, where protagonists play with this tension and explore possibilities of preserving and/or developing their own authenticity. 

I think it would be worth systematically tracing this motif in Boyer’s works in order to get a better understanding of the spirit of his works, as well as of his era and cultural context. 


François Boyer, Personal correspondance with Marcel L’Herbier (May 26, 1962), in: Projets Debussy, Dossier: 2e scénario Cerf. Archival material (Original document), retrieved via Cinémathèque Française, Paris, n.p.

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