Léon Barsacq was one of the leading art directors of his time. Yet his greater importance will almost certainly lie in his ideas about set design as an art and in his documentation of the history of film design. The Russian-born Barsacq trained in architecture and decorative arts in Paris before becoming an assistant designer on films by Andrei Andrejew and others. Among his early work as an art director, the most memorable settings appear in Marcel Carné's and Jacques Prévert's Les Enfants du paradis , for which Barsacq collaborated with Alexandre Trauner and Raymond Gabutti. In its density of detail, its visual richness and atmosphere, this was a masterpiece of style defying the austerity of occupied France.
In Les Enfants du paradis and other of his early films, such as La Marseillaise , directed by Jean Renoir, the elaboration of settings did not, perhaps, totally comply with Barsacq's premise that design should subordinate itself to narrative, simply lending atmospheric support. But as the complexities of style which dominate Occupation films gave way to a simpler imagery in the 1950s, Barsacq's work developed a more sketchlike style. His best sets achieve a delicate balance between realism and artifice. Barsacq was an elegant Beaux Arts draftsman whose drawings reflected his ability to find the essence of a setting without resorting to obvious trickery.
Barsacq's closest liaisons were with René Clair and Marcel Carné. Clair said of his designs, "reality paled alongside its imitation." Jean Renoir, too, was among his collaborators. Like the directors with whom he worked, Barsacq drew inspiration from such painters as Daumier, for the Boulevard du Crime in Les Enfants du paradis , and Breughel, for the sets in Les Aventures de Till L'Espiègle .
Barsacq worked among the French pioneers in the use of color during the early 1950s, the so-called "heroic" period of color film. Early color films with sets by Barsacq include Richard Pottier's Violettes impériales and Raymond Bernard's La Dame aux camélias . The expensive Technicolor process and the uncertain Belgian Gevacolor system were used until the introduction of the more controllable Eastmancolor, for which Barsacq designed sets in Calir's Les Grandes Manoeuvres . By limiting his palette of colors to neutral tones with only occasional use of strong color, Barsacq confirmed the aesthetic merit of color in producing atmospheric effects.
Barsacq's designs of the 1960s for films such as The Longest Day and Trois Chambres à Manhattan , have been treated with less interest by critics than his earlier work. This was due partly to the overwhelming fashion for cinéma vérité in the later 1950s and early 1960s, which attempted to abandon artificiality and contrivance in design and all other aspects of the film. But as a historian of film design, Barsacq was highly productive in his later years. Published in 1970, his book Le Décor de film not only contains a wealth of information, but also proposes a clear aesthetic postulate on film design and, consequently, has become the standard text on its subject.