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Iconicity and Iconoclasm: French Cinema

French CinemaFrench Cinema by Charles Drazin

Reviewed by Jose-Luis Moctezuma
Cerise Press

When one thinks of "French cinema" a certain tendency is evoked by the residue of classic francophone films that were, from the perspective of those who loved cinema but who did not grow up speaking French, considerably quieter and, perhaps, subtler than the mainstream Hollywood films. This presumed tendency in French cinema to come across as intellectual and "mature" in comparison with its American counterpart is one bound up with a kind of traveler's nostalgia for crisp black-and-white images that crackled like old newspaper and lovesick, chatty movies that brought attention to themselves as extraordinary metafictions, "a cinema in love with cinema." For me, at least, my first meaningful encounter with French cinema was Jules et Jim, and its indexical image was that of Jeanne Moreau blithely singing "Le Tourbillon de la vie," an iconic scene which always struck me as unavoidably, even obstinately, French, as if Francois Truffaut -- its realisateur -- had secretly attempted to integrate the elliptical, New Wave-soaked rhythm of Jules et Jim within the illustrious continuity of France's tradition de la qualitye. Truffaut's insertion of a chanson whose charm and cadence seemed to evoke a nostalgia for the Golden Age romanticism of directors like Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carne is an irony Charles Drazin picks up on in his book French Cinema. That Truffaut and other members of the French New Wave are now as canonical as the old school predecessors they theorized and rallied against punctuates the strange capacity of French cinema to remain a unified genealogy of film even after a century of cultural ruptures and technologic revolutions.

For the audience of today, the current ethos of French cinema began with the Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s/early 1960s, when the (now august) names of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle and others arrived on the international scene. French cinema obviously has a history stretching as far back to the Lumiere brothers and the invention of the cinematographe, but its conceptualization as a cinema which resisted the straightforward avenues of entertainment and spectacle could be blamed more or less on the free-verse style of those directors. Though it is possible to partition the Nouvelle Vague, on the one hand, into those auteurs who were accessible narrative-wise, such as Truffaut, Chabrol, and Malle, and those, on the other hand, who doggedly resisted the mainstream and/or became increasingly hermetic as they grew older, i.e. Godard, Resnais, and Rivette, the cumulative effect of their organized effort to shake up the cultural stagnation of a depoliticized, conformist, post-war French cinema resulted not only in a complete reevaluation of French cultural tradition, but also helped establish the historicity of the cinema as an art form in league with the storied legacies of literature and the plastic arts.

When Truffaut railed against the moral and aesthetic complacency of French traditionalist filmmaking in his landmark essay, "Une certaine tendance du cinema francais" (1954), he excoriated the scenario-focused "literary" cinema of directors like Claude Autant-Lara and Jean Delannoy for relying too much on the artifices of time-worn adaptations and less on the cinematic potential of the auteur's powers of personal expression. For one thing, as Drazin points out, the increased accessibility and affordability of film technology in the 1950s -- most importantly in the introduction of the Kodak Tri-X film, which made it possible to shoot almost anywhere cheaply and with minimal light -- promoted a culture of self-initiative that allowed critics like Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer to produce and direct their own films. These films functioned as critiques-on-celluloid which demonstrated the manner in which a revolution in film aesthetics could occur and the historiographic material on which they could base a simultaneously retrospective and forward-thinking renovation of French cinema. Truffaut et al found themselves directly quoting the movies they meant to praise or satirize within the rhetoric of their own work, enthralled as they were by a spirit of cinematic bricolage that strove to assemble a transnational canon in the name of a politique des auteurs. One had to build up a tower of assorted histories and counter-histories, as it were, in order to raze (or reform) it from inside its walls.

Drazin makes the claim that a lot of the revolutionary pursuits undertaken by "the children of Tri-X" carried an ideological bias which blinded them to the exemplary value of classical realisateurs like Duvivier and Carne. Precisely because these Golden Age directors were able to thrive in a collaboration-dependent studio system similar to the mogul-led closed networks of Hollywood, they were essentially no different from the American and British "auteurs" (like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock) who were unanimously championed by the New Wave theorists. While the inception of the French New Wave momentarily helped reinvigorate international interest in French cinema as a whole (after a post-war period of diminished returns), the movement paradoxically stifled the long term reach of its own commercial interests, while at the same time inspiring a cinematic renaissance in the American film market of the late 1960s and 1970s (such as was witnessed in the critical and/or fiscal success of the films of Coppola, Scorsese, and Cassavetes). For the average movie goer, the idea of the French cinema came to languish yet again, only this time invoking either the abstruse meta-critical constructions of a theorist like Godard or the muted moral inquiries of a thinker like Rohmer. French cinema could not kick its reputation of being a cinema defined by the permanent quality of difference: "A means of achieving differentiation from the Hollywood product, the New Wave was a powerful brand that established the cinema d'auteur as the standard for the way in which French cinema was perceived outside France. But built as it was around an elitist film-making that was of minority appeal even within France, the movement served to encourage the French cinema's marginalisation" (p. 354).

Though Drazin's French Cinema, as the title suggests, serves as a general introduction to the labyrinthine corridors of the medium's other great parent, part of its implicit design is to restore the prestige of the under-watched Golden Age of French cinema by reexamining how the Nouvelle Vague -- which by our time has become synonymous with the contemporary notion of "French cinema" by virtue of its recalcitrant self-reflexivity -- owes a great deal to the past masters it ignored or never bothered to salute. Along with the singular examples of Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Robert Bresson (all of whom were proto-New Wave models who received their share of recognition), less appreciated directors like Sacha Guitry, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carne, and screenwriters like Charles Spaak, Jacques Prevert, Pierre Bost, and Jean Aurenche, are given deeper consideration by Drazin. One noteworthy example of Drazin's ability to unveil the subconscious influence which the Golden Age still wielded on the New Wave is in his analysis of how the iconic final scene of Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups -- in which the boy-hero Antoine Doinel runs away at full pace from a reformatory until he reaches the sea, a scene which ends with an archetypal final freeze-frame -- uncannily resembles the ending of Duvivier's Poil de Carotte, in which the titular character, also a boy who endures a hard childhood, runs furiously away from a party at which he suffers humiliation, as a way of escaping the emotional burden which drives him past open fields and country roads in a velocity of images that undoubtedly had been imprinted in Truffaut's mind.

Drazin also specializes in British cinema (he has written a book on "Britian's only movie mogul," Alexander Korda) and he finds several occasions to create analogues for French and British filmmakers. The work of Lindsay Anderson and the British New Wave of the 1960s are likened to the cinema of Jean Vigo, to the extent that they were "even more true to Vigo's concept of the 'social cinema' than the French New Wave, which in the tendency to make a fetish of the cinema...risked losing sight of the actual world that Vigo believed the cinema should reflect" (p. 85). Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets, which uses devices of memoir, epigrammatic wit, and paradoxical situations to darkly comedic effect, finds a perfect correlative in Sacha Guitry's picaresque films. Graham Greene turns out to serve as a useful introduction to Julien Duvivier, a director the English writer highly admired, and whose own forays into screenwriting would reflect a Duvivier-style romantic fatalism. The director-screenwriter team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert finds its parallel across the Channel in the equally legendary partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

rapprochements on which its divisive history predicated itself: "Running through the French cinema lay a polarity between chaos and order; flair and convention; art and commerce" (p. 343). As a film historian, Drazin specializes in examining the commercial development of the cinema as an art form that was immediately compromised by its potential for rapid industrialization. In the case of French cinema, it was forced by the monopoly interests of Hollywood to acknowledge that a large part of its survival would depend as much on its international reach and appeal as it would on domestic resonance and success. Indeed, from its very beginning, cinema was the product of highly competitive capitalist interests that grew out of its technological origin.

When Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope premiered in Europe in 1894, August and Louis Lumiere, the sons of Antoine Lumiere and heirs of the family photography business, were instantly motivated to find a better and more efficient means of recording and projecting moving images. Whereas the images of the Kinetoscope could only be seen through a peephole, the Lumiere brothers conceived a way of projecting images onto a screen, an improvement which would increase the size of the audience, boost ticket sales, and even augment the social experience of the spectator. Another amelioration the Lumière brothers enacted was to reduce the cost and weight of Edison's fairly laborious mechanism: "Edison's Kinetograph -- the machine that recorded the images the Kinetoscope showed -- was a heavy, immobile, battery-powered contraption that required a horse-drawn wagon to move it out of the 'Black Maria,' the crude studio in which Edison's early films were shot. By contrast, the cinematographe was light enough to be carried about outdoors by a single operator. It did not require electricity to use and...was able to carry out all three operations of motion-picture making: 'It was at once a camera, printer, and a projector'" (pp. 3-4).

Interestingly, the Lumiee brothers chose not to capitalize on their machine; instead, they trained and sent a team of cameramen to travel around the world with the purpose of demonstrating the wonders of the cinematographe for public exhibition and filming the faraway places to where they traveled: "This enterprise amounted to the first coherent documentation of the world -- the first opportunity for a film audience to see gondolas floating down the Grand Canal, omnibuses crossing Westminster Bridge, camels strolling past the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt." There is perhaps no better polarity in the relationship of French cinema to its American counterpart than in the fact that the Lumiere brothers devoted the use of their Cinematographe to the documentation of real scenes, real people, and real locations, while Edison's company necessarily restricted the use of their peephole camera, which could not move beyond the Black Maria theater without incurring great cost and labor, to the showcase of "dancers, acrobats, and contortionists," a gimmick that would "struggle to escape the amusement arcades." Almost at once, the French cinema would be distinguished by its valuation of the "real" in lieu of the fantastic or artificially strange, a polarity which may have diminished over the years, but which nonetheless reflects the distinctly French fascination for realism, whether in the guise of the social, the poetic or the psychological.

Returning to our discussion of the politique des auteurs, one final example may suffice to show how the theory of the auteur had not begun with Truffaut and co. after all. If the Lumiere brothers, along with Edison, shared dual parentage over the technological realization of the cinema, then Georges Melies may be said to have been the first film auteur the world had ever seen. Melies not only built his own film camera by modeling it on a projector he bought from English film pioneer Robert Paul, he even developed his own way of sprocketing and processing raw film stock without any prior training or experience. A born showman who owned, managed, and starred in the Theatre Robert-Houdin (in which Melies frequently used the magic lantern, the direct predecessor of the cinema, as a star attraction), Melies instinctually began to record card tricks and feats of magic on camera. It wasn't until he accidentally discovered how to employ the "stop-trick" (in which objects and people "disappear" or change into other objects and people, merely by stopping the camera, rearranging the scene, and recording again) that Melies effectively became an auteur: with the creation of the first special effect, Melies stumbled on a means of cinematic manipulation that would stand in for his signature technique. Melies' short film L'Homme d'orchestre, which Drazin describes with particular relish, is probably the most succinct expression of auteur theory available, made more than fifty years before the concept would be articulated. Melies' film is only sixty seconds and its action is direct and simple: Melies walks into a room of empty chairs, proceeds to sit down in one of them, then, by using a single special effect repeatedly, he manages to rise up from the chair leaving a ghostly double behind him, only for this second Melies to leave a third, and the third to leave a fourth Melies, and so forth, until all seven chairs are filled with multiple versions of himself holding and playing different musical instruments, and the "orchestra" is completed. Melies conducts himself with great aplomb, and while all the different ghostly versions of him play and chatter independently, it is always Melies at the forefront, Melies who directs himself and who plays himself, whose imagination makes full use of the camera-stylo he constructed himself.

When Gaumont and Pathe, the first French movie studios, respectively consolidated their talent and resources in the attempt of competing with the American studios, they advanced the state and production of filmmaking so quickly that Melies' cinema of primitive special effects became suddenly anachronistic. Melies, who was nevertheless respected and admired by his peers and by the heads of Gaumont and Pathe for his workhorse qualities, was offered multiple chances of working for the big studios, who promised to provide him with solid financial backing and creative freedom. Melies declined repeatedly to work under them (giving in only once toward the end of his career), so stubbornly was he committed to his own private vision of the world, a world which was formed by his personal conception of the cinema, and to which he would remain as committed as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard would later prove to be to their sense of craft. Drazin observes that "Melies may have brought his filmmaking career to a premature close, but it is a reason why today his films still live, while those of his more commercially minded contemporaries belong in a museum," a point which Drazin makes again in the last pages of his book, only this time in reminiscence of the career of Eric Rohmer (whose death in January 2010 situates the opening and closing of the book):

"Among English-language audiences, the French cinema will continue to remain an acquired taste. Through its history, the most consistently reliable market beyond its own shores has been that of the connoisseur rather than the consumer. It provides best not the mass entertainment that Hollywood already makes with such efficiency, but a standard of quality and ambition. Its appeal is that of the timeless over the ephemeral." -- p. 396

Jose-Luis Moctezuma is an author, poet, editor, translator, historian, cinéphile and student. He edits and writes for Hydra Magazine, and is currently at work on a PhD in English at the University of Chicago. His studies focus on the intersections and proximities shared by poetry and the image.

This review was first published in Cerise Press.

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