Anyone who comes to Camera Historica expecting a conventional history of the cinema will be disappointed - and probably baffled. Indeed, even those who approach this work without preconceptions may experience more than a hint of bafflement.
Cinema scholar Antoine de Baecque divides his book into seven chapters (plus an introduction and a conclusion), each coming at the nexus between history and cinema from a different angle. That, at any rate, would be the polite way of summarising what the publisher's blurb describes as "a profoundly brilliant conceptualization of the many ways cinema and history relate". A less partisan reader might wonder if what we have here might not be seven articles on broadly related topics culled from the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, of which the author was at one time editor-in-chief. Either way, a unified thesis isn't easy to detect.
Three chapters are devoted to the work of individual directors: Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Watkins and (rather unexpectedly) Sacha Guitry. The other four deal with the cinema's treatment of the Holocaust; the politics of the French New Wave; the way that four East European directors (Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexei Guerman, Aleksandr Sokurov and Emir Kusturica) treated the decline and collapse of Communism; and a study of recent US mainstream cinema that eventually homes in on the films of Tim Burton.
Like many French writers on film - especially those from the Cahiers stable - de Baecque writes fluently and elegantly, although one occasionally arrives at the end of an impeccably crafted paragraph in some doubt as to what's actually been said. He's also given to jaw-dropping lapidary pronouncements, stated as if self-evident. "Historians are not cinephiles," he unhesitatingly tells us in his introduction. (An English writer, you suspect, would have prefaced such a remark with a cautious "most".) Later we're told, even more astonishingly, "Only the French have been interested in history."
The latter comment, to be fair, is a quote from Godard, although de Baecque shows no signs of dissenting from it. Godard, in fact, is the presiding spirit of this book, as a quick glance at the index will reveal; so much so that another of de Baecque's startling obiter dicta, "It is the fact of having been at Auschwitz with a camera, in 1945, that allows George Stevens to film sublime images of Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun ten years later", proves some chapters further on to be a near-verbatim although unacknowledged Godard quote.
De Baecque is at his best discussing the work of Watkins, a film-maker seriously undervalued in his native UK. Perhaps because, in all Watkins' films, the cine-historical link is clear and unambiguous (such films as Culloden and La Commune (Paris, 1871) use a reportage style of narration to create a sense of immediacy), in this chapter the author's prose style is more down-to-earth and his argument less tenuous.
The same can hardly be said for the final chapter, on recent US cinema, marked by de Baecque's near-hysterical attack on the "bad-taste comedies" typified by Peter and Bobby Farrelly's There's Something about Mary (1998). Sounding strangely like the Daily Mail in full moral-indignation mode, he denounces them as "trivial, scatological, morbid and obscene". Worse, they apparently reject "genre as well as mise-en-scène". Just where history fits into this diatribe is anyone's guess.
The translation, by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff, reads smoothly - although what at first seems a rather sweeping generalisation about sexual activity at Louis XIV's Versailles proves on closer examination to be a verbal confusion between "courtiers" and "courtesans".
Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema
By Antoine de Baecque
Columbia University Press
424pp, £72.50 and £24.00
ISBN 9780231156509 and 156516
Published 9 March 2012