Smoother view of life

France in Focus
June 29, 2001

Publishing conference papers is a risky business: highlights are often few and far between. This book is based on papers presented at a conference at Stirling University organised by the editors. In their introduction they claim that "virtually all the chapters in this volume go against the grain in their attempts to construct an alternative history of French cinema". It is difficult to know whether this is an apology for the lack of comprehensiveness, or simply a post-rationalisation.

They claim: "The pieces collected here provide an assessment of a dominant art form's engagement with expressions of national identity at key moments in French (cinematic) history." The fact is that some do - and some do not. At least one paper has nothing to say about France or indeed its cinema.

The book opens with an immaculate piece by Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, the eminent critic, on "The reconstruction of French cinema", in which he traces the political dimension of the development of French cinema from the establishment of the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) in 1946. France has always insisted on the exception culturelle that justifies the protection of its indigenous cinema. François Mitterrand said: "A society that abandons to others its means of representation, that is to say its means of expressing its own sense of self, is an enslaved society." The new Film Council might do well to adopt this as its own credo, but I feel another die is cast.

In stark contrast, Michael Witt's analysis of Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma , dwells on his assertion that cinema has been alive only as a "national expression of self-image" in four places and times: Russia in the 1920s, Germany between the wars, Italy during neo-realism and in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s. Godard finally rejected a fifth: France during the New Wave. As for Britain: "The British don't really create films, they just set them up." According to Godard, television and the digital age hastened the death of cinema and its relegation to just another distraction from boredom. Clearly, for him, cinema is either no longer relevant or its impotence is a measure of the decay of national identity.

In a curious piece that struggles to acquire significance, Laurent Marie analyses the ambivalences apparent in the reaction of communist critics to the New Wave, which itself remained avowedly apolitical. It is not at all clear whether these critics, Georges Sadoul excepted, played anything more than a minor role in the response to French cinema at the time.

Louise Strode, writing about France and European Union policy, adds little to Jeancolas. Was she upstaged by his piece being commissioned after the conference? However, by delineating how far France is willing to go to influence the framing of EU cultural policy to protect its cinema, Strode achieves an objectivity not available to Jeancolas.

Part two of the book, entitled rather curiously "French Civilisation and its Discontents", starts with a piece on Duvivier and the portrayal of Jews in his films during the 1930s. The reader is forced to take the opinions of the writer, Simon Silberman, at face value since he presents no evidence of Duvivier's own attitudes or indeed of the effect of the films on audiences at the time.

The next piece is by Susan Hayward, who has written her own book on French national cinema. Unfortunately, her "National cinemas and the body politic" leaves readers to make their own inferences as to the specifics of French cinema and issues of society, nationality and gender. Had this piece not been so strongly feminist it might have served as an introduction, but buried in the middle of the book it makes no sense, unless the "discontents" are the feminists themselves.

Carrie Tarr's essay applies the feminist critique to a single film- maker, Diane Kurys. There is a clear criticism of Kurys for wanting her films to appeal to men and women alike, as though this reduces their value. The fact that women are her central characters does not make them less interesting or revealing to a male audience.

Martin O'Shaughnessy writes about Renoir under the heading "Nation, history and gender". At the end he genuflects to the feminist Chantal Mouffe who wrote that "there cannot be a 'we' without a 'them'... All forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion" - the implication being that Renoir did not understand this. In fact Renoir's humanism moves us precisely because he recognises the way in which the divisions in society affect individual lives. For instance, La Grande Illusion is based on the premise that "we" and "them" cut across nations rather than enabling nations to cohere.

Part three of the book, "Cinematic Communities", begins with Elizabeth Ezra's piece on Georges Méliès's series of 11 one-minute films on Dreyfus. I have to confess that Méliès as a documentary realist is news to me, but Ezra presents a clear exposition, including an argument that Méliès invented deep staging. This blurring of the division between Méliès and Lumi re is a valuable insight.

Florianne Wild's examination of Jacques Becker's Goupi Mains-Rouges is fascinating. It made me long to see the film that Wild claims, with detailed evidence, is strongly allegorical. But, what Becker had to do to adapt the novel into a film remains undescribed.

Russell King writes about "Truffaut's imagined commu-nity", a clear reference to Benedict Anderson's book. Truffaut believed that cinema gave him a life, indeed he preferred films to life because films run smoothly. In La Nuit Américaine , he showed that for a few months the "family" that joins to make a film is an imagined community realised.

Despite, or perhaps because of its Jungian analysis, John Izod's piece on Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva is very engaging. He contributes the "cultural unconscious" to our means of understanding the nature of French identity in, and through, the best of its cinema. He writes of the film: "As a vehicle for the cultural unconscious, Diva is unusually generous. Through both its characters and its scintillating aesthetics, the film summons the young at heart - the audience with whom it might resonate - as a repository of Parisian cultural experience both lived and virtual." Another excellent piece follows. In "Negotiating conformity: tales of ordinary evil" by Martine Beugnet, cinema and the society it reflects come finally face to face. Beugnet, in analysing films like Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie , points up a type of evil that results from the consumer society's denying access to its benefits to certain sub-classes or outsiders. That films such as this manage both to reflect on society and entertain their audiences provides a chilling conclusion to a strange, inchoate collection of essays.

I miss Cocteau, Bresson, Resnais, Rohmer, Rivette, Demy and Varda. Or another list that might start with Clair and Carne. Who can define the canonical names in an "alternative history" of French cinema? But one thing is certain: a group of French academics will never devote a whole conference to a discussion of "British Cinema and National Identity". But then as Truffaut said: "British Cinema is a contradiction in terms." In cinema, "we" and "them" are divided by more than a national identity.

Roger Crittenden is director of the full-time programme, National Film and Television School.

France in Focus: Film and National Identity

Editor - Elizabeth Ezra and Sue Harris
ISBN - 1 85973 363 8 and 368 9
Publisher - Berg, Oxford/New York
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 240

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