The new wave and beyond

Projections 9 - Agnés Varda - Coline Serreau - Diane Kurys - François Truffaut - Luc Besson
May 28, 1999

It might be taken for granted that rigour and specialised knowledge are essential for serious writing and academic courses on film. Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that this is not always the case. Two letters to Sight and Sound will illustrate the point. In the first (May 1998), the editor of The Butcher's Boy scathingly remarks that the journal's reviewer praised the film's cinematography in terms related to editing - not what one expects from the official organ of the British Film Institute. In the second (April 1999), the writer, a cameraman, talks glowingly about The Shining 's remarkable cinematic qualities, which he has only recently discovered despite completing an MA on Kubrick's cinema five years before. One wonders how postgraduate study of cinema can overlook camerawork, lighting and editing even when, as was the case here, the focus of inquiry is a film's "philosophical implications".

As if to counter the sort of doubts raised by such letters, Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram, the editors of this Manchester University Press series on French film directors, stress that their books will be "rigorous" critical studies. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat undermined by a laboured, not obviously pertinent generalisation about national stereotypes and a rose-coloured view of the growth of art-house cinemas and multiplex programming. Sad to say, misprints are common in the books, as is slack editing.

It is also evident that the series editors are slightly uncomfortable with a director-based series on cinema: they signal the dangers of a simplistic auteur approach and claim that a variety of critical perspectives will be adopted. For them and their fellow writers, the director will be seen as "one highly significant element in a complex process". Surely, however, the justification for academic texts on directors is the premise - which should of course be tested - that theirs is the major contribution. In the event, all five books end by convincingly placing ultimate responsibility for the film with the director.

The subjects chosen to launch the first five books in the series are: the "father" of la politique des auteurs , François Truffaut; Agn s Varda, one of the only women film-makers of the nouvelle vague generation; two younger women directors, Diane Kurys whose first film Diabolo Menthe was an international success, and Coline Serreau, whose Trois Hommes et un Couffin was remade in Hollywood as Three Men and a Baby ; and Luc Besson, not the most critically appreciated but the most financially successful French director, now tending to shoot "blockbusters" in English, such as Léon and The Fifth Element .

All five books discuss the films as texts, their production and their significance, as well as examining their socio-political context and drawing on psychoanalysis and feminism. The quality of the discussion is, however, varied.

On Truffaut, Holmes and Ingram have produced a book that is informed and illuminating. They convincingly show the importance of the director's early short Les Mistons , using it as a springboard to examine his career and films. A whole chapter is devoted to an enlightening analysis of Jules et Jim , one to a discussion of genre and another to opposing views of Truffaut's attitude to women. In addition, they provide a commendably lucid exposition of the auteur theory.

Carrie Tarr's monograph is a thoroughly researched, stimulating examination of Kurys's cinema, setting a standard that serious students of film should emulate. More might have been said about the collaboration with male writers and perhaps Tarr seems sometimes to censure the director for not fully adopting a feminist perspective. Nevertheless, her clarity of expression, her knowledge and its cogent deployment are admirable.

Agnés Varda by Alison Smith is extremely rewarding, if occasionally turgid. There is an excellent discussion of the director's belief in the cinema as a tool of personal expression, cinécriture , and there are perceptive analyses of particular films and of the complex nature of reality and its representation.

Much less engaging is Brigitte Rollet's book on Coline Serreau. True, it is ambitious and wide-ranging, but the material is not well organised and points are not always clearly argued. At times, the text has a clumsily Gallic tone, which is not helped by the repeated use of the faux-ami "quid pro quo" to describe the comic device of mistaken identity!

Susan Hayward's book on Luc Besson is the most problematic in the series. She provides a detailed history of the production of his films, summarises them, then goes on to discuss them in the light of philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis. Stimulating points are made, but the book has many flaws that set bad examples for students. There are inaccuracies such as the statement that 35mm is square (in fact, 1.33 to 1) or the description of the destruction of HAL in 2001 as being "smashed to pieces in a pyrotechnic finale". There are many misspellings, there is neither filmography nor proper bibliography and the discourse frequently lacks rigour: "Youth in crisis - surveillance - technology - death... I want to make it clear that these four concepts are not to be seen as a causal chain, but rather as a cluster of meanings. Nor are they signs, but concepts referring to a perceived reality - which is why I have chosen the term 'signifier': the signified may or may not be 'true', the signifiers refer, then, to a perceived 'truth'." This borders on charlatanism: specific linguistic terminology is used but not in its accepted sense.

Elsewhere, one finds interpretations based on incident without any analysis of the manner in which such incident is cinematically articulated, as for example the claimed self-inflicted "dephallicisation" of Leon as he blows himself and the villain to pieces with a grenade. Here we encounter a further problem: the unquestioning use of psychoanalysis. Freudian/Lacanian hypotheses are deployed not so much as models constantly to be tested but as straitjackets into which the films are fitted. They appear to be taken as absolutes, and while the ideas are undeniably fascinating the tone is authoritarian rather than authoritative, rigid rather than rigorous, as in this presentation of the fashionable link between the male gaze and "fetishism": "The male seeks to find the hidden phallus in the woman. This fetishisation takes place by a fragmentation of the body and an over-investment in the part of the body that has been fragmented off: breasts, legs, shoes, slinky dresses, gloves etc. Ultimately, the purpose of this over-investment is to make those parts figure as the missing phallus, through perceiving them as perfection in and of themselves. The female form is contained this time by a denial of difference."

Could one not argue that the obsessive use of phallus to suggest patriarchal domination is a form of verbal fetishism that fragments the male body to emphasise difference?

After such excesses of critical language, it is a relief to turn to the words of directors themselves. Issue nine of the ever-excellent Projections is devoted to translated interviews with French film-makers who, in the eyes of the long-established review Positif , have marked the past two decades. What a pity that none of the four living directors of the MUP series is included and that only one woman film-maker is selected, but the choice is subjective and not intended to be representative. With one exception, the interviews deal with a specific film by each director and those interviewed range from Robert Bresson to the youthful Mathieu Kassovitz. Even if one has not seen all the films, the different directors' comments make fascinating reading, arguably revealing more about the collaborative nature and "complex process of film production" than the five MUP texts. Projections 9 is a book that one can unhesitatingly recommend to students and general readers alike.

Alistair Whyte is senior lecturer in French, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

Projections 9: French Film-makers on Film-making

Editor - John Boorman and Walter Donohue
ISBN - 0 571 19356 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £12.99
Pages - 193

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