As If

Jonathan Romney

  • A Short History of ‘Cahiers du cinéma’ by Emilie Bickerton
    Verso, 156 pp, £12.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 232 5

In an essay on Avatar in the March issue of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, Slavoj Žižek wrote that, despite its superficial espousal of revolutionary action (by blue-skinned aliens rising up against earthling exploitation), the film was in fact entirely reactionary. In an interview in the following issue of Cahiers, Žižek cheerfully admitted that he had written his piece without actually seeing Avatar. Empiricist Anglophone critics were horrified, no doubt, but Žižek’s article persuasively made its point nonetheless. This reminded me of something that a one-time Cahiers linchpin, Serge Daney, wrote in 1992, recalling a formative influence on his criticism. In the Cahiers of June 1961, Jacques Rivette – yet to attain his eminence as a leading director of the Nouvelle Vague – reviewed Kapò, a film by Gillo Pontecorvo about the concentration camps. Rivette took exception to a tracking shot in the film, showing a woman who had killed herself. For him, the intrusive camera movement was a serious moral trespass: ‘The man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot … deserves only the most profound contempt.’

This passionate application of moral criteria to an aesthetic device struck Daney forcibly: ‘Over the years “the tracking shot in Kapò” would become my portable dogma, the axiom that wasn’t up for discussion, the breaking point of any debate.’ Daney had still not seen Kapò, he noted in 1992 – but, like Žižek on Avatar, he could write as if he had: ‘I haven’t seen Kapò and yet at the same time I have seen it. I’ve seen it because someone showed it to me – with words.’

Daney’s taking of a critical position on the basis of a single image seems to me representative not only of the Cahiers du cinéma project, but of a particular, admirably perverse ethos in French film criticism. It stands not only for the belief in the possibility of showing a film ‘with words’ – vital for promoting cinephile culture in the decades before videotape – but also for the principle of ‘as if’, the imperative to follow ideas to their limits even if they are based only on hypothetical truths. The history of Cahiers, as recounted by Emilie Bickerton, might be imagined as a series of ‘as if’ wagers: if a critical position can be taken through argumentation, its premises might become truths.

The magazine was effectively founded, in 1951, on just such an ‘as if’, with critics writing as if films – not just self-evidently artistic statements, but also seemingly disposable Hollywood genre movies – could be taken as seriously as classical tragedy. And by doing so, these critics proved it was so. They wrote as if Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray et al were as sophisticated and as consistent in their styles, worldviews, personal ‘signatures’ as, say, William Faulkner – and thanks to Cahiers, few cinephiles would today think of disputing that. They were, however, less successful in their wager in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of modern French radicalism, that film criticism should be written ‘as if’ it could transform real-world politics. The moment passed and they retreated, after which Cahiers underwent what Bickerton regards as a long and ignominious decline.

Cahiers, Bickerton proposes, was ‘the last modernist project’. The Cahiers critics set out to show that their two passions – for cinema and for high-minded debate – were natural allies. The presiding influence on the first wave of Cahiers writers was André Bazin, one of its three founders, who in the 1940s had put forward the notion of an ‘ontology of the photographic image’. He was the first to propose that a film-maker’s style – notably, the use of deep focus or the choice of long takes rather than rapid editing – was a matter of ethics as well as aesthetics.

Among the first generation Cahiers critics – fervent acolytes of Paris’s ciné-clubs and the Cinémathèque Française run by Henri Langlois – were the group of five who, once they became film-makers themselves, came to be known as the Nouvelle Vague: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Maurice Schérer, later known by his pseudonym, Eric Rohmer. By and large, unlike their counterparts on the left-wing journal Positif, the early Cahiers writers were either effectively on the right, like Rohmer, or essentially apolitical in their preoccupation with cinema as a be-all and end-all. They had a powerful streak of dogma and they flaunted their erudition. Truffaut on Hawks and Ray: ‘You can refute Hawks in the name of Ray, but to anyone who would reject them both, I would just say this: stop going to the cinema, don’t watch any more films, for you will never know the meaning of … a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema.’ Godard in particular was a master of hyperbole: Ray’s Bitter Victory, ‘like the sun, makes you close your eyes. Truth is blinding.’ The invocations of high culture often smacked of the show-off star pupil. Rivette on Hawks: ‘The father of Red River and Only Angels Have Wings is none other than Corneille.’ This tendency persists today: in recent issues, Serge Bozon mentions Diderot’s Recherches philosophiques sur l’origine et la nature du beau in an article on the Hollywood comedy directors John Hughes and Judd Apatow, while Cyril Béghin compares a shot in Avatar to Tintoretto’s The Finding of the Body of St Mark.

The most famous of Cahiers’ early statements – and the one that most directly affected film history – was Truffaut’s 1954 article ‘A Certain Tendency in French Cinema’. The tendency he had in mind resulted from French cinema’s traditional separation between directors and screenwriters: writers adapting novels were prone to impose their own meanings on the material, at the expense of the film and of the director’s personality. Pointing the finger both at screenwriters and at film-makers with insufficiently strong identities, Truffaut called for a cinema made by directors who had their own vision and wrote their own scripts. Before long, Truffaut and his peers would perform that role, heading a long line of Cahiers critics turned cinéastes that includes Luc Moullet, André Téchiné, Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas and, most recently, Mia Hansen-Løve, whose Father of My Children – a perceptive, melancholic drama set in the French film world – was released earlier this year.

Truffaut’s article established Cahiers as a polemical journal, and cinema as a battleground: ‘From then on’, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another of its founders, commented, ‘it was known that we were for Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock … and against X, Y and Z.’ Over the generations, Cahiers has been partly defined by its vigorous attacks on assorted Xs, Ys and Zs, whether it was Costa-Gavras and Louis Malle (exemplars, for the leftist Cahiers of the 1960s and 1970s, of political bad faith) or Claude Lelouch and the 1980s cinéma du look (cinematic bad faith). Cahiers introduced the fundamental concepts of the cinematic auteur and of mise en scène – ideas now so firmly established that it seems difficult to believe special polemics once had to be mounted for them. The auteur was a film-maker with his own distinctive voice, style and worldview, which could be discerned even if his films were seemingly impersonal studio products. The auteur’s ‘signature’ might be proudly apparent, as with Hitchcock, but more often needed to be teased out; Hawks, Fritz Lang and John Ford were among the Hollywood beneficiaries of what became known as the ‘politique des auteurs’. Meanwhile, mise en scène was identified as the auteur’s distinctive style, expressed in decisions about camera, décor, space and sound.

The emphasis shifted in the 1960s, notably when Rivette took over the editorship from Rohmer and introduced a new eclecticism and a sense of the intellectual world beyond cinema, publishing interviews with Barthes, Lévi-Strauss and Boulez. More radical changes followed in the wake of May 1968. In October 1969, Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni issued a manifesto for Cahiers’ new role, outlining a division of films into seven types, all differently inflected by ideology (from lucid critique to blind complicity), and proposing that criticism’s role should be ‘to make the dominant ideology visible’.

In this politicised atmosphere, Cahiers became less a record of cinephile passion than a hothouse of cerebral debate, sometimes in the form of punishingly abstruse theory. By 1973, an increasingly severe Cahiers had veered away from discussion of film as film, and almost entirely dropped the use of stills. Philippe Pakradouni – who, Bickerton says, had no interest at all in film – became the journal’s in-house ideologue and proposed that Cahiers should function as an organ of struggle, a ‘Revolutionary Cultural Front’. The new initiative was launched at the Avignon Festival in 1973, but acolytes hardly came running. Tail between its legs, the journal had one of its periodic rethinks and returned to the study of film. ‘Few worthwhile judgments on films were emitted in the red years,’ Bickerton argues, noting that Cahiers had almost entirely missed out on what was being produced at the time by such directors as Fassbinder, Tarkovsky and Ousmane Sembène.

It was Daney who subsequently gave Cahiers a new direction, proposing a flexible style of criticism that was ‘neither a catalogue of what is beautiful (old-style cinephilia) nor an account of what is wrong (new-style dogmatism)’, but rather ‘something more heterogeneous … less settled’. Vague as it is, Daney’s neither-nor formulation is a good one, a reminder to stay alert, flexible, to react to new cinematic challenges as they present themselves. Eventually, however, the journal began to lose focus. After Daney moved to the daily Libération in 1981, Cahiers was left in the hands of his co-editor, Serge Toubiana, who remained in charge until 2000. It was on Toubiana’s watch, Bickerton contends, that the rot really set in: an agenda-setting publication now became ‘a mouthpiece for the market’ with ‘the mind-numbing quality of an upmarket consumer report’.

For Bickerton, a key symptom of Cahiers’ decline is an excessive interest in Hollywood: yet she seems to see all mainstream American cinema, from the 1970s on, as undistinguished and indistinguishable multiplex fodder. In the same breath, she cites with disapproval Jean-Pierre Oudart’s enthusiasm about Kubrick’s The Shining, Pascal Bonitzer’s admiration of Scorsese’s ‘Dostoevskian sensibility’ in Raging Bull and Narboni’s praise of Spielberg’s E.T.: ‘Intelligent, inventive, moving, mischievous … this film should win Spielberg a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Two of these films, at least, are widely acknowledged as modern classics, but regarding Narboni she has a point: his comment is a risible bit of hyperbole. Bickerton is no more forgiving of latter-day Cahiers views on some French cinema. André Téchiné, for example, praised by Cahiers, was in her opinion ‘making banal dramas with recognisable French actors in idyllic settings … The standards required for greatness had dropped considerably.’

Bickerton attributes the decline of Cahiers to several causes. One is the inflation and abuse of the auteur concept until it became meaningless, so that all sorts of second-rate directors claimed the title for themselves – or had it claimed for them by impressionable critics. Another is the collapse of the French intellectual-political project in general. Bickerton, who is on the editorial board of New Left Review, portrays the decline of the French left in the 1980s as a collective sell-out by formerly committed soixante-huitards: ‘The “normalisation” of French culture in line with prevailing Atlanticist winds could draw in part on the new-found anti-Gulagism of former Maoists now influential in the media. These post-1960s movers and shakers contributed their own feelgood style to the project – a sense that their embrace of the free-market system was the radicalism du jour.’

There is, it should be said, a pragmatic bottom line to Cahiers’ move towards the mainstream: during its high radical phase it managed to lose some 11,000 readers from a circulation of 14,000 (readership is now around the 23,000 mark). However indulgent its various proprietors may have been over the years (Filipacchi, Le Monde, today the art publisher Phaidon), a journal can’t exist without selling copies. But Cahiers is, undeniably, far from being the formidable voice it once was. The prose is too often self-indulgent, and its reviews tend to be airily hermetic, refusing to convey even the most vestigial sense of a film’s narrative. When the journal launched an online English-language edition in 2007, featuring clunkily literal translations, it exposed just how vaporously impressionistic some Cahiers writing could be.

And some of Cahiers’ judgments are bewildering – at least, to non-French eyes. French films considered major discoveries when released abroad are often brushed off in Cahiers with a desultory capsule review. Its choices often seem perverse: in September 2006, Jean-Philippe Tessé passionately defended Lady in the Water, a world-class dud by the self-aggrandising Hollywood mystic M. Night Shyamalan; while the Cahiers critics’ top feature of 2002 (along with Abbas Kiarostami’s groundbreaking Ten) was Choses secrètes by Jean-Claude Brisseau, a veteran mystifier of female sexuality whose films recall 1970s-style luxury erotica with a lick of Marx and Nietzsche.

But as for giving in to ‘listless market realism’, the truth is that Cahiers has continued to ask questions about cinema politics. Under the editorship of Jean-Michel Frodon (formerly the chief film critic at Le Monde), it ran a supremely uncommercial cover story in April 2007 consisting of 12 proposals on film policy for the incoming French government. It has also taken up the cause of non-commercial cinema: a pugnacious editorial in February 2007 attacked official French funding bodies for failing to support the theatrical release of artistically difficult films on the grounds that they were ‘festival films’, i.e. unlikely to find an audience outside the specialist circuit.

Bickerton’s to-the-point but tantalisingly concise history ends with Cahiers’ sale to Phaidon last year. The magazine has since acquired a new young editor, Stéphane Delorme, and on the evidence of the last few months, Cahiers – if not exactly in rude health, as Bickerton might define it – shows signs of renewed vigour. Recent issues have highlighted blockbusters, notably Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but Delorme’s own writing about them is very much in the Bazin tradition: he describes how it actually feels to watch digital 3D images, and wonders how this new style of perception might transform film language. Meanwhile, Žižek’s take on Avatar is just the sort of polemic that Bickerton calls for: denouncing the film’s faux-Marxism, he finds the film a mockery of real-world struggles. April’s issue was strikingly eclectic: long interviews with Žižek and the video artist Bill Viola, an article on the emerging New York film-makers the Safdie brothers, an inquiry into the problems of independent film in Algeria, China and Brazil.

Bickerton’s encapsulation of a six-decade history of disputes and contradictions is compelling, but her book is carelessly edited: Pakradouni appears as ‘Pakroudini’, the critic Louis Marcorelles as ‘Marcolles’, and the index is uneven. She uses unfamiliar US titles of films, when most people would recognise the French originals: Wise Guys for Chabrol’s Les Godelureaux, Six in Paris for the portmanteau feature Paris vu par … (one of the six directors being Jean-Daniel Pollet, not – as suggested here – Luc Moullet). And she throws together French film-makers who don’t belong in the same group or generation: Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, Olivier Assayas and Philippe Garrel are listed as representatives of the ‘young auteur cinema’ lauded in Cahiers in the 1980s and 1990s, but Garrel started making films in the 1960s, Desplechin not until 1991.

What Bickerton wants is for film criticism to be a bastion of resistance once more. ‘A new globalised image regime is now in place … When films are no more than money-spinning repetitions that entrench conventional thought and techniques, critics should say so.’ But her rallying call doesn’t allow for the fluidity and diversity of critical approaches, or for the complexity of mainstream cinema itself, whose ideological contradictions must sometimes be delicately teased out, rather than summarily exposed and denounced. It may be difficult to find substance in the contemporary mainstream, but there are nuances to be unearthed, provided one abandons preconceptions. An example would be the politically charged writing of the American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has consistently demonstrated that there is more of interest than meets the eye in the work of such conservative film-makers as Spielberg and even James Ivory.

In the English-speaking world, professional film criticism is increasingly regarded as surplus to requirements: the last two years have seen a cull of newspaper film critics in the US, while the trade newspaper Variety recently ended the contract of its erudite film critic Todd McCarthy, whose idiosyncratic opinions by no means represented a standard Hollywood viewpoint. Meanwhile, the explosion of blogs, chatrooms and websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which collates critics’ opinions and boils them down to percentage scores, has legitimised the notion that all opinions on film are equally valid – except those of professionals. Films routinely thrive despite bad reviews in the press, and woe betide writers who question the box-office consensus. Critics who expressed even moderate scepticism about Avatar were pilloried online by fans, attacked as ‘losers’ and ‘haters’ who needed to ‘get a life’. The increasingly prevalent view is that informed professional commentary on film is undemocratic. In the UK, the BBC programme Film 2010 – generally considered the single biggest influence on the British public’s film-going choices – is about to get a change of presenter. Out goes Jonathan Ross – a populist, but highly film-literate – and in comes Claudia Winkleman, best known for hosting cookery and dance programmes. She celebrated her appointment by declaring: ‘Everyone has an opinion on film,’ and announcing that she would be joined on the show by ‘brilliant film critics … really clever film people’. It remains to be seen how clever these critics will be, or will be permitted to be. Bickerton’s book, despite its sometimes intemperate tone, is a reminder that contemporary film criticism could do with being more unapologetically clever – more ingenious, more argumentative, more French.