New Cinema, New Critique: French Film Criticism at the Crossroads, 1960
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This essay charts a dramatic shift in European film criticism; it reflects on challenges encountered in the early 1960s by contributors to Cahiers du cinéma as they sought to speak about the new modes of cinematic expression emerging in France. Focusing on the round table devoted to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour which was published in the Cahiers du cinéma, my essay analyzes the difficulty that members of the journal’s editorial board had in assessing this innovative work. It also probes the differences of opinion among the group regarding the often-called-for and now vividly present new cinemas. This round table offered an initial glimpse at the unraveling of the Cahiers, which would lead to the transition from the editorial direction of Eric Rohmer to that of Jacques Rivette, from a classical tradition of film criticism to an approach more attuned to the intellectual upheaval of the 1960s.
Criticism and Theory
Long held in contempt by academic cinema studies, deemed ephemeral and impressionistic, film criticism has recently become an object of interest for film scholars attempting to reassess and historicize the place of cinema within the public sphere. A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism reconsiders the role and function of criticism in the digital age, granting new importance to a practice with a venerable history on both sides of the Atlantic, as David Bordwell’s The Rhapsodes, an exemplary commentary on American film criticism of the 1940s, or Antoine de Baecque’s account of the French cinephilic culture of the 1950s, to name just two examples, testify. The case of the French film critic Serge Daney is in this light also noteworthy. In 1992 he left the daily Libération, where he wrote for ten years (1981-1992), after moving from Cahiers du cinéma, whose editorial board he joined in 1964, and founded the film journal Trafic. The first issue of Trafic was in fact devoted to the question of art criticism in general, and film criticism in particular, situating this practice in a long tradition that extends from Rilke to Blanchot.
As new books and major international conferences address the history of film criticism, one wonders how to explain this renewed and ardent interest in a discourse and practice more embedded in the everyday life of both occasional movie-goers and faithful cinephiles than in the accepted routines of film scholars. Using a case study, this article seeks to participate in a larger conversation that reasserts the interest of film criticism for film studies, to reinsert critical practice in a wider array of circulating discourses, and in the process to appreciate the advantages of properly historicizing film criticism, both in relationship to other critical discourses at a specific time, and in relationship to the artistic practices at work in film industry. In this regard, my reflection takes its cue from observations by Jacques Rancière in Les Écarts du cinéma (The Intervals of Cinema). Of particular importance here are his recollections about the place of cinema in the lives of cinephiles during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The French philosopher suggests that in order to grasp cinema’s aesthetic and political importance during those eventful decades, one should explore both the continuities as well as the ruptures, the crevices, what he calls the gaps or intervals (écarts) of cinema. In the book’s introduction, Rancière seeks to grasp what is sought in the name of “film theory,” that is, “the unity between an art, a form of emotion and a coherent vision of the world.” In Rancière’s assessment, no theory of cinema provided the means to resolve his recurring puzzles as he watched, again and again, movies that energized his writing. Indeed, he questions the use value of film theory in principle; maybe, he goes on to say, cinema escapes theory because it exists “precisely in the form of a system of unbridgeable gaps (écarts) between things that have the same name without being parts of the same body.” Making his discontent productive, Rancière endeavors to approach cinema not as a philosopher, but as a critic and a cinephile, recalling that his “relationship with it is a play of encounters and distances” which can be discerned through three types of relationships: “between cinema and art, between cinema and politics, between cinema and theory.”
The resurgent interest in classical film theory helps us understand how critical concepts that dominated the pages of Cahiers du cinéma or Positif – particularly the notions of “mise-en-scène,” “ontology of art” or “politique des auteurs” – became incorporated by film theory. In this article, I propose that we grant attention to Rancière’s skepticism regarding the natural extension from criticism to theory. As we try to distinguish between these two endeavors, between the reception and experience of cinema and the theoretical discourse that claims this experience, we will reexamine essential concepts of film theory in the critical context that produced them. When the French film critics who formulated notions that would become influential in the pages of select film journals and magazines turned to filmmaking, they did more than change their expressive medium; they revealed gaps and tensions in the era’s critical landscape. Gathered under the all-embracing umbrella of the Nouvelle Vague and all too often viewed as the members of a harmonious group, they in fact disagreed heartily in many regards. The following comments will, for this reason, also pay careful attention to acrimonious exchanges and unresolved conflicts and the historical stakes behind them.
A Curious Incapacity
François Truffaut’s famous polemic, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” expressed contempt for the studio-suffocated and period-piece-driven French filmic production of literary adaptation, a heritage cinema avant la lettre. He called for a new impetus that would bring new life to what had become a stuffy and stodgy national film culture. In anticipation of this regeneration, a group of ardent cinephiles scanned film history in the dark, day and night, chronicling their encounters in the pages of emerging film journals, among which Cahiers du cinéma would become the most prominent.
The critics at the Cahiers du cinéma would formulate the politique des auteurs (“auteur policy”), a critical strategy that would assume a mythical reputation. Founded by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and guided by Bazin as a “spiritual father,” the journal refashioned the identity of film critics. They now could speak as entitled “I-s” just as they confronted the creator’s “I” in their notices and interviews. During the long decade of the 1950s, new voices established themselves in the pages of the journal: François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. As many of these critics became filmmakers and luminaries of the Nouvelle Vague, the Cahiers’ editorial board found itself somewhat diminished. By the early 1960s, the now successful directors Chabrol, Godard, and Truffaut had all but ceased making critical interventions. Rivette was editing Paris nous appartient, Doniol was filming in Istanbul, and, having finished The Sign of the Leo, Rohmer remained the only one from the old guard holding down the fort and overseeing the journal. Imposing his “classical” vision of film art, Rohmer seemed determined to preserve the journal’s auteurist legacy, in so doing, however, causing discontent among many former contributors and frustrating new writers eager to have a voice in the conversation.
As the Nouvelle Vague found international acclaim, the Cahiers, to judge by journal’s table of contents, seemed altogether distant towards this new “tendency” of French cinema. Assessing Rohmer’s years at the Cahiers, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe emphasize the cold treatment that the Nouvelle Vague received under his tutelage in the early 1960s. The hesitation of the editors to defend the films of their colleagues, justified as a disinclination to a “politique des copains,” was strongly condemned by former contributors, especially Chabrol, whose films Rohmer barely mentioned in the journal. The tension at the Cahiers became quite palpable. Writing in November 1960, Claude de Givray observed: “Today, after a fierce quarrel, we find again ancients and moderns mixed in an unbelievable melting pot. Disorder reigns in French cinema and the critics face two alternatives: either hide out at the Cinémathèque and disappear in the contemplation of an art which is total, reassuring and eternal, or confront the troubling confusion.”
To be sure, such confusion was not limited to the Cahiers. The journal’s special issue on film criticism in December 1961 made it apparent that the important place of cinema in contemporary French life was forcing commentators of all stripes, from those writing in daily newspapers, weekly cultural magazines, and monthly journals that specialized in film, to confront the alternative outlined by de Givray and reassess their mission. Jacques Rivette asked the participants in that “formidable tribunal” whether their system of ranking films was meant to be a “suggestion” for their readers and the masses of spectators, a “judgment value” or actually a “bet on the future.” Joined by Morvan Lebesque from L’Express, Pierre Marcabru from Le Figaro and the well-known Georges Sadoul of Les Lettres françaises, the participating critics found few points of agreement. The responses of fellow writers from a wide array of journals – Cinéma, Image et Son, Télé-Ciné, Présence du cinéma, Télérama, Premier Plan, Contre-Champs, Miroir du cinéma, La Méthode – confirmed the increasing cacophony in film criticism. In the years to come, French film criticism that found itself in André Labarthe’s words “entre deux chaises” would undergo dramatic changes; by the end of the decade, it would assume altogether different contours. The role of criticism would shift, as Roland Barthes observed in Critique et vérité (1966), from considering works of art within the measure of history to judging their value to the measure of man; in other words, criticism would no longer serve a historical function, but rather an anthropological one.
This widespread uneasiness among French film critics became evident in the first, and notably rare, attempts of the Cahiers critics to address the emergence of a new cinema. In her book on film criticism in the Nouvelle Vague culture, British film historian Dorota Ostrowska rightly points out the place of honor held by classical Hollywood cinema in the pages of the most prominent film journal of those days and notes that the critics’ engagement with the new films of their contemporaries was “surprising.” Her point is well taken, for writings on the new cinema, either of the Nouvelle Vague colleagues or of the Left Bank filmmakers that accompanied the movement, were rare. As the Nouvelle Vague films were screened in theaters, with the exception of Luc Moullet’s piece on Godard’s À Bout de souffle and a round table discussion on Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, Rohmer’s Cahiers did not publish a single lead article on the state of contemporary cinema; the readers had to wait until December 1962, as the movement was fading, to put their hands on a special issue entitled “Nouvelle Vague.” How are we to understand this conspicuous lack of attention in a journal whose contributors had created the conditions for the emergence of a new cinema? Who were the lead players and how did they influence the rules of this critical game that assessed and revised the place of cinema within cultural and intellectual life? The round table on Hiroshima mon amour, published in July 1959 displays – and in a singular way also foreshadows – some of the most dramatic shifts of paradigms in French critical discourse during the second half of the 20th century.
This round table grants us access to two crucial points of focus. First, it articulates the terms of an aesthetic debate centered on the relation between the classical and the modern, a debate that recalled and, in a contemporary guise, reignited the fierce “querelle des anciens et des modernes” that had played such a formative role in French cultural history. While the primary object of film criticism involves a feature’s singularity, the situating and evaluation of any feature also takes recourse to the categories of aesthetics and theory. The discourse of the politique des auteurs surely proved to be unequal to the task in this particular case; the adherents of the Cahiers found themselves hard-pressed to formulate an interpretation that might incorporate historical, critical, and philosophical considerations. The well-known, indeed hackneyed, distinction between classical and modern generated heated debate among Cahiers critics. Its editorial board, after years of tension, would undergo dramatic reorganization in the middle of 1963. Reproached for not defending the new cinema, Rohmer was forced to relinquish the editorial leadership of the journal and was replaced by Rivette.
The changing of the guard at the Cahiers provides a second point of focus for it was a symptom, indeed a function of a larger aesthetic and moral crisis in French culture at large. This crisis would give rise to many twists, turns, and upheavals; it would have a profound impact on French intellectual work and cultural production during the coming decades. The discussion corresponded to a serious impasse in French film critical discourse during late 1950s and early 1960s; seen in this light, the troubled situation at the Cahiers was certainly not unique. How, to put matters bluntly, were modern critics to account for “new cinemas”? Cahiers, as the most prominent French film journal, played a key role in this discussion, but ironically it did so at its own expense.
In making visible some patterns in the intellectual history of these tumultuous times, critical discourse on the work of Alain Resnais is compelling, suggestive, and emblematic, particularly in responses to his initial features. Resnais’s first films acted as both a means to measure and articulate differences within opposed camps at the Cahiers as well as to prompt changes in the journal’s orientation that reflected the shapes of things to come within international film criticism and theory.
Hiroshima, notre amour
When Hiroshima mon amour premiered in 1959, it took French film critics by surprise. Jean-Luc Godard admitted as much: “Let’s say that the very first thing that strikes you about this film is that it is totally devoid of cinematic references.” Which is to say, he elaborated, “that seeing Hiroshima gave one the impression of watching a film that would have been quite inconceivable in terms of what one was already familiar with in the cinema. For instance, when you see [Roberto Rossellini’s] India, you know that you’ll be surprised, but you more or less anticipate that surprise. Similarly, I know that Le Testament du docteur Cordélier will surprise me, just as Éléna et les hommes did. However, with Hiroshima I feel as if I am seeing something that I did not expect at all.”
Godard was not the only one to be taken aback by the innovations of Resnais’s first feature, even if critics were quick to point out commonalities with the director’s early documentaries. Not knowing how to talk about such a film, claimed Eric Rohmer, one could say just about anything: “I think everyone will agree with me if I start by saying that Hiroshima is a film about which you can say everything.” Indeed, Rohmer used these words to open the first round table discussion held by the Cahiers editorial board to address contemporary French cinema, which bore the title “Hiroshima, notre amour.” This critical intervention in defense of the new cinema would prove to be even more significant given that it took place in the pages of a journal whose venerable contributors had played such a seminal role in advocating for the need of a reborn French cinema, and in shaping the Nouvelle Vague. “The release of Hiroshima mon amour is an event which seems important enough to warrant a new discussion,” proclaimed Rohmer at the gathering whose further participants included Jean Domarchi, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, and Jacques Rivette. Presented here in alphabetical order, they might seem to stand for the same principles and belong to the same generation. This is, however, not the case. Domarchi, Doniol, Kast and Rohmer, all born in 1920, were involved in the development of the journal from the very beginning; they would be joined by Rivette and Godard, who were in fact a decade younger.
In quintessential Cahiers style, the relationship of cinema with the other arts takes center stage in this exchange, especially film’s relation to literature and painting, as does the attempt to place and assess Resnais’s feature within the history of cinema. What really is at stake here, though, is the question of the modern, a notion that is both seminal and yet unclear, one that could not help but separate parties and generate debate. The discussion focused on the relationship between film and literature, and attention is given to questions of fragmentation and montage, the crucial issue of the film’s political stance, Resnais’s place in the artistic landscape (of the past, present, and future) and his film’s relation to cinema, literature, painting, music, and philosophy. The conversation was decidedly wide-ranging. As Rivette half-mockingly put it: “Well now, we’ve mentioned quite a few names, so you can see just how cultured we are, Cahiers du cinéma is true to form, as always.”
The symposium begins with the issue of cinema’s relationship to literature, a sensitive topic since, as Pierre Kast notes, to refer to a film as “literary” is the “supreme insult in the everyday vocabulary of the cinema.” Kast, having sung before the praise of literary cinema to the dismay of Rohmer with whom the “dandy” Kast did not have the slightest affinity, is quick to respond. Rohmer declares in the first minute that Hiroshima is “a kind of literature that is a little dubious, in so far as it imitates the American school that was so fashionable in Paris after 1945.” Though Hiroshima is indisputably a “literary film,” argues Kast, it is a self-conscious one that provides a reflection on the narrative form itself. First emphasizing that “the relationship between literature and cinema is neither good nor clear,” he then elaborates: “The passage from the present to the past, the persistence of the past in the present, are here no longer determined by the subject, the plot, but by pure lyrical movements. In reality Hiroshima evokes the essential conflict between the plot and the novel. Alain Resnais’s film is completely bound up with the modifications in the structures of the novel.”
The most enthusiastic and insightful critic in the group is Rivette, for whom the literary aspect of the film is as much a matter of content as it is of form. Rivette is keen to point out that the film is charged by a dialectical impetus, a “double movement of consciousness, which consists in presenting the thing and at the same time maintains a distance to that thing, in order to be critical.” In other words, the film carves out a reflective position, rather than a contemplative one. “It is a double movement, and no longer a unity of classic continuity,” Rivette insists. “It is a unity of contrasts, a dialectical unity as Hegel and [he adds laughingly] Domarchi would say.” Resnais, operating in the wake of Eisenstein, provides an example of cinematic dialectics concerned with “emphasizing the autonomy of the shot and simultaneously seeking within that shot a strength that will enable it to enter into a relationship with another or several other shots.”
For the most the participants follow Rivette’s lead in praising the film’s modernist ambitions, but they do so in a measured way, speaking of a cinema that is “modern” in so far as it breaks with conventional modes of storytelling. In this way, they sought to link Resnais’s new cinema to other contemporary projects, including the first Nouvelle Vague features. In their attempts to appreciate the novelty of Resnais’s enterprise, they lacked the critical arsenal to account for its newness and to distinguish it from other emanations of the new.
“In view of the poor fortunes of French post-war cinema and the critical immersion of the Cahiers critics in Hollywood, it is surprising that in 1959 it was a film by a French filmmaker, Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour which has won the greatest praise of the Cahiers,” comments Ostrowska in her discussion of Cahiers’s critical stance. “Hiroshima mon amour was recognized as a definite break with classical cinema and the beginning of modernity in cinematic history.” There was, she insists, a critical consensus on the merits of the film at a celebratory round table that applauded Resnais’s feature as the expression of the journal’s predictions. Referring to the film’s “enthusiastic reception,” Ostrowska claims that it “successfully realized Rohmer’s project of creating visual literature with cinematic means” as well as Godard’s and Rivette’s vision of a truly modern cinema. In fact, things were hardly so upbeat or harmonious. Resnais’s film gave rise to a great amount of disagreement at the round table; it received as much criticism as it did praise. Some participants eschewed Resnais’s film, singling out the director as representative of a group from which one should distance oneself. Responses surely confirmed the wider disinclination of Cahiers contributors to address the state of contemporary French cinema despite undeniable public pressure to do so. The reception to the film was mixed and ambiguous and, contrary to Ostrowska’s assessment, anything but whole-heartedly “enthusiastic.” The virulent tensions and fierce variances of opinion among the members of the Cahiers editorial board would in fact become strikingly manifest during the round table.
During the discussion, Rivette, Kast, and Godard express enthusiasm about the cinematic possibilities probed by Hiroshima; Domarchi and Doniol concur. But it is Rohmer’s response that above all dominates the forum. As the editor in chief of the Cahiers, he takes his role as moderator and, as such, as a discursive metteur-en-scène, seriously. He starts his two most substantial interventions with the words “to sum up” after which he goes on, at some length, to make key points and formulate conclusions. He makes no bones about his mixed response to Resnais’s film: “I reserve judgment on the grounds that I found some elements less seductive than others. There was something in the first few frames that irritated me.” In the December 1961 issue of Cahiers, which was devoted to film criticism, Rohmer would agree with Georges Sadoul regarding the impossibility of assessing a film like Hiroshima mon amour, since only history can decide its importance. Should we see in Rohmer’s hesitation an incompatibility of taste? Were the principles of “absolute cinema” and “the pure art of beauty” cast in stone for the editor in chief of the Cahiers? Rohmer’s reservations in fact extended to the entire corpus of the Nouvelle Vague: “I cannot make a choice that is not subjective among these works of the new French cinema that are so close to me,” he remarks defensively. He tempers his statement, however, adding that the Nouvelle Vague “as a whole will be part of history, and I suspect that history will be selective, and I cannot say to whose detriment or advantage its selection will be carried out.” It is hard to imagine how Rohmer’s emphasis on visual transparency could begin to comprehend (much less appreciate) the ways in which Resnais consistently obstructs the spectator’s relation to the image, a procedure that in Leo Bersani’s reading is essential to Resnais’s “art of impoverishment.”
“To sum up,” says Rohmer in his inimitable language, “Alain Resnais is a cubist. I mean that he is the first modern filmmaker of the sound film.” The declaration is less complimentary than it might initially sound. “There were,” he continues, “many modern filmmakers in silent films: Eisenstein, the Expressionists and Dreyer too. But I think that sound films have perhaps been more classical than silent. There has not yet been any profoundly modern cinema that attempts to do what cubism did in painting and the American novel in literature.” Readers familiar with Rohmer’s writings will notice (and will do so with surprise) that these comments echo thoughts from a decade earlier. In his manifesto “For a Talking Cinema” of 1949, Rohmer defended sound cinema as a valuable extension of cinema’s realist potential. As cinema learns to talk, he submits, filmmakers need to explore the spoken dimension of cinema rather than dismissing it or treating it as parasitic.
There is a distinct uneasiness in Rohmer’s remarks about Hiroshima, but he softens his tone as Godard, Kast, and especially Rivette (whose comments extend over half of the entire round table), praise Hiroshima as a “tremendous effort of composition” organized by “pure lyrical movements.” Indeed, Rohmer argues, “one could reproach some filmmakers for taking the American novel as their inspiration – on the grounds of its superficiality. But since here it’s more a question of a profound equivalence, perhaps Hiroshima really is a totally new film.” This claim, he admits, would “call into question a thesis which I confess was mine until now and which I can just as soon abandon without any difficulty [laughter], and that is the classicism of the cinema in relation to the other arts.” The thesis to which Rohmer refers goes back to his early articles from 1948-1949. In “The Classical Age of Film,” Rohmer had made the case for film as the consummate art of its epoch, one that literature itself would attempt to copy. Having exhausted literary means of psychological explanation, modern novelists abandon interiority for the “absurd and chaotic spectacle of appearances.”
Rohmer sticks to his aesthetic criteria and seeks to view Resnais’s film as an instance of classical filmmaking. He does so with hesitation, warning that only time will confirm or deny this classicism. “There is no doubt that the cinema also could just as soon leave behind its classical period to enter a modern period. I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema, or whether it was possibly less important than we thought. In any case, it is an extremely important film, but it could be that it will even gain stature with the years. It could be, too, that it will lose a little.”
Unlike Truffaut or Godard, whose film criticism was purely subjective and descriptive, Rohmer integrated his writings on individual films and filmmakers into an elaborate aesthetic discourse, whose theoretical impetus is reminiscent of André Bazin. Firmly believing that film enjoys an objective relation to reality, Rohmer endorsed a “transparent visual style and a conception of mise-en-scène rigorously bound to the real.” More than any other critic at the Cahiers, Rohmer continued Bazin’s theoretical legacy. The latter’s insistence on the objectivity of the photographic image as an ontological base was seen as comparable to the Copernican revolution, for, according to Rohmer, “it set cinema apart from the other arts under whose shadow it had long remained.” One cannot help but notice a certain uneasiness and undeniable testiness in Rohmer’s comments. The critical method, indeed his idealist aesthetic theory of film that developed from film criticism between 1940 and 1963 seemed to be failing him. Clearly, he did not want to underestimate or misapprehend what might well be “the most important film since the war.”
Fault Lines and Fall Out
The Cahiers dialogue about Hiroshima makes it clear that the magazine’s change of political direction during the mid-to late 60s did not come suddenly, but was the result of a steady, progressive undermining of earlier assumptions. Speaking about the connection between Resnais and Agnès Varda whose La Pointe courte Resnais edited, Godard asked bluntly: “Is Hiroshima a left-wing film or a right-wing film?” The sharp question left Rivette unperturbed: “If Hiroshima is a left-wing film, it does not bother me in the slightest.” Such a response was very much in keeping with a larger tendency among the Cahiers critics and a predilection labeled “hussard” by Bernard Frank (in the December 1952 issue of Les Temps modernes), an exaltation of style and an approach that, in Frank’s assessment, was apolitical, indeed even antipolitical. The so-called Young Turks were often taken to task by their contemporaries for their overt lack of politics. What mattered to them above all was style and this overemphasis on aesthetics was derided as reactionary. They viewed themselves as beyond politics, disengaged, in the words of Antoine de Baecque, “outside of all dogmatism, rid of the literary-existentialist jargon, free of the demonstrative idea, of the clear message, of utilitarianism, all of which were reproaches to (the politically engagé) Sartre, as well as his disciples.” The ultimate provocation of the politique des auteurs was the insistence that “style and form were the only criteria for cinematic taste and judgment.” The Cahiers critics, argues De Baecque, “knew no other politics than that of auteurs – a term the Young Turks coined to discredit and dismiss all other forms of militancy.” Rivette, Truffaut, and Rohmer, declared Bazin in a feat of understatement, were “not exactly writers of the left.”
Seen from an aesthetic point of view, claimed Rohmer, “modern art has always been positioned on the left.” Nonetheless, he goes on to say, “there is nothing to stop one from thinking that it’s possible to be modern without necessarily being left-wing.” Rohmer implicitly addresses the modernity of the more engaged cinema, both politically and socially, of the so-called Left Bank filmmakers, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. In his characterization of this coalition, Doniol positions Resnais as a punitive father, pointing to a “terrible tenderness” that prompts the director to “devour his own friends by turning them into moments of his personal creativity.” Resnais is Saturn, maintains Rohmer, but “we have no wish to be devoured. It’s fortunate that he stays on the Left Bank of the Seine, and we keep to the Right Bank.”
The differences of opinion among the Cahiers contributors manifest in the round table would become even more radical in the years to come. The reception of L’Année dernière à Marienbad demonstrated yet again the extent to which the discussion about Resnais’s film bore out the variance between the “classics” and the partisans of the new “modern” cinema as well as the journal’s abiding political abstinence. More than half of the September 1961 issue of Cahiers was devoted to the new film by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. The coverage included an interview conducted by André Labarthe and Jacques Rivette as well as two articles signed André Labarthe (“Marienbad année zéro”) and François Weyergans (“Dans le dédale”). In the estimation of the contributors, Marienbad is resolutely modern. Weyergans goes as far as to claim that the film will cause partisans of classicism to “cry out in indignation.” Both he and Labarthe view the film within the continuity of film history rather than as a radical departure from it. In the remaining pages of the issue, Claude Beylie reviewed Renoir’s Le Testament du Docteur Cordélier and Jean Domarchi Rossellini’s Escape by Night. Labarthe’s attempt to establish lines of continuity between Rossellini and Resnais was fueled by an understanding of film history certainly not shared by his peer Domarchi.
The pages of the September 1961 issue offer evidence of a critical divide between defenders of Resnais, on one hand, and adherents of the duo Renoir-Rossellini on the other. Is it a coincidence that these two critics, Beylie and especially Domarchi (almost an alter ego of Rohmer) would sign these two contributions? War has not yet been declared, but the pages of Cahiers have become a battleground for conflicting critical camps. Rohmer will resign as editor after the June 1963 issue; Domarchi and Beylie, in an act of solidarity, will contribute only modestly in the next three numbers, before bowing out altogether.
The success of the Nouvelle Vague’s first feature films brought good fortune to the Cahiers, not only aesthetically, but also financially. The prominence of the journal, both in France and abroad, increased significantly, so much so that even the back issues (1-100) sold out. But this success could not help but make one wonder why the Cahiers had paid so little attention to the Nouvelle Vague and done next to nothing to promote its films? Clearly, any response to this question relates to the contradictory legacy of the politique des auteurs. On one hand, defending the American cinema of Preminger, Minnelli, and Fuller, Rohmer and his allies (Jean Douchet, Claude Beylie, Jean Domarchi, and Fereydoun Hoveyda) sought to preserve and foster the auteurist approach. On the other hand, Luc Moullet, supported by André Labarthe, and Jacques Rivette, argued for change and an embrace of the modernist direction embodied by Godard, Antonioni, Buñuel, and Resnais – the last three being filmmakers particularly privileged by Cahiers’ chief rival, Positif.
The group around Rohmer was bitter in its assault of Antonioni. While Doniol argued that L’Avventura, along with Hiroshima inaugurated a “new cinema,” Domarchi dismissed Antonioni’s film as an “irritating, pretentious ‘annex of literature’.” Jean Douchet called L’Eclisse a “monstrosity, the height of artifice, and trickery.” André Labarthe, on the other hand, lauded the modernity and grandeur of the film. Doniol further expressed the tension in his defense of Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (a film in which he had a role): “Robbe-Grillet often explains that modern art is in a phase in which each work is a searching which ends by destroying itself, and that is why Rivette’s Paris nous appartient is the most significant and most resolutely modern work of the new cinema. If only those at Cahiers would reflect a little instead of pinning photos of Sylvie Vartan to the walls while affirming that Hawks’s cinema at the level of man is once and for all the be-all and end-all of the seventh art, they would perceive perhaps that it is not a question of liking or disliking L’Immortelle, nor of knowing if one is bored or entertained, but rather appreciating the new paths being opened up.”
The opposition “classical” versus “modern” did not pertain solely to the films under discussion, even if the critical discourse performed around these objects was crucially inflected by such epithets. The comments made about Resnais warrant attention beyond the local history of postwar French film discourse. They also reflect a formative moment in an individual’s apprenticeship to the medium and in the evolving understanding of film’s responsibility to the visible world as well as to the world at large. The act of critical judgment becomes a way of discerning an ideal state of cinema to which the practicing director can aspire. Rohmer’s taste for classicism and the “critique des beautés,” as well as the subjectivist discourse of Domarchi were unconcerned with things ephemeral, political or social change first among them. Such an approach espoused a rhetoric of disengagement, in which disinterested critical judgment was prized above the commitment called for by these new films. On the other hand, critics like Fieschi, Kast, and Rivette embraced an avant-garde ethic that rejected the “illusory explication of beauty” and sought to articulate a form of criticism in continuous dialogue with the discourse of the humanities.
The round table discussion made critical incapacities of the politique des auteurs readily apparent. How could one talk about a formally masterful embodiment of modern cinema with a lexicon that embraced style and form at the cost of its contemporary meanings and political consequences? In this regard, the variance between so-called classical and modern critics was illusory, indeed in some ways a false binary. For the valorization of American classical cinema had in fact given rise to a new and decidedly modern form of film criticism, a way of writing about and evaluating films that granted industrialized products the seriousness and significance previously accorded only to high art. The auteurist privileging of classical Hollywood cinema was a manifestation of the modern, an emanation of what Miriam Hansen would later speak of as “vernacular modernism.” And yet the modernity of this new approach to cinema did not extend to contemporary cinema and, as the round table discussion makes clear, did not allow the profound and thoughtful appreciation of Resnais’s work that would be found elsewhere. In this regard, for all their undeniable sophistication and cinephilic aplomb, the Cahiers critics, who had little regard for contemporary French cinema, proved to be curiously provincial.
A New Criticism for a New Cinema
The critical disagreements among members of the Cahiers’ editorial board would give way to significant alterations in the journal’s substance and self-understanding. And powerful forces in French culture would move film criticism at large into new areas. Cultural critics sought to become more “scientific” and sensitive to the workings of language, signification, human desire, and power, the main points of reference being Saussure, Althusser, Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan. When Rivette assumed editorial leadership of the Cahiers, he published programmatic interviews with “certain outstanding witnesses of contemporary culture,” among them Barthes and Lévi-Strauss, seeking to promote ways of thinking about cinema within the context of larger cultural discourses. This new direction was, of course, a radical departure from the intellectual insularity of Cahiers during the 1950s.
As for Rohmer, his career as a filmmaker would become the most important proof of where his allegiance lay. Invited by the Cahiers in 1965 to converse about “l’ancien et le nouveau” (“the old and the new”), he made a point that one does not find in the initial round table. Asked about the new direction of film criticism, Rohmer believed that “every time someone has tried to defend a purely aesthetic position, however intelligent the defense, they were always mistaken.” In the case of “a cinema like Resnais’s where chronology disappears and the subjective and objective are merged into one,” he claimed, “doors are open, but they don’t lead anywhere. These innovations are doomed to die without issue.” As for the new and more political critics, led by Comolli, they readily applauded the filmmaker “as a clarification of our own critical position.”
The Hiroshima round table offered a compelling glimpse of a journal coming asunder. It is somehow ironic to think that the journal that championed a new critical discourse in the hope of impacting the formation of a new cinema, would not find adequate ways to assess the new cinema in its own midst. At Cahiers as at Positif, Jeune cinéma, and Nouvel Observateur (renamed as such in 1964, previously called L’Obervateur économique, politique et littéraire) in France, but also abroad at Sight and Sound, Bianco et Nero, and Filmkritik, film criticism faced an impasse. The Cahiers’ famous politique des auteurs that brought to prominence Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, and Roberto Rossellini, proved incapable of accounting for the new French cinema, much less of defending it. For that to be possible, a “nouvelle critique” was needed. The four filmmakers that had initially carried the banner of the “new cinema” – Resnais, Godard, Buñuel, and Antonioni, – would be joined by a score of younger directors, from Eustache, Garrel, and Pialat in France to Forman, Skolimowski, Polanski, Bellochio, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Oshima, Rocha, Yoshida, Straub/Huillet, and many others abroad. In recognizing the impact of these new cinemas, the new criticism of Cahiers needed to acknowledge that the Nouvelle Vague was not just an isolated movement, but the catalyst of something significant and much larger. In order that French film criticism might learn to talk about new cinemas, it needed to start at home – and this became strikingly apparent in the Cahiers round table on Hiroshima mon amour. Indeed, the responses to Resnais’s early features would signal that French film critics needed to adjust their ways of speaking and writing in order to comprehend the newness in their own midst and the significance of the new within the world at large.
Codruţa Morari is Assistant Professor of French and Media Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Bressonians: French Cinema and the Culture of Authorship (Berghahn Books, 2017).
See, for instance, Anthony O. Scott, Better Living through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth (London, New York: Penguin Books, 2016); David Bordwell, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Mattias Frey, The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2015); Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad, ed., Film Criticism in the Digital Age (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Antoine de Baecque, La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture – 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, Hachette Littératures, 2003).
Eric Rohmer, “Pour un cinéma parlant,” Les Temps modernes, 1948, translated as “For a Talking Cinema,” in The Taste for Beauty, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Introductory remarks to the round table: “In Cahiers no. 71 some of our editorial board held the first round table discussion on the then critical question of French cinema. Today the release of Hiroshima mon amour is an event which seems important enough to warrant a new discussion.”