The French Cinema Book

Michael Temple and Michael Witt (eds),
The French Cinema Book.
London: BFI Publishing, 2004.
ISBN: 1 84457 012 6 (pb) £16.99
ISBN: 1 84457 011 8 (hb) £48.00
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

The French Cinema Book is divided into three chronological parts: “Hello Cinema!”1890-1930, “Classicism and Conflict” 1930-1960, “A New World” 1960-2004. Each part is divided into seven sections: People, Business, Technology, Forms, Representations, Spectators, Debates. There are twenty-one sections in all written by twenty-three contributors (two essays are co-written) . The editors, Michael Temple and Michael Witt, wrote the general introduction and the introduction to each of the three parts of the book. Three of the contributors are French (Nicole Brenez, Laurent Creton, Laurent Jullier); one contributor is Italian (Monica Dall’Asta); the other contributors are American, Australian and British (for the most part). The book represents an anglophile and specifically British academic view of the French cinema. Of the contributions, only two are exceptional: Brenez’s “‘For It Is the Critical Faculty That Invents Fresh Forms'” and Dall’Asta’s “Thinking about Cinema: First Waves”.

There are three noticeable qualities to French film culture. The first, a consistent concern of French filmmakers with form and experiment. The second, a profound and unequalled critical and theoretical tradition (French thought on the cinema is a reference point for all thinking about the cinema). And third, a widespread film culture that is neither vulgar, merely modish nor confined to universities.

French critical and theoretical work, like the French cinema, has been primarily concerned with the forms of film and what in those forms are alive and productive. This work constantly has sought, helped to establish and has recognised new possibilities for the cinema. It is a creative enterprise and not, in the worst sense, merely academic (summaries, informational). Finally, it is informed by a sense of intellectual and cultural tradition, by philosophical interests and aesthetic ones. It is also deeply political though not in a crude or obvious way. Who are we talking about? We are talking about, among others, Amengual, Artaud, Aumont, Bazin, Bergala, Brenez, Bresson, Chion, Comolli, Daney, Deleuze, Delluc, Epstein, Jousse, Marie, Mitry, Rancière, Sadoul and the critical heritage of Cahiers du cinéma that has been sustained for nearly half a century.

Relatively, British film culture is impoverished. In France, the critical and theoretical tradition I am speaking of is renewed and expanded in writings and debates. Every month, and sometimes it would seem, every week, new books (real books) are being written and issues (real issues) debated. In Britain and America this is not the case. Few if any books are being written of this kind (instead there are textbooks like The French Cinema Book), little of substance debated, no centres of ideas, no clusters of thought and intellectual work. Instead, there is the institutionalised and bureaucratised thinking imposed by universities (with exceptions of course) and research assessment demands.

The French Cinema Book is not a book to complain of nor to particularly praise. It is a good fairly solid book of a factual and contextual kind, essentially informative not stimulating, summarising not original, interesting, but nothing more. What it offers is suitable for the text book it is, but it is not a contribution to new understandings or new directions in thought about the cinema or on behalf of the cinema.
Brenez’s essay stands out and is remarkable. As textbook writing, it probably ought not to have been included. It is too dense, imaginative, open, complex, rich, provocative, creative for the tenor of the book and the audience it assumes. Indeed, her essay tears apart the book’s smooth textures revealing by its brilliance, the dullness that surrounds it. And, its double subject, so oddly out of place in this book, is about the search for new forms in the French cinema and Brenez’s own search for new terms of criticism and theory: it is creative thought.

It is very difficult, and that is one of its virtues, to summarise the Brenez essay. I want to make two points only about it. The first is her discussion of what she names as “two related strands of figurative investigation, minimalism and naturalism” in French cinema as explorations of the representation of the real. Her survey of it is made under five major headings: ” litotes (understatement); syllepsis (the use of the same term to two different effects); inductive logic (arguing from the particular case to the general truth); discordance (the incompatibility of elements); and the architectonic sublime (a unique structure for each work).” Within these headings she writes about Bresson, Denis, Melville, Pialat and in ways that you had not thought of but once thought by Brenez, you feel you could hardly think differently.

The second is her discussion of Godard. At the beginning of her essay and at a point where this review ought rightly to end is her fascinating analysis of the experimental project of Godard with form, his tireless and inventive confrontation with established forms and their beckoning, demanding totalities by strategies of discontinuity and rupture in order to prevent the exhaustion of possibilities and hence the death of cinema as if with every Godard film, and often with every detail of it, Godard promises to begin the cinema all over again, as Brenez remarks, from zero.

I must mention the extremely elegant and graceful essay by Monica Dall’Asta able to show and elucidate the enormous productivity and contemporary relevance of French theoretical work in the 1920s around the term photogénie related to Surrealism and the writings of Artaud, Breton, Delluc, Epstein. This book is worth buying for these two essays alone.

Sam Rohdie
University of Central Florida, USA.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 December 2004 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →