Drama in three acts

Issue: 127

Louis Bayman

Emilie Bickerton, A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma (Verso, 2009), £12.99

This book charts the story of the most significant film journal in history, not only in its native France, but throughout the world. Cahiers (“notebooks”) was an active—and sometimes activist—participant in the culture and society whose relationship it so keenly theorised. At the same time the trajectory of the journal is also the trajectory of the post-war French left, from radicalisation to disastrous embrace of the free market.

Cahiers du Cinéma began life in 1951 under the intellectual guidance of the film critic André Bazin. Its simple yellow cover bore a still from the “most admired film of the moment” and the pages within offered a monthly collection of reviews, analyses and appreciations of film (p15). Although the overriding purpose of the journal was to establish film as the “seventh art”, its writers were stylishly argumentative for all that seemed most natural, energetic, and exciting in cinema.

Like the Hollywood storylines the journal’s writers adored, Bickerton recounts the history of Cahiers as a three-act narrative. After bursting onto the scene with youthful promise, it repeatedly transformed itself under the often agonising strains of its own contradictions, only for resolution to come with an accommodation to big business and the death of the magazine’s driving spirit.

To grasp the significance of Cahiers’ achievements, it is necessary to understand how perverse its beliefs initially seemed. Cinema was mass entertainment, an ephemeral distraction catering to vulgar tastes and which could not possibly be considered art. To place Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the same category as Renaissance sculpture was considered absurd.

Bickerton describes the way Cahiers canonised entertainment through its theories of the auteur and miseenscène. Although having varying meanings, miseenscène in this context refers to the way the director organises that which is captured by the camera; at its crudest, how a film’s merit lies in its visuals. Through their arrangement of the miseenscène, certain cinematic “authors” transform the most banal or formulaic storylines into something wonderful, and offer a coherent style and set of preoccupations perceivable across their work.

Cahiers’ writers eschewed the “tradition of quality” of middle-brow adaptations of classic French literary sources. In preferring American entertainment, Cahiers also did battle against the left, in particular the revered Communist critic Georges Sadoul. In the same vein, Cahiers may have polemicised for the worth of popular culture; but it did so by placing Hollywood directors in a realm of personal genius beyond the concerns of political struggle.

This self-imposed isolation from politics did not last, as first the tremors of the Algerian war and eventually the explosion of May 1968 inspired in Cahiers a full engagement with the upheavals of the time. Simultaneously, Cahiers’ initial staff of writers—the “Young Turks” that included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette—themselves became filmmakers. The “New Wave” that they constituted was part of the project begun at Cahiers: a youthfully enthusiastic and critical engagement of film and its formal possibilities. Just as a more radical attitude to society emerged in the 1960s, so an international art cinema of experimentation and avant-gardism demanded critical interest in the wake of classical Hollywood’s decline.

Cahiers developed its intellectual range throughout the 1960s to include the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, and later the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan and the variant of Marxism offered by Louis Althusser. Under the new editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, the post-1968 Cahiers determined to uncover the ideological operations of film form, using Costa-Gavras’s Z, the radical classic of the day, as an example of a film whose stated radicalism was betrayed by its formal conventionality. As stated in the 1969 editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, works that did not formally innovate by disrupting conventional cinema’s illusion of a self-contained fictional world were not truly at the vanguard.

Such criticism offers a kind of base/superstructure relationship in which the attitudes expressed in a film are more superficial than the determining factor of the form in which they are expressed. Such determinism, in line with the intellectual inspiration of Althusser, transformed Cahiers into a journal for the few who wished to eschew cinematic pleasure (and to penetrate the forbidding obscurity of Cahiers’ language). Briefly aligning itself with Maoism, by 1973 Cahiers saw its role as taking radical filmmaking to the masses. In this it failed, and having abandoned actual film criticism by the mid-1970s it had also lost its public readership. After some rejuvenation in “the Daney years” (1974-81, named by Bickerton after co-editor Serge Daney), when Cahiers allowed an eclecticism of intellectual approaches, Cahiers turned to the mass market, celebrating mainstream films and stars in a manner indistinguishable from any other film glossy.

Emilie Bickerton, a regular contributor to the New Left Review, provides an excellent account of the journal. She essentially provides a narrative of the vital disagreements through which the journal progressed rather than making a theoretical contribution herself. Her overview of Cahiers and its role in French cultural life sacrifices certain elements; the concentration on the auteur theory is at the expense of the interest in realism that animated early Cahiers (the idea that film had an ethical quest to show life as it really is and that attracted the Cahiers writers to the left wing cinema of Italian neorealism).

One would like to know what Bickerton’s own opinion of the militant turn is beyond it being “another potential trajectory…[that] had to play itself out to its extreme conclusion” (p84). Similarly, the concentration on opposing voices of Cahiers’ criticism is often not anchored very directly in films themselves: on one page, cinema is called in quick succession a “music”, a “language”, poetry, and painting, without real elucidation of what these descriptions—allusive metaphors at best, and clearly untrue—mean when applied to actual films (p52).

What Bickerton achieves however is a lucid account of the dynamics at work in Cahiers, told in the voices of those who made it the phenomenon it was. She lambasts the eventual free-market ethos of the journal and its utter failure to bear any critical fruit or even to succeed in its own terms by increasing sales. The turn was carried out by ex-Maoists deceiving themselves that their move to the right was a continuing radicalism of the movers and shakers who, in ever-such 1980s fashion, sought to be “plugged-in”, “switched-on”, or any other epithet indicating a ready supply of electricity and a fearlessness in using it.

While it is unlikely that many people leaving a cinema think in terms of whether they have witnessed an auteur’s mastery of the miseenscène or an ideological illusion of the consonance between signifier and referent, Cahiers changed the way film is understood. It created new techniques for discussing visual arts and transformed the appreciation of the political realities of cinema, successfully unmasking the ultimate intellectual failure as being the elitist dismissal of entertainment. Bickerton’s lovely account well repays reading.