All 2 entries tagged Alain Delon
October 23, 2007
The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene 2007 Wallflower Press: A Critical Review
About two weeks ago one of my intellectually inquisitive sixth-formers commented that she didn’t think that much of Godard’s iconic New Wave film: A bout de soufflé (Breathless). Last week she handed back to me City of God with the words “it nearly made me cry at the end”. New Waves are primarily understood about cinema and youth, about trying to create new cinematic forms and represent the World in new ways. I shall be examining the possibility that the notion of the 'unexpected' is an historiographical concept that can be applied to cinematic new waves. I shall also be noting some of the areas where the films remain unavailable and there is a certain amount of critical underwriting proffering new opportunities for research.
Both City of God and Breathless are films which are part of their respective cinematic New Waves with the former being a part of the current Latin American New Wave. Serendiptiously on returning home I found a copy of Naomi Greene’s newly published The French New Wave: A New Look from Wallflower Press waiting for review. This provides an opportunity to reflect upon what has changed so much and what might be different within the disparate New Waves which had elicited very different responses from a smart 18 year old.
Although I shall make some opening sceptical comments which indicate that the notion of the French New Wave could usefully be deconstructed, I found the book a clear and insightful summary written by an academic very at ease with her ideas and well able to communicate them to the chosen target audience. As I read through it stimulated me to follow up some ideas and strands of thought as I scoured the Web for cheap versions of a book on Henri Langlois and also ordered Jaques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient which I hadn’t noticed that the BFI had released over a year ago:a film which, says the blurb: brilliantly captured the mood of paranoia and uncertainty of that Cold War period. Rivette's rarely seen debut is one of the most important and far-reaching of the early New Wave films. After reading Greene’s analysis it became a ‘must see’. Indeed it is this analysis which forms a part of her ‘New Look’ for it is a film which has received little critical analysis in the mainstream accounts of the New Wave.
The book is ideal for undergraduates and much of it is accessible to A2 students who may be studying new waves for their World Cinema Unit. It will also act as a good companion for those who are new to this area of cinema. In this it is in keeping with the tradition and standards established by the Wallflower Press Short Cuts series. It is certainly a useful book for film and media studies lecturers and teachers and for libraries.
Melville's Le Silence de la mer 1949 was an important precursor to the French New Wave.
Cinematography was by Henri Decae
What might a "New Wave" be?
This is a rather harder question to answer than appears at first sight. My own perspective is that one must apply SPECT (Social Political Economic Cultural Textual) methodology to the analysis. Greene is quite specific about this too and adds ‘Historical’ to the methodological equation although I must admit I was taking that for granted and certain historiographical issues which arise will be considered:
…using a lens that is at once social economic ,cultural and historical (Greene 2007 p 3), Greene sets out to examine the nature and influences of the Nouvelle Vague for whatever one thinks of the films it has exerted an enormous influence within cinema for as Greene points out:
…up until now at least, there has been relatively little disagreement about the importance of the New Wave, but critics are not always in accord when it comes to the precise contours or its internal coherence.” (Greene 2007, p3).
The usual idea is that younger people (usually male cinephiles) were interested in filmmaking across a post-war Europe in which countries had been more or less bankrupted by the war and were trying to develop new identities which incorporated space,place and form. They valued difference between countries but respected them. to some extent there were generational differences. Neorealists had many who were involved in filmmaking before the war and in France Melville and the Left Bank generation were older than the Cahiers group. As such they had a different perspective on the world. Younger critics and filmmakers also raise a range of different challenges to the previous generations who had led them into the European 30 Years war of the 20th century (1914-45). Italian Neorealism was undoubtedly the leading element however groundbreaking films had emerged in Britain and Poland as well as France well before the Cannes festival of 1959 brought Truffaut into the limelight. Those groups of films which now become categorised as new waves tend to work within these parameters but often fall short of serious political critique.
Historiographical interpretation is a difficult game and I have concerns that European cinema is often represented as one of movements which are largely autonomous and often entirely separate to other developments. It is also a methodology which focuses upon National cinema often at the expense of considering an international cross-cultural artistic reality which is harder to measure. In Britain for example, running in parallel to the work of Free Cinema there was a lot of social realism in mainstream feature films and this has tended to put Free cinema into the critical shade compared to the French ‘New Wave’ which is represented as markedly different from mainstream French cinema. The fact that British Free Cinema showed large numbers of Polish and French films as part of its series of 6 programmes points to a lot of international collaboration amongst the film-makers and cross fertilisation of ideas. One of the issues raised in this review is the importance of surrealism as a subterreanean strand of representation which in cross-national and transhistorical inter-ruptions are largely underwritten in academic circles.
Alain Delon in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (1960)
Delon came to the fore at the time of the New Wave. The cinematography of Plein Soleil was again by Henri Decae. Decae was not above working with somebody castigated by Truffaut as part of cinema du papa! Decae had already been the highest paid person on 400 Blows and was in demand. This was Delon's most important film at the time. He went on to be a leading actor in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) as well as being in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962).
Arguably cross fertilisation and changing ideas were already present in mainstream French cinema at the time of the Nouvelle Vague when one notes the date of Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil (1960) and its use of Nouvelle Vague favourite cameraman Henri Decae by this representative of Cinema du papa. Perhaps the reality on the ground is not always quite so clear cut. Decae had already cut his teeth on the thriller genre by filming Melville’s Bob le flambeur [Bob the Gambler] (1955) and then Malle’s 1958 release Lift to the Scaffold.
Jeanne Moreu in Louis Malle's 1958 Lift to the Scaffold
Cinematography by Henri Decae
It might well be that a unifying theme amongst the avante-gardists of European post-war cinema was the representation of space and place which was far more celebratory and far reaching than the mainstream. Space and place are inherently imbricated with the construction of identity and one might usefully compare the Rome of Rossellini (Roma citta aperta), De Sica’s Umberto D, Visconti’s Bellissima and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as bearing witness to a changing Italian identity all of which relied to a large extent on location shooting. Core differences between Plein Soleil and the French Nouvelle Vague films is that it was relatively high budget and was decidedly international in its scope dealing with Americans in Italy and creating more of a tourist's gaze than a local's gaze. The surreality of Truffaut and Godard's cinematic visions and the play with a knowing audience were also absent.
The Precursors of the Nouvelle Vague
Greene sets out her stall very clearly although a little disappointingly she doesn’t challenge the concept of the French New Wave as a critical construction. Historiographically there is some case to be made for challenging the dominant discourse which surrounds this ‘cultural moment’ to the exclusion of other tendencies emerging in parallel, perhaps some revision is overdue. Examples include the British Free cinema movement while arguably the great Italian directors moving into their post-neorealist phase were making far more interesting and challenging films than either tendency. The Polish cinema of the time also needs to be considered although I'm personally unfamiliar with the content. What can be said is that European filmmaking in the 1950s was in a state of change far beyond the borders of France.
This gripe aside Greene's book is perfectly pitched for its lay / undergraduate audience: it is written clearly by a leading scholar of French cinema and is very well informed. It places the Nouvelle Vague in its French cinematic context and there is some reference – not enough in my opinion – to the wider history of postwar France - and it clearly summarises the range of critical opinions in the discourse of the French New Wave. Greene’s book Landscapes of Loss really teases out the problems of post-war French identity and the ways in which this is represented within the cinematic culture of France. In her introduction to this latter book she notes the entry of L’histoire de France au cinema which comments that “cinema is, in fact, a more sensitive barometer than literature or school curricula”,(my emphasis). She proceeds to note the film maker Bertrand Tavernier’s comment that:
filmmakers are seismographs of their epoch. They bear witness, even unconsciously, to everything that surrounds them”. (Greene 200, p 5).
Bearing in mind Tavernier’s comment it is clear that that moment of 1959 when Truffaut gains recognition at Cannes for 400 Blows is when youthful French cinema comes to the notice of both the French nation and the world at large. Arguably this ‘new wave’ as cinema was already in existence but its widespread cultural recognition was as a result of hype from the French Media combining with the desire of many who were dissatisfied with the postwar republic and the failures of France to reassert its place in the World and it is this aspect which Greene underplays. Furthermore there was a growing concern with American ‘cultural imperialism’. A re-establishing of a French cultural identity for the modern period was sorely needed.
The independent auteurs which the Nouvelle Vague places on the map bringing the notion of auteurism as a critical concept to the fore were already in existence. Primarily they were the left bank, left wing documentarists such as Chris Marker and Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Greene has written particularly well about Resnais in her Landscapes of Loss and in a short book she does manage to include a lot about the Left Bank filmmakers which is good because even now getting hold of the documentary work of Resnais in the UK is pretty much impossible. Availability of films is partially down to critical discourse because the early work of Truffaut and Godard is readily available whilst the availability of the work from the Left Bank directors and even the early Rivette and Chabrol as well as Franju is not. The importance of reviewing critical discourse at a time when new technologies make the ‘Long Tail’ of cultural output far more accessible than ever before should not be underestimated.
The work of Louis Malle is sidelined in this book to some extent; he is seen as peripheral to the New Wave yet the content and methods of film making of his early films were fundamental to the changing ‘structure of feeling’ – to call upon Raymond William’s useful concept - which was running through French society at the time. Lift to the Scaffold is an excellent film which in the guise of a thriller brings in a critique of French society as the murdered husband is an arms dealer, which can be read as a thinly veiled reference to French colonial struggles the growing crisis in Algeria, the failed attempt to control the Suez Canal and the debacle in Vietnam which the Dennis Grunes blog discussing Malle’s film is at pains to mention, unlike some of the academic books:
Don’t laugh at wars. You live off wars. . . . Indo-China; now Algeria. Respect wars; they’re your family heirlooms.” Julien is killing Carala because he is in love with the old man’s young wife, Florence; but his political remarks add to our understanding of the disgust with which Carala fills him. Because Tavernier is Carala’s employee, his disgust includes a measure of self-disgust…” (http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/02/23/elevator-to-the-gallows-louis-malle-1957/)
The methods of film making anticipate and perhaps better the work of Truffaut and Godard’s early work as well. The following quotation about the musical collaboration between Malle and Miles Davis says a lot about the way in which the spirit in which the film was made:
The connection between Miles Davis and Louis Malle is one of general artistic integrity, for each creator is a master of their medium before the specific ideas that they are representing is even considered. This is where the idea of “jazz” as a mode of creativity is most clearly seen. Forget the meaning of “jazz” as a musical genre for one moment and try to see the interconnectedness between all artists of all mediums. It seems that once an artist has been working in their field for long enough to learn all of the necessary elements of their trade that it is only their individual ability to improvise that makes their work different from others and either a master or another artist. It is a sensation that is obvious to those who have begun the search for this divine level of creation. Malle and Davis certainly can see the respective vision of the other’s work and in their collaboration on Elevator to the Gallows the direct relationship between the scene and the music is a finely balanced expression of both artists. There is a definite freedom that Malle entrusts in Davis to create at his own will, which is undoubtedly a result of Davis’s success and mastery of his art. The connections are distinct and calculated, but this is not a dynamic that can be created by any two artists. Collaborations can fail even when it seems evident that a relationship or similarity is present between artist’s modes of representation. (My emphasis, http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/music270/projects/s2005/ebb32/Frantic.html)
This blog is especially useful to check out because there are some useful video extracts of the film which show how effectively Malle has filmed the street using all the outdoor location techniques associated with the New Wave.
Critical focus has been on the Cahiers critics turned filmmakers – a sceptic might conclude that inside every critic there is a director trying to get out! But this was nothing new, many of the Neorealists were involved on the same critical magazine and after them Lindsay Anderson and Karel Riesz were involved with Sequence in Britain.
Perhaps undue attention has been paid to Truffaut’s infamous slating of the “Tradition of Quality” especially the scriptwriters Aurenche and Bost in “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” written in 1954. Critics offer no real evidence of how seriously this article was taken by either audiences or those in the cinematic establishment at the time. One wonders how seriously the article would have been taken by cinematic critics if Truffaut hadn’t made 400 Blows. This is clear evidence that there was a rapidly changing ‘structure of feeling’ (Raymond Williams) within France which Cahiers critics were a part of. Their elevation to world view could be seen as a political sleight of hand for in many ways 400 Blows was less challenging to French traditional identity than Lift to the Gallows which would seem outrageous to the Catholic right and its family values as well as promoting Miles Davis a black American jazz musician - hardly the epitome of French cultural values.
Malle’s next film ‘Les Amants’ was also a huge challenge to the mores of society. De Gaulle would hardly like to be associated with a film which challenged family and Catholic values even more than Escalator to the Scaffold. Both De Gaulle and a renewed French identity based partially upon a cultural Renaissance could safely focus upon the critics and emerging new directors of Cahiers du Cinema who with the exception of Pierre Kast were largely apolitical. They were clearly opposed to the Stalinist left who were in cosy collusion with the industrial leadership of cinema creating the cinema du papa of which Cahiers had been so critical. By comparison 400 Blows challenges older stuffy attitudes particularly in relation to the state and education which seemed more Victorian than anything else. In this it chimed with the popular Existentialist concepts of ‘Freedom’. Its autobiographical nature meant that the film was one which had an audience who could readily identify with the values represented in the film. It was the right film for the right time.
Luis Malle's Les amants (1958)
The Origins of the term Nouvelle Vague
Greene does pay attention to the origins of the expression Nouvelle Vague which are embedded in the journal L’Express. Greene notes that prior to this the journal La Nef had a special edition in 1955 which started to carry investigations into the growing influence of the post-war generation of youth a decade after the Second World War just as the long boom starts to take effect and post-war reconstruction is beginning to turn towards a consumer society. L’Express founded in 1954 and modelled on American News Magazines was itself very much a child of its time. Inevitably it was going to play a part in the emerging discourses linked to disappointment and a need for a clearer post-war identity for France which had failed to rediscover the Grandeur beloved of De Gaulle, was on the back foot in all its colonies, was deeply divided once one scratched the surface over the “Dark Years” of the War which was pretty much a three way split between communist Left / Catholic loyalists in the resistance and collaborators in the Vichy regime.
The Wave breaks with Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959)
Hope for the future was seemingly being placed increasingly upon the young. The New Wave was an expression which developed from a large poll into this new generation organised by L’Express in 1957. By the following June (1958) notes Greene: “The term had gained such currency that L’Express began referring to itself as le journal de la nouvelle vague”. (Greene p 12). In this section it is possible to conclude that the French ‘New Wave Cinema’ can be defined as representative of the changing ‘structure of feeling’ as France adapted to post-war modernity which created a cultural moment allowing the youthful generation to identify with a newly emergent France under the leadership of the recently appointed Charles de Gaulle. It was of course a very limited representation of the French film industry which privileged the directors and critical discourses around Cahiers du Cinema above other tendencies within non mainstream cinema as it was a much safer cinema both politically and socially.
I would suggest that this is why A bout de soufflé compared with City of God fails to bring a contemporary 17 year old to the brink of tears. City of God explores the political and socio-cultural spaces of a Brazilian city in a way which no French New Wave film even dreams of attempting. Anyone who visited the recent Tate Modern exhibition on Global Cities and saw the juxtaposition of the mega rich and the totally impoverished will be familiar with the realism in terms of underlying social truths which City of God takes on. It is a long way from the notions of ‘truth’ which were promulgated at the time by the iconic director / thinkers of Cahiers du Cinema. Where the French New Wave is largely associated with form, City of God seems more concerned to combine form with content.
City of God by Mireilles. Part of the recent Latin American 'New Wave' its form combined a surrealistic mode with MTV style camerwork linked to a brutalised content that makes some viewers tearful. A tourists gaze of Paris it is not!
The Structure of Greene’s Book
Whilst Greene’s book falls short of reconfiguring the critical space of French New Wave discourse it will be extremely helpful in allowing readers to get to grips with the main strands of critical discourse surrounding the French New Wave for whatever my criticisms there is no doubt at all that what is commonly understood as the French New Wave and the critical discourses surrounding it have exercised enormous influence within cinematic culture as a whole.
Greene’s first chapter defines the traits of the New Wave, further chapters proceed to “What is Cinema: reflections upon film”, discuss the experiments of the 1950s and then in turn discuss the “Euphoria” of the moment and the “Aftershocks”.
The chapter on “Defining Traits” usefully examines the historical and critical discourses and provides the reader with a series of critical possibilities in terms of defining the New Wave from an extreme at one end of the critical spectrum embodied in the work of Marie who argues that the New Wave can be defined as a “School”, to the much looser definition of Williams in his synoptic history of French cinema “Republic of Images” where he describes the New Wave as a “brief period of upheaval and innovation”. There is a general acceptance that it is a cinema of youth and that it broke down the entry barriers and reshaped the French film industry. Certainly there was a considerable outpouring of film making in the years immediately following 1959 with double the number of films being made. However this also coincides with slumping box office takings and following 400 Blows and Breathless the films of Truffaut and Godard respectively didn’t achieve box office success. Their films emulated those of Rossellini one of their inspirations for after his war trilogy box office success also eluded him. For Rossellini and the other Neorealists the political shift to the right and the domination of US films were the issues. By the time the New Wavers had gained wider cinema across the US and Europe was already declining as a mass entertainment medium as TV combined with increasing disposable income led to other more expensive leisure pursuits being followed.
In her second chapter What is Cinema, clearly titled after the work of the leading French Critic Andre Bazin, Greene usefully examines the theoretical and critical backdrop to French cinema since the end of the Second World War. There is a section on Henri Langlois and the importance of the Cinematheque as a pedagogical inspiration to young cinephiles helping to groom the next generation of filmmakers. Although a relatively short section the emphasis on the deliberate pedagogical nature of Langlois’ project was made very clear which it often isn’t.
Musee du Cinema Henri Langlois
The current Cinematheque in a building designed by Frank Gehry
The importance and role of Andre Bazin is then considered, and the relationship of both Bazin and the “Young Turks” of the New Wave to Italian neorealism is explored. Whilst Bazin considered de Sica as well as Rossellini to be very important those such as Truffaut and Godard privileged Rossellini. I have yet to discover anything which might be understood by the Cahiers group as inspirational from the work of Visconti, Antonioni or Fellini. The Catholic liberalism and possibly the private life of Rossellini which challenged the moralists had enough radical appeal without going near the more overtly political work of Visconti for example despite the fact that he had clear links back to Renoir who was a favourite of the New Wavers.
Next comes a summary of the importance of Alexander Astruc and the ideas behind the camera-stylo or cinema as a form of writing which combined with ideas of the director as an auteur as camera-stylo meant that the director was ‘writing’ cinema by playing with cinematic form and visual modes of communication.
The next critical influence Greene deals with is Eric Rohmer who writing under his original name (Maurice Scherer) in the magazine La revue du cinema in 1948 discusses the role and importance of cinematic space. The article is a careful critique of the 'Tradition of Quality' whose reliance upon the script has led to films being constructed without due attention to modes of seeing thus failing to utilise and develop a truly cinematic language related to space and the construction and role of mise en scene. Jacques Rivette as early as 1954 also writes about mise en scene as:
‘a precise complex of people and decors, a network of relations, a moving architecture of relationships somehow suspended in space’ (Rivette cited Greene 2007 p 25).
Greene then moves on to the well known grouping around Bazin’s Cahier du Cinema placing some of the critical ideas such as Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency” into context thus completing the critical backdrop to the ideas of the future New Wave Directors.
Film Experiments of the 1950s & Thoughts on Historiography
In her chapter Film Experiments of the 1950s Greene usefully covers a range of important filmmakers including Melville, Jean Rouch, the Left Bank film makers with sections on Agnes Varda and Chris Marker and then moving onto Roger Vadim and Louis Malle. Greene notes how much Truffaut liked Les Amants linking it to the spontaneity of Renoir. Of course this (deserved) appreciation of Renoir links back into the issue of French identity for Renoir’s films from the Popular Front period represent an assertion of national solidarity is ways which Neorealism functioned for Italy. Even in Britain this more spontaneous type of filmmaking had a route through Humphrey Jennings to Lindsay Anderson and Free Cinema which again links into national identity which cuts across class divides whilst at the same time being part of an internationalist tendency:
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Jennings' work is better situated in the context of experimental film and the European avant-garde than within the documentary movement.
Jennings' own films, like those of European documentarists Joris Ivens, Henri Storck and Jean Rouch, discover the surreal in the everyday as opposed to the artistically contrived. (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/453623/)
Greene spends quite a lot of time covering Jean Rouch who gets little mention in Williams (1992). This ethnographic approach with a clearly identified link to Jennings points to a pan-European cienamatic cultural movement which emerges unevenly. I must confess I haven't seen any of his work however a quick search of the web shows that there seems to be nothing available on DVD currently. This points to the need for a more co-ordinated European approach to its cinematic heritage. Greene's scholarship here should help to raise a greater awareness of this filmmaker. I did discover that there have been a couple of academic conferences on him in the UK in recent years sadly this hasn't raised an interest in republishing his work.
The New Wave had a marked distance from the powerful continental communist parties of the 1950s who had a strong influence within French cinema. All three national film trajectories were wary of right-wing nationalism on the one hand and strong Stalinist influences on the other nevertheless the trajectory of the cinema of all the countries was markedly different. Rather than just looking to the influence of French films of the 1950s with nods to Rossellini and Renoir it might be better to place the French New Wave as another eruption of European modernist avant-gardism in the duree of the 20th century. The seemingly inevitable disjunctions between art and politics have been noted by Ellis in relation to the British Free Cinema as well:
The politics behind this commitment were not particularly radical, perhaps best expressed again by Lindsay Anderson: "But one thing is certain: in the values of humanism, and in their determined application to our society lies the future. All we have to do is to believe in them." It led, however, to a brief association by the Free Cinema with the New Left, and with Universities and Left Review which ended in disillusion when it became clear that their interests in the cinema were fundamentally different. Uninterested in making propaganda films for Right or Left, the Free Cinema group wanted films which were not only socially committed but were also art. (Ellis 1977).
Here cultural historiography needs to balance the straight jacketed methods emanating from a 19th century style of teleological history to one which takes on board the fragments and ruptures which critics such as Walter Benjamin espoused where there is more emphasis on the concept of the unexpected which will be discussed briefly below.
This chapter is useful as it chooses some of the classics of the New Wave to make small case studies including: Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins by Chabrol, 400 Blows by Truffaut, Hiroshima mon amour by Resnais, and A bout de soufflé by Godard. What is strange in this chapter is that Greene flags up Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus shown at the 1959 Cannes festival and understood as a part of the New Wave it then disappears from view and remains one of the underwritten films of the period as the focus still remains primarily on the Cahiers group. It is nonetheless a useful chapter to those new to the period and provides a useful stepping stone for further investigation.
Greene’s last chapter focuses upon the longer term influences of the French Nouvelle Vague and cites directors as seemingly distanced as Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami as being strongly influenced by this movement or tendency. Kiarostami notes that the willingness to ‘break the rules’ was an important influence upon him but when one follows the hypothesis suggested here that there are stronger links with European Surrealism than is usually thought about, this ‘breaking of the rules’ can be understood as more embedded in a subversive tradition of seeing things differently.
Cultural Historiography: Tafuri's Recerca
As the French Nouvelle Vague becomes history rather than a contemporary cultural movement it becomes more important to place it within a wider historical framework whilst recognising that history itself is necessarily an interpretive act concerning the past. Here it is useful to borrow from the work of architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri. I have recently come across the recent translation of his important last work Ricerca del Rinascimento with an English title of Interpreting the Renaissance. Of course there is a loss through translation of the meaning of the term Ricerca which Hays his translator goes to some trouble to explain more fully. The term has several connotations:
- Constant revision of hypotheses in the light of new evidence
- An understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods
If we apply this term to the French New Wave I argue that it is best to place it within a wider history of European cinema, itself related to the cultural twists and turns of a tumultuous period of global history. Perhaps what is needed for a reassessment is a cinematic history which is modelled on Tafuri’s openly revisionist (in a positive sense of the term) of Italian Renaissance Architecture which has as its objective explains Hays:
…providing a comprehensive reassessment of Italian Renaissance architecture…Rejecting the conventions of the exhaustive survey, Tafuri’s book is instead a series of in-depth, interconnected studies that present the architecture of the period not only as a manifestation of its cultural circumstances, but also in terms of its artistic practices designed to reinforce, challenge, and transform dominant ideologies, thereby changing the context of its reception.” (Tafuri 2006: p XVII)
So far in my cross-national comparisons I have discovered not only a lack of Jean Rouch aqnd early Rivette but an underwriting of the British Free Cinema movement programmes. This is important to raise here because of its commitment to showing French films from directors who presumably were to become stalwarts of the French New Wave. This is a serious flaw in writing European cinema from a perspective dominated by notions of national cinema for it can provide an unwelcome straitjacket. The blurb on the BFI DVD notes that Free Cinema 5 was on French Renewal and included Chabrol and Truffaut but it goes no further. It notes that Free Cinema 2 screened the work of Franju amongst other French filmmakers. Fortunately I discovered some intersting work on the web:
Cinema 4 introduced to Britain for the first time two directors of the French New Wave - Claude Chabrol (with Le Beau Serge) and François Truffaut (with Les Mistons)( Lindsay Anderson Programme notes: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/anderson-77prognotes.html
This article by John Ellis makes a useful series of links between Free Cinema and continental and American art tendendencies:
The second, fourth and fifth programmes contained films which the group felt were madealong the kind of lines it was pursuing. Included were two American documentaries, LeSang des Bêtes by Georges Franju, a series of Polish films including ones made by Borowczyk, Lenica and Polanski, and a programme called 'French Renewal' with films by Frangois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Even with the British-made films there were many differences; they were made over six years between 1953 and 1959. The films were not made in collaboration but rather emerged as a group following their inclusion in the Free Cinema programme. (Ellis 1977 see link below).
Greene tends to downplay the importance of Franju who was involved with both documentary and fictional film making yet Anderson et al would have been attracted to Franju because his surrealistic links which would have placed him on a par with Humphrey Jennings. That Franju was intimately involved with the establishment of the Cinematheque along with Langlois is important and Williams covers Franju in reasonable detail in his Republic of Images.
Henri Langlois & George Franju cofounders of the Cinematheque
Overall this opportunity for critical reflection has helped to identify several aspects of French and European film culture which need to be unearthed and made more publicly available. Greene has written up Jean Rouch and created a greater focus on Rivette but perhaps underwritten Marcel Camus and George Franju but in a short book there will necessarily be gaps. It would be unreasonable to review Green’s necessarily brief summary of a movement in this way however there is always a danger that publishing becomes an essential support of a pre-established discourse often linked to increasingly highly structured aspects of educational curricula. Green’s book clearly is in accordance with a very specific target market and achieves its end very effectively.
Hopefully the enthusiastic filmgoer will take it as a useful first step upon a wider cultural and intellectual journey rather than a tick box “done the French New Wave”! As time passes I suspect that more will be made of the underwritten links with European cinematic surrealism and that what is known as the Nouvelle Vague will be understood as a surrealistic inter-ruption which would support the sort of historical methods espoused by Tafuri and Benjamin amongst others. It is strange that Greene specifically draws upon the surrealists in interwar France as an example of “…an intertwined flowering of French film and film criticism” repeated by the Cahiers group of film makers as well as others in the French cultural avant-garde of the 1950s.
Youthful joie de vivre in Bertolucci's France 1968 revisited film The Dreamers. Remind you of Jules et Jim anybody?
Return of the Repressed?
Perhaps we should leave our thoughts with Bertolucci whose film The Dreamers in some sense links an artistic politics to a material politics yet recognises the ultimate disjunction between them for the film notes the importance of Godard and Truffaut in defence of Henri Langlois and his position in the Cinematheque. It was March 1968 when the government tried to remove Langlois that the Cahiers cavalry came to the rescue. It was a surrealistic prelude to the uprising and strife of May 1968. Bertolucci was himself strongly influenced by Godard and was also in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Lacan was very interested in surrealism. With the 40th anniversary of this we can reflect upon an “understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods.”
Greene, Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in French Postwar Cinema. New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Greene, Naomi. 2007. The French New Wave. London: Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-1-905674-12-1
Tafuri, Manfredo. 2006. Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects. New Haven: Yale University Press
Williams, Alan. 1992. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge
BBC guide to George Franju http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A893441
Senses of Cinema on Georges Franju’s remake of Judex providing a strong link into European Surrealism: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/35/feuillade_franju_dvd.html
Taken from Ellis John (ed.), 1951-1976: British Film Institute Productions, London: British Film Institute, 1977: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/ellis-freecinema.html
May 28, 2007
The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti
Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned
Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:
It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)
Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly.
Introduction: The representation of history
This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.
Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.
My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined.
Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.
By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it.
Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo
Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.
Historical Background to The Leopard
Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.
Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.
After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.
There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.
The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.
They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.
Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.
Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.
Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).
Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)
Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.
Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).
Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.
This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.
The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.
Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.
Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.
The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film.
Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.
The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.
In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.
Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene.
To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.
It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of
Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.
Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.
A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.
Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento
The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.
It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).
However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.
It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.
The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.
Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.
The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from
This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of
Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.
Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.
Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.
Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly revolutions of both a progressive and a regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):
Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children. (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).
This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.
Link to Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!
Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.
For other internal links see: