All 16 entries tagged European Film Studies
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June 19, 2008
Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. Geoffrey Nowell–Smith
Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. 2008. Continuum Press
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The book cover is from Godard's Le Mépris (Contempt) featuring Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot. A film in which Godard was forced to make a voyeuristic take of Bardot to satisfy the producers need for salacious images. Godard of course makes a film ironising the role of the American producer and their insatiable commercialism amongst other things.
If only there were more film studies books written like this! This is one of those admirable books which has been written by a leading expert but combines a lightness of touch, a synoptic vision able to draw useful comparisons between countries, directors and films and avoids recourse to over-theoreticism much beloved in certain quarters of academia - not that Nowell-Smith isn't able to hold his own in this sphere. It quite simply isn't the point of the book. It is the sort of book which European Cinema enthusiasts desperately need more of. Far too often books of essays cobbled together by an editor come out in order to satisfy RAE type publishing requirements providing disparate although often insightful analysis of individual films at the expense of coherence. This is increasingly divorcing academics from real audiences interested in Euopean films both past and present. If new audiences are to be attracted to these films in a context which goes beyond the usual academic parcelling up of the period into 'national movements' combined with lots of textual analysis then this is the sort of book which needs to be written. No hagiographical commentaries, no over-weighty attempts at 'theory' and no misplaced and tedious attempts to incorporate everything into a 'postmodern' discourse. This is a pleasurable and insightful read.
There is often little attempt to contextualise films either to other aspects of cinema contemporary to the times being written about or to the social, political,economic and cultural tendencies, which define the cinematic moment. Nowell-Smith overcomes all these hurdles adroitly. He moves from the enigmatic representations of Antonioni through the gritty Brit documentary realism to the joie de vivre of the nouvelle vague seamlessly. The changing narrative structures, the changing situation in censorship and the key production concerns, and issues such as Vietnam, Algeria, the Hungarian Uprising, and the Suez Crisis are all brought into play in a highly relevant and readable way.
This is a book which avoids the kiss of intellectual death embedded within the text book mentality prevalent at pre-university level as it contains individual vision. It avoids the patronising 'bite-size' mentality of most of these but it doesn't make assumptions about knowledge. It carefully explains things as it goes along whilst still maintaining the rhythms of a proper book. It is the best overview of the period I have come across, providing those who saw some of the films at the time and who still have fond memories of them an excellent route into reviewing the films. It wil eanbel them to place the films into a wider pattern rather than having a strange hotch-potch of memories which never slotted together at the time. For those just gaining an interest in the period it provides an excellent introduction and opens up a myriad of paths to follow. It is a book which I can comfortably recommend for enthusiastic A2 students and undergraduates. Whilst it is unlikely to hold many surprises for the seasoned academic it is clear that they are not the target audience.
From Truffaut's groundbreaking first feature 400 Blows which won at Cannes and launched the French Nouvelle Vague
European Film Studies has for a long time needed more books like this which have the coherence of a single author overview underpinned by the kind of specialist knowledge neccessary to give great depth to what on the surface seems to be a simple statement. It comes thoroughly recommended for all librarians for school, college and university first years as well as for the general cinephile who might well get to see many of the wide range of films referenced but find difficulty in making any kind of overall sense to them outside of the pleasures of the text itself.
Italy made a transition from older directors such as Visconti to vibrant new ones such as Marco Bellocchio whose Fists in the Pocket (1965) was a hard hitting angry portrait of a dysfunctional upper middle-class family
Nowell Smith also manages to bring together strands between movements and points out that Italy didn't need a 'new wave' in the way other countries did because being the leading filmmaking country in Europe from the neorealist period until the waning of the new waves at the end of the 1970s there was a continuum between the older styles and directors and the newer ones rather than the attempts to make a radical break with the past. Neorealism had largely achieved this with the fascism which went before it.
Anna Magnani in Pasolini's Mamma Roma 1962. "A Rome which was a microcosm of every possible contrast between new and old, rich and poor, developed and primitive, north and south" (Nowell-Smith, 2008, p156)
One aspect I liked was Nowell-Smith's little asides about Stalinists and dogmatic Trotskyists. Also his knowledge about British political changes on the left as Western Marxism was born out of the vacuums left because of the disgust with the Soviet crushing of Hungary in 1956 was of interest. As someone who is currently in the throes of writing an institutional history of the British Film Institute (BFI) his comments about using Penelope Houston and Lambert from the cinephile magazine Sequence which had gone bust after 14 issues was amusing:
Dennis Foreman, who had grand plans to give more focus to the lively but dispersed film culture he saw emerging all around him, offered Lambert and Houston a golden opportunity: forget trying to keep Sequence alive and instead take over and revitalise the institute's established but stodgy magazine Sight and Sound. (Nowell-Smith, 2008 p 31)
Rita Tushingham in Tony Richardson's Taste of Honey (1961). "A Taste of Honey is the most 'Free Cinema' and also the most 'New Wave' (in the French sense) of the British realist films. It is the lightest in touch, the nearest to improvisation, and the best rooted in its chosen setting." (Nowell-Smith 2008, p128)
Nowell-Smith's wide-ranging knowledge serves the reader well for on the previous page to the one mentioned above he he succinctly brings in what he considers an important moment in the development of French cinema which involved getting the backing of Cocteau and founding a high profile cine-club Objectif 49 which opened in May 1949 and the establishing of a festival the Festival du film Maudit (Festival of the ill-fated film) in June of that year in Biarritz. The festival showed many films that had been banned in the past such as Visconti's Ossessione, and the Brecht/Dudow collaboration Kuhle Wampe. The festival also showed many other fringe type of films. There was an underlying hope of unifying the cinephiles and the left in France although this had to wait in the event. It was an interesting insight which isn't provided by a large book on French cinema Williams' Republic of Images for example.
Nowell-Smith organises the book in a very useful way. He briefly reviews 'What Were the Sixties?' concisely and realistically cutting through the nostalgia which makes them 'Swinging' and summarising the situation well. He then reviews the general contextual situation in the 1950s in the build up to the new waves, and also reviews the changing film culture and the importance of new criticism within that culture as poles of difference emerge in France through Cahiers du Cinema and in the UK through Sequence. He then proceeds to examine the new cinemas themselves taking into account the tensions and contradictions inherent within the various systems of censorship, the changing narrative structures and technological issues such as new zoom lenses and the introduction of wide-screen.
Nowell-Smith succincntly runs thorugh the changing narrative priorities that were emerging at the time. instead of the purposive heros driving the plot cinemas of the 1960s began to examine life without clear purpose. Antonioni can be seen as an extreme example of this notes Nowell-Smith (p 104):
The new cinemas everywhere are peopled with characters who either do not know what they are supposed to be doing or are impotent to achieve their goal.
Monica Vitti on the deserted volcanic island in L'avventura (1960)
Nowell-Smith then reviews the film movements of the time, British Social Realism / Free cinema, The French Nouvelle Vague and then the situtation in Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as looking at the changing circumstances in Latin America partially stimulated by the Castro led revolution in Cuba. Finally Nowell-Smith looks at the role of the auteur through brief synopses of Godard, Antonioni and Pasolini.
Nowell-Smith has a nice concluding paragraph which will hopefully encourage older readers to revisit the films and younger ones to try the films out as more and more become available on DVD:
Rather than die, then, the new cinemas dispersed. But they had created a legacy, even more widespread than that of neo-realism a decade and more earlier. And unlike neo-realism, they stand today forty years on, as representatives of modernity. More valuable still, the modernity they bespeak is liberation. and the message of modernity as liberation is not one locked up in a bottle: it may no longer be available in the cinemas, but it is there for the asking when you unwrap that DVD and put it in your player. (Nowell-Smith 2008, p 216)
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February 09, 2008
Senso, 1954. Dir. Luchino Visconti
Senso, 1954. Dir. Luchino Visconti
(Original run-time 121 minutes)
Links to Visconti's historical films The Leopard and The Damned
Senso was the first feature film Visconti made after Bellissima (1951). Already Bellissima had been accused of breaking with the precepts of neorealism but this was nothing to the criticism which Senso received. Senso has been seen by noted critics such as Richard Dyer and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith as extremely important film. Despite this the film was beaten by the more commercially 'art' oriented La Strada at the Venice Film Festival that year. Richard Dyer voted for it as a top ten critics choice film for the BFI and Nowell-Smith (2003) when introducing the film comments that:
... Senso is beyond question one of the greatest, and also the most Viscontian, of all Visconti's films.
As with much of Visconti's work there was a battle with the censors. The film was a critique of the dominant discourse and creation of the triumphalists myths surrounding the Risorgimento fight for unification of Italy. A key scene which would have helped show that the Risorgimento was a also a popular movement was cut. As a result as Marcus (1986) notes this "succeeded in removing the film's true revolutionary sting". The currently available Optimum DVD is only 116 minutes long whilst the original running time of the film was 121 minutes long. The original version shown in the UK was little more than 90 minutes long! In order for the film to be able to represent its main thrust the missing scenes are crying out for restoration.
Senso is the first of three films which deal with European nationalism very directly the others being The Leopard (1963), and The Damned (1969). By linking these three films together based upon analysing their underlying theme of European nationalism and its effects upon the social structure of modernity it is beginning to read Visconti's ouevre differetly to Bacon (1998) for example who categorises Senso along with The Leopard as straightforwardly films of the Risorgimento. Whilst this is self-evidently the case Visconti was too powerful a thinker to stop there. Much of the rest of his work was concerned with various elements of exposing the various power structures within society and there was a continual level of conflict and tension expressed between the nation state and the rise and decline of older empires and newer governmental forms.
Senso explores the myth underlying the unification stories of the Risorgimento in the years leading to the the removal of the Austrian Empire from its control of much of Northern Italy. The Leopard goes back to a slightly earlier time in 1860 when the Bourbons are ejected from Sicily. In 1866 when the events of Senso are taking place a revolt in Palermo is crushed on orders from the government of Italy based at the time in Turin. In Senso the potential for a popular movement is effectively denied by those in command of the Italian forces although a key scene is censored which clearly shows this. Both these films show the complicity, compromises and collusion and processes of hegemony taking place amongst the fractured ruling elites. Nationalism can still be seen as progressive in the Marxist sense of modernity ushering in a more dynamic social order. By comparison The Damned can be seen as a closure on Visconti's artistic explorations into European nationalism which as I argue elsewhere can clearly be seen as Visconti's critique of the limits of nationalism and the dead end which it ultimately leads to at a structural level within society.
The plot is very different from the book which it is nominally based upon by the writer Boito. The opening scene takes place in La Fenice the Opera House in Venice in 1866 just a few months before the Veneto is freed from the control of the Austrian Empire.
The opera being enacted is Verdi's Il trovatore where the third act is coming to a climax. The mounting tension on stage and the the declarations of being prepared to fight to the death are enhanced by the chorous shouting All 'armi, All 'armi (to arms, to arms). This defiance is mirrored in the audience as the audience is shown bundles of leaflets being passed forwards to those wanting to resist the Austrian occupation.
Suddenly a rain of green, white and red leaflets flutter down from the balconies onto the Austrian officers who are sitting in the best stalls. Small sprays of flowers of the same national colours are thrown or warn by the women on their dresses. an Austrian officer makes a disparaging remark about that was the way the Italians like to resist occupations- through bunches of flowers and leaflets. He is challenged to a duel by an Italian. The officer is Franz and the Italian spectator Ussoni who is a leader of the underground resistance.
In the opening scene at La Fenice the Austrian officers have the best seats at the opera whilst the Italian elites are at the back and in the balconies. They are soon to rain down leaflets on the unsuspecting Austrians
The Marquis Ussoni is the cousin of Livia the Countess of Serpieri who is in a loveless marriage to a man much older than her. Serpieri it turns out is just an aristocratic opportunist happy to change sides from Austria to Italy when it becomes increasingly clear who is going to win control of the Veneto. Franz uses his position to ensure that Ussoni rather than fighting a duel is exiled for Franz has no interest in duelling: like Livia he prefers his melodrama onstage rather than offstage.
Livia is with Ussoni at La Fenice after he has made a challenge to a duel to Franz. Here he is looking for a way out. Livia has told him how foolish he was to raise his head above the parapet. Here it is obvious that Livia's personal concerns are not reflected in Ussoni's mindset. Any desire is inevitably a chaste one.
Livia has professed an interest in meeting Franz who has a reputation for being very handsome, ostensibly this meeting is to help out Ussoni but one can sense an ambivalence. Soon after Ussoni is exiled Livia and Franz become lovers. However the war is coming increasingly nearer. Franz is posted to the front and the Count Serpieri takes Livia to their summer villa to avoid the fighting. Before they leave Livia is summoned to an address where she meets up with Ussoni who is planning an uprising. Ussoni charges her with the safekeeping of some funds in order to supply the rebels at a later date.
A while later Franz breaks into the villa and seeks refuge with Livia who hides him. The discussion is moved around to the possibilities of Franz being able to bribe a doctor to get himself discharged from the army. To do this Livia betrays the nationalist cause and gives Franz the money and jewels intended for the rebels. In the process of this the audience is shown what Livia cannot see; the expression on Franz's face is one of pure opportunism. He has enjoyed Livia, but love isn't part of the equation for him.
Franz then manages to bribe his way out of the army and sends a note to Livia. Livia can't bear to be emotionally imprisoned in her marriage any longer and makes a dangerous journey to find Franz. When she arrives she is greeted by a decadent and dissolute Franz who is drunk and with a prostitute. Franz regales her with unpleasantries forcing her to leave. Livia reports him for desertion to the Austrian army. Franz is arrested and summarily executed. The last we see of Livia is her slowly walking in the shadows shouting Franz out loud.
A Gramscian History of the Risorgimento
The plot outline tells us little of the importance of the film which seeks to historicize the Risorgimento in an entirely different way to the official hisories of the period. this also opened up the possibility for audiences to mount a critique of the postwar situation in Italy which had failed to enact any genuine transformation in the class relationships of society. With its main target audience being Italians often with a lot of basic knowledge about the Risorgimento this was an ambitious film. The film was a target of the censors and had many critics from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Whilst the criticisms from the Right were to be expected the ones from the left showed up the limitations of the left-wing imaginary of the time.
Key critical opponents of the film were Zavattini and Chiarini who took a fundamentalist approach to the neorealist ethic. For them Senso was a total betrayal of neorealism as it eschewed the harsh moments of the present in a return to the past. As Marcus notes:
...neorealism constitutes the absolute standard against which Senso is measured and found wanting, by Chiarini and Zavattini who fault Visconti for abandoning the modern subject matter and stylistic transparency of the postwar school. (Marcus 1986 p 171)
The left-wing critic Aristarco on the other hand defended the film arguing that Senso represented an extension and evolution of neorealism. Rather than negring neorealism it marked the return to realism proper in the 19th century sense of the term. In reality Aristarco is effectively accusing neorealism of being a surface aesthetic rather than an aesthetic which is probing below the surface to explore the social forces which shape society throwing up various social forms which can be either recorded or analysed. This was a return of the old argument between the French Naturalists (Zola for example) and the Realists.
Chiarini however took the position that neorealism's immediacy contained a moral imperative which raised public consciousness about social conditions and could help formulate policy change. Both neorealism and the sense of postwar social solidarity which welcomed Rome Open City(1945 ) was long since past. The reality was that neorealist films had frequently failed in the box office and failed therefore to capture the popular imagination. In the meantime a right-wing government supported by the Americans and the British and the promise of Marshall Aid had been installed some time before the release of Senso. Chiarini and Zavattini were seemingly driven by a head in the sand idealism.
It is here that Visconti's Marxism comes to the fore because Senso in its very essence is a recognition of the importance of history and who controls and owns history. History for Visconti was a powerufl ideological tool in the control of the intellectual elites. It was Gramsci's recognition of the importance of creating working class or organic intellectuals who could challenge the hegemonic ideas of the elites which was one of the factors driving Visconti. At the level of aesthetics and how it worked with politics he had been increasingly convinced by the Lukacsian arguments about the realist and its role in exposing class relations.
Visconti's relationship to Lukacsian thought is crucial when it comes to the construction of his characters. Here it is important to develop a 'type'. Lovell (1980) notes that :
The most appropriate type of character, for purposes of typicality, is neither the statistical average nor the great hero, but an unexceptional individual caught at the centre of conflicting social and political forces. (Lovell, 1980 p 71)
Lovell cites Lukacs directly and whilst we can think about this in relation to the novel it seems pertinent to suggest that this is the problematic that Visconti was wrestling with when he reinvents the character of Livia in quite a different way to the character originally envisaged by Boito who wouldn't fit the 'type' very well:
The problem is to find a central figure in whose life all the important extremes in the world of the novel converge and around whom a complete world with all its vital contradictions can be organised. (Lukacs: Writer and Critic cited Lovell 1980 p 71)
The Role of Women in the Age of Bourgeois Nationalism
Feminist historians have noted that in the 19th century rise of nationalism women were ususally excluded from the bid for more democratic rights based upon the nation state for those who could be classed as citizens. Women in the rise of Greek nationalism were largely chattels and baby-bearers of potential new citizens (women got the right to vote in 1952 in Greece and in Italy in 1945). Of course in the 19th century no women had a vote anywhere except New Zealand in 1893.
Franz (Farley Granger) meets Livia (Allida Valli) for the first time at La Fenice. Livia wishes to negotiate with him over thefate of Ussoni who has challenged him to a duel
Bearing this in mind it is worth thinking about this in relation to the character of Livia the Countess. Livia by being a woman is largely sidelined from the great political and social causes of the day. She is in a typical arranged aristocratic marriage to a much older man, which is loveless and even childless. As a woman she is little more than a chattel, after all the progressive nationalist movement of the day says nothing about the position of women in society, why should she care? Rather she is at the mercy of emotional whims. Her admiration of her cousin might well be sexual as much as it is based upon someone who is an ideological doer. But at heart it is an nationalist ideology which effects her little. She has no great antipathy towards Austrians otherwise why after the protest in the opera house would she wish to meet a handsome Austrian officer, and with her husband she is continually in the company of Austrians. She is part of a more internationalist aristocracy.
On their first meeting Franz quickly establishes that he isn't an idealogue, melodrama on the stage is best kept where it is not extended into real life he points out. Livia is quickly attracted to him becuase of his easy going ways and his attentiveness to her. By comparison the only times we see Ussoni with her he is proclaiming in a melodramatic way that it is the nation and if necessary death which must come first. Franz is a romantic of sorts but not a Byronic one, for courtly love as Marcus points out has a strong code in which the male must:
...be a warrior as well as a suitor, spurred onto deeds of military prowess by the desire to please his lady. (Marcus 1986 p 177)
In this sense there is a sense of decline and decay between the lovers and when Franz exempts himself from the virile world of the military he loses all the things in life which structure his identity, romantic love cannot exist outside of time and reality it is based in a materiality which is income based and class based. Franz has lost both. Unlike Boito's original novella which is an 'ahistorical love story' (Marcus 1986), Visconti's version lives up to Lukacs' definitions of the historical novel where suggests Marcus:
the personal destinies of a number of human beings coincide and interweave within the determining context of an historical crisis. (Marcus, 1986 p 178)
The issue of gender and nationalism has been effectively highlighted in this this film although perhaps at an unconscious level. Livia as a synechdoche for women as well as a de facto member of the aristocracy through father and then husband is counterpoised to the the nationalism of Ussoni who fits in with the description of nationalism provided by Anthony Smith:
The concept of nation, then, is not only an abstraction and invention, as is so often claimed. It is also felt, and felt passionately, as something very real, a concrete community, in which we may find some assurance of our own identity and even, through our descendents, of our immortality. But transcending death is what the world religions sought in their different ways; so, we may ask, does this not make of nationalism some latterday religion in secular disguise? (Smith 1998p 140)
Compare Smith's analysis with the comments of Ussoni in the scene where he unceremoniously places the funds raised for the partisans into Livia's care. Livia, please note, wasn't overkeen but wasn't given an opportunity to refuse:
...we must forget ourselves...Italy's at war...It's our war...our Revolution
Above. After breaking into the country villa Franz is opportunistically throwing himself on Livia's sense of love and fear for him.
Livia is torn between a betrayal of trust and her own individual desires, for events have unfurled in a way which she could not have imagined. But in the end she undergoes little in the way of personal risk for she is a member of the aristocracy and she is allowed to pass by both sides to reach her lover. Franz has an historical premonition of the passing of the Austrian elite to which he belongs, also a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. By comparison Livia effectively survives the chain of events because we are always given a voice over. We can assume that she goes back to her husband chastened by the course of events at least at the level of the emotions. Serpieri of course has switched sides, at no time is the position of Livia fundamentally threatened in the film. Her romantic gesture of running away to her lover was flung back in her face. She is embedded in a social structure as much as Franz. Marcus points this out very effectively:
...the primacy of the Livia-Franz plot over the Livia-Ussoni one constitutes a Gramscian criticism of the Risorgimento in melodramatic terms. (Marcus 1986 p 185)
In Marcus' estimate Livia is introduced to the audience 'on a moral pedestal so lofty that her decline occasions surprise as well as distaste'. (Marcus p 181). However on reading the film more closely this is perhaps being overly judgemental of Livia for as stated earlier her position is a weak one, she is dependent upon men and is married to one who is uninterested in her. Marcus here seems to be almost identifying with the nationalist cause because Livia really her 'fall' only comes when she uses the monies for her own purposes. But as a woman she has no money of her own.
When Livia asks for an introduction to the officer on the grounds of the fact that all the young women are talking about Franz. At this point given that she has kissed a nationalist bouquet we can imagine that this is a cover in order to get her cousin out of trouble but we could take it as a sign of ambivalence. Ussoni is told off by her for being entirely foolhardy jeopardising his own position and others by his over-reaction to a trite insult. In contradisinction to Anthony Smith's almost impassioned plea Livia doesn't feel the nationalism of her cousin passionately at all, it is the attraction to her cousin which is the dominant concern as Nowell-Smith makes clear:
Her (Livia's) devotion to the cause is personal, and she betrays it becuase sexual passion has more power over her than devoted admiration and friendship. But her attraction to Franz has its own social motivation. Through it she realises a nostalgic longing for the lover to whom as a member of her class she was entitled, but never had. Against this patriotism has nothing to offer......It is not a cause which can fully satisfy her aspirations or appease her regrets. (Nowell-Smith, 2003 p 70)
Here we see a marked difference in approach between Nowell-Smith and Marcus. Livia is rebellious but there is nowhere to go she cannot escape history or society as an isolated individual. As the film progresses her uneasy position between all the conflicting male elements which is apparent in the opening theatre scene becomes more apparent. Gradually she becomes more and more isolated with the acardian villa leaving her only with the complicit maid to support her. Stealing the money means that she will become totally isolated from the partisan struggle and physically she will become isolated from her lover. In this scene she is faced with the core contradiction which the film is building up to: she must sacrifice herself for the nationalist cause and betray her lover who it appears is the only person ever to have brought her true joy. The alternative is that she must sacrifice Franz to a likely death or serious injury on the battlefield. It is here that Visconti turns to melodrama in ordr to highlight the importance of the scene, there can be no turning back from here: which must she reject?
Nowell-Smith importantly points out that one cannot legitimately equate the position of Franz with that of Livia. Franz knows that his Austrian Empire is teetering and on the wane: his tirade against Livia is as much a bitter recognition of this passing, a Byronism turned sour suggests Nowell-Smith. Franz is genuinely a decadent he argues. Nowell-Smith points out that the poitiions of Livia and Franz aren't comparable, however his comment about Livia having 'a freedom to abuse' rather goes against the structured role as a woman caught between patriarchal forces:
He is quite clearly seen as a representative of a dying class. she represents nothing so simple. Her character is all her own, and the conflicting external determinations that work on her are not sufficient to fix her in any mould. At least she has the freedom to abuse, which Franz never has. (Nowell-Smith 2003 p 69)
The representation of women in Visconti's films is seriously underwritten: instead critics focus on Visconti's homosexuality and his aristoctratic background. It would of course be foolish to ignore Visconti's homosexuality and there is little doubt that it played a role in his filming and also in his understandings of sexual politics in general, an area in which more work needs to be done. Nowell-Smith (2003 p 214) points out that almost all of his films are about the family and that only in Bellissima does the family emerge in strengthened form. Senso is one of those films which can be read as a critique of the bourgeois family.
Visconti's representations of women are extremely important. On the grounds that critics have endlessly discussed Visconti's aristocratic background one might well ascribe his representations of women to his relationship with his mother which was a very positive one. His mother came from a bourgeois industrialist's background and marriage to Visconti's father brought the wealth necessary for him to carry on with his aristocratic ways including his philandering. It would appear that Visconti's mother was a vehicle for the transfer of money just as Angelica was in The Leopard.
Visconti fequently represents prostitutes and prostitution. For Visconti sexual relations frequently centre around money and power. Just as Livia gets to hold the purse strings -albeit temporarily- in Senso so does Giovanna in Ossessione. Franz in Senso and Gino in Ossessione both then turn to prostitutes to assert their masculinity and illusory control. But the women are punished for breaking the male codes. Visconti is clear that under capitalist society women are extremly repressed. Certainly prostitution is seen as something which women have little choice but to turn to occasionally, as did Giovanna before she married Bragana in Ossessione. There is a Marxist analysis of family relationships which runs through Visconti's work as well as more straightforward themes of class and history, nationalism and its historically determined failures. It is a theme which will be returned to in the future.
Demythologising the Risorgimento
A core preferred meaning for Visconti's Senso was to demythologise the Risorgimento and to draw parallels to present day Italy. Several projected scenes were censored because Visconti was going far too close to the bone of the official versions of history. Coming at a time when the Italian right had managed to reimpose their political control an influential film-maker such as Visconti wasn't going to be given much leeway. Whilst the position of the Serpieris explains the opportunism of many of the aristocrats as well as some of the issues around the relationship of women to the nationalist project it is in the figure of Ussoni that many of the most poignant political issues revolve around.
A question posed by Nowell-Smith was whether Visconti was posing a double question, suggesting on the one hand that the attempts to change Italian post-war society had failed in a similar way to those of the popular movement of mythology around the Risorgimento. An alternative take was even more radical: whether the failure of the Risorgimento to install a proper popular government which concerned all the people was a direct result of the ability of the new and old elites to create a hegemonic position which ensured that the working and peasant classes were largely left in the same poverty stricken position. The position of poverty is amply represented by later films such as Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) set in 1898, and also Bertollucci's 1900 (1976).
In Senso the position of the peasantry is made abundantly clear during the battle scenes based upon the Battle of Custoza. Whilst the peasants are going about their business transporting what appears to be hay on their carts the Italian army is racing about, forcing gun carriages past the carts of the peasants who are oblivious to the proceedings. It is a clear denial of the myth of a popular movement espousing all members of the 'community' who are according to Smith impassioned by the 'very real concrete community'. It was a point that Aristarco made in Visconti's defence as Bacon (1998) points out:
Politics of power continue but it doesn't bother them. It is as if they were saying: ' you do what you want gentlemen, it doesn't concern us. It's not our war.' (Aristarco in an interview with Bacon. Bacon 1998 p 81)
Aesthetic objections to Senso and also Visconti's thorough way of working
But the Gramscian argument fails to address the most troublesome objection to Senso - that of its spectacular elements, which ally it with the more retrograde examples of prewar production... the criticism is hard to refute because it rest on the assumption that aesthetic form determines thematic content and that a luxurious , self-congratulatory style full of extracinematic conventions will necessarily compromise any aspirations the artis may have to revolutionary meaning. Marcus 1986 p 187)
Marcus notes that despite the scepticism from many on the left side of the critical establishment Visconti's insistence that the mise en scene must be appropriate to the position of the class being represented eventually allowed a better critical reception for a newer generation of film makers such as Wertmuller, Bertollucci and Cavani.
It is difficult to think of any director who has had so many complaints about the expense and details of the sets. Whilst those who tried to adhere more strictly to what they understood as the fundamentals of neorealism which was closer to an ethnographic mode of filming the poor, Visconti had much greater artistic ambitions. Those who took on board Brechtian Marxist ideas would also have been less concerned with the verisimilitude of the sets for Brechtianism is a deliberately ascetic aesthetic approach. Visconti's Marxism based upon Lukacsian realism was concerned with verisimilitude in its mise en scene indeed the precision demanded by Visconti in his sets was legendary, whether it was the dinner plates in The Leopard or the parquet flooring in The Damned. to try and get away from this sour and fruitless so-called critique of Visconti it is worth dwelling for a moment on his aesthetics and the poetics of his oeuvre.
Viscontian Aesthetics & Poetics
It is isn't popular to discuss the poetics of cinema or even its aesthetics yet these are fundamental aspects of cinema. Some aspects of Visconti's can be equated to that of Angelopoulos that other great film maker who has embedded his film making as a conscious effort to historicize and thus politicize the present, yet just as Visconti began to do later in his life so Angelopoulos became more distanced from politics. Later works in both directors take up elements of nostalgia. Here it is important to come to some definition of nostalgia for Visconti is frequently accused of being nostalgic about former aristocratic times.
In an interview with Andrew Horton "What do our Souls Seek?" Angelopoulos explians how one night he was in the same building as Tarkovsky who was shooting the film Nostalgia at the time. Tarkovsky argued that it was a Russian word but in fact it comes from the Greek 'homecoming'. Angelopoulos then puts the notion of 'home' within a national context nevertheless he points out that home:
...is a place where you feel at one with yourself and the cosmos. It is not necessarily a real spot that is here or there. (Angelopoulos in Horton 1997 p 106)
Although Angelopoulos is usually associated with the modernism of Antonioni in particular the link to nostalgia is interesting:
...almost all the films, and the later ones most particularly, are suffused with a nostalgia for the family as an institution. (Nowell-Smith, 2003 p 214)
Although the historical projects are different for Visconti explores particularly the mechanisms of history in a period of transition on the 1860s the search for 'home' is crucial for Visconti's leading characters live in a world of the unheimlich. Visconti is not at home in life any more than his characters are. Livia in Senso is plainly not at 'home'. In the conversation in the bedroom of the Venetian boarding house at the begining of the relationship Livia wishes to step outside time which is very significant:
In their different ways, both Franz and Livia have attempted to step outside of history and to blind themselves morally, either by decision or deception, to the way they exploit other people in dedicating themselves to hedonism on his part, to romantic fantasies on hers. (Bacon, 1998 p 80)
History, Visconti seems to be saying, is a motor of change which is impossible to evade. Frequently that change is very limited despite all the underlying political idealism represented in Senso by Ussoni. In Ludwig, Ludwig's homosexuality combined with the duties and expectations of kingship place him in an 'unhomely' position. Perhaps a key difference between Visconti's aesthetics and that of Angelopoulos is that the latter anchors much of his work within Greek culture particularly upon the myth of Odysseus. This gives his work a more spatial and geographical grounding than Visconti's which has far more interior work. The return of the old Communist in the Voyage to Cythera (1983) and the lack of recognition for him within a society which should have been 'home' plays with history in a different way but the situation is 'unhomely'. Visconti's aesthetic is more Proustian and Angelopoulos' more Brechtian in the ways they deal with time both also have an approach which is inevitably suffused with their own national cultures.
The richness of the Renaissance and the painterliness of Visconti's work is in sharp contradstinction to the distancing of Angelopoulos' camerawork and the highly stylised set-pieces which make the latter's work 'modernist' rather than 'realist', yet both are deeply engaged with historical processes. Just as Senso was a critical attack upon the canon of Risorgimento history so Travelling Players from Angelopoulos was a 'fundamental revision of Greek "official" history...' Georgakas 1997 p 29-30). Whilst the aesthetic forms are quite different, both directors chose to embed within their form an historicisation which opened up dominant discourses and also made the audience work. Angelopoulos seems to bridge the gap between Visconti's sense of aesthetics which are far more implicit compared to Godard's very explicit approach noted by Nowell-Smith again. Visconti chose to subvert the well established forms of melodrama and opera and in doing so was challenging well established audiences familiar with much of the content, for it must be remembered that in Italy even Gramsci recognised that opera played a very different role in the formation of a 'national popular' than it had in other countries. The petulant criticisms of Visconti from the left failed to understand that art has many ways of challenging dominant norms not least through the handling of history. Visconti's contribution to embedding theories of history within his cinema has yet to be fully recognised just as his determination to combine realism with other older aesthetic forms such as melodrama great works of art which perhaps will come to be appreciated above those contributions of his contempories such as Fellini and Antonioni who will perhaps come to be seen as very much film makers of their time.
In both aesthetic routes there seems to be a phenomenology of vision at work which can make many critics of all persuasions uncomfortable:
We are not usually aware that an unconscious element of touch is unavoidably concealed in vision; as we look, the eye touches, and before we even see an object we have already touched it. 'Through vision, we touch the stars and the sun',  as Merleau-Ponty writes. Touch is the unconsciousness of vision, and this hidden tactile experience determines the sensuous quality of the perceived object, and mediates messages of invitation or rejection, courtesy or hostility. (The Architectural Review | Date: 5/1/2000 | Author: Pallasmaa, Juhani)
Interestingly Pallasmaa has completed a book on cinema and architecture The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema which includes chapters on the work of Tarkovsky and Antonioni - Having only had a very brief look at it it is something to return to. Through them we can examine the work of Angelopoulos in relation to history and also think about the existential meaning of the mise en scene in the work of Visconti for we must remember Visconti too has exterior spaces the dry dustiness of Sicily, the frozen alps and the arcadian pastoralism of northern Italy in summer. Architecture too is redolent with meaning in the work of Visconti. This could prove to be a fascinating area of comparison in terms of the social ontology of the characters who people the films. This phenomenology can also be thought of in terms of metaphor when we start to talk of "the feel" of a film or having 'the touch' of a certain director. Here we re-enter the debate about the auteur but that is for another day.
Visconti is arguably the film director who has treated history and the theory of history along with a discourse that recognises history to be an intellectual area of competing ideologies. Even Angelopoulos doesn't seem to have done that. Senso was the first of Visconti's great trilogy of films relating to history and arguably we can add his Ludwig into this a fourth historical film. Certainly all the four film: Senso, The Leopard, The Damned and Ludwig use family relations as a synechdoche for other features of societies in change. Whilst the treament may be a little different between them being more of a Verdian nature and moving towards a Chekovian one suggests Bacon (1998 pp 60-62).
This piece argues that there are great implicit depths to Visconti's work and one which I have started to tease out here is in relation to the position of women in Visconti's films and in particular there relationship to the 'great' events unfurling around them. Livia in Senso understands that nationalism will really make little difference to her. This piece also recognises the importance of realism in its Lukacian sense to Visconti's project which is one designed with an Italian audience very much in mind. The piece also cross -references Visconti's handling of history to that of Angelopoulos another Mediterranean film maker who also started his film worl in France as did Visconti. There are some similarities between the two in terms of long films and the slowness of pace use of longer shots and longer takes, yet for all that there are large aesthetic differences between the two. Both in their own ways bring out the materiality of the surroundings, both are renowned perfectionists as well. There is certainly more room for comparison here however currently this will be difficult as most of Angelopoulos' films are currently unavailable in the UK.
Of course there is much more that can be said about this film. For the interested reader Nowell-Smith, Marcus and Bacon all have differetn insights into the film and all come as recommneded reading. There is also a chapter on Senso in the Wallflower Press "The Cinema of Italy" which is a useful first stop.
Notes on the Cinematography of Senso
Senso is unusual -to say the least- in that three cinematographers were involved. Nowell-Smith (2003 p 78) provides a full explanation. G.R. Aldo (Real Name Aldo Graziati) was Visconti's chosen cinematographer; sadly he died in a car crash before the films completion. Nowell-Smith notes that according to the published screenplay Aldo shot all the scenes in and around the Villa Valmara as well as the battle scenes and the retreat.
Robert Krasker was then hired. Krasker shot most of the rest of the film inluding the opening scene at La Fenice, most Venice exteriors, interiors of the Franz's lodgings, Livia's house, Ussoni's house and the home of the Austrian General in Venice.
Rotunno who had been the camera operator shot the executions scenes and 'a few bits and bobs'.
Nowell-Smith also notes that these cinematographers all had different ways of working resulting in a different feel. Nowell-Smith defends Krasker's work in his shooting of La Fenice and the opening scenes suggesting that Krasker achieved exactly the effect needed by Visconti for these scenes:
Indeed, the use of different lighting effects, due to different cinematographers but co-ordinated by Visconti himself, is essential to the formal articulation of the film. Particular sequences and locations each have a tonality of their own, inspired often by different styles and genres of nineteenth-century painting.
Theses aspects of mise en scene in Visconti's work are incredibly important to in dpeth analysis of his multi-layered approach to meaning. Ivo Blom an art historian is currently working on many aspects of painting and its relationship to Visconti's films.
It is particularly worth noting that both:
- Franco Rosi
- Franco Zeffirelli
were assistants on this film just as they had both been Visconti's assistants on La Terra Trema (1948)
- GR Aldo
- Robert Krasker
- Guiseppe Rotunno. (Rotunno was to became Visconti's main cinematographer in the future).
- Massimo Girotti
- Heinz Moog
- Rina Morelli
- Marcella Mariani
- Christian Marquand
- Luchino Visconti
- Suso Cecchi D'Amico
- Carlo Alianello
- Giorgio Bassani
- Paul Bowles
- Tennessee Williams
Links to Visconti's historical films The Leopard and the damned
The entries below represent the best in English I could find on a Google search down to page 30. Very disappointing. It is clearly an underwritten and under watched film!
Visconti Website: Senso a Palimpsest
Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema Gianfranco Poggi Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring, 1960), pp. 11-22. (JSTOR article needing the readies or instiutional access)
Luchino Visconti's "Musicism" Noemi Premuda International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Dec., 1995), pp. 189-210. Another JSTORarticle with no buy option so instituional access required.
Useful site on a lecture series and screenings of Italian films representing the Risorgimento
Bacon, Henry.1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: CUP
Horton Andrew. 1997."What do our Souls Seek: An interview with Theo Angelopoulos". In Horton Andrew E. 1997. The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos. Trowbridge: Ficks Books
Lovell, Terry. 1980. Pictures of Reality. London: British Film Institute
Marcus, Millicent: "Visconti's Senso The Risorgimento According to Gramsci". In Marcus, 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd RE. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute
Sellors, C. Paul. 2004. "Senso". In Bertellini, Giorgio ed,, 2004. The Cinema of Italy. London Wallflower
January 31, 2008
Nanni Moretti (1953-)
Return to Italian directors hub page
(All bar Il caimano taken from Mazierska & Rascaroli. 2004. The Cinema of Nanni Moretti)
- Il caimano (2006)
- La stanza del figlio (The Son's Room, 2001)
- Aprile (1998)
- Il Giorno della prima di Close Up (1996 short)
- L'unico paese al mondo (1994)
- Caro diario (Dear Diary 1994)
- La cosa (1990)
- Palombella rossa (1989)
- La messa è finita (1985)
- Bianca (1983)
- Ecce bombo (1978)
- Io sono un autarchico ("I Am Self Sufficient", 1976)
- Come parli, frate? (1994)
- Pate de bourgeois (1973)
- La sconfitta (1973)
Videos on Web
Extract from Caro Diario (Dear Diary) about visit to site of Pasolini's discovered body.
Extract from Palombella rossa (1989) [In Italian no subtitles]
Scope Review of The Son's Room
Independent on New Italian Directors
Nanni Moretti Darling of Italy BBC Story
Guardian on Nanni Moretti Interview 2001
Film Comment : Deborah Young on Moretti
Euroscreenwriters interview with Moretti
Analysis of Moretti's Caro Diario (Dear Diary)
Films currently available on DVD in UK (Very Few of course!)
Moretti interview on The Caiman
Psychoanalytic Analysis of The Son's Room in Psychomedia
Marcus, Millicent: Caro Diario and the Cinematic Body of Nanni Moretti
Italica, Vol. 73, No. 2, Film (Summer, 1996), pp. 233-247 doi:10.2307/479365. You will need institutional access to this JSTOR article. (It is also available in Marcus 2002 see bibliography below)
World Socialist review of The Caiman
International Herald Tribune Moretti directs Turin Film Festival
RAI International Online Biography of Nanni Moretti
CineEuropea Interview with Nanni Moretti
BBC Interview with Moretti on The Son's Room
Article in The Roman Forum on Nuovo Sacher independent cinema owned by Nanni Moretti
Google Book Extract on Masculinity an Fatherhood in Aprile (Book can be purchased from Wallflower Press
Senses of Cinema on The Son's Room
American Cinematheque on Moretti
Toronto Film Festival The Caiman
Washington Post The Caiman Review
European Film Promotion: Jasmine Trinka Nanni Moretti chose her to play one of the leading roles in IL CAIMANO, which was in competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2006. On this occasion, she received the Chopard Trophy-Female Revelation.
Bondanella, Peter. 3rd edition. 2002. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
Marcus, Millicent. 2002. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Mazierska & Rascaroli. 2004. The Cinema of Nanni Moretti. London: Wallflower Press
December 30, 2007
Ludwig,1973. Dir: Luchino Visconti
Ludwig,1973, Italy. dir Luchino Visconti
This magnificent film has recently been released in its four hour original version on DVD. There is currently no time available to write a proper article on the film which is on the never ending 'to do' list. This entry thus constitutes a search of Google at the end of 2007 down to page 25 for good quality entries on Visconti's Ludwig. As with many of his other films there is a remarkable paucity of useful material. Thankfully the Google project of being able to view parts of books online has come to the rescue with the entry from Henry Bacon's book on Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay being a must. For those serious about their Visconti it should be bought anyway!
For now this entry will function as a small hub for those intersted in following up this film.
Return to main Visconti hub page
- Director: Luchino Visconti
- Script: Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti
- Photo: Armando Nannuzzi
- Music: Jacques Offenbach, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner
- Cast: Helmut Berger (Ludwig), Trevor Howard (Richard Wagner), Silvana Mangano (Cosima Von Buelow), Romy Schneider (Elisabeth of Austria), Gert Fröbe (Father Hoffmann), Helmut Griem (Count Duerckheim), Izabella Telezynska (Queen Mother), Umberto Orsini (Count Von Holstein), John Moulder-Brown (Prince Otto), Sonia Petrovna (Sophie), Folker Bohnet (Joseph Kainz), Heinz Moog (Professor Gudden), Adriana Asti (Lila Von Buliowski), Marc Porel (Richard Hornig), Nora Ricci (Countess Ida Ferenczy), Mark Burns (Hans Von Buelow), Maurizio Bonuglia (Mayor)
- Country: France
- Language: French
- Runtime: 245 min
Google look at Bacon's Visconti Explorations of Beauty and Decay. (This should be the first stop for those seriously intersted in Visconti).
Cecchi D'amico Visconti's main screenwriter
Romy Schneider: Films de France
Google viewable extract from Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists
Google viewable extract from Bondanella's Italian Cinema
Visconti and Fellini: From Left Social Neorealism to Right-Hemisphere Stroke PDF
Google viewable extract of the Culture of Queers by Richard Dyer
Film Availability :
Ludwig is available from MovieMail here.
October 26, 2007
European Film Policy: A Webliography
European Film Policy: A Webliography
Please note page still under development but it may still be of use to current visitors.
As has been mentioned elswhere European film policy initiatives need to be developed with the concept of cultural citizenship firmly in mind. This is clearly linked to concepts of overlapping and mutually informing processes of identity formation. Identity needs to be flexibly conceived of able to transcend pure place and work within a broader sense of a European cultural identity whilst recognising that place is an important component of identity. Identity isn't also linked to place as there are many identities which cut across place and incorporate space /s as well. In popular culture for example Rave culture linked to clubbing or else the surprise use of spaces related to a specific identity formation. From the perspective of film policy it is important that a good range of identities are represented and this requires an strong committment to the eroding notion of public service broadcasting - to inform, educate and entertain - set against purely commercial considerations.
Below are some links to courses, papers, declarations etc concerning European film industries. another posting will establish a webliography for Cultural Citizenship which needs to be linked in with culture and media policy debates.
CHALLENGES IN EUROPEAN CINEMA AND FILM POLICY by Nils Klevjer Aa (Published Winter 2001)
National, transnational or supranational cinema? Rethinking European film studies. Bergfelder Media Culture Society.2005; 27: 315-331
European Charter on Film Online
Think Tank on European Film & Film Policy (PDF)
Undergraduate Module on European Film Industries from Leeds University
Link to Anne Jackel BFI publication European Film Industries
Netribution : Alternative voluntarily run site primarily for Filmmakers. (People developing their own policy from the ground up ?)
Policy Unplugged: Policy developments in The European Digital Cinema Forum Guide to Digital Cinema Production (Focal press 2004)
Department of Culture Media and Sport UK: Film Section
European Parliament News: Discussion with Director Cedric Klapisch on problems in the European Film industry
This also has a link to a Realplayer interview with Klapisch in French only at the bottom of the page.
The European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production Order 2006
European Film Agency Directors, Cine-Regio and the
Capital Regions of Cinema issue joint statement
on European culture agenda (May 2007)
Federation of European Film Directors
European Film Finance Summit (2007)
The challenges for European audiovisual policy: Jonathan Davis, Strategy Advisor, UK Film Council (2004)
European Media, Cultural Integration and Globalisation.Reflections on the ESF-programme Changing Media - Changing Europe. Ib Bondebjerg (Academic Paper).
The Decline and Fall of the European Film Industry:
Sunk Costs, Market Size and Market Structure, 1890-1927. Gerben Bakker. LSE Working Paper No. 70/03
October 23, 2007
The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene
The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene 2007 Wallflower Press: A Critical Review
For visitors wanting an historical overview of European cinema
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
October 21, 2007
The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s
The British New Wave
Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar
The beginning of the 1960s was marked by the appearance of a range of feature films which took up serious social issues and were placed within the contemporary cultural context. The films are described as social realist and described as a British ‘New Wave’. The description of these films as a 'New Wave' should not be confused with the contemporary French films that were coming out of France from the Cahiers du Cinema milieu of directors. Some commentators regard the British New Wave as being influenced by the French New Wave. This seems inappropriate as the period usually defined as the French New Wave was happening more or less simultaneously. Arguably there was at least a two way influence as the acceptance of Chabrol and Truffaut in the British Free Cinema series makes clear. What is more likely is that any French influences that were the precursors to the Nouvelle Vague proper such as Louis Malle’s Les Amants were being seen in Britain particularly as future British ‘New Wave’ directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson were organising the Free Cinema events at the National Film Theatre from 1956 - 1959 as well as developing film criticism on the magazine Sequence earlier on. Cinematically it was Italian neo-realism which had made a strong influence on both British and French directors although both groupings went in different directions. It is the ‘Left Bank’ documentarists not always seen as the heart of the French nouvelle vague such as Resnais, Duras and Marker who are seemingly more influential. To this must be added the legacy of Humphrey Jennings who was enormously important to Anderson, Reisz and Richardson.
Seeming Western Cultural and Economic Synergies
At the meta-level directors in Western Europe were part of the cultural moves towards creating fully modern societies in Western Europe. By the 1950s this process was generally gathering pace at this time. Both France and Britain were overcoming post-war shortages and whilst there was a new optimism being generated in Britain after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies the mid-1950s saw the post-Suez recognition within both Britain and France that the political world had shifted entirely to a mainspring centred upon the USA in tension with the USSR. The older empires were finally having to readjust to a new world order.
The growing postwar mood was not just restricted to the countries of Western Europe. Polish cinema was making its own mark as the Free Cinema programme which featured several Polish directors makes clear.
What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. The British New Wave is a part of this process. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change. Hill has noted that this is not just a matter of representing the previously under-represented but that these subjects are represented from different specific social perspectives.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse Stella Does Tricks (1996), Nil By Mouth.
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place. Hill sees this as starting with British social realist films of the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the psot-capitalist states (Soviet Union / Communist China). Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which keeps in the frame wider issues of the structures of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.
Another facet of social realist representation has been a tendency towards autobiography suggest Lay (2002). Starting with the work of Bill Douglas and Terence Davie, Lay suggests that this was present in films such as Wish You Were Here (A retro-social realist film), Stella Does Tricks, East is East and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999). It is arguable that these films contain within them a nostalgic look backwards from a working class perspective which in some sense echoes the growth and success of the ‘heritage film’ in British cinema.
The British New Wave
The ‘New Wave emerged in Britain at a time when Macmillan’s concept that the British as ‘a people’ had ‘never had it so good’ was a dominant feature. The long economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, smart grammar school educated younger people who wanted to see the fustiness and stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment. It is difficult to gauge exactly how important the effect of the liberated meritocratic consciousness of United States culture and the British experience of this during the war impacted upon the general level of consciousness but indicators from the work of Jacky Stacey on British working class women audiences who preferred the more meritocratic sentiments of Hollywood to the RADA driven accentuation of much British post-war cinema points to deeper underlying societal shifts.
The description of cultural phenomena as ‘New Waves’ is an important metaphor which if it is extended fully leads one to note that there were deep up-swellings and currents from which the wave developed. That theatre and cinema and book publishing were challenging the old mores driven by a combination of liberal and social-democratic sentiments can, ironically, be seen as a part of the success of the long economic boom which allowed the youth of the time the relative economic security to dream about other futures. Certainly it would be unwise to split cinema from this rapidly changing socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the positioning and fantasy of Billy Liar (1963) which came at the end of the social realist phase of the ‘New Wave’ and has a more ambiguous nature both in its style and in a recognition that there is social change happening fast. Julie Christie and Schlesinger represent this dramatic shift in Darling.
The Major British New Wave Films
Room at the Top (1959): Dir Jack Clayton
Look Back in Anger (1959): Dir Tony Richardson
Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) : Dir Karel Reisz
Taste of Honey (1961): Dir Tony Richardson
The L Shaped Room (1962):Dir Bryan Forbes
A Kind of Loving (1962): Dir John Schlesinger
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Dir Tony Richardson
This Sporting Life (1963): Dir Lindsay Anderson
Billy Liar (1963): Dir John Schlesinger
Directors and Actors
The major New Wave directors were Anderson, Reisz and Richardson coming from a background of the Free Cinema. The films dealt with working class subjects and focused on a range of concerns particularly in relation to young people. The films dealt with abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, alienation due to lack of communication and relationship breakdown. The films were intent upon representing a non-London working class environment and were shot in towns such as Nottingham and Mamchester. Black and White fast film stock gave a grainy feel to the film. This was also necessary to cope with the shooting conditions which tended to go for natural lighting and outdoor sets.
Conventional stars were not used rather ,young, usually more working class actors predominated such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. Two of the women most associated with the movement Rita Tushingham and Rachel Roberts interestingly didn’t ‘make it big’ although Julie Christie who came in on the tail-end of the movement in Billy Liar did. The New Wave didn’t actually contribute to the growing pool of regional actors rather it was the way society was changing. Local authority grants for attending drama colleges meant larger numbers were attending and the growth of social realist theatre as well as the rapid growth of TV was creating the demand for more actors. The overall expansion of media was creating pressure for more representation of a wider number of subjects and the sentiments created around the ’People’s war’ had contributed to a widespread recognition of the need to represent the working classes. As Lindsay Anderson had written
‘The number of British films that have ever made a genuine try at a story in the popular milieu, with working class characters all through, can be counted on the fingers of one hand... This virtual rejection of three quarters of the population of this country represents a more than a ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema. It is characteristic of a flight from contemporary reality.’
The films were based upon books and plays who had direct experience of working class life such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey, Shelagh Delaney.
Tom Courtenay in The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner
Frequently Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) is considered as the first of the British ‘New Wave’ films however Hayward considers that his film is best seen as one of the precursors to the movement with Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) being the real beginning of the movement. The film starred Richard Burton. Following this came Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney then A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1962), with Rita Tushingham. A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962), Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962), This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) with Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris. By 1963 over one third of film production was broadly New Wave showing that British cinema could resist Hollywood - at least for a short time.
Rita Tushinham in Taste of Honey
Losey / Pinter’s The Servant also came out in 1963 and their depiction of upper class decadence can be seen as exploring the same socio-cultural phenomenon that Visconti had begun to depict. Visconti was to explore this in depth through firstly The Leopard and later The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig. Pinter and Losey were to explore the impact of the growth of the New Universities and the changing media scene on the encrusted cloisters of academia and the upper classes in Accident a few years later. The sentiments in these films by Losey and Visconti are a serious exploration of the writing on the wall for the European aristocracy. Here it is possible to draw comparison with Louis Malle’s The Lovers in which Europe’s other well known upper class film-maker explores the decadence and isolated world of the French and international Haute-Bourgeois, the provincial bourgeois and the newly emergent class of the independent thinker and doer. That it is the representative of this class who ‘gets the woman’ who is herself marked by a break with a break in conventions about the role and position of woman is indicative of a changing consciousness at a European level, in the light of post-war disillusion with a class system which led Europe to disaster and was twice rescued by the USA.
This Sporting Life
The social realist films of this ‘new wave’ period were based upon a range of novels and stories which had already made significant inroads into the British psyche. They were adaptations which involved the original authors themselves. The crossovers with theatre were seemingly much stronger than in France. The point is also important as some critics such as Armes have in a rather small minded way pointed out that the directors associated with these films such as Richardson, Anderson and Reisz, were from an upper middle-class public school and Oxbridge background. Linking these directors with Visconti and Malle shows that the European aristocratic hegemony was clearly crumbling and that a new hegemonising process based around a meritocratic process was emerging. Over the longer-term Visconti in Italy and Anderson in Britain might be said to the most consistently left-wing of these directors. John Hill’s later review of the criticism of the British ‘New Wave’ directors attempted to undermine the reductionist sour grapes of Armes and Durgnat by taking a textual approach which noted that although the directors were outside of the class they were representing which can be discerned through the ’marks of ennunciation’ articulating a critical distance between observer and observed. As Aldgate and Richards point out this analysis still left the contextual aspects of criticism largely unexplored.
Hill’s Marxist inflected criticism led to a critique of these films which saw them as misogynistic and many commentators return to this point, however, Murphy has since commented that for the first time women were playing in roles that were far carrying a far more serious emotional weight than the ‘...pathetically trivial roles women had to play in most 1950s British Films.’  In many ways this gender issue needs a careful film by film analysis. By the time of Billy Liar (1962) for example Julie Christie is playing an extremely dynamic role. She feels able to hitch-hike anywhere and comes and goes as she pleases, she is able to transcend the petty provincialism of Nottingham and move to London where she knows that lots of things are happening. By comparison Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) despite his fantasy life is unable to summon the courage to make the break and move to London and make his dreams come true. In that sense the criticism of the New Wave that it focuses on individuals rather than the possibilities of class solidarity is relevant. The underlying message of Billy Liar is that the newly emergent youth of the 1960s have the possibilities they must have the courage to take these opportunities. That is was a young woman who does this is encouraging from a gender equality perspective. In this the film can be read as a precursor of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life also 1963 is perhaps more ambiguous. It can be argued that the representation of the Rachel Roberts character is negative, to the point that she commits suicide however this representation of a woman who is left on a small widow’s pension and is struggling to survive financially yet resists the pressure to be made dependent upon a man is an underlying theme. That she finds suicide the only way out can be read as a comment upon a society that does not make the necessary social space for women. The pressure to succeed at any cost is one which Machin, played by Richard Harris, finds hard to bear. His working life is brutalising and he has come out of the mines into Rugby League a sort of modern gladiator he is unable to provide Mrs. Hammond with what she wants.
Unlike the cover which describes Mrs. Hammond as ‘frigid’ it is perhaps better to examine the character of Machin whose machismo soon expires when faced with advances from the wife of his boss. Machin likes to control and runs away when he can’t. In this sense it is not unreasonable to argue that there is a crisis of masculinity being represented in which power, sexuality and control allied to class position are all in the process of being renegotiated. The film is also a representation about the possibilities of escaping a drab and dangerous working class life. The professionalisation of sport is just beginning and the film strongly relates to the changing media environment. Stardom is counterpoised to living in a run down terraced house. The incongruity of the Mark IX Jaguar owned by Machin underscores the point.
In their brief review of the critical literature on the British New Wave Aldgate and Richards note that ‘probably the most trenchant critique’ of the British ‘New Wave’ came from Peter Wollen. Wollen’s criticism largely hinges on a textualist based comparative analysis which judges the British ‘new wave’ with the Cahiers group of French directors who for Wollen’s appear to encapsulate the whole ethos of the French Nouvelle Vague. The SPECT construction of the French New Wave is considered in depth in the section on France, here it can suffice to ask whether the methods and methodological approach were appropriate or rich enough to justify the scathing tone of the attack on the British directors. Drawing on Michael Balcon’s wartime pamphlet Realism or Tinsel Wollen notes that within the British cinema there has been a strong element of a preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ an aesthetic structuring which Wollen associates with nationalism:
This system of value, though most strongly entrenched on the left, ran all the way across the political spectrum. For the right, as with the Left, the aesthetic preference was bound up with nationalism. ‘Tinsel’ was of course bound up with Hollywood escapism and, in contrast, realism evoked local pride and sense of community... British critics praised films they liked in terms of their realism and damned those they did not as escapist trash. The French New Wave, however, aimed to transcend this shallow antinomy.’
This mode of rhetoric has become a self supporting argument rather than a more fully coherent one based upon differing nuances and circumstances. In the same piece Wollen has conflated the ‘Left Bank’ artists such as Duras and Resnais, more renowned for making documentaries in the earlier 1950s. It is intersting how wollen attacks the crucial diffrence between representations of nation between British and French New Waves. French New Wave was very much a Parisien affair whiclst British New Wave had the guts to represent different parts ogf the country effectively. This could be read as two different nationalisms at work in different ways.
Wollen has seemingly eschewed linkages between how the Italian neorealists might have had an effect upon the British shift to realism, there is no linkage with the surrealist impulse which underpinned the work of Humphrey Jennings and which significantly influenced the Free Cinema movement. An appreciation of the non-realist approaches of Powell and Pressburger is also absent. If, for Pressburger especially, ‘Art’ was to function as a form of transcendence then Billy Liar can be seen as playing out the possibilities of transcending one’s social reality either through the growing media through comedy which reverts to fantasy as the limitations of the possibilities overwhelm. Fantasy is carried through the Julie Christie character which emerges in Darling. Both can be read as a critique of ‘false aspirations’ carried by the nouveau professional classes as well as a deliberate sidelining of the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument.
The British cultural milieu was certainly very different to that of the French in which certain overlaps such as their relations to empire could be noted. If there is a trenchant critique to be made of British ‘New Wave’ then it resides more in its failure to properly represent the diasporic influxes that were changing the cultural and social composition of the industrial cities that they were representing. In this the British were probably no worse than, nor better than, the French. Very few films of the period dealt directly with issues of diaspora and decolonisation. In that sense British New Wave was not realist enough!. In terms of the aesthetics of the British New Wave the use of locations such as back allies, cobbles, seaside towns in winter and empty railway stations works to create a feel which has been described as an aesthetics of urban squalor. Some commentators have considered that this acts to 'romanticise' the ‘decaying infrastructure of industrial Britain'  However given that many of the films are dealing with the changes in society the representation of urban and industrialised spaces needs to be considered alongside the representation of newer factories,
Another critique of British New Wave espoused by Wollen was in its lack of ‘modernism’. In fact the modernism classed as an aesthetic was apparent in the sound tracks, which incorporated British popular music in working class leisure venues, from the skiffle group in Saturday Night Sunday Morning to the dance hall scenes in Billy Liar and This Sporting Life. Interestingly the main music was written and performed by Johnny Dankworth in several of these films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the non New Wave The Servant and Darling. This reflected a strong rise in modernist aesthetics strongly influenced by the culture of the USA. While no sound track is likely to ever compete with the Miles Davis extraordinary and entirely improvised one for Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the incorporation of Britain's most influential jazz musicians of the time is indicative of an approach that belies Wollen’s seeming Francophilia and as pointed out above dates from the 1956 Momma don’t Allow . Arguably the British new wave films were tackling a more interesting range of discourses and were coming from a different place to the French processes of modernisation. The task of analysis is to be searching for a greater depth of understanding of these social processes not indulging in a ranking exercise.
Compare Wollen’s tone with that of John Orr for example; Orr takes a more measured synoptic view of the cinematic processes of modernity, noting in Resnais Nuit et Brouillard (1955), that he moves from the documentary to the imaginary, a shift managed by Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ in 1963 for example but one set against the changing cityscapes of postwar Britain. Orr refers to Deleuze’s argument that neorealism opened up cinematic space in the new open spaces of Europe’s damaged cities. Whilst Deleuze argues that these were ‘anywhere spaces’ in which the exterior location did not have to define itself the cinematic space of Nottingham which served as location shooting for Saturday Night , Sunday Morning as well as Billy Liar was symbolic of class representation, and the rise of the working classes, it was symbolic of ‘creative destruction’ that great economic engine described so effectively by Schumpeter, with war acting as the great catalyst to this enduring process at the heart of capitalism. It was also symbolic of social, economic and cultural progress. Rather than being associated with the deeply alienated cinematic/ geographical spaces of mainland Europe, British cinema largely avoided the apocalyptic mood of continental Europe.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The story telling of the British new wave was outside of the frenetic and frantic pace of Hollywood and also outside of the cinematic time of the emerging mainstream European modernists like Fellini or Antonioni. British cinema had the intensity of the theatre underpinning it and much of British New Wave was like a kammerspiel on location. It was a variant on mainstream modernism and modernity which was perhaps informed by British pragmatism as much as aesthetic theorising but it also owed something to Rossellini and Visconti.
It is Rocco and His Brothers (1960) which charts the changing world of the Italian peasant classes as they come to industrial cities such as Milan to create new lives which is arguably one of the more influential films. The role of boxing for example as a sport drawing its workforce from people trying to escape working class drudgery is explored by Visconti. The treatment of the girlfriend of the Rocco by his brother who finally murders her has resonances with This Sporting Life. Where Visconti does score over the British New Wave in terms of class representation is his specific use of recognising that class solidarity is the way forward for the new working classes in that sense Visconti is more of a political film maker than the British New Wave directors.
In summary the British New Wave worked upon an emergent element of realism which sought to represent elements of the working class and its changing environment. Criticisms have been levelled that the films concentrated on characterisations at the expense of the possibilities of class solidarity as a way forward. This marks a break from the brief associations which were made between the Free Cinema movement and the New Left centered around issues of art, representration and didacticism. In that sense the underlying discourses can be seen as ones which promote a meritocratic society in which opportunities are available but it is down to the individual actor themselves about whether they make a success of these opportunities.
There have been many criticisms from feminist critics that these films are generally misogynistic as on the whole they don’t have positive representations of women playing roles as key protagonists within the films. It is possible to take Wollen’s critique seriously in one way for if the lack of ‘tinsel’ which he criticises within the realist mode of the British New Wave is extended to humour then many of the films fall into this category, Look Back in Anger never rated as a side-splitter neither did This Sporting Life. On the whole Billy Liar manages to transcend this tendency which helped to give the impression of British New Wave social realism its grim and gritty reputation. By comparison Truffaut’ 400 Blows, Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle were welcome breaths of fresh air displaying a lightness of touch with parodies of gangster movies. In the content of location shooting in the latter two films and even in the more prosaic autobiography Truffaut finds a lightness of touch even in the grim institutions.
British New Wave: A Webliography
Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema: An Interview with Sir John Dankworth http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/743/1/DankwortharticleJP.pdf
Open University History and the Arts on British New Wave
The Importance of Humphrey Jennings as an influence on the British New Wave directors should not be underestimated, several of these directors like Reisz, Anderson and Richardson were also deeply involved in thte Free Cinema Movement
Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British 'New Wave'
with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experiment are severely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. you can give indications. you can make poetry. (Programme notes to Free Cinema 3)
The Free cinema movement in Britain is rightly described on the cover of the BFI three disc set called Free Cinema as a "highly influential but critically neglected" movement in cinema history. This article sets out to help publicise and establish a wider critical discourse around this body of films. Free Cinema itself started out as a cultural event at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in 1956. This proved to be extraordinarily popular and allowed Karel Reisz who was programme planner at the NFT at the time as well as an active film-maker to hold another five programmes which went on until March 1959. The films themselves were documentaries which were made in the spirit of the quirky at times quasi-surrealist fashion tradition of Humphrey Jennings rather than in the more seemingly "objective observer" tradition of Grierson. The full six programmes afforded enthusistic audiences to see a range of films that would have been almost impossible to see otherwise and all the screenings were a sell out. Critical and audience success are the two benchmarks by which we can judge the success of the movement.
An International Dimension
Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson were responsible for putting together the six programmes and their own films were screened in Free Cinema, Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain and Free Cinema 6: The Last Free Cinema. Importantly the other three Free Cinema programmes screened the work of Foreign Directors including Lionel Rogosin, Georges Franju and Norman McLaren in Free Cinema 2. Free Cinema 4: Polish Voices screened work by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowcyzk and others. Free Cinema 5: French Renewal screened work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. When one looks at the directors who made their films in Britain as a part of this series of programmes one can see that there was a strong committment to opening up the cinema to a wide range of international mainly European influences including some from behind the Iron Curtain which must have taken some organising only a couple of years after the infamous Hungarian uprising.
Movement or Tendency?
According to Lindsay Anderson this film movement or tendency coincided with the seminal theatrical work of the period John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956). Anderson was responsible for assembling the programme of shorts and documentaries which were to be shown at the National Film Theatre. The concept of being ‘free’ cinema meant that the films were made outside of the framework of the industry and because the films were personal statements about contemporary society. Hayward (1996) suggests that tendency is a better term than a movement in so far as the Free Cinema programme was eclectic and international rather than being comprised of directors who had a common style and common ideals. There were three directors who did form the basis of a movement, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. According to Tony Richardson the term free cinema was originally invented to describe the documentary films made by these directors during the 1950s. Later Anderson was to deny that Free Cinema could be described as a movement.
Regarding the documentaries they considered that these should be made free of all commercial pressures and based upon a humanistic and poetic approach. In espousing these sentiments their work owed more to the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings than to the more positivist sociological inflections of John Grierson. The intellectual backdrop for this approach came from the magazine Sequence which Anderson had founded in 1946. Many articles had focused upon the conformity and apathy engendered by the documentaries of the time whilst others targeted at the feature film had criticised the lack of aesthetic experimentation.
In Sequence Anderson and Reisz concentrated upon issues of style and criticised the conformity in feature films in terms of the narrative structure which was largely based upon the Hollywoodised ‘classic narrative cinema’. They also attacked the bourgeois nature of this cinema and accused it of lacking reality because of its very weak representation of the working class. They also criticised the industrial giants Rank and ABC (part of Warner Bros) which were the only two feature film companies in distribution and exhibition at this time.
Overall I tend to come down on the side of the argument that argues it was a movement, for the notion of tendency seems to imply a much looser milieu whilst this one was relatively compact and just like Neorealism and much of the French New Wave the leading members had been working on the same critical magazine. If it wasn't bound by a tight manifesto it was more than just a bunch of people drifting along as the following quotation from Anderson taken from the Free Cienam 1 programme indicates:
Talking with Karel, Tony and Lorenza about the miserable difficulty of getting our work shown I came up with the idea (at least I think it was me) that we should form ourselves into a movement, should formulate some kind of manifesto and thereby grab the attention of the press and try to get a few days showing at the National Film Theatre. (Booklet accompanying the BFI Free Cinema DVD).
Anderson notes later that even though they got an interview on Panorama the manifesto was a ploy to get Momma Don't Allow, Oh Dreamland and Together all screened. It is clear that they were overtaken by thier success and that there was an audience out there wanting more and different content. The problem with manifestos is that they can act as poles of attraction and create their own impetus.
These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday.
Despite Hayward's doubts there were a number of features in common between the British made films. They were all made in black and white using hand-held Bolex cameras that were only capable of 22 second shots at the maximum. They were documentaries and they largely avoided the use of didactic style voice-over commentaries.There tended to be a lack of narrative continuity and sound and editing was fairly impressionistic. There was also a conscious decision to go out of the studio and film the reality of contemporary Britain. The possibilities for this were improved as the revolutionary HPS (hypersensitive) film stock from Ilford came onto the market. Although the use of this has become associated with the French New Wave in an interview with Walter Lassally the main cinematographer of the British Free Cinema he points out that he drew the attention of the French directors to the use of the high speed Ilford film allowing for nighttime shooting. Another distinguishing feature which makes the work of these three directors a movement is the use made of Walter Lassally as the camera-person on four out of the six films which belong to this oeuvre. Because of the low funding available all were very low to low budget films.
When it came to making their own films unsurprisingly Rank was not forthcoming with finance for these trenchant critics of the British film making institutions. The British Film Institute (BFI) Experimental Film Fund and more surprisingly Ford’s of Dagenham which commissioned a series of documentaries called Look at Britain two of which were made by the Free Cinema directors: Anderson, Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). The BFI provided funding for Momma Don’t Allow (Richardson and Reisz, 1956).
Momma Don't Allow
Momma Don’t Allow explored the leisure particularly looking at jazz and dance and noting a mixing of the classes on the dance floor. The editing reflected the jazz syncopation and the importance of jazz and dance and emerging popular music was an important facet of the later New Wave features with Johnny Dankworth providing the music for Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as well as for Losey’s The Servant (1963) -a film not usually classed as British New Wave but one which can be seen as part of the whole changing culture of Britain none the less. Dankworth also did the soundtrack for Schlesinger’s Oscar winning Darling (1965), which takes both his and Julie Christie’s career post-British New Wave and into London’s 'Swinging Sixties' with representations of a new media and show biz glitteratti and people trying to make it.
In Britain the cinematic ‘New Wave’ was born out of the conjunction of two tendencies with Richardson playing an important part in both. Firstly there was the growth of new sentiments emerging through the theatre and its responses to the growth of social consensus developed in Britain in the 1950s. Secondly there was the influence of British Free Cinema. In this sense it is perhaps better to talk of a rapidly changing cultural milieu especially in London which both senses and participated in changing British society and was made up from a range of generally younger artists operating in various branches of the arts.
The Free Cinema Films
Free Cinema Programme 1
Cinematographer Walter Lassally
O Dreamland, (1953): Directed Lindsay Anderson
Momma don't Allow (1956) Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson
Momma Don't Allow
Together (1956) Lorenza Mazzetti
Free Cinema Programme 3
Wakefield Express (1952): Lindsay Anderson
Nice Time (1957) Claude Goretta & Alain Tanner
Picadilly Circus from Nice Time
Everyday Except Christmas (1957) Lindsay Anderson (winner of the documentary prize at the Venice film festival)
Everyday Except Christmas
The Singing Street (1952): McIsaac, Ritchie, Townsend
We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) Karel Reisz
We are the Lambeth Boys
Refuge England (1959) Robert Vas
Enginemen (1959) Michael Grigsby
Food for a Blush (1959) Elizabeth Russell
The End is the Beginning
Unlike many artistic movements the Free Cinema movement was very clear about the sixth programme being the last one. It is extremly hard work being underfunded and on the edge. Prizes had been won and recognition had been won. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson were in a position to move on to making proper feature films. As the Times of 1959 noted they had made documentaries for thier generation in a style which marked the changing times for it was very different to the Griersonian method of 30 years ago.
It is important to recognise just how much they were part of a wider socio-cultural movement in the country as the Times notes. Richardson had co-founded the English Stage Production Company with George Devine. He had directed Osborne's very successful and groundbreaking Look Back in Anger in 1956 and this led to Osborne ad Richardson establishing Woodfall Films in 1959.
The new opportunities and the shift in culture allowed the full length features of the British Social Realist movement to emerge. This would probably not have happened had the Free Cinema not emerged in the first place.
This BFI page is a route into some excellent resources which are unlikely to be bettered.
Lindsay Anderson writing in Sight and Sound on Humphrey Jennings who was a core inspirational force for the Free Cinema directors.
Geocities on Free Cinema. This is an example of a website which only partially knows its facts. It asserts that it was founded on the precepts of Italian neorealism. In fact Humphrey Jennings had far more influence and he was a neorealist before neorealism! Second point is the argument that it was heavily influenced by the French New Wave. As it was Walter Lassally who passed over ideas to the French cinematographers about shooting on Ilford 400 ASA this doesn't quite add up, neither do the dates. The reality is that the most imaginative young film makers in both countries were developing different approaches to film making. The issue of how far there was an inter-relationship and cross-fertilisation of ideas is what needs to be explored.
Senses of Cinema Review of the BFI Triple DVD release of Free Cinema
Guardian review feature on the Free Cinema movement.
Vertigo Magazine 2004 on: Documentary is Dead – Long Live Documentaries! This makes important reference to Free Cinema as well as considring the state of documnetary now in relation to TV. Julian Petley's comments about regulation are of particular interest.
Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment: (1966). Director Karel Reisz
Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment: (1966). Director Karel Reisz
Morgan isn't one of the best known films from the 'Swinging Sixties' period nevertheless it is a film by one of Britain's best directors of the time and somebody who had been central to the quiet revolution going on in British cinema during the late 1950s. He worked with Lindsay Anderson on Sequence and wrote a book 'The Technique of Film Editing' which has become a classic within the field. He was programme planner at the National Film Theatre which helped to bring into being the 'Free Cinema Movement.' He also directed one of the classics of the British Social Realist movement Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Reisz's work always had a socio-political edge to it and Morgan was no exception. Morgan does capture the infectious mood of the times which would have been appreciated by many of its target audience whilst raising in a humourous way the issues of what the outcomes in society of having a better educated group of people of working class origin were.
Karel Reisz: Director of Morgan a Suitable Case for Treatment
The screenplay was by playwright David Mercer one of several dramatists such as Harold Pinter who were to make major contributions to British television drama, as well as theatre and film scripts in the 1960s. Mercer was probably the first major English dramatist to emerge directly from television rather than through the theatre system. Many of these playrights were from the social background of the 'Angry Young Men' and were throwing up challenges to the status quo.
The screenplay for Morgan was adapted by David Mercer from his original TV play, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962), transmitted by the BBC as a 'Sunday Night Play'. In the film adaptation of the play, Morgan wears a gorilla suit to gatecrash his ex-wife's wedding and becomes incarcerated / committed (depending on your point of view) to a psychiatric hospital. Neither of these elements were present in the play. Other changes are that Morgan is an artist rather than a writer, and correspondingly Napier is an art dealer instead of a publisher. The world of visual communications does make for better viewing and art is a more class based thing in terms of who can afford it. Arguably the use of art heightens the sense of class division. It certainly reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the times for many art students were providing the dynamic for the burgeoning pop / rock industry which was expanding dramatically as the disposable incomes of the young went up. Those art students were less likely to be going to Hamlet than Beatles concerts or jazz clubs.
Historically we can look back and see this time in London as part of the transition towards the ‘postmodern’ when art becomes popularised through artists like Warhol in the States and Peter Blake in Britain. In retrospect we could offer a reading which is reflecting upon the changes in the world of art at the time. The use of the writer / publisher binary from 1962 would seem to reflect upon the ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s which relates to the British New Wave social realism so in this sense the screenplay has been updated to reflect a decade of rapid social change. Morgan as an artist who has gained his art education as part of the growing affluence of the country is still socially excluded from the upper middle classes and the stuffy world of art as a space of collectors versus those who wish to produce for others is a core social tension explored throughout the film. As such Morgan is a metaphor for the Lambeth boy of Reisz's earlier documentary film who has made good intellectually but is still excluded socially. The manic images of Morgan in the car provide a direct visual link to the Lambeth lads as they return from being patronised playing the cricket team of a public school. There is the same joie de vivre and refusal to obey outdated social strictures without resistance.
Jane Moat on the Screen Online site describes the film a little disparagingly as ‘simplified’ with ‘the modishness of much 1960s British cinema in its setting, art direction, costumes, cinematography and music soundtrack.’ Viewed now it can be read as a useful document of the 1960s offering insights into the tensions surrounding the London cultural scene as artist album covers were becoming recognised pieces of art in their own right. Moat appears to miss the depth of the Zeitgeist. Just as films such as A bout de souffle and Paris nous appartient are importsant in their representations of contemporary Paris so Morgan moves through different social spaces and urban places providing us with an interesting representation of London and its institutions formal and informal of the time.
The film contains an iconoclastic spirit which is repeated the following year in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade which also celebrates the shifts in the art world through its inventive use of cartoon work which seemingly helped inspire Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There is a sort of quirky British style surrealism which also inhabited Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Dreamland. One must remember that surrealism itself had a strong radical political edge and has been present in British cinema since the time of Humphrey Jennings a mentor of British Free Cinema. Moat's analysis seems over-academicised and London-centric.
Moat also notes that the original play explored a ‘familiar Mercer theme’ examining the relationship between social alienation and madness. This is an important point and can be seen as a representation which is playing on tensions within the British cultural establishment between those who were representative of ‘high culture’ and the wider desire to break down some of the class barriers.
Warner had been used by the British 'new wavers' before playing Blifil in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963). He then became prominent on theatre world playing Hamlet with the RSC in 1965.
MacFarlane in the Encyclopedia of British Film sees him as "...a key figure of the new British cinema of the decade."
For British audiences the leading actors were part of a rising generation who were also challenging the status quo. For Moat they were as ‘fashionable as the décor’. David Warner had recently played Hamlet at Stratford which Moat suggests with which the politically-conscious university students of the mid-1960s could identify although how many would be going to Hamlet rather than CND marches or rock concerts is debateable. Whilst the Stratford theatre was a core place for the professionals and drama students a run of Hamlet wasn't what was making the country tick. The long boom, Labour governments and a rise of educated people gravitating towards media and cultural industries, concern with the Vietnam and the rise of Apartheid generally were.
Vanessa Redgrave was beginning to make a name in films after nearly a decade of classical stage roles and had become linked to Tony Richardson a stalwart of Woodfall films and also associated with Britsh social realism. In this sense there was a developing cultural milieu in London which was fully intertwined with the process of cultural change that was taking place.
Along with the other work of Woodfall films and those involved in it there is an ongoing political and social edge to the film which links into the wider shifts in the cultural milieu cutting across a wide range of cultural forms including music, art, theatre, TV as well as cinema. At the same time it is infused with a sixties spirit of critical humour. Along with Charge of the Light Brigade Woodfall films can be seen as playing an important role in deliberately combining aspects of ‘Swinging London’ with a political edge.
Morgan Delt (David Warner) is a working class artist from a Communist background and married to and in the process of divorce from an upper middle-class wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave). Thematically he is obsessed by gorillas - he visits them in the zoo, fantasises about them and identifies with them. When Leonie divorces him, Morgan returns to their house, digs out his Marxist and gorilla paraphernalia paints a hammer and sickle on the mirror, and puts a skeleton in the bed. In response Leonie takes out a court junction to bar him from the house, and he makes his home in her car outside. how one reads the Gorilla is uncertain however it seems that the ineffectiveness of this powerful animal could well be a metaphor for the caging of the working class. Also gorillas were known to be coming an endangered species by this time so the linkages between Marxism and Gorillas could have been a commentary on the nature of class itself.
Leonie is still attracted to Morgan but she but there is considerable social pressure for her to normalise. Charles Napier, an art dealer is the new man in her life. Morgan goes to 'sort him out' at his gallery, armed to the teeth, but Napier is unimpressed and throws him out. Morgan then puts a tape recorder in the house and plays a loud recording of a rocket launching when Napier next takes Leonie to bed. Morgan also manages to blow up his class obessessed mother-in-law with a bomb under the bed.
Morgan's communist mother runs a café, which he drops into from time to time. Despite being accuessed of beingf a class traitor by sleeping with the enemy he accompanies her on the annual pilgrimage to Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery.
By now Morgan camped in a vehicle outside Leonie’s house in what would now be considered as ‘stalking’. Leonie has the car towed away, but Morgan returns. He visits a psychiatrist, who considers him "a suitable case for treatment". Leonie's ambivalence allows her to sleep with Morgan agian. He wants her to have his baby, but Leonie determined to marry Napier and proceeds with her wedding plans. Clearly the message is marriage is based upon class and property rather than desire and meritocracy.
Morgan and his mother's friend Wally, who is a professional wrestler who goes under the name of 'The Gorilla', kidnap Leonie and take her to Wales, camping by a lake. Morgan fantasises that he and Leonie are Tarzan and Jane, but Leonie is still resolved to marry Napier. Her father tracks her down and rescues her and Morgan is sent to prison.
Morgan is released from prison on the day of Leonie's wedding. He sees King Kong at the cinema, and hires a gorilla suit. Dressed in the suit, he gatecrashes the wedding, scaling the hotel walls like Kong. Chaos ensues, Morgan flees but the suit catches fire. Smouldering, Morgan steals a motorbike and drives into the river. He is washed up on a rubbish tip on the shore at Battersea. He cannot get the gorilla head off, panics and begins to hallucinate that everything and everybody emotionally meaningful to him conspire against him with his enemies . Reisz provides a fantasy sequence where Morgan dreams that he is straitjacketed and shot by firing squad. These are very different fantasies to those of power and control seen in Schlesinger's Billy Liar made on the cusp of social realism to the Swinging Sixties. Morgan wakes up and is taken to hospital and here Reisz has managed to shift class differences to a mental interior instead of the grey squalid conditions of Britain's industrial heartlands represented in the social realist movement.
The finale takes place when Leonie, who is now pregnant, is filmed walking through a garden. It transpires that it is the grounds of the asylum in which Morgan has been placed. He is engaged in making a flowerbed in the shape of the hammer and sickle. Leonie tells him that the baby is his and the ending is left open.
Overall the film very effectively catches the spirit of the early to mid sixties 1960s and the changing cultural scene and the class values which are being reshuffled as challenges to the old more conservative order are being reconfigured. In the light of what is now understood about stalking and harassment of ex-partners the film might well be read rather differently than at the time as gender politics had yet to make an appearance and the intended underlying messages were more concerned with class conflict and the emergence of what we now describe as cultural industries. In this sense the humour can be seen to have a gender bias. The strengths of the film is that the underlying social pressures upon relationships are being explored in ways which simply would not have been possible 10 years previously.
The fact that Morgan is placed in an asylum might also be an early reference to the rise of radical psychiatry which emerged in the 1960s and reached a peak of influence in the 1970s based upon the work of Laing and Cooper in the Tavistock clinic. Their work was partially concerned with socio-cultural and class issues with regard to schizophrenia.
October 20, 2007
Georges–Henri Clouzot (1907–1977)
Georges-Henri Clouzot (1907-1977)
Clouzot made 10 feature length films four of which won international prizes. Clouzot was born in the south-western provincial town of Niort. In 1922 his father’s bookshop went bankrupt and the family moved to Brest in 1922. Here Clouzot tried to join the navy but was rejected due to myopia. Clouzot then tried to study diplomacy in Paris but quickly found that he was from the wrong class, he was ‘quickly made aware that one doesn’t belong’. Clouzot then turned first to theatre as a playwright and then to cinema to screen writing. At the beginning of the 1930s he worked for the Paris based office of Ufa (the German film company). By 1932 he had moved to Babelsberg making French-language versions of German box-office successes. It was here that he met Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, who were then at Ufa, experimenting with the Expressionist chiaroscuro lighting designs which strongly influenced Clouzot's later films noir. Clouzot moved back to Paris after 2 years as he had become too friendly with a Jewish producer.
Clouzot was often in ill health throughout and his return to Paris saw him coming down with pulmonary TB. Clouzot was confined to a Swiss sanatorium for three years supported by friends. During this time he voraciously read popular romans policier. This love of crime thrillers strongly influenced his future output.
In 1938 Clouzot returned to Paris meeting Pierre Fresnay who helped him get back into cinema. Clouzot also met the actor / singer Suzy Delair who sustained a relationship with him for 12 years finally leaving him after working with him on Quai des Orfevres (1947).
1940 saw the occupation of France with Germany taking over the film industry under the aegis of Continental Films as a part of it’s wider aims to establish a European wide counterweight to Hollywood. Alfred Greven headed Continental and knew Clouzot from his days in Germany. Initially Clouzot declined however hunger drove him as well as others into Greven’s power. Clouzot became director of screen writing first adapting Simenon’s Les inconnu dans la maison (1942) Henri Decoin. Already Clouzot started to make the film darker than the original story setting a trend for his later films. The author Stanislas-Andre Steeman L’Assassin Habite au 21 and Quai des Orfèvres commented that Clouzot would rebuild the story ‘after having contemptuously demolished any resemblance to the original, purely for the ambition of effect’  This commented was indicative of both an auteurial appraoch and also a sense of violence which later became apparent in Clouzot’s misogynistic treatment of his women actors a tendency he shared with Hithcock: In order to get the effect he wanted (be it anger or tears) he would quarrel with actors, slap them - in short, shock them into the mood required. ... He was the boss, and he was tough and a perfectionist.’ 
Dissatisfied with Les inconnu dans la maison Clouzot turned to directiong completing his first feature, L’Assassin Habite au 21 (1942). With resources being extremely restricted Clouzot learned to plan his films very tightly working from a very tight story board to organise shooting time and space. Shortages of film meant there was a maximum of two takes. The film was completed very cheaply in only 16 days.
Le Corbeau (1943) was his second feature. It earned him the title of auteur-metteur-en-scene. The term came from Jean Cocteau because he considered Clouzot to be both a master of mise-en-scene as well as being the author of his film text. This was a position developed well before the auteur debates which developed during the 1950s. By comparison the actor Louis Jouvet discerned a a tension for Clouzot between the need to resolve technical issues and keep to his text simultaneously. Some argue that this underlying artistic tension helps bring the edge to Clouzot’s films that they are renowned for. Discussion of Le Corbeau is dealt with in the separate case study. Suffice it to say here the content of the film resulted in Clouzot being controversially banned from film making for 4 years after the liberation by the ‘Cleansing committee’ which found him guilty of collaboration.
Quai des Orfevre (1947)
Despite the ban Clouzot worked on his next film Quai des Orfèvres (1947), in which Suzy Delair and husband Bernard Blier are the chief suspects of the inspector played by Louis Jouvet following a killing at a downmarket Parisian music-hall. Clouzot further developed his skills at suspense. Clouzot also developed his skills at directing his actors gaining a reputation for explaining the scenes very lucidly and making the actors feel very secure according to Jouvet. The film was extremely successful gaining best Director Award at Cannes and a box office of 5.5 million.
Manon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 1949
Clouzot followed this film with Manon (1949) which received the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival and a box office of 3.4 million. Clouzot’s next film the period comedy Miquette et sa mere (1950) an adaptation from a theatre play was something of a failure. However it was during the filming of this that Clouzot met his future wife Vera Gibson Amadeo a Brazilian.
The Clouzot’s then went to Brazil for a time and the knowledge gleaned from this visit strongly influenced the making of The Wages of Fear (1952). Vera had an important role in producing the film as Clouzot established Vera Productions as a finance vehicle and Vera herself was involved in production until she died a premature death from heart attack in 1960. A very tense thriller based on a book by Georges Arnaud filmed in the Camargue region to simulate Venezuela it kept the cost down. Due to a bout of illness combined with bad weather it took much longer to shoot than originally planned. The film won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 1953 gained an audience of 6.3 million in France and did well internationally.
This was followed by the very successful Les Diaboliques (1955) with a box office of 3.7 million was a film noir to end film noir as it has been described. The mystery was adapted from the novel Celle Qui N’Etait Pas by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose D’ Etre les Mortes was later brought to the screen as Vertigo by Hitchcock. But the connection with Hitch doesn't end there, as Clouzot clearly shared his contempt for his casts. Simone Signoret his leading actress complained, “He does not ask you to do things, he demands that you do things... Clouzot does not really respect actors. He claims he could make anyone act.”
Hayward (2005) argues that Clouzot was never again to attain the heights he achieved with these two films which can be reduced to two primary factors. Firstly rather than further capitalising on the thriller genre Clouzot made a film of his friend Picasso Le Mystere Picasso (1956). Clouzot was also getting out of touch with the changing cultural climate of France which was beginning to modernise and develop a youth generation which was to culminate in la nouvelle vague.
Clouzot with Picasso
Les Espions (1957) a cold war thriller (1.8 million box office) was something of a disappointment by Clouzot’s previous successes. Critics, including François Truffaut, who were keen to consign Clouzot to their 'Tradition of Quality' / cinema du papa. Generically the film had much that was influenced by Les Daiboliques and the plot and characterisation failed to convince.
Despite the damage that had been done to Clouzot's reputation the courtroom thriller La Vérité (1960) co-scripted by his wife just before she died was successful at the box office starring Brigitte Bardot and Sami Frey it appealed to younger audiences with 5.7 million at the box office. Nevertheless it received a cool critical reception and he went eight years without completing another feature La Prisonniere (1968). Illness had intervened again and Clouzot suffered a heart attack soon after starting to film L'Enfer, which he began filming in 1964. Claude Chabrol his successor as a master of suspense eventually filmed the story in 1994. Chabrol made clear his indebtedness to Clouzot in the DVD extras when it was released. Hayward comments that he was: Old fashioned, stuck in his practices and uninventive and seemingly having lost his touch, the nouvelle vague consigned him to the purgatorial ranks of the cinema du papa, and Clouzot was an auteur no more’ .
Hayward’s monograph on Les Diaboliques is a sustained attempt to argue that Clouzot was in fact an auteur and to point out that history has seen him as being accepted as one. Clouzot’s sense of humour is darker than Wilder’s or even Hitchcock’s being 'slightly nasty’. His development of mise en scene is bleaker and more detailed than Hitchcock’s as well as being seedier the glamour of both settings and characters in the later Hitchcock’s is missing. Arguably the horror is darker than Hitchcock. with whom he is probably most usefully compared.
In terms of his status as an auteur the standard benchmarks of auteur status are largely present. Clouzot had overall control of his films from script from stroy board to the shooting. He usually radically altered the original stories to make the text his own and here the complaint of the author Stanislas-Andre Steeman mentioned above corroborates the cinematic qualities of the films. This can be compared to Truffaut’s criticisms of a Aurant and Bost that they didn’t allow for cinema in their adaptations. Clouzot also shot in both studio and on location again circumventing another of Truffaut’s complaints abut cinema du papa being studio based. Furthermore many of the technicians and the production team were constants on Clouzot’s films. Armand Thirard was Clouzot’s director of photography in seven out of ten of his features and William-Robert Sivel was the sound operator in 9 out of ten of the films . Many of the actors he used appear in many of his films and his brother collaborated in the screenplays of 4 of his films. Clouzot’s artistic vision in the realm of suspense and persuading the audience to suspend disbelief also arguably increased at least up until Les Diaboliques. On these grounds whether Clouzot should be consigned to the ranks of cinema du papa is a highly suspect charge.
1 Cited Hayward 2005 p 3.
2 Hayward 2005 p 3.
3 Hayward 2005 p 5.
4 Hayward 2005 p 8.
5 Figures taken from Hayward 2005 p 9.