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Will there ever be a New French Cinema?

In Les Enfants de la liberte [Freedom's Children, 1997], Claude-Marie Tremois praises the New French Cinema of the 1990s. The author's dream of a "new New Wave"--one that emerged with Un monde sans pitie (Eric Rochant, 1989; released in the U.S. in 1991 as Love Without Pity) and shook the pillars of an ossified establishment--is seductive. This is in fact the "eternal return" (on-going for 30 years) of a Romantic discourse that resuscitates the rhetorical flourishes of the 1950s in order to wave the flag of the "new" revolution. On one side, we find those already dismissed as "old" young filmmakers (yesterday Claude Sautet, today Jacques Audiard) who continue the tradition of a cinema of manipulation and mastery.

On the other hand, there are filmmakers who are necessarily categorized as talented to the extent that they fulfill certain expectations. These include: believing in the virtues of disorder and improvisation, privileging the single-shot sequence and the moving camera (as opposed to quick-cutting), and loving one's characters by giving them the freedom to go wherever they want. Operating here is a post-Bazinian mystique (via the mandatory reference to John Cassavetes), based on a false argument that assumes salvation can be imagined only as the result of the exclusive cult of the real. The real, a complex notion, functions as a magical incantation: as long as there is submission to the effect of the real, there is freedom (as if freedom cannot be found within a rigid structure, as if Robert Bresson's obsessions were not as creative as Renoir's availability). At least, thankfully, Tremois has not added a cult of youth as the certificate of talent. But, while she promotes Alain Resnais or Eric Rohmer, it is in the name of a developing lightness, a spirit of youth which is the mark of a mastery that abandons nothing to chance, a maturity that hides tragedy.

What is striking, in contrast, in the major filmmakers of the last ten years, is the return of a real darkness. From La Vie des morts (Arnaud Desplechin, 1991) to Petits arrangements avec les morts (Pascale Ferrin, 1994; released in the U.S. as Coming to Terms with the Dead), images of death increase as do traces of the past, avoided by a more hedonistic and vital generation. Turning our backs on hope and dynamic tomorrows, we witness a return of a self-enclosed cinema that persists in pouring salt on its wounds and tries to capture the moment at which History stops. This is obviously the drama at the heart of La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin, 1992), starring Emmanuel Salinger, with its death's head like an Oedipal presence which cannot be purged. It is also true of Comment je me suis dispute ... (ma vie sexuelle) (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996; released in the U.S. as My Sex Life ... or How I Got into an Argument), starring Mathieu Amalric, which incessantly invokes the castrating moment that interrupted his life. Death is at work even in its most friendly forms, even in the apparent optimism of L'Age des possibles (Pascale Ferran, 1996) with its characters who can only play at the idea of youth through nostalgic and mimetic representations. This imitation culminates in the euphoria around the song, "Peau d'Ane," sign of a resolutely artificial acknowledgement.

In front of these pseudo-children of liberty, we feel the bitterness of a generation who arrived after the battle, after the loss of the great ideological and aesthetic stakes. This generation can but forever explore ancient forms, in a kind of cinephilic saturation. Thus, Pascale Ferran refers, with a certain fetishism, to the crossed constructions of Jacques Demy or Resnais. Thus, Desplechin reinvests in Truffauldian introspection, to the point of frustrating the autobiographical investigation of all links to this so ardently desired "real." Julien Husson notes:
 What is striking in [Desplechin's] work is the contraction of meaning,
 hardly compatible with doubt (which his interviews, however, proclaim), and
 the work that this last engenders. Every element of fiction is used,
 according to Desplechin, as a means of knowing. The actors are not bodies
 but represent ideas, the characters are not parts of the story, but
 categorical instances. Music is not the immediate knowledge of the nature
 of the world, but the interpretation of meaning as such carried in each
 scene taken individually. Finally, the correspondence between the
 aforementioned scenes comes not from an association freely chosen by the
 viewer, but from the semantic identity which opposes and brings together
 characters, music, situations and discourses. This primacy of meaning and
 knowledge has only one enemy: life itself. This paradoxically constitutes
 the fertile (tough problematic) ground of all fiction. (18)

It is true that what dominates in the most brilliant students of this school is the mise-en-scene of a reality which is already filtered, gone over with a fine-tooth comb by a system of signs, meticulously closed in upon itself. Nothing seems reflected here, except through a mirror. An inflated system of citation labors to revive the living, if only by force, in particular in the very lovely scenes of Comment je me suis dispute where Emmanuelle Devos wanders, and where finally the images themselves speak, in silence.

This freezing-over of meaning may seem like the symptom of a larger phenomenon which worsens as the twentieth century finishes dying. The re-appearance of a bipolar cinema brings us back to the clear-cut categories of the 1950s, rather than to the landslides of the New Wave. We witness the renaissance of a rural picaresque genre that appears to break with the "Parisianism" for which French filmmakers are so often and so easily reproached. Claude Mourieras" Dis-moi que je reve (1998) offers a microcosm of kindly "crazies" who withdraw from society and recreate a world suited to their fantasy.

Manuel Poirier's Western (1997) depicts two wanderers who review a fragment of rural France and reject re-integration in favor of playful individualism. There is nothing here that does not hearken back to a rediscovered childhood. If the reality of certain abnormalities-being unemployed or born with mental illness--are invoked, it is in order that these may be immediately eradicated as if by a magic wand, through a consoling, mystical reversal. The pariahs literally become the chosen because finally they are the blessed who come to possess the earth. Beyond these slightly muted Christian references (which convey the compassionate spiritualism of our times), Poirier's universe lingers on this inoffensive anarchism which was the charm of the first poetic realism. The two vagabonds of Western are the grandchildren of the characters that Rene Clair, in A nous la liberte (1931), previously left on the road in an atmosphere of jovial resourcefulness and songs without a tomorrow, since they only offer a dream of escape from the harshness of capitalism. More than ever, we are dealing with a cinema of return and introspection that re-integrates the insignificant, the obscure, and the menial in an enchanted and anachronistic world, which only accords them dignity within the limits of an ideal reflection.

Occasionally, this idealism reveals itself as such, with all its referential artifices. In this sense, the representation of AIDS victims in new French cinema is illuminating. One always has the impression that suffering and death are confined to off-screen space, to obscurity, to the un-representable. In contrast, the tragic immediacy of the subject seems, through an intensification of signification, to exacerbate decadent poses or romantic affectations. This is how Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, in Jeanne et le garcon formidable (1998; released in the U.S. in 1999 as Jeanne and the Perfect Guy), inscribe illness in a series of generic scenes, stylized and sanitized a la the films of Jacques Demy. This is a response only to an aesthetic of deja vu. It is not AIDS that is represented, but rather a pastiche of its media mythology. Here all the signs of acknowledgement are collected, rendering the viewing of the film reassuring. The subject itself remains absent and unattainable, in the image of Virginie Ledoyen, pursued by one of her suitors in a hallway, revealed in a trompe l'oeil which only seems to lead to emptiness.

Xavier Beauvois N'oublie pas que tu vas mourir (1995) offers another version, a more literary form of sublimation. The summoned spirits include Lord Byron and Joris-Karl Huysmans creating a self-portrait that comprises views of the soul, mental images and disembodied ideas. The auteur-actor projects himself into the mind of a young man with AIDS. He imagines a journey of initiation, to the point of a sacrifice to Sarajevo which completes the fantasy of Romantic identification. In both cases, the myth appears to have become again essential in overcoming the absurdity of death, in order that the negative might be experienced as a cultural object. Again, pre-war realism is not far off, which became all the more "poetic" as the horror of the world became more indecipherable.

The other side of this fin-de-siecle idealism is a cinema of cruelty that collects the demons in order exorcise them all. Here too, cinema re-inscribes itself in a strict literary and cinematographic tradition, that of a dark naturalism in which the dream of purity is the required corollary of a sadistic backdrop. Julien Duvivier directed Marianne de ma jeunesse in 1954, a frippery [a collection of trivialities] populated with ethereal adolescents, and closed off possibilities with Voici le temps des assassins (1956; released in the U.S. as Deadlier than the Male), starring Jean Gabin, a veritable anthology of contemporary despair.

Today, Pokier circulates a pleasant mirror reflecting the paths of sweet France. Anne Fontaine offers a grimacing counter-image of a rural France that seems unchanged since Duvivier. In Nettoyage a sec (1997; released in the U.S. in 1999 as Dry Cleaning), the slippage of the traditional lovers' triangle is only there to reinforce the rigidity of the family circle. Here, an anachronistic topic coincides with an anachronistic social vision. As well as referencing French cinema of the 1950s, the province described by Fontaine is rooted in a long literary heritage that goes from Emile Zola to Georges Simenon, from Guy de Maupassant to Francois Mauriac. This heritage exercises as powerful an influence on the film's representation of the province as would a canvas painted at the back of the theater. No matter that Belfort in Nettoyage a sec has nothing to do with France today. The depiction is comprehensible and legitimate to the extent that it draws upon a dramatic typology.

A similar analysis applies to the films of Francois Ozon: 1997's Regarde la mer and 1998's Sitcom. If they summon up more contemporary dramatic typologies, and if their cruelty is inspired by a certain televisual rhetoric, they do not move much beyond perversion, even if they claim to operate in terms of subversion. Though perversion purports to upset the social order, it is limited to a form of internal transgression in so far as it imitates, more or less paradoxically, moral codes and aesthetic conventions.

This is not entirely the case with the films de banlieue [suburb films], a new generation that one could rightfully expect to be a subversive force, but that in fact indirectly pays homage to "naturalist perversion." This homage is completely conscious on the part of Mathieu Kassovitz. At the end of La Haine (1995), the head of the waiting adolescent seems traced over that of the orphan who presses his head against the window, an image from the deceptively open conclusion of Nous sommes tous des assassins (Andre Cayatte, 1952). This cyclical construction, based on a schema as fatalistic as it is uncertain, reveals itself openly as such in Assassin(s) (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1997). Alienation, defined through the media, returns and re-invigorates the tragic mission of a blind, deaf, omnipresent, and invisible deus ex machina, in the name of which all hope of starting over is poisoned by the same spring. This dark structure defines yet another film written (and this time directed) by Nicolas Boukhrief: Le Plaisir ... et autres petis tracas (1998), in which the shadow of AIDS is only evaded in order to accentuate the curse that weighs on the group of lovers.

Jean-Francois Richet in Etat des lieux (1995) and Ma 6-T va cracker (1997) creates, in opposition, his own more progressive--but not necessarily less rigid--grid of meanings. He offers a popular militancy, awkwardly interfering "between the cracks of" a documentary project. No matter what the form (even when it takes that of a direct investigation), it certainly seems that French cinema can only capture the present through a process of mental reconstruction, in which it always attempts to define a direction, to deliver a message (idealistic or pessimistic), to reproduce a coherent, stable, pre-established representation, rather than letting dialogue create itself freely.

It is not a matter of reproaching this cinema for its decadent lucidity, nor for its excess of culture, which separates it from "real life." The main issue is the gap between a theoretical discourse (relayed, as we have seen, by a particular critical discourse) and the less evident movements that underlie this theoretical discourse. It is tempting to talk about a cinema of disavowal--which confronts an invisible dead-end--that is systematically displaced, a negation that returns as an obsession. It is encouraging that some of the representatives of this cinema have been among the most eloquent in the political arena especially in relation to support for "les sans-papiers." [individual without official administrative status] However, their commitment suggests a desire to overcome their anxieties and the malaise that the exterior world produces by voicing a well-meaning humanism. In this context, Christophe Honore's rebukes, articulated in a recent issue of Cahiers du Cinema, can only illicit support:
 What does it mean to be a citizen filmmaker? A filmmaker who has rights and
 responsibilities toward the Republic? Why do French filmmakers need to
 identify themselves as a social group in its own right? How can one avoid
 demagoguery when one speaks for an electoral majority? And I am afraid of
 the films to come, I am afraid of the responsible and concerned films where
 I will have to occupy the position of a model spectator, there, on the
 first row, among the good pupils, those who actively participate in the
 courses designed for them. (5)

If there is a threat to French cinema, it is more likely to be to found in didacticism than militancy. Contestation manifests itself less in the films themselves than in the discourse that accompanies them, a kind of moral and media dispensation that safeguards artists from any real descent into hell.

If there is any kind of renewal of French cinema, it is found among the less obtrusive auteurs who have made the choice of not interpolating a rhetoric between the eye and the object. This is, for instance, the position of Noemie Lvosly, who follows the mortifying insanity of the character in Oublie-moi (1995) without burdening it with any mediation. This transparency can be found also in Y aura-t-il de la neige a Noel? (1996), Trop de bonheur (1994), and Bye-bye (1995). Sandrine Veysset, Ctdric Kahn, and Karim Dridi, respectively, each following their own rhythm, succeed in renewing the fragile link between document and intimate journal. There is much to expect from a new cinema "as diary" following in the wake of self-portraits constructed by Agnes Varda and by Alain Cavalier. From Sophie Calle's No Sex Last Night (1996; released in the U.S. as Double Blind) to Dominique Cabrera's Demain et encore demain, journal 1995 (1997), the status of the director is undermined as is the reliability of "witnessing" The more the auteur exposes and implicates him or herself, the more the notion of verisimilitude is destabilized and requires active participation on the part of the viewer.

Why is it that today such experiences appear more stimulating than the psychological tradition revisited by Desplechin or Ferran? It is not so much a question of promoting an aesthetic as exclusive ideal (this would be falling prey to the mystique of the "real" denounced above). It seems that in a French cinema that pretends to reincarnate itself regularly, yet gets bogged down in ancient literary schema (from Marcel L'Herbier to Alexandre Astruc), the critique of fiction has become more vital than its proliferating renovation. There lies the alternative at each turning point in the history of French cinema: it was already the case in the silent avant-garde, which was wrongly called the "impressionist school," whereas its formal experiments often remained dependent upon outdated dramaturgical typologies and emphatic self-proclamations.

It was also the case with the pseudo "neo-realism" that emerged after the liberation. While he appeared to be the French Rossellini and the witness of the Resistance rendered from life, Rene Clement revealed himself as the guardian of a mythological realism that had not uttered its final pronouncements. This precarious tension between the two alternatives continued to weigh on all of the first generation at Cahiers du Cinema. With Roger Leenhardt as well as with Pierre Kast or even Truffaut, we sense that the claim for a "different" cinema can only emerge from the renewal of a novelistic tradition. Sometimes this renewal reveals itself as a mortifying exercise, especially since it is often coupled with an obsessively referential cinephilia. Each time it takes a step forward, French cinema tends to look behind and to buttress itself on pre-existing structures, which serve simultaneously as counterexample, as theoretical support, and as restraint. Thus French cinema offers only restoration projects, which endeavor to re-evaluate the bases of fiction, but which fail to put into question the very validity of this fiction, the illusion of reality that is supposed to be attached to it and the pre-eminence of the words which construct it. One could almost speak of a religious postulate: cinema is conceived as an act of sacred revelation whose dogma must be continuously purified, with the exception of one intangible, which resides in the coherent signification of word made incarnate, in the idea that cinema would be essentially destined to illustrate this discourse.

It is not, however, forbidden to contrast this dogmatic tradition with a critical regard towards a cinema that is (un)doing itself. In Irma Vep (1996), Olivier Assayas turns against the novelistic temptation that haunted his previous films. He frankly asks to what extent this temptation is still alive. In La Croisade d'Anne Buridan (1994), Judith Cahen questions the filmmaker's passage from subjectivity to political engagement. When creation is not completely innocent of its powers, tree liberty does not lie in prolonging this creation artificially, but rather in testing the threshold of its resistance: within this creation escapes the rigor mortis of analysis. And inversely, if a certain form of the novelistic can recover its rights, it is often by means of pure and simple observation, through which the instant in which the "real" becomes fiction can be captured.

Following this line of thought, one of the most innovative examples comes from Belgium with La Promesse (1996). Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne raise a simple news item and lend it the intensity of a tragedy. The Oedipal affront is no longer only a literary given, but a myth reinvented in the heart of a more immediate present. Claire Simon maintains a similar balance in Coute que coute (1996), in which a little business that is going bankrupt reveals hidden truths, a shortcut in the Human Comedy. In Sinon, oui (Claire Simon, 1997), the filmmaker systematically radicalizes this world, made-to-measure for the individual.

From many points of view, the flag-waving film of this marginal aesthetic--of the edge, of the frontier between an objective approach and a subjective writing--is La vie revee des anges (Erick Zonca, 1998; released in the U.S. as The Dreamlife of Angels). The treatment of the "real" is wisely re-inscribed in a very concerted vision of the world. Specific destinations, sketched in an instant, like so many autonomous monads, finish by joining each other in a lay communion. This is not very far from that which Bresson and Jean Giraudoux put in place with Les Anges du peche (1943). As intelligent as this synthesis might be, which miraculously reunites antagonistic currents, one can simply hope that it does not turn into a process and a convention, that it does not announce a new style of closure and reversal of meaning.

In truth, Reprise (1996) is probably the film that develops the widest horizon for this neo-documentary New Wave. By concentrating on a piece of suspended History and on fragments of memory, Herve Le Roux reinstates a notion of Henri Bergson's la duree which stands at the antipodes of Desplechin's virtuoso dramaturgy--to the extent that he invokes the Other--the witness who is given the freedom to travel back into the past at his or her own pace, and the spectator whose imaginary completes the puzzle without a discourse dictating each move. And we wonder if it is not there, on this margin of uncertainty where several gazes answer each other, that "young French cinema" has a chance of recovering its creative freedom. It is as if cinema, faced by a loss of faith conjugated by these films (faith in cinema, domestic theatre, or political action), could only grasp the "real" again from within, in a gesture which would finally reconcile matter and spirit as well as lost illusions and dreams to come.

If it were necessary to simplify in a few words and isolate the challenge, it lies more on the side of Maurice Pialat than on that of Truffaut. That is to say, it lies not so much on the side of re-writing the world from a distance but rather on the side of re-inscribing cinema within the world. To return to the book that initiated this discussion, sanctifying a hypothetical transparency (whose cult rests on the inversely proportional impossibility of apprehending it) is less important than overcoming the slightly perverse idea of a real that must be grasped, that must be unveiled, that must be surprised in flagrante delicto and always from a voyeuristic position, always from a distance if not from on high. Even though they claim to come as close as possible to their objects, the "young French cineastes" are constantly retreating behind a simultaneously sovereign and uncertain subjectivity. This is a contradiction that Vincent Amiel underlines with subtlety:
 When social representation is at stake, it feels like it is avoided in two
 ways: either by denying it thematically, or by relativizing its
 significance and stressing deliberately the artifices of the aforementioned
 representation. What is lacking between these two kinds of avoidance is the
 narrative form which allows identification. We could call it "consequential
 realism" in the sense that it produces consequences ... But this
 inscription into the world seems the equivalent of economic integration, as
 if in the flux of the real, in the accepted passage of audiovisual
 strategies, the dramaturgical integrity of adult stories was automatically
 lost. Inversely, la politique des auteurs was thus obliged to impose its
 mark on the images of the world. Is integration antagonistic to the notion
 of auteur? Does the nineteenth century artist still govern our culture? The
 question to ask ourselves without any priori is whether French cinema
 should not do away with an auteurist position that cuts off social
 representation due to its expressive excesses and from personal
 representations due to its dramaturgical failure. (104)

Without engaging all the details of Amiel's position, we can retain the idea of an auteurism mired in Romanticism and that only served to preserve a well-established French literary tradition: that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "cult of the self" magnified by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, and rendered dogmatic by Maurice Barres. From this perspective, the "young French cinema" continues to suffer from a feverish adolescence manifested in an over-estimation of the self and in a fantasy of mastery that contradicts the ideal of openness to the Other, even if it is legitimized by a group dynamic and a collective project, which are there in order to overcome the narcissistic faults of adolescence. The misconception persists as a means of keeping reality at a distance, of preventing it from becoming or of throwing it back into the past.

Confronted with this frozen temporality and these immobile innovations, Pialat's films--L'Enfance nue (1970), La Gueule ouverte (1974), and even Le Garcu (1995)--appear as simultaneously tutelary and liberating figures. In his self-imposed solitude and in his masochistic megalomania, he predicts this erasure of limits and vanishing of discourse that are today the most concrete signs of a real passage into adulthood.

Works Cited

Amiel, Vincent. "Une nouvelle generation dans le cinema francais?." Esprit [December 1997].

Honore Christophe. "La triste moralite du cinema francais." Cahiers du cinema [February 1998].

Husson, Julien. "Eloge du jeune cinema francais." La Lettre du cinema. No. 3.

Tremois, Claude-Marie. Les Enfants de la liberte. Pads: Seuil, 1997.

Noel Herpe teaches the history of French cinema at the University of Chicago. He is a member of the editorial committee of Positif and an advisor for the selection of foreign films at the Cannes Film Festival. He recently published Le Film dans le texte: L'oeuvre ecrite de Rend Clair (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2001) and directed a special issue of 1895 (no. 34-35, October 2001) on Max Ophuls. He is currently preparing the proceedings of a conference devoted to the theoretical work and films of Eric Rohmer.

Thierry Jutel teaches film and media studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He has written on the cinema of Marguerite Duras, Wim Wenders, and the culture of speed and transformation in the American media.
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Author:Herpe, Noel
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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