Tuesday, November 28, 2006

French cinema

Daney settles scores with French cinema. Take your side: Qualité française or nouvelle vague?

It’s a part of France that I don’t accept. Artistically you can call it academic. It’s the least inventive part of cinema. You may say it’s excessive but I think you understand what I am saying. There are things that I found at my birth which I have never tolerated. I think that the French cinema of the Qualité Française is contemporary of a period that lasted from 1940 until late in the 50s, which is a period of suffocation: the collaboration. I am not saying that all the directors I don’t like were collaborators. It’s just very annoying that, as Autant-Lara was complaining, the heyday of French cinema is 1940-1945. It’s true that for Autant-Lara, it was a good thing. He made many movies and some were very good. And it’s true that this is the time when huge resources were given to Marcel Carné to make a very large and ambitious movie: Les enfants du Paradis. All these movies have one thing in common: they were shot in studios. France is occupied and, for me, the studios represent occupation in the field of cinema. (…) So it’s not at all “Hooray to the sublime resistance!” and “Down with the horrible cowards!” It’s just that the cinema of the France of Vichy looks like the France of Vichy and that France has had more glorious times in its history. It seems so obvious that I feel a bit ashamed to have to say this. (…) It’s a cinema of great craftsmen and with some beautiful things. But I have no taste for such cinema. I have no taste for the French cinema of the 1940s.

I am like Godard. I copy him and I say the same thing. In Les dames du Bois de Boulogne when Elina Labourdette is about to die and Paul Bernard tells her “stay!”, she replies “I stay, I fight”. Godard - who always interprets everything his own way - says this is the only word of resistance we have heard in all of the French cinema during the war. The way Elina Labourdette says “I fight”. She says it with a blank voice (we don't speak about Bressonian neutral voices yet) and it overwhelms me. And I feel that Bresson is inventing a new cinema. Bresson is not a leftist or a resistant and this has nothing to do with ideology. Bresson is inventing Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, which is one of the most extraordinary French movies ever made and which is something that for me renders all Antant-Lara’s work ridiculous. Because it is not of the same nature. There is something different. You can hear a certain sound in the voice.

For me it wasn’t this movie - because I saw Les dames du Bois de Boulogne much later when I was already an official movie critic - but it was Pickpocket, when I was fifteen. Pickpocket was made in 1958, released in 1959 (not that long after the 40s) and it changed me forever. This is very clear. You won’t find people who say they hesitate between Marriage de chiffon and Pickpocket. They are two different kinds. I am not saying this to make me believe that I would have been more virtuous or resistant. I honestly don’t know. But I am surprised that the French cinema continues to put out flags on a minor, rather decorative, and spineless moment of its history.

There were some very talented moviemakers like Autant-Lara, Clouzot or Clément. And in my opinion, something a bit sad happened to them. But they had the stupidity not to see what was happening. When the Nouvelle Vague arrived, they thought it was a revolt of turbulent children like in Zéro de conduite. They forgot that they had squatted French cinema with over-unionisation and a very ideological corporatism. They had prevented French cinema from renewing itself. So, for ten years, there were directors, like Franju, Melville, Leenhart, Rouch, Astruc, who were trying to shake things and who never had access to normal distribution networks. And all of these had somewhat aborted careers. It is only when the small group of Les Cahiers had a bit more energy that the times began to push for a change.

I never became reconciled with these moviemakers of the Qualité Française because when the situation escaped their control they were unable to adapt, to start over, to use smaller budgets… Some of them were still very creative. Clément for instance made Plein Soleil. It’s an old movie but it is a wonderful movie. It’s a movie that still has something today because of Alain Delon. Clément saw Alain Delon. Just as Vadim saw Bardot.

What’s happening in the years 1955 to 1960? Some moviemakers, not necessarily good ones, saw that something was happening in front of their eyes. For example Roger Vadim, a very bad director, sees Brigitte Bardot. And Brigitte Bardot is the most important thing that happens to French cinema in 1955. Many missed her, and that includes me. I was 10 years old but I could have been smarter. I found her stupid. Vadim sees Bardot and he films her, badly, and it is wonderful. He falls in love with her of course but he has the intelligence not to make an artist’s movie but a low-key movie - Et Dieu créa la femme - that is nothing in itself but where there is something formidable. The movie features respected actors as well as a rising star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Vadim records the amazement of these actors to play with this girl who breaks all the rules of acting and visibly invents a dialogue of her own. A profoundly stupid dialogue which is unforgettable. “What a nitwit this rabbit!” nobody from the Qualité Française could write something like that. And at the time Bardot is right because France is going to look like her.

Three years later, Marcel Carné, who is not that old and is extremely respected, announces that he is going to make a movie about youth. It was Les Tricheurs, a long forgotten movie. It was a gigantic event. Everybody was talking about it. It was released in 1958, made in 1957, two years before the Nouvelle Vague. And people were saying: “it’s horrible, Carné reveals a cynical world. Young people are no longer humans. They are monsters. They sleep together. Are they really our children?” And Carné was replying: “you don’t understand. They need love. We must talk to them.” There was this horrible debate in the very backward France of the 50s. A debate that sounds ridiculous today because the movie is absolutely insignificant. The movie is of no interest whatsoever except that it was talked about a lot at the time. And when I say “Carné didn’t see anything”, I am not saying his conception of the youth was a bit dated – after all, old people are not always wrong. But Carné had organised auditions. He auditioned Paul Belmondo, hesitated and didn’t select him. One year later Godard or Truffaut - I don’t know which one - saw Belmondo, and here you go. It’s like Bardot.

Transcript of the filmed interview Daney gave to Regis Debray in 1992 for French TV magazine Océaniques. my translation, 2005.
Full video is available in DVD as Itinéraire d’un ciné-fils, Montparnasse Editions, 2005