Michele Lagny, “The feeling gaze: Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938)” – The essay traces some of the context of the film’s release, particularly the way it was somewhat ordained to be a “three-star” film, what with it being an adaptation of a Zola novel, directed by Renoir (hot off of La Grande Illusion), and starring Jean Gabin. Lagny parses out the complexity of the narrative, identifying fissures within it that dislocate the spectator and add to the problem of an identifying gaze. The spectator ends up “in a position of ubiquity which enables him/her to see without running any of the risks that seeing involves” (97).
Maureen Turim, “Poetic Realism as psychoanalytical and ideological operation: Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939)” – Like Lagny in the previous essay, Turim notes the context: the collapsing Popular Front movement and the eve of WWII that contributed to this film’s reception and, therefore, the beginning of its interpretive history. But as was happening so regularly in this era of criticism (late 80s/early 90s), Turim goes psychoanalytic on us, arguing that the film “prefigures the psychoanalytic narrative economy of the 1940s melodrama and film noir in its configuration of a compulsive desire forcing repetitions that can only be stopped with death” (103). She favors both psychoanalytic and deconstructive methodologies in her analysis. The self, as revealed via psychoanalysis, and society, as revealed via ideology, are fraught with conflicting desires and a death drive. Various objets petit a clutter the protagonist’s doomed apartment space, literal souvenirs that suture him to his own past and generate an increasingly tempting desire to end it all. “Objects and memories are inseparable,” and “the room itself embodies the restriction of freedom through a limitation and closure of space” (106). Turim identifies the ways in which this space functions as a kind of microcosm of both the self as well as society during this important, transitional period in French history.
Susan Hayward, “Gender politics — Cocteau’s Belle is not that Bête: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946)” – Another psychoanalytic reading with heavy use of Lacan and the mirror stage. Mirrors are certainly used in this film, so, again, considering the time of this essay, no surprise. “The aim of any analysis has been to show that Cocteau’s [film] is about homo-erotic love; it is also about attempting to discover a different, non-phallic, perception of human relationships, and, furthermore, to ground the process of signification in a language where the phallus is not the mark of the symbolic construction of subjectivity” (134).
Pierre Sorlin, “A breath of sea air: Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1952)” – Sorlin’s essay is really more a series of undeveloped thoughts about Tati’s film. He makes lots of observations about the unusual nature of Hulot, such as the difficulty in talking about it or analyzing it and the ease with which we can describe our pleasure in it as spectators. This is more than fair, but Sorlin makes circles without ever landing in a clear place, critically. There is no real argument here, but plenty of accurate points made about how Tati appeals to tropes and jokes back to the silent era and the ways in which the film uses repetition and spectatorial distance to force us to “do the work” of interpretation. Even so, Sorlin doesn’t direct our attention anywhere in particular as to what that work looks like or how it can be productive. At the end, he notes the interesting social context of the film, how government regulations about vacations as well as a shift in automobile use render the film a part of an already-bygone age. “Unlike avant-garde films, Hulot does not distort cinematic forms to tell viewers they are looking at a movie. It is classically built, but spectators find less in it than what they bring — hence their enjoyment” (155).
Dudley Andrew, “Casque d’or, casquettes, a cask of aging wine: Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or (1952)” – As with much of Andrew’s stuff, it sets itself apart by its tone of adulation, its remarkably pleasant prose (by academic standards), and insightful thoughts, taking that extra step beyond the point of research where an author actually says something. Interestingly, though, even Andrew, who traditionally has had little to do with psychoanalytic criticism, can’t help but point out the Oedipal themes active in Casque d’or. But this isn’t the brunt of his piece. Limited by the unavailability of the film on home video at the time (1990), Andrew works off of memory, recalling his numerous viewings of the film a decade before writing and adoring the film’s ingenious way of being nostalgic without being sentimental. Although filmed around the height of the Tradition of Quality, the film’s development began around 1946, placing it, Andrew argues, closer to Poetic Realism than its undesirable progeny. Even its nostalgia, Andrew argues, is “earned,” with a “directness and sincerity [that] cut through the overwrought, loquacious ‘cinema of quality’…” (159). The film features a “romantic purity of characters and motives…[that] is tempered by modesty and stylistic rectitude,” avoiding the overblown productions of the later genre and earning its place even in Truffaut’s affections (162). This is truly “poetic realism,” not the “psychological realism” that Truffaut lambasted in his famous 1954 essay, one whose “refusal of political and social relevance shouts out a political and social message” (164). If anything, Andrew writes, “Becker’s nostalgia is a rebuke to a present that has failed to live up to the image he casts of the past” (166).
Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, “Beneath the despair, the show goes on: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis (1943)” – Jeancolas offers mainly an historical account of the film’s notoriously difficult production. It was made in Vichy France in the latter years of the Nazi occupation, with various figures associated with the production yanked from it and replaced for various reasons. Turns out that Carné actually slowed down post-production of the film when he realized the Allies were about to liberate Paris, concerned as he was that the film screen to a France freed from the Nazis. Jeancolas also notes the remarkable nature of the film, often labeled the height of Poetic Realism, for foregrounding the artifice of theatrical production and thereby rendering “reality bearable” (124). The screenplay, which Jeancolas identifies as the primary element of the film, was written by the great Jacques Prévert, another poet-turned filmmaker in French cinema’s golden age and further contributing to the highly literary nature of its cinema. Jeancolas also identifies the way that the film’s own structure is highly novel-like, and the way that it is “about spectacle…the cinema in all its glory paying homage to the theatre.” Although Jeancolas’s observations are merited, they would benefit from some contrast with the Tradition of Quality, that ugly duckling sibling of Poetic Realism that in many ways functions as its counterpoint and therefore on which its own being depends. Presumably, as defined by Truffaut, the Tradition of Quality has more to do with “psychological realism” than Poetic Realism, a more pronounced attempt by the film to get into the heads of the characters and make them deplorable. Les Enfants du paradis doesn’t do this. Its action takes place in a more Bazinian mode, a window into the real with meaning inscribed into the very objects we see.
Keith A. Reader, “The sacrament of writing: Robert Bresson’s Le Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951)” – Reader is probably the best critic of Bresson in English today, or maybe ever. No one else seems to do such careful work of balancing the very present spirituality in a film like Diary of a Country Priest with various methodological approaches. He refers to the likes of Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Bataille, Bazin, Dudley Andrew, and Paul Schrader, ably navigating the myriad possibilities for interpretation that Bresson’s film invites and allows. Wisely taking a step back from Schrader in particular, Reader identifies the motif of writing both in the film’s production (an adaptation of Bernanos’s novel) and diegesis (the priest’s journal) and explores the ways in which absence and presence of signifiers function in the film, with reference to Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Acknowledging the diverse ways in which sacramentology is approaches from within and outside of the church, Reader notes the sacramental way in which images and sounds are presented, noting Bresson’s own insistence on the way in which psychology emerges “between surface and soul, between matter and spirit, seeking to explain what can only be shown” (140). Operating in a purely cinematic mode, all the while adapting the Bernanos novel “faithfully,” Country Priest is “language reflecting on itself,” rendered visible through the priest’s own pondering of his journal writing by means of writing in his journal (139). He eventually renounces himself, and the film itself renounces imagery by offering the ultimate image of absence through presence, the silhouette of the cross in the final frame. What results is “probably the first theological essay to be written in the film medium” (145).
Michel Marie, “‘It really makes you sick!’: Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959)” – This is one of the best essays of the last generation about Breathless, a film that tends to generate lazy and/or weak essays that make fleeting reference to truisms and commonplaces and only suggest something resembling original arguments. Originality, of course, is overrated, so who cares whether it’s technically present in Marie’s essay. His piece stands out for making a slightly unorthodox argument about what is striking about Breathless: Godard’s use of language in the film. Use of lower-class dialects, intermingling with English and Italian, inventing quotations and misattributing them, and the general non-linear mode of dialogue that most of the characters reflect – Marie argues that this is the primary way in which Godard was “starting over” with film. At the same time, Marie makes plenty of helpful, well-grounded and well-founded appeals to the important facts surrounding the film, such that the essay would benefit undergraduate students while pushing them beyond the clichés of nouvelle vague tropes. Further still, by describing the backstory of Godard’s involvement in the film as well as that of others (like Truffaut), Marie somewhat unmasks the film, which is so constantly given a mythical status in film history. Godard’s previous collaboration with Jean Rouch, the ethnographic filmmaker, is noted, and a conclusion drawn about the way in which the dialogue in Breathless employs something common or proletarian for the first time in French film. Although he doesn’t go there, this point offers a really provocative starting point for rethinking the politics of Breathless. Although ostensibly intended to re-politicize the cinema in a Leftist sort of way, the historical narrative of the New Wave now tells us that this approach generally failed by only attracting the bourgeoisie, eventually forcing Godard into his more extremely political filmmaking in the 70s. But by locating the source of Godard’s innovation in the verbal language rather than simply the cinematic language, we have a different lens through which to examine and evaluate the politics of Breathless.