Journal de combat

Emilie Bickerton celebrates Cahiers du cinéma, the French film journal that insisted on seeing film as an art form

June 16, 2010
8 min read

In its original conception the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma marked a break with the prevailing regimes of taste in post-war artistic culture. In film this was defined by the silent tradition and French cinéma de qualité – glossy literary adaptations, costume dramas or musicals – both unanimously celebrated for reasons motivated by patriotism or partisanship. Cahiers proposed a very different notion of cinema and turned consensus opinion on its head. Its writers believed that film was not only an entertainment industry but also an art at the beginning of its journey.

Film had already produced a number of great masters, equal to Velasquez or Proust in their field. In the writing on film, however, there was too much nostalgia for a bygone era. Old-guard critics were shut away in their decrepit palaces, cut off from the world like Billy Wilder’s fallen movie star from Sunset Boulevard. In the first issue Cahiers put it simply: this group of critics were ‘lovers of a dead sun, they see ashes where a thousand phoenix are constantly reborn’.

Cahiers was the last modernist project. Cinema, its editors believed, should be established as an art in its own right, elevated to its rightful status alongside literature, painting, music. As Jean-Luc Godard summed up in 1959: ‘We have won by getting the principle accepted that a film by Hitchcock is as important as a book by Aragon. The auteurs of films, thanks to us, have entered definitively into the history of art.’

Bound in its original yellow covers, Cahiers was a real journal de combat – a magazine with a battle plan. It drew its polemical energy from the remarkable concentration and combination of individuals who made up its first editorial group. This eclectic team brought a mixture of Catholicism, classicism, humanism and spiritualism to the meeting with cinema.

Born in a growing cold war climate where public figures and debates were positioned vis-à-vis an emerging world order, Cahiers initially set itself apart. It focused on developing a deeper engagement with cinema built on aesthetic foundations. Such a rich body of work was in need of fuller understanding.

At home there was Jean Renoir, and early pioneers Jean Vigo and Jean Epstein. The cinematographic landscape worldwide included Italian neo-realism through Roberto Rossellini and Lucio Visconti; in America the exiles Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles worked alongside Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray and Billy Wilder; Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi to the East. These directors had to be defended in a coherent fashion, within the context of the history of art.

The process of viewing the films by these masters also provided Cahiers critics with an education in how to make films. The ‘young Turks’, as Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer became known, were preparing their own practical intervention into the world of cinema, in which the journal was the first stage.

Writing forced them to ask and answer how a director employed various techniques to his own unique ends, how he conveyed his narrative visually and developed a thematic continuity through his oeuvre.

The years 1951-1959 were explosive ones for Cahiers, concluding triumphantly when François Truffaut collected the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Having previously dismissed or denied the critical and now artistic radicalism coming from Cahiers pages, critics internationally could only eat their words.

Yellow years

Up to this point, the story of the journal is broadly well-known: the iconic ‘yellow years’, when some angry young men first cut their teeth before enacting the short-lived cinematic revolution of the New Wave. A few images have become emblematic, and suffice to sum up this version of the magazine’s history: a young Jean-Pierre Léaud’s defiant stare at the camera in The 400 Blows; the jump cuts between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg walking down the Champs-Elysées in Breathless; Miles Davis’s jazz score narrating Louis Malle’s drama in an elevator, Lift to the Scaffold.

These moments punctured the previous conception of what cinema could express and how. They marked a decisive break with conventional studio settings, tight scenarios and the rules of montage, replacing them with low-budget techniques and audacious working methods.

Small teams shot scenes on the streets and in friends’ apartments with mobile cameras and using direct sound; takes and tracking shots grew unusually long; experiments with editing led to the use of collage and jump cuts; the love affair with America brought jazz and William Faulkner. The ethnographic cinéma vérité practiced by Jean Rouch and Robert Flaherty met with noir plotlines full of fun, women and motor cars. But for all the eulogies that have subsequently been devoted to the New Wave, the movement was essentially brief. Its influence was absolutely definitive, but in itself the work was ultimately insubstantial.

Cahiers managed to go beyond the New Wave and redefine itself on successive occasions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, generating consistently radical critical writing and ideas on film. In these two subsequent decades the periodic renewals of the editorial team led to greater internationalism, some of the earliest applications of structuralism and psychoanalysis to film, politicised and ideological critiques that turned the gaze on the spectator and considerations around the impact of television on the moving image.

The major flashpoints that distilled the defining questions in each decade involved both personalities and outside events. In the 1960s the clash between Rivette and Rohmer was essentially the result of their two conflicting worldviews. As editor, Rohmer retained the classical cinéphile tastes developed during Cahiers’ first ten years. For Rivette this was an impotent critical position in the face of modern cinema. Concentrating on a director’s choice of the cinematic presentation of the story could not fully explain the work being produced by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Glauber Rocha or Nagasi Oshima. More instructive were the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, the music of Pierre Boulez and the abstract canvases of Mark Rothko.

Red years

In the 1970s it was not just the world of art and ideas that Cahiers turned towards, but also politics. The glorious isolation of the artist and critic was rigorously reconsidered. Cahiers’ ‘red years’, which involved a brief lurch to Maoism, are its most notorious. The decade is marked by varying degrees of ideological intransigence, artistic austerity and auto-critique. In the debris of a defeated revolutionary fervour, Cahiers stepped back to reconsider its critical function. The texts that were produced during these tumultuous years are now the most widely translated in Cahiers’ archive, and are cornerstones for contemporary film theory.

The discordance that eventually defined the new direction for Cahiers in the 1980s involved Serge Toubiana, who had arrived a red book-waving Maoist, and Serge Daney. Toubiana finally pushed through his more ‘connected’ glossy and upmarket vision for Cahiers, eclipsing Daney’s less clearly defined, more exploratory and critically radical alternative. The consequence of this split is still in evidence today: the 1980s mark the decade when Cahiers joined the ruck of mainstream cinema guides preoccupied with Oscar contenders and meeting its sales figures.

Chronology naturally organises the narrative for the history of any journal. Alongside this, a set of questions and relationships emerge that are at the heart of the Cahiers tale. One is the relationship between art and politics. The positions taken by editors vis-à-vis directors such as Howard Hawks, Hitchcock or Nicholas Ray were possible partly because of the young Turks’ lack of politics – they saw the brilliance of the art and did not care for whatever right-wing political narratives might also exist in the work. They embraced Hollywood for its artistic achievements, in contrast to the anti-Americanism espoused by the Communist Party (which chose Soviet cinema) or French patriots (who chose cinéma de qualité).

Cahiers was consciously apolitical so as to avoid the pitfalls of those contributing to L’Ecran Français, the Communist Party’s Les Lettres Françaises, and the left-leaning Positif. In these pages, often echoed in American magazines, critics expressed their views about the world through films. Fuller was dismissed by Sadoul as ‘the McCarthy of cinema’ after watching Pickup on South Street, and yet the same film was deemed outrageously ‘anti-American’ by liberals in the US for its perceived red sympathies. On both sides of the Atlantic this was an example of cinema being viewed for the story alone, but no critic, unlike those at Cahiers, looked at what the pictures were telling him. n

This is an extract from the introduction to Emilie Bickerton’s A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma, published by Verso

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