Iconicity and Iconoclasm: French Cinema by Charles Drazin

French Cinema

French Cinema
BY Charles Drazin
(Faber & Faber, 2011)


From the Publisher:

“… Suggesting a Gallic attitude that has always considered the cinema to be as much a cause as a business, Drazin looks at the extraordinary resilience of the French film industry during the Second World War when, in spite of the national catastrophe of defeat and occupation, it was still able to produce such classics as Le Corbeau and Les Enfants du Paradis. Finally, he traces its remarkable post-war regeneration. He looks at the seminal impact of the New Wave of film-makers — typified by Truffaut and Godard — but also at the other waves that have followed since. As he brings the story up-to-date — with Jacques Audiard’s award-winning A Prophet — he seeks to capture the essence of the French film tradition and why it continues to matter to anyone who cares about the cinema.”

When one thinks of “French cinema” a certain tendency is evoked by the residue of classic francophone films that were, from the perspective of those who loved cinema but who did not grow up speaking French, considerably quieter and, perhaps, subtler than the mainstream Hollywood films. This presumed tendency in French cinema to come across as intellectual and “mature” in comparison with its American counterpart is one bound up with a kind of traveler’s nostalgia for crisp black-and-white images that crackled like old newspaper and lovesick, chatty movies that brought attention to themselves as extraordinary metafictions, “a cinema in love with cinema.” …their organized effort to shake up the cultural stagnation of a depol-
iticized, conformist, post-war French cinema resulted not only in a complete reevaluation of French cultural tradition as such but also helped establish the historicity of the cinema as an art form in league with the storied legacies of literature and the plastic arts.
For me, at least, my first meaningful encounter with French cinema was Jules et Jim, and its indexical image was that of Jeanne Moreau blithely singing “Le Tourbillon de la vie,” an iconic scene which always struck me as unavoidably, even obstinately, French, as if François Truffaut — its réalisateur — had secretly attempted to integrate the elliptical, New Wave-soaked rhythm of Jules et Jim within the illustrious continuity of France’s tradition de la qualité. Truffaut’s insertion of a chanson whose charm and cadence seemed to evoke a nostalgia for the Golden Age romanticism of directors like Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné is an irony Charles Drazin picks up on in his book French Cinema. That Truffaut and other members of the French New Wave are now as canonical as the old school predecessors they theorized and rallied against punctuates the strange capacity of French cinema to remain a unified genealogy of film even after a century of cultural ruptures and technologic revolutions.

For the audience of today, the current ethos of French cinema began with the Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s/early 1960s, when the (now august) names of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle and others arrived on the international scene. French cinema obviously has a history stretching as far back to the Lumière brothers and the invention of the cinématographe, but its conceptualization as a cinema which resisted the straightforward avenues of entertainment and spectacle could be blamed more or less on the free-verse style of those directors. Though it is possible to partition the Nouvelle Vague, on the one hand, into those auteurs who were accessible narrative-wise, such as Truffaut, Chabrol, and Malle, and those, on the other hand, who doggedly resisted the mainstream and/or became increasingly hermetic as they grew older, i.e. Godard, Resnais, and Rivette, the cumulative effect of their organized effort to shake up the cultural stagnation of a depoliticized, conformist, post-war French cinema resulted not only in a complete reevaluation of French cultural tradition, but also helped establish the historicity of the cinema as an art form in league with the storied legacies of literature and the plastic arts.


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