“fifteen years of french cinema”. delivered as a lecture in warsaw by bazin in 1957. translated into english here for the very first time.
very interesting speech, with a ton of points for discussion:
- when discussing 30s french films, he says what they have in common is the blatant kinship between their written scripts and their visual styles. he calls this “dark realism”, or at least says thats what it has been referred to. he says that the origin for these films may be found in the french naturalistic novel of the 1900s (zola, de maupassant), but also says that this invocation may be more alibi than model. so instead, he calls these films “fatalistic romanticism” (more in common with prevert and macorlan). and they all have the same dramatic structure: tragedy translated itno contemporary and popular social reality.
- he argues that the isolation of french cinema during the war years allowed for a renewal of inspiration among filmmakers. therefore, the true transformation in the history of french sound cinema occurred in 1941, not 1945. he says this date marks the renewal of american cinema as well, because of “citizen kane”. he wants to conclude that an aesthetic ripening was occurring of which filmic events were only the tangible manifestation. [is this aesthetic ripening the general passage from the classical to the modern in the arts?]
- on carne, he says that his films “children of paradise” and “gates of the night” moved dark realism from its classical period to a baroque age. but also, the latter film proves that this “realism” was not so realistic after all. the relative failure of carne reveals that “dark realism” has become an incongruous aesthetic.
- julien duvivier was an excellent crafstman, never a real artist. if he succeeded before the war, its because he was carried by a powerful wave whose crest he managed to surf so well. [can one make an art of being an excellent crafstman, or is that also an “incongruous aesthetic”?]
- only clouzot succeeded in establishing himself as a resolutely dark filmmaker at the same time he was a thoroughly modern one.
- postwar french film can be labeled “psychological realism”. pessimism is still frequent, but more moral than social, no longer systematic, and mise en scene does not try to create a metaphysics of disaster that transcends or precedes the screenplay. [does this mean that classic film noir is more about a moral pessimism or a social pessimism, or both?]
- jean delannoy is to psychological realism what duvivier is to dark realism.
- rene clement is one of the strongest and most original talents of the postwar era. he distinguishes himself with a personal synthesis of documentary realism and rigorous style. in “knave of hearts” in 1954, he filmed unnoticed on the streets of london, onlookers becoming unwitting extras. most representative filmmaker of the postwar generation. reacted against the romantic idealism of the french school of the 30s. learned his lessons from newsreels and war documentaries, where the blinding reality of events takes precedence over any attempt to aestheticize them. [does this make him an uncredited father of the new wave?]
- becker appears to be the modern heir to the evolution of french cinema since the end of the war.
- jean cocteau’s work will continue to shine like a jewel, one naturally made of material different from the kind usually associated with the cinema.
- marcel pagnol introduced into french cinema an ethnographic realism which one can consider a forerunner of italian neorealism.
- on renoir: the subtler charm of his films must be less perceptible to those who do not understand french very well. because his talent has only blossomed in the talkies, where the interrelationship between what the characters do and what they say can be as intimate as in a novel.
- rene clair is the ideal film ambassador. the aspect of french tradition that he exemplifies is the most universal. a tradition where intelligence prevails over sensibility and sensuality.
- renoir’s work prefigured the future evolution of cinematic form and content. with renoir, the cinema has become an adult art form on an equal footing with the novel. [why does cinema have to equalize the novel for its affirmation?]
- tati made the most radical innovation in comic cinema since the marx brothers with “mr hulots holiday”
- if only one honest man were needed to rescue the cinema from its own deadening course, bresson alone, in all his saintliness, would suffice to get the job done.
- alexander austruc is the most demanding and original of the younger directors coming of age.
- french cinema has a way (possessed by the french cinema alone) of tackling the problems of narrative development and cinematic expression. in french cinema, the accuracy and elegance of the analysis matters more than the human relevance or social significance of the subject. [sounds like the cinema of godard!]
- french film is the one that bears the most complete testimony to the aesthetic dignity of cinema as a whole. [is he just batting for the home team, or is this true?]
We need more in depth blogs like this one in our threads—one of best postings I’ve seen here. Thanks, Bobby.
brilliant— a lot to absorb, will get back to this.
This is great, Bobby. I have been reading Bazin’s book on Renoir lately. I was even thinking we should try to read and interpret a classic work of film criticism every month or so. Godard clearly emerged from prewar and postwar French cinema, and in many ways he emerged specifically from Bazin’s critical perspective on prewar and postwar French cinema. The French have always been very proud of their own culture. “Aesthetic dignity” — there’s a lot compressed into those words. Offhand I’m not completely sure what he means — Bazin can be slightly vague at times. I suppose he means that everything is totally integrated in the French film, with no one element sticking out vulgarly among the others (like art direction in the German cinema, or quality of acting in the British cinema, or strong narrative in the American cinema).
Speaking of Bazin. I’ve been wanting to get myself a copy of Timothy Barnard’s new translation of What is Cinema?:
We need to keep this thread alive and hopefully hear from every body who is knowledgeable on Bazin.
i definitely agree with discussing a piece of classic film criticism in detail every month or so.
i see what you mean about bazin’s view of “aesthetic dignity”. it makes sense.
i find bazin’s fidelity to literature, particularly the novel, a bit concerning. i think this is why the cahiers group split with his views, for the most part. he seems to inherently think that literature is a gold standard that film should try to live up to. this is where his age difference shows. he’s a bit of a romantic classicist himself, maybe even reactionary when it comes to film form and content. the new wave was about overturning classical values.
i myself dont have the same feelings about novels. honestly, i couldnt care less about them. for me, cinema doesnt need to live up to the novel as an art form. the novel wishes it could live up to the beauty of the cinema! cinema subsumes novelistic tendencies, and goes many steps forward. so i definitely side with the new wavers in the respect of being a modernist instead of a classicist. at the end of the day, it seems like bazin is a de facto supporter of the “tradition of quality”.
Before film was widely considered an art form, certain critics compared it to established art forms in order to get it in the door, so to speak. If you could show that a film was like a novel, then people who thought films were childish might be more willing to accept that films can have ideas. Today, of course, we don’t have to choose.
I love novels and I understand what Bazin means by the depth of insight or the classical organization of a novel. Renoir, for instance, was one of the first directors who could have been a novelist under different circumstances — Stroheim was another. Murnau was already something else — there is something purely visual and poetic about his cinema that has very little to do with the way information is given in a novel. Character is static and lyrical and revelatory in Murnau; whereas it is shifting and philosophical and gradual in Renoir and Stroheim.
yes. i understand that bazin was on the front lines of fighting for film as an art form. i just dont care for using the novel, or any other art form, as a crutch. cinema can stand on its own legs or hang by its own tail.
is it a good thing that renoir or stroheim could have been novelists? i see no inherent worthiness or virtue in this proclamation. for me, as a postulate, maybe that even makes them weaker directors.
It’s a description of their artistry, the form their artistry takes. Certainly both were highly cinematic. They thought in images, but they also wanted something else there.
I have never read Bazin, this should be a good start….thanks for the link Bobby
enjoy. he was one of the most important film critics of all-time. you can find plenty of his other writings translated and collected into books.
“i myself dont have the same feelings about novels. honestly, i couldnt care less about them. for me, cinema doesnt need to live up to the novel as an art form. the novel wishes it could live up to the beauty of the cinema! cinema subsumes novelistic tendencies, and goes many steps forward.”
Right, and of course the novel, once upon a time, faced the same challenge from people who felt that it could never equal poetry as art, and still photography/painting
. . . I’ve always interpreted Bazin’s preoccupation with the novel as an attempt to couch his discussion of film aesthetics in terms his readers might be more familiar with.
Wow, great post.I admire Bazin very much and finding this is treasure. Thanks Bobby.
This is fantastic stuff, Bobby. Is this your blog? because it’s awesome.
I need to digest this a bit before I comment…
no, this isnt my blog. i found it through a link on the criterion collection website.
It looks like Matt has been wanting that Barnard book for a while. lol
America’s top hat?
I hate them.
Reading Bobby’s translation, it’s amazing how spot-on Bazin was regarding today’s assessment of the same filmmakers. The exceptions are Clement and Austruc, especially the latter’s star has waned.
It’s not my translation. I was just quoting the introduction to the article I gave the link to. Funny to see this thread resurface. Can’t believe I was posting on here 3 years ago. I don’t think I’ve written a post this long and analytical since. Must have been those early, heady days of excitement about The Auteurs.
“Funny to see this thread resurface. Can’t believe I was posting on here 3 years ago”
It’s kinda depressing, isn’t it?
Only in the sense that there don’t seem to be many interesting discussions anymore. And people are still afraid to talk it out in the Notebook. It’s an echo chamber there.
Hmm…I don’t usually go in the Notebook. I always forget there’s a comments section.
About the only time I read the Notebook is for the Cannes coverage, which is some of the best on the internet.
Yeah, there’s still a lot of interesting discussions to be had, if we could rally the troops.
Didn’t realize I’d be bemoaning the translation thing that long, but it is a shame we’re still stuck with the same old mediocre (or so I understand) Hugh Gray translation as the only officially available one.
^Don’t fret. I stumbled onto an old comment where I was complaining that Criterion still hadn’t released Cul-de-Sac. And see, three years later, I got what I wanted!
One must be patient for the finer things in life.
Whining eventually pays off ;)