Against the Actualité: An Interview with Luc Moullet

Following a career retrospective, the French New Wave director discusses his work as a filmmaker and as a critic for "Cahiers du cinéma."
Jordan Cronk

Above: Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno

At 82 years-old, Luc Moullet is one of the last remaining figures of the nouvelle vague. Like François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and his surviving compatriot Jean-Luc Godard, Moullet began as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the mid-1950s before transitioning to filmmaking by the following decade. Unlike his contemporaries, he’s continued making films and writing criticism in tandem throughout his now seven decade-long career.

Moullet’s early writing betrayed an interest in the obscure and undervalued (two of his earliest and most influential articles focused on then-dismissed American B-movie practitioners Edgar G. Ulmer and Samuel Fuller), a sensibility he would carry into his filmmaking as he began to rework genre conventions into absurdist narratives steeped in Hollywood signifiers. Shot on the fly with microscopic budgets, Moullet’s first features, ranging from the female buddy comedy Brigitte and Brigitte (1966) to the offbeat western A Girl Is a Gun (1971), are amongst the French New Wave’s most ramshackle and economic displays of comic ingenuity—to say nothing of their radical politics and strikingly photographed landscapes.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Moullet would, by the mid-‘70s, forge a newly personal form of filmmaking that combined elements of fiction and documentary into strange meta-textual objects in which the director himself often starred as the hapless protagonist, such as in the scathingly self-reflexive Anatomy of a Relationship (1975), co-directed by Moullet’s partner and long-time collaborator Antonietta Pizzorno, or the endlessly inventive short Barres (1984), in which a succession of Parisian locals find increasingly clever ways to jump the turnstiles in the Paris Metro. For Moullet, who once wrote that “the filmmaker criticizes, and the critic praises,” these ingenious hybrid films act as their own kind of criticism, effortlessly embodying the director’s longstanding concerns for the economic and bureaucratic nuances of a socially engaged film practice.

Last month, Moullet made a rare trip to North America for a retrospective of his work at the Montreal documentary festival RIDM—an especially notable occasion as his films remain largely unavailable outside of France, with scant few screenings and the odd DVD long out-of-print. Luckily, his writing has slowly come back into view in the past decade, with a few enterprising cinephiles translating some of Moullet’s key texts into English for MUBI, LOLA, and Senses of Cinema. Most recently, the Seventh Art has begun rolling out its own translations of Moullet’s 2009 anthology Piges Choisies (from Griffith to Ellroy), offering many English-speakers a belated chance to catch up with some of film history’s most seminal texts. I was lucky enough to sit down with Moullet—and also, if only briefly, with Antonietta Pizzorno—during RIDM to discuss his career as a critic and filmmaker, how he’s managed to maintain a balance between the two disciplines, the early days of Cahiers du cinéma, his relationship with his late friend and rival Jean Douchet, and how many of his films seem to have predicted our current socioeconomic climate.

Many thanks to Bruno Dequen, Andy Rector, Craig Keller, and Ted Fendt.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious how you first came to cinema? Your films and writing occasionally feature anecdotes about your family and youth but I don’t know much about your early years watching films or your relationship with cinema before you became a writer.

LUC MOULLET: I began watching films when I was nine years old. The first film I saw was Day of Wrath [1943], by Dreyer.

NOTEBOOK: Wow, that’s a heavy first film!

MOULLET: Yes, and I also remember around that time seeing Henry V [1944], by Lawrence Olivier, his Shakespeare adaptation. At that time there were many ciné-clubs in France. At 12 I saw Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin [1925], Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim [1923], Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning [1932], and Ànous la liberté [1931], by Rene Clair. After that I saw many more films, like Scarface [1932], Vampyr [1932], La règle du jeu [1939], Citizen Kane [1941], and Sullivan’s Travels [1941]. Then at 13 began going to the Cinémathèque Française, where I saw The Birth of a Nation [1915], Cabiria [1914], Greed [1924], L'âge d'or [1930], and many other films.

NOTEBOOK: There’s an excerpt in Truffaut’s book of correspondences about Cahiers du cinéma’s reluctance to let you to write for them and how if they did that would constitute a “moral problem,” because your writing was “sincerely and violently caustic.” Do you remember your initial correspondence with Truffaut and what led to them finally allowing you to write for them?

MOULLET: There were two or three texts of mine that they rejected. The one they finally accepted was one about Edgar Ulmer, because I had good information and could provide his full filmography, which wasn’t easy to come by. Truffaut was interested in this because he wanted a text with some direct information. But in fact at that time I had only seen three Ulmer films, and in French versions—they were dubbed. But that was my first published piece of film criticism, at 18-years-old in Cahiers du cinéma. That allowed me to go on writing filmographies and some notes on second-rate films—films that were more interesting to me, like Time in the Sun [1940], Marie Seton's adaptation of Eisenstein’s abandoned film ¡Que viva México! [1932]. 

At that time there were some struggles between the young critics at Cahiers because they all wanted to be the chief editor. The three acting chiefs of the magazine were either interested in or dealing with other things: André Bazin was ill, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca left Cahiers because the magazine rejected a text he had written about Georges Sadoul, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze had many other occupations. So Truffaut and his friends took the lead at Cahiers for a special issue about Hitchcock in August 1954. Even though he was not officially the main publisher of Cahiers, Truffaut began leading the magazine at this time. He also, around this time, introduced me to the French weekly Arts, where I could write reviews.

Which is all to say there was a place in Cahiers for new critics, and even more so later when Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol, and Rohmer began making films. My first major text for Cahiers, eight or ten pages, was on Samuel Fuller, who was practically unknown in France, and then on Ugetsu [1953], which was released in France seven years after its premiere because of a rights issue. Soon after I wrote about Godard’s first film, Breathless [1960]. At the press conference for the film Godard introduced me to the producer, Georges de Beauregard, who was his factotum. Beauregard was in financial trouble and Breathless saved him from bankruptcy. Because of this, Beauregard would take the advice of Godard for choosing directors to support. Godard led him to Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rozier, Jacques Rivette, and myself. Beauregard helped me make my first short film.

Above: A Girl Is a Gun

NOTEBOOK: In your film Les sieges de l’Alcazar [1989] you dramatize the rivalry between Cahiers and Positif. Is that how it was for you guys at the time, championing filmmakers like Vittorio Cottafavi because Positif ignored them?

MOULLET: Yes, that’s was how it was for a time. Between 1955 and 1960 there was a conflict. In the early days, Cahiers and Positif wrote approximately from the same point of view, but after five issues of Positif the differences became greater. Positif became more interested in political films—Buñuel films, for instance. It was around this time that they wrote texts against the films of Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, Mankiewicz, and Preminger.

NOTEBOOK: All filmmakers you guys loved.

MOULLET: Yes. Those struggles were a bit like those amongst the Surrealists, between the good ones and the bad ones.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said that your 1966 lecture at Peasaro, “On the Harmfulness of Film Language, Its Uselessness and the Means to Combat It,” a manifesto about film art vs. film language, shocked Metz, Pasolini, and Barthes. What was it that shocked them? Can you describe the scene and the reactions?

MOULLET: Well, for Pasolini it was a bit different than it was for the others because he admired my film Brigitte et Brigitte. But he didn’t like what I said because I tried to show that the important thing is to get out of the common language of movies and to find your own language—not the established school of cinematographic language but your own language, such as Godard had with his movies.

Barthes and Metz wanted to establish the common language of movies. And I wanted to differentiate between the existence of such language and some of these laws you’re supposed to follow, and the fact that it’s more interesting when you find new things and depart from it. I knew their writing quite well, and despite the fact that some of it was interesting, such as Barthes’ take on The Exterminating Angel [1962] and Metz’s on Adieu Philippine [1962], I thought it was too scholarly—and they were taking these ideas everywhere, going to many festivals and repeating the same theories. For them, I was some kind of joker disrupting their own play with language.

NOTEBOOK: Are there any articles or critical judgments from that period that you’ve come to regret or that you realized later may have been wrongheaded or shortsighted?

MOULLET: Well, I was more interested in unknown films, films by Fuller, Miklós Jancsó, Juleen Compton, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Jerry Lewis. Times were very different back then. It was important for each of us to establish ourselves in the first two years of our careers as film critics. The goal was to have a voice that was sometimes violent, yes, but always very affirmative about things, which explains why at the beginning of my career I was overly supportive of Fuller, while I criticized Antonioni a lot—maybe a bit too much if you look at it now. But everybody at that time was positioning him or herself in that way. Positif, for example, was completely against Dreyer, supposedly because he was a Protestant, and also against Hitchcock because they found him too Catholic. But they were fond of Buñuel because he was overly atheist. So they were against Hitchcock and Dreyer because of their religious beliefs, but also pro-Buñuel for the same reasons.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve spoken of the influence of Truffaut and Georges Sadoul during these early years. Looking back, do you find that your writing was too indebted to them?

MOULLET: Yes, I was very influenced by Truffaut. I was a kind of a Truffaut groupie. But for Sadoul it is very different, because we were friends. I wasn’t very influenced by him, mostly because he had very different political positioning. First he was part of the Surrealists, then when he became a film critic he was almost like the voice of the Communist party, writing for Communists papers and things like that. But later he moved away from that when he began to champion a few films by Truffaut and Godard.   

NOTEBOOK: You’re one of the few filmmakers who’s consistently practiced both criticism and filmmaking. How have you negotiated this divide between filmmaker and critic, praising and criticizing, when so many of your contemporaries abandoned one for the other?

MOULLET: At the beginning I wanted to become a film critic because it was very difficult to make films when we were young. It was necessary to be an apprentice or an assistant for years before making a film. So I felt better in the critical field. But when Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol began to make films there were just a few main critics remaining at Cahiers. So that’s when I took over their post.

In the early years I struggled as a filmmaker, so I kept both options on the table. But it was not always easy. I remember when I was presenting my first short at a festival in Tours and the director of the festival asked all the filmmakers not to publish any kind of criticism—reviews or anything—about the festival or the films. But since I was a film critic it was kind of difficult. Later on I became the treasurer of the Society of French Filmmakers, and there it was the same thing: we had to pledge that we wouldn’t publish film criticism while also being in the society. It was a struggle.

But the reason I’ve kept up with criticism for so long, as opposed to some of the other filmmakers we’ve mentioned, is because I am very passionate about defending new works, new filmmakers, forgotten films, or films that would go unnoticed. As I mentioned, I did this very early on with people like Fuller, but I still try and do this now. Very recently I’ve been championing the work of Isabelle Prim, Hendrick Dusollier, and Alain Guiraudie. So that’s what drives me to keep writing, so that people can discover new works.

Above: Barres

NOTEBOOK: Has filmmaking always been another form of criticism for you?

MOULLET: Yes, this is important for me. Occasionally I’ve integrated criticism into my films, such as in my documentary about the genius of Catherine Breillat [Catherine Breillat, la première fois (2011)], or Les sièges de l’Alcazar, which deals with Cottafavi’s films, and another one called Balance et Cécité [2010], which takes the theme of the blind man that is also an informer, an image we see in films by Ford, Pasolini, Carne, Lang, and Buñuel. In Los Olvidados [1950], for instance, there is a blind man who is also an informer; this is coming from El Lazarillo de Tormes,a book written in the 16th-century in Spain, which was very important. [Translator's note: the title Balance et Cécité has two meanings. It literally means “Balance and Blindness,” but “balance” also means “informer” in French.]

NOTEBOOK: The major subject of your work seems to be the economics of cinema, which you can see in both your films and your writing. Where do you think this concern for the economics of cinema first formed?

MOULLET: Well, at the beginning, since it was difficult to make films, the cheaper they were the easier they were to make. That was the first step to getting my features made. Brigitte et Brigitte was the cheapest French film of 1966. It was easy for me to make cheap films in a way similar to Ulmer and Fuller. So I really became interested in economics because of the way I was making films. But I became more interested in economics at large after 1968, when many artists and filmmakers became interested in things like the circulation of money and power. My film Genèse d'un repas [Origins of a Meal, 1978], for example, was one of the first films to demonstrate the exploitation of the southern hemisphere by the northern hemisphere, a subject that’s been explored more recently in films like Darwin’s Nightmare [2004].

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting because you can see this interest in your writing as well. You’ve dedicated multiple articles to various economic issues related to cinema, everything from production budgets and how they’re fudged to how much projectionists are paid.

MOULLET: It’s true that my passion for the economics of cinema became something of trademark, which I guess explains why I was asked to be the treasurer of the Society of French Filmmakers [laughs]. And then later on I was asked to teach the economics of cinema even though I don’t have a major university degree. But I got away with it because I did three classes: one on the economics of low budget films, the second on the economics of big budget films, and the third one about the economics of medium budget films. This allowed me to talk about all the filmmakers I love, filmmakers that are very different, everyone from Fuller to Cecile B. DeMille, who did some low budget films before making the big epics we all know.

NOTEBOOK: What university was this at?

MOULLET: It was called the Paris 3 Censier. And after that I taught at the Paris 8 in Saint-Denis, and Le Fresnoy, a school started by Alain Fleischer in Tourcoing.

Above: Anatomy of a Relationship

NOTEBOOK: For me it feels like something definitively shifted in your work with Anatomy of a Relationship. After that film you seemed to embrace both nonfiction techniques and a more personal, reflexive style of filmmaking. What was it about that film or that moment in your life that prompted this shift?

MOULLET: I had a little more money for that film, which came from a bank transfer that accidentally deposited money into my account. And I was not the only filmmaker who benefited from such a mistake. Around 1975, there were many computer problems amongst the bank institutions, and a lot of films were made possible thanks to computer errors!

But one other change is a technical one: Anatomy of a Relationship was my first film with synchronized sound. Prior to that synch sound was very expensive and not very accessible. But 16mm cameras with synch sound were much more available after 1968.

NOTEBOOK: This was also the first of your films to highlight the contributions of Antonietta Pizzorno. Antonietta, since you’re here, it would be great if you could talk a bit about how your working relationship with Luc developed, and also about how this film came together?

ANTONIETTA PIZZORNO: We wrote the script and the dialogue in three days, both of us together, interacting all the time. We were staying together at a hotel, so we kept on working on each other’s sentences and dialogue over those three days. Early on I decided I didn’t want to be in the movie, because this was the first time I was going to direct. Well, actually, I had made movies, but they were experimental movies—this was a really different experience. So I preferred to not be an actor in the film. But Luc, he was both. The script changed many times because I kept realizing things were not as I wanted. In the end it was both written and improvised.

NOTEBOOK: Luc, this was also your first film to feature your body as a focal point? When did you realize that filming yourself, your own body, could be a source of comedy?

MOULLET: Prior to Anatomy of a Relationship I had already played a few parts in films that I didn’t direct, such as Le cabot [1972], by Jean-Pierre Letellier, which is a dramatic film. But the way I played my part was as a kind of comedic counterpoint to the drama. And that didn’t really go over well with the director, but that’s when I realized I had comic potential as a performer.

PIZZORNO: This was also a discovery for me, that he was so comic! That was a little difficult for me [laughs].

MOULLET: I also played a part in L'amour c'est gai, l'amour c'est triste [1971], a film by Jean-Daniel Pollet, in which I also played this sort of offbeat, comedic character. And I played a small part in a French western that was made in 1973 called L'interminable chevauchée, which was  actually directed by Marie-Christine Questerbert, the actress in Anatomy of a Relationship. She also acted in Une aventure de Billy le Kid [A Girl Is a Gun].

For me it was about doing something different for each film. I started with shorts: a comedy, a documentary, and a romance. Then I made a comedy feature, Brigitte et Brigitte, an adventure film, The Smugglers [1968], and a western, Billy the Kid. From there I wanted to make something completely different, something that could be perceived as a self-absorbed film like Anatomy of a Relationship. And I did this again with Genèse d'un repas, which is in a totally different style and about the whole economic and social life of the world—a clear turning away from the self-absorbed vision of the earlier project.

Above: La cabale des oursins

NOTEBOOK: Many of your films feel very prescient, as they deal with sociological problems that are even more pertinent today. I’m thinking of Barres, Genèse d'un repas, More and More [1994], and Less and Less [2010]. How do you feel about these films today, and is there a current issue that you’d like to one day make a film about?

MOULLET: Yes, looking back now it seems like some of the films are a bit prescient: Genèse d'un repas, of course, deals with food circulation, which continues to be a very contemporary subject of study, and also More and More and Less and Less, this idea of wanting to produce more products with less people, less labor, is obviously very contemporary. There’s also another film I made called La cabale des oursins [1991], which is about slag heaps, which back then were completely ignored by people. It was not something that people were concerned with in terms of territory or the expiration of territories. But now these natural territories are protected by UNESCO.

As for making a film, I’m too old, with too many problems. But one subject that would be of interest to me is the computerization of the world and its power over people, a way of the world that was already foreseen in books by Orwell and Kafka, and films by Tati.

NOTEBOOK: I’m sure you heard that Jean Douchet passed away yesterday?

MOULLET: Oh no, I hadn’t.

NOTEBOOK: Yes, I heard the news this morning. Were you and Douchet still close? It seems that now you and Godard are almost all that’s left of the nouvelle vague and the first generation of Cahiers critics.

MOULLET: Yes, there’s still Jean-Luc Godard, of course, who remains outside of…well, outside of the world [laughs]. And there’s Claude de Givray, who was Truffaut’s assistant but who also made the film L’amour àla chaîne [1965], about the life of a horse, a comical film—he’s still living but he doesn’t work anymore. As for Douchet, we were in the same newspapers, as part of a confluence in the Cahiers du cinéma office. We were good friends and rivals. We were competing with each other at the beginning of our careers as writers. And that had to do with what we were discussing before, about everyone having to be really firm about their beliefs. Douchet was like that too but he mellowed over the years. He couldn’t continue being that harsh, mainly because he eventually had to start writing about everything, all sorts of films. But his activity at the time was more confined to writing—he was a film critic. Our initial rivalry stopped when I became more of a filmmaker.

But he wrote about my films over the years, and presented many of them, too. I remember he presented Shipwrecked on Route D17 [2002] at the Cinémathèque Française. He could watch films he didn’t like much, even when there was pressure on him, and he could be prudent and speak with acuteness about all of them. At the beginning he was violent—he was against Buñuel, for instance. But he was an admirer of Joseph Losey, who is also forgotten today, and he made some interesting interventions into the American films of Fritz Lang, like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [1956], Fury [1936], and While the City Sleeps [1956], which before then weren’t well regarded by the critics.

NOTEBOOK: Are there any recent or contemporary critics that you follow?

MOULLET: At the beginning I followed Cahiers critics: Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, et cetera. But today I’m more interested in writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell, who isn’t exactly a film critic but is a great scholar. I find American critics more interesting today than French critics.

NOTEBOOK: What do you think about Cahiers du cinéma and French film criticism nowadays? Do you still keep up with it?

MOULLET: I read Trafic, which I’ve contributed some texts to: one about Breakfast of Champions [1999], by Alan Rudolph, one about Catherine Breillat, and some others. I read Cahiers sometimes. But it’s less interesting than before because Cahiers used to write about both the past and the present. In 1967 no one was writing about Buster Keaton, for instance, or Frank Borzage. It was after these years that people started looking at the great cineastes of the past, like Cecil B. DeMille, who was very well known though his films were ignored or despised, especially his silent films, but also directors like Keaton, Marcel Pagnol, and Sacha Guitry, all of whom Cahiers studied.

I also want to mention that magazines sometimes disappear in spite of their importance. In France, we had the Revue des deux mondes, a very important magazine that’s now forgotten. But I’m all about discoveries, and nowadays Cahiers doesn’t discover much—they kind of follow the actualité. They’re not really trying to push forward unknown filmmakers, whether from the present or the past. Cahiers used to be influential enough and interested in rediscovering the past enough to get seven features by Rossellini released in France, films that had never been released, like Journey to Italy [1954]. These films were released, at least in part, because of the writing. Same thing with some films by Buñuel. I don’t feel this is something they’re still trying to do. There’s a difference between actually getting films released and just checking the list of released films and writing about those.

Another famous example is when Cahiers first wrote about Smiles of a Summer Night [1955]. After that all sorts of early Bergman films became available in France. Same with Ozu. None of Ozu’s films were available in France before 1976, thirteen years after his death. Mizoguchi, too: the only film of his to be released in France during his lifetime was The Life of Oharu [1952]. Even Ugetsu was released three years after his death.

NOTEBOOK: I understand you’re writing an autobiography. How’s that coming along?

MOULLET: Yes, it will be published in July 2020. It’s mostly finished, I just have a few things to correct. It will be published by Capricci.

NOTEBOOK: Has it been at all different for you writing autobiographically rather than in a more critical mode?

MOULLET: I can’t really say, but I’ve included autobiographical elements in many of my films and in my film writing—not necessarily in my criticism but in the writing of the film Ma première brasse [1981], for example, and also Les sièges de l’Alcazar.

NOTEBOOK: You once jokingly stated that, unlike your writing, maybe your films “aren’t any good.” I’m curious at a retrospective like this, over 50 years since some of the early films in this program were made, if that at all changes your perspective on the quality of the films?

MOULLET: Well, it’s always surprising, but I have a little advantage because most of my films are out of view, so people are often surprised because they get to see something that they otherwise can’t see. As for if the films are good, it depends. I’ve made some errors. I’ve made some good things. In the autobiography I try to describe the qualities and deficiencies of my films.

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