Desire is All:
At the very dawn of 2021 – 31 December 2020 – the world of film criticism lost another of its greats, and I lost another friend.
To me, Jean-Pierre Coursodon (born 1935) was a giant; his monumental 50 ans de cinéma américain (most recent update 1995), co-written with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, is one of the two reference books closest to my writing desk at all times. Jean-Pierre was (alongside Jean-Luc Godard and Luc Moullet) one of the last survivors of those French cinephiles who began their writing life in the 1950s (1957, in his case); he could tell great tales of the various groups and magazines (Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, Présence du cinéma, the auteurists, surrealists – “Ado Kyrou was hysterically homophobic” – and so on), but he abhorred all chapels, sects and cults, flitting in and out of them as he wished, remaining fiercely independent. (I recall his rage at the way his friend Tavernier was considered a pariah in certain hip circles of French film culture until Serge Daney’s Trafic magazine happened to embrace one of his films!)
As far as I know, Jean-Pierre spent most or all of his life as a freelancer (he lived in the USA from 1965); his probably very modest lifestyle was supported by his work as an English-to-French translator, and he was among the best. Among his other book publications, there’s a superb studio-history of Warner Bros in French, and the English-language, 2-volume American Directors, which he edited, and of which he wrote a good deal – you just need to read J-P on Nicholas Ray there to gauge his perspective on uncritical, overly referential film-cults, even when they overlapped with his own tastes. Some current cinephiles know him mainly through his involvement with Dave Kehr’s feisty, long-defunct online discussion group A Film By (a place where J-P often expressed his impatience with emigrants to English-speaking countries who had not mastered the language as well as he!).
In my own case, Jean-Pierre’s major mid-1970s Film Comment essay on Jerry Lewis (highly critical of the “French cult” around him), splendidly titled “No Laughing Matter?”, was among the very first serious pieces I read and re-read as a teenage cinephile; and virtually on my first day at Teachers College at age 17, Tom Ryan handed us J-P’s piece translated in a 1968 Melbourne Film Bulletin defining “The Gag” in cinema – a mere snippet from his lifelong appreciation of film comedy (Buster Keaton, especially). With Brad Stevens and Dan Sallitt, Jean-Pierre participated in an extraordinary email-round-table on Keaton masterminded by Craig Keller for a DVD release in 2006 (https://keatonroundtable.wordpress.com/).
It wasn’t much longer after that occasion in 2006 that I started hearing less from Jean-Pierre, and then not at all; possibly his last published piece is an essay on Arthur Penn in a Positif issue of 2011. Alzheimer’s took him away from us in his last decade. Apparently, a new edition of 50 ans – updated to 100 ans – is in the pipeline from Institut Lumière and the publisher Actes Sud. I don’t know yet how much Jean-Pierre was able to be involved – it seems Tavernier worked on it until his own death, only three month after Jean-Pierre’s in March 2021.
But I well recall how pleased Jean-Pierre was when, back in the days of Rouge magazine, I told him how much I admired his text in Cinéma 84 on Hitchcock’s Rope, “Desire Roped In” – which he promptly translated and rewrote for me to publish (http://www.rouge.com.au/4/rope.html). He also translated for me his piece on Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner (2004) in 2008 (http://www.rouge.com.au/12/tanner.html) – Altman was someone he remained faithful to, right to the end of that director’s career.
Jean-Pierre is someone who could be blunt while remaining entirely civil. When I sent him my very positive review of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), he responded: “Thank you for the piece. Now I know why I hate the film so much”. One thing on which we saw 100% eye-to-eye was a point he regularly fulminated about on A Film By: he couldn’t stand the Cahiers line (consistent from the ‘50s to the 2010s) that preached a director must love their characters, not hate them or act superior to them – thus downgrading many forms of narrative cinema, including the grotesque, cartoonish and caricatural (J-P always defended the Coens on this plane, for instance). He often exclaimed (I am paraphrasing): “But these are not people you met on the street, they are characters on screen! Directors can take any attitude they like toward them!”
Likewise, his sense of mise en scène as, first and foremost, a matter of spectacle wielded a big influence on my own work – at the start of my essay on Shigehiko Hasumi, I gave pride of place to an offhand but incisive statement Jean-Pierre had made on A Film By in June 2008: “Cinema is what we see on the surface of the screen, after all”.
Jean-Pierre was frequently wary of “theories” – to him, they often came with a sect-like, exclusionary, irrational faith in their own absolute truth – but he knew well their content and their potential for usefulness in specific instances. His 1976 piece “A Ritual of Frustration: Notes on the Star as Merchandise” (published in Cinéma d’aujord’hui) is a crucial theoretical intervention. It also provides a glimpse into his own experiences with sadomasochism, a topic he (like Noël Burch, another survivor from the ‘50s) was happy to discuss with anybody sincerely interested. (Insofar as cinematic depictions of it went, he preferred the pertinent sequences of Catherine Breillat’s Romance  to The Piano Teacher!) Here is a small passage from that brilliant essay of ‘76 (translation mine).
[André Bazin did not realise] the extent to which frustration is a condition of the star system, nor how much it tends toward a situation of generalised masochism. Indeed, the supreme (and no doubt most crucial) masochistic pleasure is the ability (or action) of refusing orgasm … That’s what happens at the very heart of this enigmatic “deviance”: there is profound wisdom and logic in this awareness that desire is all, the drive to preserve it playing off against the fulfilment that dissipates it. On this level, all classical cinema is masochistic; or, to be more precise (because in this area we are always mired in ambiguity), this cinema imposes sadistically on the spectator – through the treatment of the star, the character, the storyline – an expectation that we know will never reach its conclusion, and that we enjoy precisely for that reason.
Essentially, and throughout all changes in intellectual fashion, Jean-Pierre remained a superb critic: fixed on the details of a film or comparative group of films, drawing on the most pertinent factors of social and historical context, bringing out the special tone, mood and inflection of a director’s style or treatment of material. I will miss him, and his distinct critical voice.
I will also miss his wisdom. In an online exchange where Brad Stevens asserted that “to die without illusions” would be the supreme achievement of a human life, Jean-Pierre responded that, when it’s his turn to shuffle off the mortal coil, what he wanted most of all, at that moment, is to retain his illusions.
Not a bad way to go.
© Adrian Martin 2 January 2021 (with updates)