Essays (book reviews)

At the Cinema with Michel Cournot:
Au cinéma

(Melville/Éditions Léo Scheer, 2003, 200 pages)


The specialist film critic, once he has aligned his specialist knowledge in order to set the reader on the wrong track, has absolutely no idea what to write about any particular movie. He can only blindly follow the lead of collective babble, and that’s why all specialist critics are the same: for them, Autant-Lara’s A Woman in White is a gross, vulgar film, while Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits is a fabulous monument to dreamlike lyricism; and Pierrot le fou a piece of amateur whimsy where The Wise Guys [Robert Enrico, 1965] is a healthy action movie that captures the smell of the forest, etc. … They say exactly what advertising and babble direct them to say; they cannot see the film for what it is, they cannot see past the end of their own noses, and those specialist noses are buried in their specialist press kits. That’s the whole story.

– Michel Cournot, Nouvel Observateur, 29 December 1966


There is a trend in high-end, prestigious cinema publishing – and I’m all for it – to produce retrospective anthologies of a film critic’s work, painstakingly researched and annotated. Books with, as they say, a genuine “editorial apparatus”. We are seeing a lot of it from France – collections of André Bazin, Serge Daney, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Michel Delahaye, Jean Epstein, Claude Ollier – but it’s also happening elsewhere, with (for instance) Siegfried Kracauer and Manny Farber. Germany takes a more serial approach, leaking out, in small doses, the gathered works of Frieda Grafe or Harun Farocki. And that’s setting aside those assemblages of texts chosen by the authors themselves while they’re still alive: Luc Moullet, Raymond Bellour, the still relatively young (in his early 50s) Jean-Baptiste Thoret …


For my 63rd birthday present, I asked for a slightly older collection (from 2003) that piqued my curiosity: Au cinéma by Michel Cournot. I had been struck by a superb mid ‘60s newspaper text by him (complete with numbered shots!) on The Scarlet Empress (1934), translated in a 1967 paperback on Josef von Sternberg by Herman G. Weinberg – and I was immediately gladdened to see its original recycled here.


It seems that every character in The Scarlet Empress spontaneously finds his way toward animation as if in reaction, or reference, to the anti-cinema charge of the motionless statues. Czar Peter and Sam Jaffe (who portrays him) decompose several immobile moments into an animation, broken and cut up, which is that of automatons: Jaffe never connects his gestures, he goes from one prostration to another prostration, he seems to enjamb life.  

                   (Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg, p. 225 – translation amended)


I know only dribs and drabs about Cournot’s life (and this book provides no help on that score): his frequent championing of Jean-Luc Godard, and his continuing friendship with that filmmaker through the 1967/68 period, especially as conveyed by Anne Wiazemsky in her memoirs A Studious Year and One Year Later (Cournot receives a fairly cruel caricature in the satirical screen spin-off from those books, Le Redoubtable [2017]); his facility with the mid ‘60s cultural lingo of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roland Barthes; his long career as both a journalist (book, film, arts, showbiz reporter) and novel writer, beginning in the late 1940s; his sole, obscure feature as film director, Les Gauloises bleues (1968), and his later efforts as big-screen dialogue-provider and TV scenarist. Internet says he was, in equal parts, regarded by the reading public in his prime as an indispensable guide, and as a clown. The typical mediatic trajectory of an opinionated critic with a distinct sensibility! Cournot died in 2007 at age 84; he was presumably in charge of selecting and ordering the contents of Au cinéma.


But here, there is no editorial apparatus. No specific dates of publication or composition given to any of the 32 texts. No chronological sequence. No outlining of relevant historical-cultural context. No footnotes of now obscure passing references (of which there are plenty). No real introduction by the author or any other tutelary figure; only an extended reverie on growing up as a child (in the company of his brother) watching films, starting back in the silent cinema era. A note in tiny print up the back: “The texts – most but not all – which comprise this book appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur”. (Cournot’s journalistic career also took in France-Soir, L’Express and Le Monde.)


From internal evidence, one can figure out that the range of the selection is roughly from 1964 (Godard’s Une femme mariée) to the early ‘80s (Jerry LewisHardly Working [1980], the effectively underground Aurélia Steiner film series [1979] by Marguerite Duras, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia [1983]). The complementary 2012 tome to this one, posthumously collecting Cournot’s book reviews – an arena he turned more to later in life – is titled De livre en livre, “from book to book”.


So Au cinéma is a ‘literary’ gesture par excellence, or more exactly a journalistic one, since it gives (without forcing the concept) a fine sense of the waves and rhythms of writing as a weekly journalist (a role I, too, have inhabited, so I’m the ideal reader for this): from film to film. A brief bio note on the back inside flap – presumably also penned by Cournot, but unattributed – reads:


Since reaching adulthood, Michel Cournot has been a journalist. And to be a journalist is, from one day to the next, always the same: you go and see something, then you bear witness as to what you have seen. And in haste, because a magazine is news.


Cinema is something ephemeral and fleeting for Cournot – “These intermittences of an instant. These absences”, as the final line of the opening essay has it – and his years of regular writing were shaped to that vision, as is this testamentary book. Most often, his reviews plunge, without preamble, into descriptions of spectatorial sensations: a landscape, an architecture (as in Sternberg), a gesture, a face, an array of colours. Even the barest plot synopsis is usually absent; Cournot finds his footing elsewhere, in a flux of filmic particles and details. Sometimes, this rush of ekphrasis will be accompanied by a rhetorical flourish heralding the birth of a modern cinema, or the stately perfection of a classical one. But that founding, childhood reverie on the fundamentally fugitive nature of this art, finally escaping all verbal or written description, is never far away.


Fleeting impressions of a fugitive form: writing is Cournot’s game of disguise and disappearance. From the distance of the 2003 publication-point, his book is less an evocation of Proustian memory than a merry parade of ghosts. He often presented pieces ‘in the voice of’ someone he had encountered or interviewed, and we will never know what percentage of these charming texts are really composed by him (Godard, you’ll recall, did a similar trick when once reporting on Rossellini: he made it all up.) Au cinéma is sprinkled with no less than 10 such pieces, all of them fascinating. There are stars in full flight (Michel Simon, Simone Signoret on the set of Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools [1965], Vera Clouzot, Jean-Louis Trintignant), famed producer Georges de Beauregard, and master auteur Jacques Tati; but also a sound designer (Michel Fano), an Egyptian actor-producer (Faten Hamama, 1931-2005), and a set designer (Jean André).


I was surprised to discover that two articles I knew well from 1960s English-language books on Godard – “Light of Day” by cinematographer Raoul Coutard and “A Leap into Emptiness” by Suzanne Schiffman (sometimes woefully described as a ‘script girl’, ‘continuity person’ or ‘assistant director’, but in reality the indispensable right-hand collaborator to Godard, Truffaut and Rivette … and on Les Gauloises bleues) – originated as Cournot columns (no doubt simply signed “M.C.”); the latter of these is credited to him in English (but with Suzanne S.’ name misspelt), the former isn’t. And there is one, longish piece in Au cinéma, “Des miettes” (“Crumbs”), whose global references are so sweeping and cryptic (from Yevgeni Bauer, Orson Welles and Buster Keaton to …  ‘Christian’ and ‘Rappoport’? Possibly veteran Russian cinematographer Vladimir Rapoport) that I have yet to determine what its central referent actually is.


Godard saturates Au cinéma – which more or less starts with Une femme mariée and ends with Pierrot le fou (1965), another film high in Cournot’s pantheon. And this tallies, at least for a time, with the phantom image of the author that wafts like a fragrance from these pages: part of a tightly-knit Parisian circle, encountering this or that denizen of the film industry at a café or bistro, passing from directors and actors to producers and technicians … as well as being an erstwhile dandy travelling to Egypt or Russia for some festival event. (Russia seems to have exerted a particular spell over Cournot: Sergei Eisenstein’s incomplete Bezhin Meadow [1937] rates a chapter, as does Grigory Chukhray’s There Was an Old Couple [1965]; “Mikhalkov’s tramcar on an empty Odessa boulevard”, presumably from A Slave of Love [1976], is celebrated in the introduction among those glorious “intermittences” of cinema; and his second wife, star of Les Gauloises bleues, was Ukranian-born writer Nella Bielski, later to collaborate with John Berger on plays and an unproduced Isabelle Eberhardt screenplay published as a book.)


But Cournot’s taste does not fit the classic Cahiers du cinéma template we know best in the Anglo film world, nor the Positif one. Not at all the Nouvelle-Vague-or-Bust playbook, beyond Godard. It’s an eclectic and probably deliberately provocative set of very individual likes laid out and defended here (Cournot’s tirade, quoted up top, against all those critics who follow “collective babble” is even truer in our social media age), from Claude Lelouch and François Reichenbach to … the first Cheech & Chong movie, Up in Smoke (1978 – Faut trouver un joint to him), for “this idiotic film, in a sense close to nothingness, is also (one might say) astonishing, because cinema is also that: crazy images that fly past so quickly that they surpass their own stupidity, their own life, they outdo themselves …”. And, 80 pages later, Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) is cinema, too. This is my kind of critic.


And I was pleased to see a stirring defence, from the time, of Tony Richardson’s much-maligned Mademoiselle (1966), in exactly the same terms that I took up in my 2020 DVD audio commentary for the BFI.


Richardson and his DOP David Watkin agreed to take draconian measures. The film would be in black and white, because ultimately the realism of colour would not aid the imagination of ritual. All shots, without exception, would be static, without the slightest hint of a track or pan. The cinema of Mademoiselle would be as “silent” as possible. Jeanne Moreau was rightly judged capable of offering the “severe and neutral face” and “almost somnambulist” demeanour indicated in [Jean Genet’s] screenplay, all the while radiating, with absolute reserve, an inner, affective charge that would be extremely strong, extremely rich.


Moreover, Cournot judges this film, in its photographic tonality, to be “one of the most beautiful cinematic poems of the countryside, comparable to that masterpiece by Eisenstein and his DOP [Eduard] Tisé [sic – usually rendered as Tisse], Bezhin Meadow, judging by its surviving frames”. And there’s a further twist to this Tale of Cinema, revealing of Cournot’s impish games: as I noted in my audio commentary, Cournot in fact was employed to script the dialogue for the French-dubbed version of Mademoiselle (a moonlighting gig which is not mentioned in his review) – and then, in the monthly Cahiers du cinéma critics’ poll to which he regularly contributed, he gave it the lowest possible ‘don’t bother’ rating!


From round Hollywood way, there is love for mid ‘60s Vincente Minnelli, The Sandpiper (1965, especially praised for its use of colour) and Goodbye Charlie (1964 – “Allow me to insist on the fixity of the sequence-shots … Minnelli does not compensate. He plants himself somewhere, and remains stock still. Until the scene is over”). And for John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), in which the director’s considerable pictorial art is apprehended “only after the fact, once the event has passed”.


Back on the French beat, Robert Hossein is defended (“his films are those of a madman”), particularly The Vampire of Düsseldorf (1965), in which the director also starred as the titular serial killer (in the M story). A movie about the First Indochina War, The 317th Platoon (1965) directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer and photographed by Coutard (all roads lead to Godard!), is appreciated for its “forcing of perception – we are obliged to sense much more strongly than usual”. There is even a (very) kind word for the Nouvelle Vague’s bête noire, Claude Autant-Lara: his late-career, pro-abortion social drama A Woman in White (1965) is regarded as “difficult, eccentric, singular … a civic act which has the right to be valued”. And this film moves him to declare that, while Godard’s contemporaneous Alphaville (1965) is certainly “situated on an entirely other level, the level of a revelation of the world via poetic genius and the invention of a new cinema”, nonetheless “this is no reason not to affirm that A Woman in White is powerfully beautiful work of combat”.


The second half of the unsigned little text on the inside back flap continues:


Is that a “bio note”, a life? Hopefully not, because when a journalist encounters a body of knowledge, he doesn’t find himself asking, as is usually the case, “How are you?”, but rather: “What are you in the process of becoming?”



© Adrian Martin 20-21 September 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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