Essays (book reviews)

Contemporary French Cinema:
An Introduction

by Guy Austin
(Manchester University Press, 1996)


Generally speaking, one extends a certain, Platonic generosity toward accounts of national cinemas – just as one does to global cinema histories, various official canonical lists of the Great Films, and so forth. One innocently imagines, or presumes, that the authors or compilers of such accounts, books and lists have done their field-work: they have read everything significant (and many things insignificant) on their topic, spoken to all the right, interesting people and, most importantly, looked at all the films they can.


The truth is rarely this good. It is amazing now to look back on those grand synoptic film histories of another era – of the Basil Wright variety – and be stunned at the thought of how little research was done on the most basic level – I mean, how many films were sought out and viewed. Canon-formations and history-lessons are often hampered by – or, indeed, created by – handy packets of simply what is available, easily available to hand, in the place where one lives and works. One of the passing virtues of David Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style is its brief but telling account of how the holdings of The Museum of Modern Art Film Library decisively shaped the biases, research programs and canonical evaluations of many a film history written, taught and programmed across the USA for decades.


Another interesting and related example is the British Film Institute list of the 360 Greatest Movies, compiled by David Meeker, which serves as the basis of print acquisitions and the BFI Classics publications list (two fine and enviable initiatives). With this list – and even more so with the more ad hoc Modern Classics list used solely for publishing – one begins to suspect that it is less a fully researched inquiry into world cinema, more a diverse record of elite British cinema-going taste. Indeed, the films chosen as the Modern Classics (Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, Three Colours, etc) might come down to, finally, a British list of cult films – or, even more pragmatically, films that have performed well, over the long haul, on video/DVD in the UK.


What do we expect, minimally, from a book about a national cinema? Extensive viewing, laborious combing for video and digital copies (legal and illegal), explorations of the film archives of that country (and, where pertinent, other countries), a concerted attempt to fill out the widest span of genres, practices, tendencies and fads in filmic cultural production – particularly for the benefit of those who live outside that country, and have received only a spotty, usually clichéd reduction of that nation’s cinema history. There are many terrific books that fulfill these expectations: Thomas Elsaesser’s New German Cinema: A History, Jill Forbes’ The Cinema in France After the New Wave and Tom O’Regan’s Australian National Cinema, to cite only three of my personal favourites.


Guy Austin’s Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction is not that sort of patient, scholarly, well-researched, national cinema history. Its author could have easily written it without once leaving his home base of the University of Sheffield [and, from 2010, Newcastle University] – and without going much further afield than his local video shop. This is not a book about French cinema; it is about the tiny fraction of that cinema that has been filtered out viciously for predominantly arthouse consumption in the UK. To be fair, Austin puts this up front: it is written, he proclaims in his Preface,


for students and fans of French cinema of the last 25 years or so, and is intended to provide an introduction to French film studies. I have concentrated mainly, though not exclusively, on films which have had either a theatrical or video release in Britain, or are available on video from France. It seems important to me that the films analysed here be fairly readily available to the readers of this book, and there are other books which bring the attention of an Anglophone audience to more obscure or neglected films.


So, there you have it: this is a primarily pedagogical book, tailored for easy teacher-access to references and materials. Nonetheless, the image of French cinema conjured in this book is, to say the least, odd: not much of the Nouvelle Vague and virtually nothing post-Nouvelle Vague (so, no Jacques Rozier, Philippe Garrel, Olivier Assayas … ); an inordinate emphasis on the cinéma du look (Beineix and Besson, with Leos Carax rather criminally smuggled into this MTV-driven gang); nothing at all experimental; few of the popular genres apart from the polar and the Pagnol-revival heritage film.


And Austin doesn’t even entirely play by his own rules, a fact I’m actually grateful for: when he tears himself away from his UK-strained sampling of French cinema and says a little about French porno or beur (Arab) cinema, his book starts to become more interesting and informative. But generally – as it happens – Contemporary French Cinema is a book that average arthouse cinemagoers in Australia would have no problems interpellating themselves into: it’s French cinema à la Louis Malle, Diane Kurys, Claude Berri and The Visitors – which is, all up, finally a bit of a joke.


My other big problem with this text is its critical methodology, which could be described as a tick the boxes approach. That is to say, these few select films are rather swiftly and savagely processed – “read through”, as we used to say in the 1970s – a number of rather recent critical grids, obsessions, catchwords and contexts. It’s all – forgive me for saying it – pretty fashionable. Gender and post-colonialism, the voyeuristic look, the postmodern surface, the repression of history – all our old friends and foes have been gathered to dine, yet again.


What most bugs me here is that the films themselves never offer any challenge, revision or subversion of the available theories and reading-tools: they are simply fodder, exemplars, handy and well-behaved illustrations. Certainly, the films never get to suggest any terms for discussion utterly outside the fashionable categories and boxes; it’s a rigged game.


So, once again, a particularly grey form of pedagogy looms large. The films are easily to hand, and so are the ideas. This book won’t make anyone a mad fan of French cinema. And if that’s not the aim – and considering that Jill Forbes’ book covers the same and more ground infinitely better – why write it at all?


© Adrian Martin July 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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