University of Illinois Press: French Film Guides
[13 April 2006]
At 128 pages a pop, these books burst with fascinating trivia (Clouzot used to physically abuse his actors; Godard had originally wanted to do the American Bonnie and Clyde instead of Alphaville) and interesting historical and cultural nuances not easily gleaned by the non-French viewer.
by Raquel Laneri
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From the Lumiére brothers’ first film shorts of the late 19th century to the ongoing Cannes Film Festival, France has long been an integral part of the film community—both in creating and in showcasing exciting new works. France’s dedication to cinema is evident in its outpouring of both important and popular cinematic works: from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí‘s surrealist experiments, to the stylized realism of the New Wave, to the appealing costume dramas of the 1990s (The Horseman on the Roof), to the quirky fantasies whipped up by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie). With its long film history and wide-ranging appeal to both cinephiles and the masses, French cinema is probably the most (after American film) loved and studied, which means there exists legions of books devoted to it.
The University of Illinois Press has decided to publish even more books dedicated to the subject via their French Film Guides series. However, instead of tackling broad aspects of French film theory or history, each guide offers in-depth analyses by renowned film scholars on one film. The first four books in the series include staples of classic French cinema (Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques), as well as contemporary works (Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot). At 128 pages a pop, these books burst with fascinating trivia (Clouzot used to physically abuse his actors; Godard had originally wanted to do the American Bonnie and Clyde instead of Alphaville) and interesting historical and cultural nuances not easily gleaned by the non-French viewer.
Ginette Vincendeau’s book on La Haine (Hate) is the most successful of the bunch. The film explores the relationship between the ethnic minorities of the banlieue (Parisian suburbs) and the police. Because of its sociological context, knowledge of the banlieue and its unique slang verlan is crucial to understanding the film. Using verlan in La Haine brings a verisimilitude to the film’s portrayal of banlieue life and also brands its three protagonists (one Jewish, one Arab, and one black) as “outsiders”, particularly when they leave the banlieue and enter Paris. Vincendeau explains the colorful nuances of verlan and even includes a glossary of slang terms used in La Haine. Vincendeau—who is also the series editor—adds another dimension to and enhances director Kassovitz’s socially minded film and does so without alienating the reader with pretentious prattle.
Since the authors come from a scholarly background, the texts are academic and conventionally structured. Each book begins with detailed production notes and putting the film in historical context and ends with discussion of box office and critical reception. These sections provide the more intriguing observations on French cinema and its history. However, academic pretenses often weigh down the middle sections of these books (with the exception of La Haine), providing either unnecessary shot-by-shot analysis, repetitive talk of symbolism, or obtuse graphs.
The Independent and Film Comment contributor Chris Darke leads his guide on Alphaville with the intriguing question of Alphaville‘s importance in the realm of distopian sci-fi flicks, particularly in its eschewing of sets and special effects for the streets and architecture of Paris, giving the film a paranoid immediacy. However, Darke spends over 20 pages in the second section of the book breaking down the symbolic implications of light in the film. While Godard’s assertion that Alphaville is “a film about light” renders the discussion of light unavoidable, Darke goes through and dissects every single scene in which a match, a lighter, or any other type of light source appears. A few instances would have been beneficial, but so much devotion to symbolic analysis is not only redundant, it’s boring.
University of Exeter professor Susan Hayward includes seven “diagrams” in her analysis of Les Diaboliques. While the diagrams of certain interiors, such as the bedroom/scene-of-murder, help in the discussion of composition and help readers who have not seen the film in some time visualize certain scenes. However, graphs charting the percentage of medium shots are so obtuse and difficult to read, they only obscure, rather than illustrate, the meaning of Hayward’s words.
Despite these faults, the guides certainly enrich the films in discussion and should delight the French film enthusiast. The films discussed are definitely interesting and unconventional (with the exception of the extremely popular and widely-studied Les Diaboliques) choices for the series’ debut. While Alphaville is the most accessible of iconoclast Godard’s works, it is certainly not the most indicative of Godard’s New Wave films of the 1960s. Darke could have chosen Godard’s debut Breathless, often considered his masterpiece, which is the definitive New Wave film. And lesser known contemporary works La Haine and Le Reine Margot were chosen over more popular works like Amélie or more “important” works, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy. While guides on Breathless or any of Kieslowski’s works would be most welcome, the inclusion of lesser-known and often marginalized movies distinguishes the French Film Guides from other series devoted to cinema—and also make them, if not essential additions to the film-lover’s library, interesting ones.