Part 2 The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group: Franju, Resnais, Marker, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Varda. Independent: René Allio
The Left Bank group of filmmakers was described by Raymond Durgnat as “harbingers of the New Wave, [the group’s] tightly integrated socialism, humanism, high culture and poetic formalism contrasted with the modern bourgeois ethos of the ‘Cahiers’ group.” (MFB May 1987)
Agnès Varda spoke of “a certain way of thinking, a certain complicity between friends.” She came to making films as a still photographer with little previous interest in viewing films. Marker was an established writer, the reputations of Alain Resnais and Georges Franju (1912-87) were made in documentary film although once they had made features neither of them returned to documentaries. After making more than a dozen shorts, 1949-58, beginning with the disturbing ‘poetic realism’ of Les Sang des betes/The Blood of Beasts, Franju came to feature filmmaking in 1958 - 10 features, 1958-78. Horror and fairytale are merged with a special sense of the poetic in his second, Les Yeux sans visage/Eyes Without a Face (1959). He sought cinematic resonances in literary adaptations such as Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962) and an adaptation of Cocteau’s Thomas L’imposteur (1964). In what he described as “pure form,” Judex (1963) is a remake of a classic Louis Feuillade silent serial. Franju worked consciously in the surrealist tradition “as a kind of self therapy,” a way of dealing with anxiety and chronic depression with which he suffered (Alan Williams 367). Much of ‘rive gauche’ filmmaking, with a persistent interest in dream-like states, shows a debt to Surrealism (ibid).
Alain Resnais (1922-2014) began directing feature films already an experienced film editor (he assisted Varda in editing her first film La Pointe Courte). Of his first four features - Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963) and La Guerre est finie (1966), three of the four filtered through memories of war - in four unique writer-director collaborations exploring the theme of memory interwoven between levels of narrated time. His fifth feature, Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968), was written in collaboration with SF and fantasy novelist, Jacques Sternberg. In the film 16 years of a man’s life are audaciously relived, not in flashback but almost simultaneously (Armes 130). Resnais denied that he was the author of his films, that it was “not his ambition to write his own screenplays “ and that he “hated the idea of working alone” (interview in Through Parisian Eyes, Melinda Porter)
In his later works Resnais modified his interest in formal experiment in modernist fictional works, without abandoning experimentation. Two decades later, for example, his adaptation of Mélo (1986), his eleventh feature, is based on an almost forgotten boulevard tragi-comic melodrama first performed on the stage in 1929. Resnais masterfully integrates cinema and theatre in a four hander to intimately convey finely elaborated thought and feeling which, in its confined intensity, brings to mind Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud.
Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard/Night and Fog (1955) is an hour long meditation on the anguished collective memory of the Nazi death camps and the inadequacy of its communication, with a commentary written by Jean Cayrol, the first of Resnais' collaborations with leading writers. The ominous impotence suggested by the music score and images, of chains of accumulation in the seeming overabundance of information is conveyed in his next film, on the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Toute le memoire du monde/ All the Memory of the World (1956).
Chris Marker (1921-2012) expanded his writing talent as a political documentarist and film essayist in Sans Soleil/Sunless (1982), a complex reverie linking images and thoughts in the form of letters from another world on subjects such as memory and time. He only once ventured into fictional narrative, memorably with a short film, La Jetée (1963) in which Marker uses still images to reflectively in terms of cinema, evoke the story of a man wandering in time. In the same year Marker also completed Le Joli Mai a cinema verité study structured around interviews with Parisians asked open-ended questions such as “Are you happy?” in the 'lovely month of May' .
Two of Resnais’ early collaborators, practitioners of the nouveau roman, Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) (Marienbad), continued their own experimentations on film. The latter extended his formal concerns as a writer by deploying the 'presentness' of the film image as a mental landscape filtered through a character's consciousness. In L'Immortelle (1963) psycho-sexual elements are set in highly stylised Istanbul locations. Reality and imagination are merged, in the process of creating a narrative in Trans-Europe Express (1967), and in L'Homme qui ment / The Man Who Lies (1968) merged with 'a realism of the mental processes’, yielding to full-on bizarre eroticism in L'Eden et après (1970)
Marguerite Duras (1914-96) developed a writing style identified as post existential, the writing and the struggle to write co-existing as she worked herself into her books as a writer trying to write them, as Godard works himself into his films as he makes them. When she began to direct films in 1966 she claimed her films were the same as her novels.
The control of her deliberately minimal means was absolute, the writing involved in the process of her filmmaking follows her own course. In Le Camion /The Truck (1977), “striving to create a kind of anti-cinema which assumed a variety of forms” (Williams 373), she does an onscreen read-through of a film script seated at a table with Gérard Depardieu reading the part of a communist truck driver who in the script picks-up a hitch-hiking older woman. They have a mostly one-sided conversation about politics and philosophy. Every so often we see the truck driving along the highway at night or see the landscape passing. The woman, in Duras' voice, insists that the revolution is dead and “there is nothing but the void.” Pauline Kael found it “an ornery, glittering achievement.”
As has been noted by another critic, in reviewing The Truck, Duras “uses the medium to condemn our very expectations of the medium yet she still tells a story, she gives us an up-and-coming star and shows us the truck...[giving us room] to imagine our own mind-movie from the table-read [… ] Without the exteriors of the truck it would be a filmed play. With them it becomes cinema, banal but beautiful in its rhythms,[…] She didn't hate the audience, she disregarded it, yet she also knows the movie isn't complete without us.” (Ron Gonsalves eFilmCritic online)
As a committed Marxist, Duras saw mainstream cinema first and foremost as an instrument of social control. Well-made cinema, she argued, “mirrors precise subservience to dominant social codes.” Her special interest was in an unusual privileging of sound (voices, the spoken word) over image, the two not in any way illustrating the other. In her best known film, India Song (1975), camera movements are reduced to a minimum in long takes, including repeated images, in an attempted annihilation of visual pleasure. A simple narrative in fixed tableaux of a single group in India Song, reinforces the thematic and structural importance of death in the film. For the receptive viewer, the deathly stillness engulfing the images combined with vocal musical repetition and off-screen cries can be hypnotic. Her aim, as she described it, was 'to create a mass of sounds turning around minimally varying images'. French feminist critic Francoise Audè has argued that, in the context of the general austerity of her work, “Duras' characters are too intent on being engulfed in ‘submissiveness’ for feminists to adopt them wholeheartedly” (quoted Guy Austin 83).
Agnès Varda (1928-2019) was from her first film Le Pointe-Courte (1954) a genuine original experimenting with structure and launching her notion of “cinécriture” (film writing). Her feature films are informed by skills learned in making experimental documentaries and her earlier experiences as photo-journalist, painter and sculptor. Although always very much her own person Varda also productively exemplified the 'new wave' characteristics of independence as well as originality, “a highly personal vision, a continuing research into the language and syntax of film, with sustained attention to forms of narrative organization.” (Flitterman-Lewis 31). The detached contrapuntal editing in her first film central to her work, is unique, as Hayward suggests, was adapted most notably by Godard and Resnais. Throughout her career “she continued to explore all the parameters of cinematic story telling... [working] with parallelism, contrast/alternation and juxtaposition, examining and re-evaluating the (ideological) categories of documentary and fiction along the way.” (F-L 31) This amounted to a contesting of traditional cinema's mode of organising meaning. Varda seized upon an issue and proceeded to document it in a non-conflictual way. “Although consequential, her films are non-ideological but replete with social realism.” (Hayward) The integration of “documentary” material into fictional structures suggests new uses for improvisation and new functions for a written scenario in delimiting and defining specific processes of cinematic meaning; experimentation with story-telling makes new demands in the reactivation of space between the viewer and the screen (ibid).
Varda's continual preoccupation with constructions of the “feminine” is given full expression in Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962) and, in what Sandy Flitterman-Lewis calls its “remake,” Sans toit ni loi/Vagabond (1985) which is focused within different contexts, on a deconstruction and examination of how a woman's image is produced in the cinema. Varda challenges those cultural representations “by refusing to take cinematic language for granted.” Flitterman-Lewis concludes that “these two films provide a textual focus for the highly significant feminist issues raised in and by all of Varda's work” (32). This she achieves by foregrounding the process by which meaning is constructed, then restructuring film language in gender terms.
Cleo de 5 á 7 is a reflection on female identity, combining explicit feminist intent in transitioning from the objective representation of Cleo's closed world as a successful pop singer. The woman-as-image that is fetishised in traditional cinema, fixed, eternal and unchanging as spectacle, is increasingly subverted in her films. Varda asks questions, repositioning the viewer away from identification by juxta- posing fact with fiction. In Cleo, the detailed filming in the streets of Paris is set over two hours seen through Cleo's eyes. In her growing acceptance of others, combined with the self-awareness of a woman in crisis facing a hospital report possibly tracking towards her death, there is what Flitterman-Lewis terms “a crisis in representation as the heroine struggles for authorship of her own image. “The film's episodic structure and its emphatic division into chapters, posit each instance of growing self-awareness as a dramatization of the of the visual.” (ibid 38).
Flitterman-Lewis notes that the chapter organisation is typical of Varda. In addition to Cleo, Le Bonheur (1966), Lions Love (1969) and L’Une chant, l’autre pas/One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), all have structures that “incorporate strategic distancing into their narrative forms” (298). Her writing on film (cinécriture) draws attention to the process of film-making. “Varda saw it as closely allied to the technique of painting in its structural composition, texture and tonality... In Vagabond she talked of cine-painting the texture of solitude” (Hayward). She is equally detached from her characters not subscribing to the conventions of psychological characterisation so, as Hayward points out, ”they have no depth.” This led to criticism of her cold detachment and obsession with camera technique through écriture, “something they praise in the work Bresson or Resnais […] Some feminist critics see her work as perpetuating the European art cinema (i.e. male) style,” but others such as Flitterman-Lewis argue that she continues the heritage of early French feminist filmmakers Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac and Marie Epstein. (ibid).
Two decades later in Vagabond Varda again takes up the exploration of “the intersecting issues of feminism and representation...through a double deconstruction of the myths of romantic freedom and the enigmatic woman.” The film begins in Languedoc with the discovery of a woman's body in a ditch and then proceeds to retrace the last weeks in her life as an itinerant vagrant called Mona. She strongly rejects any attachment as well as the material and social structures that define our lives “without roof or law” - the translation of the French title of Vagabond. A diverse cross-section of society played by a mix of actors and non-professionals, create what Varda called “an impossible portrait.” This accumulation of descriptions keeps us outside the character, Varda scrupulously avoiding both the empathy of traditional narrative and the moralising of a feminist manifesto. The accounts of the wanderer by others suggest no positive model of resistance or hint at any cause or ideals. Instead Varda presents a series of questions prompting attempts to explain Mona's existence. “Against the invisible, naturalizing movement of classical cinema's fictions, Varda poses a discursive process that emphasizes contradiction” characterised by Flitterman-Lewis as “a contemplative film of 'psychic wandering'” (39).
Mona is the inverse of Cleo. The latter, from being excessively self-absorbed, “finally learns to see herself through others in a prism of the social.” Mona lacks such vision altogether, unable to “see herself through others” which finally leads to her destruction. By refusing a traditional character psychological depth, Varda challenges the viewer to discover “a new type of discourse permitting her to write/film in the feminine...Through these self-conscious strategies of resistance [such as denying traditional modes of looking at the female body in favour of a camera that is both analytic and direct] Varda is able to achieve a profoundly engaging cinematic reflection on the related problematics of feminism and representation” (ibid 38-40). Bordwell takes a more detached view, seeing Vagabond as Varda suggesting new possibilities for what many art films do in creating what he terms “a game of form,” as here first inviting the viewer to construct the story, then following Mona's death creating a poignantly ambiguous narration deploying disjunctive editing and misleading camera positions in presenting a series of incompatible judgements made about her by diverse characters (165-9).
An authentic voice in French cinema, independent writer-director René Allio (1925-94) made 8 features, 1965-84, beginning with two remarkable character studies, the immensely successful The Shameless Old Lady/La Vielle dame indigne (1965) based on a story by Bertolt Brecht about an old lady deciding to use what money she has to live her last years to the full, and L'une et l'autre/The Other One (1967) in an explicitly theatrical setting but showing Allio's same mastery in the capturing of everyday details and the tiny gestures by which people relate.” Susan Hayward places The Shameless Old Lady in the tradition of moral fiction in the 60s in “holding up a mirror of non-conformity to challenge the safe images of the dominant ideology” (262) linking it to several of Louis Malle’s films such as Les Amants (1958) in which the female protagonist (Jeanne Moreau) refuses to conform to bourgeois values.
Allio made two films inspired by the 'Annales' school of historians encouraging study of the lives of ordinary people in community structures in the regions in French history, this shift of emphasis was given new relevance new by the events of May 68. Les Camisards (1972) is an historical study using voice-over and authentic contemporary documents made on location in the central mountains of France about the failed revolt led by young people of Protestant Huguenots under persecution by Catholic Royalists in the 17th C. Moi Pierre Rivière... (1976), is similarly described as a remarkable historical study of a crime based on a confessional recovered by Michel Foucault, written in prison by a Norman peasant explaining why, in1835, he decided to kill his mother and two siblings. His mother was the central victim, as are women in general, for 'being in charge.' She was blamed by Rivière for his father's miserable life, and other things 'against whom he had to take up arms'. Originally he intended to write it prior to committing the murders before killing himself. The film was made with “exemplary naturalism” in the actual locations with real peasants, the legal and medical officials played by professional actors.
Paul Monaco, “Marguerite Duras” Critical Dictionary vol.1 ed. Richard Roud pp.311-13
Roy Armes, “René Allio” and “Jean Rouch” in Dictionary of French Cinema vol. 2 1970
Brian Winston “Jean Rouch” Oxford History of World Cinema Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith p. 529
Sandy Flitterman-Lewis To Desire Differently Chapters on Agnes Varda
Susan Hayward “Agnès Varda” World Cinema Nowell-Smith ed. p757.
David Bordwell “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice” in Poetics of the Cinema 2008
Peter Wollen “Jean Rouch” Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film 2002
Jill Forbes The Cinema in France After the New Wave BFI 1992
Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike Black African Cinema UCLA Press 1994
Alan Williams Republic of Images 1992
James Monaco The New Wave 1976
Susan Hayward French National Cinema 1993
Michael Walker, Robin Wood Claude Chabrol Movie Paperbacks 1970
Dudley Andrew, entries on Astruc and Leenhardt in International Dictionary vol 2 Directors ed C. Lyon 1984
There are career essays online in Great Directors, Senses of Cinema, on Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, Demy, Marker, Varda and Rozier. Other contributions on directors can be found in Senses of Cinema, eg.,John Conomos, “Godard: Only the Cinema” June 2001, and Robert Farmer, “Remembering the Left Bank Group: Marker, Resnais, Varda” September 2009.
Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links