April 23, 2009
Un Certain Disregard[As the lineup for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival was just unveiled today, Vadim Rizov weighs in on the festival's history with local auteurs. He still doesn't endorse sexual abuse.] 50 years ago yesterday, Jean-Luc Godard unleashed one of his charming little cri de couers upon Cinema As We Know It. The occasion was Truffaut's The 400 Blows being selected as France's sole official submission to the Cannes Film Festival. "[F]or the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers that be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world," Godard exulted, before launching into another seething blast against the cinema de papa the Cahiers gang loathed so much. "In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret [ed: another 18 names follow] ... what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is ... Today, victory is ours. It is our films that will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that." And so it was, sort of. As it happened, The 400 Blows was joined at the festival by Hiroshima Mon Amour, which was then pulled from competition in deference to the outraged American delegation. 50 years later, Alain Resnais is back once again with Les Herbes folles, his fifth appearance in competition; to an extent, the New Wave became the establishment, as they wished. Things, of course, didn't change overnight: Allégret was back in competition in 1962, and arguably not another significant New Wave film was in competition til The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 (and that's a tenuous categorization). Godard, hilariously, didn't make it into competition 'til 1980, after he'd been safely absorbed into the canon. But the world had noticed. If the New Wave never wiped out the "tradition of quality" as much as they'd hope, they certainly made themselves felt internationally. In recent years, there's been a fair amount of bitching and paranoia about the lack of French films in competition, regardless of orientation. Leaving messy co-productions out of this and sticking to films in French by ethncially French directors, 2003 boasted five entries, none of which have really survived the test of time, even five years later. They included François Ozon's risible Swimming Pool, a minor entry from aging wunderkind Bertrand Blier, and equally minor works from André Téchiné and Claude Miller. (I'm reserving judgment on Tiresia, because of its Wikipedia summary: "it tells of a transsexual who is kidnapped by a man and left to die in the woods. She is then saved by a family and receives the gift of telling the future.") In contrast, 2004 only had two entries, and they were both weak: Olivier Assayas' token prestige pic Clean and Agnes Jaoui's Look At Me (Jaoui is precisely the kind of filmmaker Godard worked to eradicate, though frankly these days she does better with the kind of material Alain Resnais inexplicably chooses than Resnais himself). 2005 had two films, but they were Lemming and, uh, To Paint Or Make Love. In truth, the great French Drought at Cannes has been greatly exaggerated: the past two years had seven French submissions, including major works like A Christmas Tale, The Class and Frontier of Dawn. Still, it's hard not to get psyched about a line-up so strong that informed speculation says Claire Denis' latest didn't make the cut because it was so crowded in there already. (I mean, they could've done away with Xavier Giannoli, but whatever.) The real point isn't whatever faux-panic we're having this year; the point is that Godard didn't win. We celebrate the New Wave, as always, just as we celebrate adventurous descendants like Desplechin. But things swing back and around; Allégret never left Cannes, and now we have Jaoui and her ilk, the traditionalists' heirs. They will never leave. One of the filmmakers on Godard's shitlist was Julien Duvivier; from May 1-25 (outlasting the Festival handily), MoMA will host a retrospective of his work. If you go look up the more obscure works on IMDb, battle scars still linger. Check out the bitter comments on e.g. Un Carnet De Bal: "While Godard and co were still in diapers, Duvivier, Renoir and Carné were inventing the best French cinema that had ever been. I would trade you all M. 'A bout de soufflé' filmography for 'un carnet de bal'." Copious [sic]s aside, it's telling and odd that way after the New Wave, some people are still angry, presumably still seeking out classicist cinema. The real question at Cannes (and in world film) isn't how many French films made it; it's what they represent. 50 years later, Cannes tilts highbrow, but still will never eradicate its middlebrow component. Not that that's a problem—I, for one, am pumped for this chance to re-evaluate Duvivier—but it's the status quo, just as it's been for 50 years. The New Wave's real achievement wasn't erasing the middlebrow, no matter how hard they tried: it was creating a separate space to co-exist in, if a more marginalized one commercially.
Posted by ahillis at April 23, 2009 2:11 PM