In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard, then a critic, and a year away from launching one of the most significant film careers ever, wrote a polemic for the French magazine Arts. Addressing the film-makers whom he and his cohorts at the celebrated film journal Cahiers Du Cinéma had sarcastically dubbed the “tradition of quality”, he wrote: “We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are.”
Godard’s phrasing of this complaint is revealing. He isn’t disappointed in the old guard, or angry at them. He can’t forgive them for what they’ve done to his cinema. And he wasn’t the only one at Cahiers taking such matters to heart. In 1954, in an essay titled “A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema”, François Truffaut attacked “le cinéma de papa (daddy’s cinema)”. “Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men,” he wrote, “and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it” (italics mine).
That article brought Truffaut welcome notoriety a few years before his debut film, The 400 Blows, played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and alerted the world to the French New Wave. It was also notable for a phrase he uses in it: “la politique des Auteurs”—essentially, a policy of treating directors with a distinctive visual style as auteurs, or authors, and regarding them as superior to directors who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put their stamp on source material. The Auteur Theory, as it came to be known, became one of the central theses of modern cinema.
No one takes cinema quite as seriously as the French. Certainly, this is reflected in critical thinking about film, which is dominated by ideas birthed in France. Auteurism—which grew out of the critical work of André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor, in the 1940s—might be the most influential concept to emerge from the country, but consider the other French terms that have crept into the global lexicon. Film noir, that most American genre, was a term coined in France when post-war critics started noticing a predominance of downbeat, shadowy films from the US and called them noir (black). Montage, which came from the French monter (to mount or assemble), is the worldwide term for a rapid succession of images; a fundamental editing theory is the Soviet system of montage. Even mise-en-scène—basically, everything in front of the camera—occasionally escapes the confines of academic film writing to confuse lay readers.
That the French have been, and remain, central to the critical discourse surrounding cinema is not surprising. To use a highly reductive analogy: If American films are about people doing things, French films are about the discussion of ideas. If you look at their films carefully, you can see where this argumentativeness comes from. I don’t know any other cinema, especially in recent years, that’s had as many charged scenes set in classrooms as the French.
It was Laurent Cantet’s The Class which placed this idea in my head. In 2008, the year when Cantet’s film won the Palme d’Or, I had started to move my world cinema intake beyond the Bergmans and Fellinis. The Class thrilled me in ways that I wouldn’t have expected a gritty-looking film about a man teaching a group of inner-city children to do. The back-and-forth between the professor and his students was unpredictably electric—a discussion about Anne Frank, for instance, ends up as a snapshot of modern-day, multicultural France in all its complexity.
From that point on, I started noticing classroom scenes in all sorts of French films. Sometimes these were central to the narrative—as in The Class, or Nicolas Philibert’s excellent documentary, Être Et Avoir, which unfolds over a year in a rural preschool—or used ironically, or as a premonition. In Jeune & Jolie, the grave central character, who will soon start working as an escort, recites Rimbaud: “No one’s serious at seventeen”. Blue Is The Warmest Colour, about the sexual awakening of a young student, has a reading of Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie De Marianne (which is echoed in the French title of the film, La Vie d’Adèle). “I am a woman, and I tell my story,” a student says aloud. “Among the young men I attracted was one I myself noticed. My gaze fell upon him in particular. I didn’t realize the pleasure I procured.” Replace “him” with “her” and it’s almost a prediction of Adele’s first glimpse of her soon-to-be lover Emma.
It isn’t just that classrooms are featured in these films, it’s the argumentativeness of the people in them that’s indicative of a culture that thrives on debate and deconstruction. This could range from the philosophical arguments in Things To Come to the bruising scene in Divines, in which the motormouth protagonist, Dounia, demolishes her teacher’s self-control. Though classrooms may figure prominently in French films, they aren’t treated as a hallowed space. It’s worth remembering that one of the foundation texts of French cinema, Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite, was a celebration of student anarchy—as was the equally influential film it inspired, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
I happened to be in France last month. Speaking to a dentist who worked in Paris, I mentioned how fascinating it was to see ideas debated by students in film after film. He replied that it wasn’t surprising—that structuring a cogent argument and debating it, often without any urgency to arrive at a solution, was something the French placed a premium on.
A cinema that’s about ideas, and a country that takes seriously the idea of cinema (and not just movie-going)—the evidence is everywhere. In Paris, I visited the Cinémathèque, home to 40,000 films, 500,000 photographs and 30,000 film-related documents, and the Librairie du Cinéma du Panthéon, a film-themed book store whose owner casually informed me that there were 15-20 repertory theatres in the vicinity (there isn’t a single dedicated repertory in Mumbai).
On Deauville beach in Normandy, I came across signs commemorating the legendary Jean-Pierre Melville and Anna Karina, both of whom had shot films there. Walking past the mk2 theatre in Paris, I noticed their dream line-up of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and I Am Not Your Negro. My favourite sighting, though, was in Châtelet, Paris. From high up on a wall, Richie Tenenbaum gazed down upon college-goers blowing off steam on a Friday night. Even the film graffiti there has good taste.