Subsequent references to ‘the auteur theory’ are effectively anachronistic; it was not until the 1970s, with the upsurge of interest in what might be termed theory in general and theoretical Marxism and psychoanalysis in particular, that film theory came into its own as a separate discursive domain in France.
This situation came about largely because film wasnot recognised – some mightsay mercifully – as an autonomous object of study in the highly centralised and conser- vative French academic world of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As had been the case in the 1920s, serious discussion and criticism of films took place in the pages of journals – Cahiers du cinema, Positif and, before either of them, L’Ecran frangais – fostered by the cine-club movement so important in the period immediately after the Liberation. The cine-clubs, equivalents of the film societies once common in British towns and cities, existed not only to screen films often not viewable else- where, but also to foster discussion and debate after the screenings. One of the most important was founded by Jean-Pierre Chartier and his friend Andre Bazin in 1942, just after all American films were banned in France, which along with heavy censorship drastically reduced the diet of the hapless French cinephile.
The democratic openness of the cine-club format was an important influence on Bazin’s critical work, arguably still the most important by a single author in the history of French writing about film, even if he himself never wrote a single book of ‘theory’, his work being formed from a succession of essays eventually collected in the mid-1950s under the title Qu’est-ce que le cinema ?. Bazin was, more than has perhaps been widely acknowledged, very much a product of the post-Liberation period. His interest in the western testifies to the renewed availabilityof and inter- est in American culture. His championing of a cinema that respected the spectator’s freedom as opposed to what he saw as the coerciveness of montage —Renoir and Rossellini rather than the German Expressionists or Eisenstein – had much to do with the horrors of the Occupation and the restoration of democracy to France at the Liberation. These historical factors had likewise been crucial in the post-war rise of Existentialism, with its stress on the lonely inevitabilityof individual respon- sibility. Bazin’s major intellectual influence was the Catholic existentialist Emmanuel Mounier, whose philosophy of’personalism’ stressed the unique impor- tance of each individual. This can be detected in Bazin’s respect for the cinematic spectator, at work in the cine-club movement and in his critical/theoretical writings alike.
Apart from the emphasis on the spectator’s freedom through cinematographic devices such as composition in depth, or ‘deep focus’, the distinctive contribution made by Bazin and the Cahiers du cinema critics to discourse on cinema in France resided above all in their stress on film as language. Bazin signs off one of his best-known essays, ‘Ontologie de 1’image photographique’, with the provocative observation: ‘On the other hand, of course, cinema is also a language’ (Bazin, 1974a: 16). This is provocative because the essay, building on the awe in which it had been held in the 1920s, has hitherto been arguing that photography and cinema give a qualitativelyunique, perhaps even unmediated, access to being (‘The photographic image is the object itself; Bazin, 1974a: 14), which might be thought incompatible with the codes and structures of language. The tension between these two approaches – realist plenitude and signifying system – was, we shall see, to inform not only Bazin’s work, but many key debates on film theory right through to the present day.
An important precursor of Bazin’s in this respect was the article ‘La camera-stylo’, by the critic and film-maker Alexandre Astruc, which appeared in L’Ecran frangais in 1948. Astruc proclaims that ‘the cinema is in the process of becoming a means of expression, like all other art-forms before, in particular painting and the novel’ (Astruc, 1948: 209) – a modest enough claim nowadays, but an audacious one at the time, like his assertion that if Descartes had been alive in the post-war years he would have written the Discours de la methode in/on film. Astruc’s article combines references to Welles, Renoir, Eisenstein and Bresson – Hollywood at its best, the auteur cinema of the pre-war years, self-consciously theoretical Soviet experimen- tation with montage and a new rising star side by side, emphasising the scope and variety of cinematic writing and claiming that the novels of Faulkner or Malraux, like the essays of Sartre or Camus, can now find their equivalents in the cinema. To a contemporary readership weaned on the narrative complexities of Altman or the conceptual cinema of Godard this will doubtless appear obvious, but it needs to be set in the context of its time. This was a time at which cinema all too often sought artistic respectability not through developing the possibilities of the ‘camera-pen’, but through the laboured literary and theatrical adaptations against which Astruc and, after him, Bazin and the New Wave, were to react.
Astruc’s essay was an early manifestation of the emphasis on the individual direc- tor, relayed a few years later by Bazin in his 1957 essay ‘La politique des auteurs’, and developed by the young critics of the film journal established in 1951 byBazin, Cahiers du cinema. These critics, soon to become directors in their own right (Godard and Truffaut being the most prominent), amongst other things detested the reliance on literary adaptations. In 1954, the young Truffaut wrote a famously vitriolic, if at times incomprehensible, essay (‘D’une certaine tendance du cinema frangais’), lambasting what he called ‘cinema de papa’, exemplified in his eyes by lit- erary adaptations. This was not so much because he was against adaptations as such, but because so many of the films concerned were scripted by scriptwriters who were not the directors. This, in the view of the Cahiers du cinema critics, min- imised, indeed downgraded, the creativity of the director. The politique des auteurs, a polemical stance as the word politique (meaning ‘political position’) suggests, later became hardened into the ‘auteur theory’, as it is usually called, or even more briefly, ‘auteurism’. At its origins, it was an attempt to make films respectable artis- tically, first, by privileging the impact of the director in their mise-en-scene, that is, the strictly cinematographic side of the film (camerawork, lighting, colour and so on) and, second, by emphasising the director’s work as part of a specificworldview, with a set of ‘themes’, for example, much like the very traditional literary-critical approach to ‘great novelists’.
The politique desauteurs was paradoxical. First, it came at a time when most intellec- tual work in France was geared against what is essentially a very Romantic theory of authorship: great literature/films produced by great men (the use of the word ‘men’, which excludes women, is intentional). In a sense, then, the politique des auteurs can be seen as completely out of phase with the theories of film that were about to be developed in the 1960s. Second, despite this apparently regressive stance, matched as it happens by a political conservatism criticised by the other major journal Positif, it underpinned what most historians agree is the advent of modern film in France, as its name, the New Wave, suggests. Finally, and most piquant for many, the politique desauteurs survived the 30-year-long shifting sands of what was to become ‘film theory’ in the period 1960-1990 to emerge as the dominant type of theory in the study of the French cinema in the new millennium, mercifully becoming more gender-conscious than it was in the 1950s.
French Cinema: A Student’s Guide – Phil Powrie and Keith Reader –