:: Article

A History of French Cinema, from Yellow to Red

By Karl Whitney.


Emilie Bickerton, A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma, Verso, 2009.

An editor at New Left Review, Emilie Bickerton here provides a pithy, critically acute, history of the legendary film journal Cahiers du cinéma. The journal was the home of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, et al, in the late 1950s, during the period in which they developed a critical understanding of cinema, one which they would go on to refine in the films they made as directors.

Cahiers has always been inextricably connected with this period, when the nouvelle vague crashed against the shores of French cinema and the possibility of an exciting new kind of film emerged. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless, both debut features, still stand as totems of the movement. The main critical foci of this period, the concept of the director as auteur, and the emphasis on mise en scène, continue to be thought of as specifically Cahiers-type obsessions.

Impressively, though, Bickerton covers the complete lifetime of the journal, from its origins in a culturally stagnant postwar France through to its perilous state in the present day, as it – at least in Bickerton’s view – limps on in magazine form under the control of British publisher Phaidon.

By dividing the life of Cahiers into distinct periods, Bickerton is able to make critical judgements about each stage of the journal’s evolution. Aside from the Truffaut and Godard period – the ‘Yellow Years’, during which the critic André Bazin was an important figure in the development of the publication and a guiding influence on the younger writers – two other periods emerge as compelling: the stretch between 1969 and 1973, covered here by a chapter called ‘Red Notebooks’, when Maoism became central to the journal’s critical perspectives – often at the expense of covering film in any great detail – and 1974-1981, when an editorial team of Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana took the reins of the failing journal.

In 1969, Cahiers was owned by the press magnate Daniel Filipacchi, who had bought the journal in 1964. During this period, he exercised no significant control, allowing the editors free rein to pursue their interests. However, things changed when he read an editorial in issue 216 where the editors, in Bickerton’s paraphrase, announced ‘their determination to fight the capitalist structures which Cahiers was subject to – in other words, Filipacchi himself.’ The next issue’s editorial reaffirmed the editors’ unwillingness to compromise. Filipacchi put the journal up for sale.

A buyout by the editors was funded with the help of ex-employees of the journal, including François Truffaut. But this alliance of old and new would not last long: the editorial of the first autonomous issue of Cahiers declared that the journal’s concern would be primarily with theoretical elaboration based on the ‘Marxist science of historical materialism and the principles of dialectical materialism’. Soon afterwards, Truffaut demanded that his name be removed from the masthead.

Nevertheless, Bickerton stresses that during this period, Cahiers involved some ‘very rich critical work’, including serious surveys of world cinema – a feature which had been missing in earlier elaborations of the journal. The author also draws attention to the Cahiers critique of supposedly political films during this period, such as those by Costa-Gavras, films in which radical politics was replayed as style, emptied of political content. Ultimately, though, Bickerton writes that ‘[few] worthwhile judgements on films were emitted in the red years.’

From 1974 onwards, the co-editorship of Daney and Toubiana symbolised the desire for a new direction; both had served as film critics at Libération. Initially, it seemed that their appointment promised a return to the fertile ‘Yellow Years’ of the journal, as Daney in particular called for the critic to address current films before making political pronouncements, in an attempt to reverse the dominant tendency of the Maoist years.

A growing interest in the practicalities of film production ran parallel with a continued interest in the uses of theoretical frameworks provided by authors such as Foucault, Deleuze and Rancière. Reviews of films made by Hollywood studios, absent during the red years, began to appear again in the pages of Cahiers, signalling a return, albeit half-hearted, to the era of Bazin.

Bickerton positions Toubiana as symbolic of the wider tendency towards leftists’ accommodation with capitalism after the failure of the events of ’68. When Daney – a genuinely engaging figure, who later wrote a book about 100 days spent watching television, Le Salaire du zappeur – left the journal in the summer of 1981, Toubiana assumed full editorial control. This shift coincided almost exactly with François Mitterrand’s victory in the presidential election, an event which is also seen by the author as grandly symbolic of the growing accommodation of the left with the capitalist state.

Cahiers’ subsequent trajectory is wholeheartedly deplored by Bickerton: commercial concerns took over, critical acuity took a back seat, greater links with the film industry in France and America – all contributed to a growing sense of Cahiers as just another commercial film magazine. ‘The aim was now consolidation’, she writes, ‘a purely informational investigation of the world as it is, the complete shift from conceiving of film as art to film as culture.’ There would be no more ‘dying on the barricades to defend Hitchcock’, to use former Cahiers co-editor Jean-Louis Comolli’s memorable description of cinephilia.

‘It was the last modernist project’, Bickerton writes of Cahiers. And it is the journal’s latter-day withdrawal from this wider project that Bickerton rejects, emphasising its complicity with consumer capitalism, and decrying the films celebrated by Cahiers in later years as inauthentic exercises in style that only gesture towards the vaguest notions of the auteur period. Ultimately, the present-day publication is dismissed as ‘just another banal mouthpiece of the spectacle’.

Yet, it seems to me that what the early Cahiers critics did so well was to bridge the gap between commercial concerns and personal visions, and to acknowledge the possibilities of a quick-witted director harnessing the potential of the studio system. In this way, the Cahiers critics were negotiating the contradictions of attempting to produce highly personal cinema in an era of increased consumer capitalism. This image of the director as auteur may have been wishful thinking on the parts of Truffaut and Godard, yet this convenient fiction allowed them to imagine themselves in the role of director, an effort of the imagination that is even more astounding for having actually materialised. Their cinema, in actuality, took a markedly different form from their heroes Hitchcock and Sam Fuller: fewer studio sets, more filming on the street; lower budgets, smaller audiences. Perhaps the lessons about negotiating the commercial aspects of filmmaking were forgotten by Cahiers in later years; when it couldn’t survive as an autonomous concern, it fully embraced commercialism – again, mirroring Toubiana’s leap from Maoist to pillar of the industry (he’s now the Director General of the Cinématheque française).

Ultimately, however, one could ask why Cahiers lasted so long? What kept it going after the brilliance of the ‘Yellow years’, and why didn’t it collapse after Filipacchi washed his hands of it? In the end, Cahiers existed to document a group of critics’ ongoing engagement with the art of cinema – it was a project sustained, at different stages, by a ferocious passion for cinema, or – during the red years – for revolutionary politics. Once that passion died, it lost purpose. What Bickerton does so well is to interrogate each of these stages, giving a palpable sense of how much cinema mattered to different generations of Cahiers writers.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 16th, 2010.