photo & text by nacrowe
i read REPUBLIC OF IMAGES: A HISTORY OF FRENCH FILMMAKING (HARVARD, 1992) by ALAN WILLIAMS as part of introductory class taught by the author while in undergrad. at the time i was somewhat familiar with the FRENCH NEW WAVE movement and notable, influential directors like JEAN-LUC GODARD and FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT, but i lack context about the full context of what FRANCE contributed to cinema culture from its inception.
FRENCH filmmakers have long acted as a lens through AMERICAN film culture is acknowledged, refined and innovated upon. this long-distance unofficial dialogue of sorts has been around since the inception of cinema and for this reason studying FRENCH films in general is a compelling commentary on the ever changing tastes and innovations of the stateside movie industry. despite having differing ECONOMIC and POLITICAL constraints (not to mention audience expectations), there is a common cultural and artistic bond that ties the two industries together.
there are any number of directors i could reference and go into here, some favorites covered at length in REPUBLIC OF IMAGES include GEORGES MELIES, JEAN RENOIR, ALAIN RESNAIS, CLAUDE CHABROL, JEAN COCTEAU, AGNES VARDA, JACQUES BECKER, CLAIRE DENIS, GEORGES FRANJU and ROBERT BRESSON among many others. i wish to focus on two: MARCEL CARNE and HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT.
in the 1920s, due to the growing clout of the film industry and fear of regulation, the AMERICAN film industry imposed a series of self-censorship guidelines known as the PRODUCTION CODE. circumventing studio censors became an unfortunate reality for any filmmaker attempting to progress and push the medium forward. the PRODUCTION CODE was in effect until the late 1960s when the studio system largely collapsed. its interesting in that there was no direct industry analogue in the FRENCH system. the FRENCH NEW WAVE in essence was a critical reevaluation and elevation of classic studio directors (like ALFRED HITCHCOCK, BILLY WILDER, HOWARD HAWKS, ORSON WELLES, SAMUEL FULLER, JOHN FORD, etc.) that battled this system and its attendant code as AUTEURS and sparked a domestic cultural movement of creativity and risk-taking that was embraced by the FRENCH general public and later world audiences.
i said there was no direct industry analogue to the PRODUCTION CODE, but during WWII there was a political one: VICHY FRANCE. when the NAZIs overtook FRANCE they also commandeered its film industry. VICHY FRANCE were parts of the FRENCH government and political structure that chose to collaborate with the new occupiers and serve as a PUPPET STATE. for this they were granted some varying levels of relative autonomy. CARNE and CLOUZOT both made films during this period in VICHY FRANCE which were essentially financed by a NAZI-backed industry.
for me it was the films of these two directors that served as the most interesting part of REPUBLIC OF IMAGES as well as the class that semester. CLOUZOT directed LE COURBEAU (CONTINENTAL, 1943) and CARNE directed LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (PATHE, 1945), both films that deal with CODED LANGUAGE and EMOTIONAL SUBTERFUGE. understanding and analyzing them is admittedly a byproduct of what perspective you bring in to the discussion. are these FRENCH patriots that swindled the occupiers into creating are that undermined their message and authority or were they the most debased example of traitors collaborating and profiting from a foreign occupying force that sought to annihilate FRENCH culture.
to this day its a very interesting topic. definitely seek both films out if you are unfamiliar with them. WILLIAMS even provides the written introduction to LE COURBEAU in the CRITERION release. for me the very concept of the myriad modes of interpretation within art is an endlessly fascinating topic and REPUBLIC OF IMAGES has long been a renewable source of inspiration regarding the rich history of FRENCH filmmaking, which i did not justice in this write up. the book is exhaustively researched and lovingly written and is well worth seeking out if you have any interest in global film culture.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
who decides the meaning of a piece of art? the audience? critics? the artist him/herself?
LE CORBEAU (CONTINENTAL FILMS, 1943) by french direftor HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT is an absolute enigma. its meaning has been the subject of focus by film critics since its debut during WWII.
after NAZI forces blitzkrieg-ed their way through FRANCE effectively reduced the country effectively to a neutral player during the remainder of the war. this was the case officially but most industries in the southern VICHY region were known to be collaborating with their new overlords. whether this was done by choice or by coercion is still a matter of historical debate. CONTINENTAL FILMS was a german-controlled french film company that produced LE CORBEAU. obviously this is still quite controversial as it implicitly asks a viewer to question for whom this movie was made.
the film itself deals with a poison-pen letter and the secrecy and duplicity that surrounds its content and violent aftermath. could this film be a cautionary tale of what happens when you attempt to surreptitiously usurp the NAZIs or is it a take of how to partake in counterrevolutionary efforts.
the fact is CLOUZOT got the germans to pay for the film, which in and of itself can go either way. was the director an immoral collaborator with the NAZIs or a great political/cultural revolutionary who got his oppressors to pay for his lampooning of them.
i do not know the answer. you should watch the film and decide for yourself.
i will say that this double interpretation was something QUENTIN TARANTINO recognized and use to great effect in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY, 2009) where double agents set to murder HITLER in a movie theater playing, of course, LE CORBEAU. genius.
if you are a fan of ALRED HITCHCOCK or classic suspense films in general, then this or any of the other major films in CLOUZOT's catalogue are worth your time (THE WAGES OF FEAR and DIABOLIQUE especially). couldn't recommend them any more forcefully.