1. A Brief History of the Left Bank Group
The Left Bank Group are one of the most unjustly overlooked groups in the history of European cinema. Perhaps this is due to the fact that their films tended to be politically, æsthetically and intellectually demanding; perhaps it is because they have been seen, unjustly, as being a highly literary, as opposed to cinematic, group; or perhaps it is simply because their existence as French filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s was chronologically concurrent with, and thus overshadowed by, the most famous of all movements (or moments) in the past fifty years of cinema, the French New Wave. Whatever the reason, it remains the case that although innumerable books have been written about the French New Wave (1), there are no volumes in English at all dedicated to the Left Bank Group. (2) Nevertheless, the group has been discussed since the 1960s, when the ‘Left Bank’ term was first used to describe their work.
From whence the term ‘Left Bank’ came is the subject of about as much uncertainty as which filmmakers rightly belong to the group. James Monaco (3) names Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy as belonging to the group, and suggests that it was Jean-Luc Godard who first suggested the term, “Left Bank New Wave”. The Harvard Film Archive (4) and Chris Darke (5) claim the critic Richard Roud first coined the term, and cite Marker, Resnais and Varda as being the most important of the Left Bank directors. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis (6) claims that it was Claire Clouzot who named the group, and who included alongside Marker, Resnais and Varda the “American expatriate in Paris”, (7) William Klein. Alongside the principal three directors, Richard Neupert (8) adds both Demy and Henri Colpi to the list, and, although Neupert does not discuss the origin of the term Left Bank Group, he notes that their existence as a distinct group was noticed as early as 1960 when Raymond Lefevre named them the, “Nouvelle vague 2”. (9) Ginette Vincendeau (10) briefly mentions the Left Bank directors in her Companion to French Cinema, and again cites Marker, Resnais and Varda as comprising the group. It is only Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell (11) who do not name Marker when discussing the group, including instead Georges Franju alongside Resnais and Varda.
Clearly, it is not of paramount importance who first coined the term Left Bank Group, but it is important to establish that despite the lack of monographs and collections on the subject, the Left Bank Group is, and has been for nearly fifty years, a definitely acknowledged, if not widely studied group of filmmakers, with Resnais, Marker and Varda at its core, and with Colpi, Demy, Franju and Klein as directors on the periphery of the group.
Just as the most important of the French New Wave directors (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) were all associated through their work as film critics for Cahiers du Cinéma, and by some instances of collaboration it could be argued that the Left Bank directors formed just as strong a group, especially since they worked together more frequently than their Cahiers contemporaries. The most well-known collaborations are between Marker and Resnais, who together made Le Statues meurent aussi (Statues also Die, 1950-3), and between Varda and Resnais, Resnais having edited Varda’s first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954). Varda and Marker worked together on Marker’s Dimanche à Pékin (Sunday in Peking, 1956), and all three collaborated on the collective film Loin du Viêt-nam (Far from Vietnam, 1967),although, as Alison Smith (12) points out, Varda’s contribution to the film was not used, though she is still credited.
Outside of the inter-relationships between the main three directors, Colpi edited films for Varda, Resnais and Marker/Resnais; Demy was married to Varda, although their only official collaboration was on Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967); and Klein, who appears in Marker’s La Jetée (The Pier, 1962), also worked on the collaborative film with Varda, Marker and Resnais, Loin du Viêt-nam.
It is still not universally accepted that the Left Bank directors actually constitute a coherent group. Monaco says that distinction between the Left Bank and Right Bank-Cahiers group “melts under scrutiny” (13). Smith claims that, “the ‘Groupe Rive Gauche’ (Left Bank Group) […] never formed anything like the coherent group based at Cahiers” (14), and “Varda maintains that there was never anything more shared by the group than friendly conversation and a love of cats.” (15) However, I think that the discussion above suggests that this is not the case. What is really at issue is whether the Left Bank Group is merely a subgroup of the French New Wave, or whether it can be considered as a group in its own right, which can be thought about not simply by its otherness to the nouvelle vague.
Frequently, the Left Bank Group as a group are absent from discussions of French cinema, although the principal directors are always talked about. Sometimes, the group are mentioned, but only as a vague collective without any real coherency. More recently, the group have been discussed as a subgroup of the French New Wave, as a kind of intellectual, political, feminist, literary and/or avant-garde wing of the nouvelle vague.
Vincendeau affirms that the French New Wave directors
lacked an interest in political or social issues, concentrating on personal angst among the (male) Parisian middle class (although another less media-prominent band of filmmakers known as the ‘Left Bank’ group – Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Varda – showed greater political awareness). On the whole, the New Wave did not significantly challenge traditional representations of women. (16)
Thompson and Bordwell note that the Left Bank Group were, “[m]ostly older and less movie-mad than the Cahiers crew, they tended to see cinema as akin to the other arts, particularly literature” (17).
Neupert says of the Left Bank directors that,
[d]efinitions of this active cluster of young directors often concentrate on their differences from the Cahiers critic-turned-filmmakers and stress their deeper involvement in aesthetic experimentation, their connections to documentary practice, overt political themes, and increased interest in other arts beyond cinema. (18)
And Claire Clouzot remarks that,
[t]he filmmakers of the Left Bank are inspired by artistic eclecticism. As creators they are interested in the flow of mental processes, rather than cinephilic fanaticism. It is not theoretical criticism which draws them to the cinema, but an interest in filmic writing, and the relations this might have with literary production. (19)
While it is undeniable that these quotes can be seen to reinforce the notion that the Left Bank Group is indeed the intellectual/political/feminist/literary/avant-garde wing of the French New Wave, and, whilst most writers on French cinema would be quite happy to leave it there, it is Clouzot who goes on to provide a much more radical reading of the Left Bank Group.
Clouzet considers the Left Bank group, “not as a faction of the New Wave, but, rather, as a distinct group in opposition to it”. Clouzot’s is a literary emphasis; she takes “authorship” literally in her discussions to mean the “essentially novelistic preoccupations with time, memory, narration, and form that characterise the group” (20). It is, for Clouzot, that the Left Bank directors are to be seen as authors more than auteurs, as they were more concerned with responding to the traditions of literature and the nouveau roman (new novel), than with responding to the history of cinema: whereas the Right Bank-Cahiers directors are well known for being primarily critics and cinéphiles, and for their work being a response to the prevailing tradition of French cinema, labelled by the Cahiers group as, “le cinéma de papa”or“old fogeys’ cinema” (21). As shall be seen when discussing the films of the Left Bank group, Clouzot is quite right to foreground the literary preoccupations of the group, and to see it as one of the most important defining features: Marker, a writer and novelist as well as a filmmaker, famous for his exquisitely constructed and highly literary voice-over commentaries; Varda, for whom the Jean Astruc’s idea of the caméra-stylo (camera pen) is highly important, as is her own notion of cinécriture (cinematic writing); and Resnais, whose first two, and most important, feature films were collaborations with two of France’s most important new novelists, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Regarding the Left Bank Group, Clouzot goes on to say,
[t]he shadow of Brecht and the New Novel hovers over their themes. The anonymity of certain characters, the ‘flux’ of situations […] the distancing of the spectator in relation to those depicted on screen, the simultaneous time of action and time of thought, all this is taken up. The ‘Left Bank current’ affirms itself as a cinema of non-identification. (22)
Finally, although it is not my intention to discuss the French New Wave in a lot of detail, I think it is important to note, before moving on to discuss some of the key films of the Left Bank Group, that much of the current thinking about the Right Bank-Cahiers French New Wave dispels the myth that it was a highly radical and political cinema. Vincendeau notes that,
[t]he New Wave was neither a truly revolutionary nor a cohesive ‘movement’. To opponents such as Bernard Chardère of Cahiers rival Positif, it was ‘rather vague and not that new’ […] these films lacked an interest in political or social issues […] did not significantly challenge traditional representations of women […] [and] although some film presented ‘unconventional’ heroines […] others were downright misogynist. (23)
Vincendeau’s charge of misogeny against some New Wave directors is supported by articles written at the time in the Cahiers rival journal, Positif. Neupert notes that Godard was labelled by Positif as “a disgusting misogynist” (24) and Chabrol was charged with being “petit bourgeois [… and] militantly misogynist” (25).
Vincendeau’s general view that the French New Wave is less revolutionary than popularly supposed is supported by Susan Hayward, who writes that,
[a]nother myth that needs examining is the belief that because this cinema [the French New Wave] was controversial or different in style it was also a radical and political cinema. This is predominantly not true: the New Wave filmmakers were largely non-politicized. (26)
However, it is important to note that Hayward distinguishes between two periods of the French New Wave. The first period, 1958-62, which coincides with the most important period of activity of the Left Bank Group, and the second wave of the nouvelle vague, 1966-68. The first wave is a definitely non-politicized cinema, whereas the second wave was more politicized, but was just as much about a reflexive attitude towards the filmmaking process as it was about politics. As Hayward says,
[t]he tendency has been to conflate the two movements of its production (early and late 1960s). This has meant that the first New Wave (1958-1962), which was anarchic only in relation to the cinema that preceded it (le cinema de papa), has become imbricated into the more ostentatiously political cinema of the second New Wave (1966-68). (27)
The distinction made by Hayward is a useful distinction in terms of this discussion of the Left Bank filmmakers, because to answer the question properly it makes sense to concentrate on a comparison with the first period of the nouvelle vague, 1958 to 1962, as this was the one that was temporally simultaneous with the most important years of the Left Bank Group.
2. The Key Films of the Left Bank Group (1958-1962)
The filmmakers of the Left Bank Group had all started making films well before the ‘birth’ of the French New Wave in 1958, films that were highly regarded right from the outset. Resnais and Marker both began with documentaries, Varda with a feature.
Resnais was the first of the Left Bank filmmakers to begin making films, and, unlike his Right Bank contemporaries, James Monaco (28) notes that Resnais had had a practical, rather than theoretical, training. He had enrolled in the IDHEC (the French national film school) and had worked as an actor, camera operator and editor before being commissioned to make his first professional documentary in 1948. In total, Resnais had made 26 short documentaries before making his first feature film, Hiroshima mon amour, in 1959, and had gained a reputation as a highly accomplished documentary maker, the most important of his documentaries being Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955). As is well documented (29), Hiroshima mon amour was initially intended to be another short documentary, not a fiction feature. Additionally, and unlike many New Wave projects, all Resnais’ documentaries had been commissioned, including what was to become Hiroshima mon amour.
Between 1958 and 1962, Alain Resnais made his last short documentary, Le Chant du Styrène (The Song of Styrene, 1958) and two fiction feature films, Hiroshima mon amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961). In many ways, these two features are the finest and most important works of Resnais’ career, and are still the best known and most discussed of his films, especially L’Année dernière à Marienbad, which provided much inspiration for Peter Greenaway’s film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) (30),and which has lost none of its power to provoke, confuse and baffle an audience.
Hiroshima mon amour remains a complex and deeply thoughtful work that explores Resnais’ preoccupation with the themes of time and memory. However, it is also a highly political and literary work, and it sets the tone for much of Resnais’ later works. The film was scripted by Marguerite Duras, who, at the time, was one of France’s most well respected new novelists, and the film is set both in Japan and in France, with both a Japanese actor, Eiji Okada, and a French actor, Emmanuelle Riva. The outward story itself is not especially difficult to comprehend; it is set in the present (late 1950s Japan), and concerns a love affair between two unnamed married people, ‘he’ (Okada) and ‘she’ (Riva), who meet at various points during the woman’s final twenty-four hours before she returns to France. She is an actor, making a film set in Hiroshima about peace (a film that we never see, but which exists within Hiroshima mon amour as a testament to the idea of the unmakeable film about Hiroshima), and he is an architect.
Within the main narrative about the love affair, there is entwined another love affair, this time set in France, in the town of Nevers, towards the end of World War II, and told in a series of flashbacks seemingly remembered by the woman. However, as Emma Wilson (31) points out, there is nothing in the structure of the film or in the grammar of the editing that conclusively makes the Nevers story her remembrances; they could just as plausibly be either his or her imaginings or fantasies.
The second love affair is the story of her affair with a young German soldier (Bernard Fresson) during the occupation. Their affair is uncovered, he is shot and she is publicly humiliated by the townspeople – as was the custom with French girls who had affairs with German soldiers and which is well documented in Marcel Ophüls’ film, Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity,1969) – and imprisoned in a cellar by her parents. At the end of the war, her parents allow her to leave in the dead of night.
Within these two stories is also entwined footage of Hiroshima, some of it newsreel footage taken shortly after the bomb dropped, and some of it footage of artefacts collected from the bombsite on display in museums.
Clearly it is all but impossible to make a film about what really happened at Hiroshima, to encapsulate the vast scale of destruction and suffering that occurred; and this was something that Resnais was aware of when making the film, and why he turned down the opportunity to make a documentary on the subject. However, whilst being about Hiroshima, Hiroshima mon amour is not about Hiroshima in any conventional sense – a useful comparison may be made with Shohei Imamura’s film about the bombing of Hiroshima, Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989),which has a much more conventional narrative structure; it is the story of a family trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and the effects of the fallout; it is about Hiroshima in a more straightforward way.
Resnais’ film is more about the universal human experience of suffering, and he entwines the two stories together to show how our memories of our own suffering, which still cause us pain, are the things that allow us to know how it feels when others suffer. This is perhaps what he means when he tells her that she saw nothing at Hiroshima (which is perhaps true for everyone, for, unlike the Holocaust, the bombs dropped at Hiroshima effaced all witnesses): she did not see or know directly the suffering of others, but she knew her own suffering and imagined it multiplied. But she is also like one of the victims of the Hiroshima fall-out, the scenes of her having her hair cut off are reminiscent of the scenes in Kuroi ame, where the young Japanese girl’s hair falls out due to radiation sickness. She loved a man who is now dead, she suffered, she was humiliated, imprisoned and exiled; but as time passes memories fade, and she begins to forget. For Hiroshima mon amour is also a film about the future and the impermanence of memory, the inability to keep memories of the past alive. She says in present tense voice-over, as if to her young German lover, “I betrayed you this evening with this stranger … look how I’m forgetting you … Look how I’ve forgotten you.” As Emma Wilson remarks, “[t]he merger of Nevers and Hiroshima comes in the realisation that both are condemned to forgetting, forgetting in betrayal of the past and in the hope of survival in the future.” (32)
As well as the complex themes and ideas explored in Hiroshima mon amour, it is also a particularly remarkable film for its striking use of modernist æsthetics, especially concerning flashbacks, voice-over narration and ellipsis. It is the case for films made in the classical Hollywood style that we know what is occurring, who is speaking and how the dialogue relates to the pictures. However, Resnais breaks with these codes, and we are frequently at a loss to know how the sound and images relate, whether the narration is a fragment of dialogue spoken in the present, or in the past, or even spoken only as part of an interior monologue. Also, we do not necessarily know what is true and what is fiction as regards voice-over and the accompanying flashbacks, or even to whom the flashbacks properly belong. Resnais also only shows us the middle of the story; we never see how he and she met, or how their affair ends. He keeps the characters at a distance from us; they remain cold and aloof, distant from the audience, forcing the spectator to adopt a more critical and intellectual position, very much in line with Brechtian notions of alienation or distanciation. “The protagonists with no names remain obscure art film characters [… and] Hiroshima remains a stubbornly open ended film.” (33)
According to Monaco, Resnais’ next feature, another film in which the characters remained nameless, L’Année dernière à Marienbad,
created even more of a stir among progressive, educated audiences than had Hiroshima mon amour two years earlier [… i]t was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of perceptual prestidigitation, and throughout the sixties served as the very model of the modern avant garde in narrative film. (34)
However, not all critics were as positive. John Russell Taylor, writing only three years after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, described it as “less of a film than an intellectual trap” (35) and, although he admits that, “what is being done is being supremely well done”, he goes on to ask, “but […] was it worth doing at all in the first place?” (36)
Like Hiroshima mon amour, L’Année dernière à Marienbad was scripted by another of France’s new novelists, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and again deals with themes of time and memory, and of truth and fiction. To describe L’Année dernière à Marienbad is not a particularly easy task, as the narrative defies a straightforward description, but the basic plot outline appears as follows. Within the setting of a baroque French château, an unnamed who is usually referred to as X (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to persuade a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), that they met last year in Marienbad – or, as he tells her, perhaps it was Karlsbad or Frederiksbad. There is the implicit sense, from X at least, that they had an affair in Marienbad, and have met up again in order to be together. However, A denies ever meeting X; she tells him that he must have mistaken her for somebody else. X tries a number of times to persuade A that they did in fact meet up last year. He shows he a photo that he has of her; he describes her room and some of her clothing that she wore the previous year. However, A continually refuses to acknowledge that the meeting ever took place, despite X’s continual attempts to persuade her.
As well as a number of peripheral characters, there is a third important character in the film, M (Sacha Pitoëff). M is probably A’s husband and, although he watches X and A in conversation, his does not intrude upon their conversations. However, towards the end of the film he shoots A, but this ending is denied by X, who says, “I must have you alive.” The films ultimately ends with X and A leaving together.
Just as Hiroshima mon amour contained another film, her film about peace, Vincendeau (37) draws our attention to the fact that L’Année dernière à Marienbad contains not another film, but a play: Ibsen’s Rosmerholm. It is about a clergyman, Johannes Rosmer, which begins exactly one year after the suicide of Rosmer’s wife, Beata.
Vincendeau also notes the spectre of sexual violence in both Rosmerholm and L’Année dernière à Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet even scripted a scene in which X rapes A, although whether this was an actual occurrence or a fantasy remains unclear. Resnais refused to shoot the rape scene, but Vincendeau (38) writes that one interpretation of A’s denial that she ever met X was the repression of such an act of sexual violence.
A more romantic interpretation is given by Peter Cowie, who believes that the film alludes to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: “X may be Orpheus and A his Eurydice, with M representing Death.” (39)
Throughout the film, the strongest sense is one of unreality and impossibility, and Resnais creates this sense in the following ways: he visually overwhelms us with the ornate mise en scène and Sacha Vierny’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography; he does not give us a plot that we can make sense of; he does not give us characters whose motivations we can comprehend; he creates a deliberately fantastical setting in which the characters move and behave without emotion; he does not maintain spatial continuity; he gives us voice-over narration which is at best based upon unreliable memory, and at worst upon complete fantasy; he does not indicate whether the scenes that we see are set in the past, present, or future; and he does not signal whether the scenes we see depict actual events or fantasies/wishes conjured by the characters. In this sense L’Année dernière à Marienbad can be seen as an exercise in the complete denial of the classical Hollywood continuity style, a reading that is emphasised by Monaco. (40) David Bordwell notes that the film is constantly “teasing us to construct a fabula but always thwarting us” (41). It provides us with the belief that there is a story (diegesis/fabula) to be decrypted or deciphered, but does not provide enough information, or provides contradictory information, in the plot (discourse/syuzhet) to make this possible. As he goes on to say:
[t]he syuzhet is so wrought as to make it impossible to construct a fabula. Clues are either too few or contradictory. One order of scenes is as good as any other; cause and effect are impossible to distinguish; even the spatial reference points change. (42)
Chris Marker, who remains the most enigmatic and least well known of the three, was the next of the Left Bank directors to begin making films, although he started his career as a writer, and from 1947 published a highly diverse range of articles in various journals, including Esprit, on a wide variety of subjects. Catherine Lupton notes that in the years between 1947 and 1950 he produced,
poetry, a short story, political and cultural essays, book and film reviews […] short, pithy reflections on current events and debates that were sometimes transposed as imaginary fables. [He also wrote] a well received novel, Le coeur net [The Forthright Spirit, 1949], and an extended critical essay on the French playwright Jean Giradoux. (45)
Little is known of Marker’s early life, but amongst the more interesting of the unverifiable ‘facts’ about him is that he studied Philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre in the late 1930s and served in the French Resistance during the occupation. However, what is known about him is that it was Resnais who brought Marker to filmmaking with their three-year collaboration on Les Statues meurent aussi (1950-3), and that prior to 1958 Marker also made another two documentaries.
Marker was more prolific than both Resnais and Varda between 1957 and 1962, producing five works in six years: Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1957), Description d’un combat (Description of a Struggle, 1960), ¡Cuba Sí! (1961), La Jetée (1962) and Le Joli mai (The Lovely May, 1963). However, Marker’s early work is notoriously difficult to view, as Lupton points out, “Marker himself will no longer endorse public screenings of most of the films he made before 1962 – a constant source of frustration to Marker enthusiasts.” (46) And Sarah Cooper notes that the years between 1950 and 1961 are “what Chris Darke terms the ‘lost period’ of his oeuvre” (47). Thus, it is no surprise that most of these early films are not commercially available; but fortunately Marker’s most famous work, La Jetée, has been widely available for many years. Prior to Gilliam’s film Twelve Monkeys (1995), a ‘sort-of remake’ of La Jetée, La Jetée was still probably the most well known of Marker’s films, thanks in no small part to its unique method of construction. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that La Jetée is Marker’s only pure fiction film, and as such it is not necessarily representative of his work: but given Marker’s vast and diverse output no such representative work exists, although Marker’s interest in the themes of time, memory and culture is visible in all his work.
The most remarkable and most immediately noticeable fact about La Jetée is that it is composed from a series of still photographs: nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that these images did not move. Marker uses the images in a very cinematic way, zooming in and out of them, panning across them, fading in and out and dissolving between them, and varying the rhythm of the cutting: all of these serve to create a very real sense of movement. There are probably more shots and a greater sense of movement in La Jetée than in some ‘moving’ films; Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière, 2003),for example. Marker also uses music, naturalistic and supposedly diegetic sounds, and a voice-over narration in La Jetée,all of which converge to make the audience rapidly forget that the principal instrument of its construction was a Pentax stills camera.
La Jetée is the story of a ‘twice lived fragment of time’ – of a man (Davos Hanich) “marked by an image of his childhood”. It is a story that ends at the beginning, with a boy witnessing the death of a man: we enter and exit the film at the same point, the pier at Orly airport where the boy witnesses the man’s death. The man and the boy are the same person, the moment at Orly airport is the twice-lived fragment of time, and only when it is too late does the man realise this. Thus, La Jetée immediately conjures ideas of Ouroboros, the arcane image of the serpent eating its own tail, or the perfect immortal being described by Plato in Timæus. It also calls to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence. Perhaps the man is the first of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, for he has witnessed the moment of his own death, yet in denying the offer from the men of the future to escape, and choosing to go back to the woman (Hélène Chatelain) he loves he has “expressed his unconditional acceptance of existence to point where he wills that everything should be repeated, exactly as it has been, in eternal cycles” (48). And, had he not have done so, the future of all mankind would have been doomed, for the image of his childhood that secured his passage through time, that allowed the present to call to the past and the future for assistance, would not have been created.
Like Marker, Agnès Varda did not come straight to film, but initially worked as a professional photographer; also, like Marker, she studied philosophy. In many ways it is Varda who is the most interesting of the three directors, for not only is she the only woman director in either the Left- or Right-Bank groups (and is now regarded as one of the most important female directors in the world), and not only because her first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954),was made four years before Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, yet was later championed by Georges Sadoul as the first film of the French New Wave, because Varda made La Pointe Courte completely outside of the French film industry, with no professional training, using money from an inheritance, and had made the film having seen virtually no other films at all. Unlike the Right Bank-Cahiers filmmakers and, as Clouzot noted, Varda was not influenced by other films, but by literature: as she discusses in the introduction to the film, it was William Faulkner’s novel, The Wild Palms, that was “the intellectual basis for the film” (49). It is interesting to note that, whilst Varda was making her first film in 1954, Godard was also making his first film: but whereas Varda’s earned her the reputation as the “grandmother of the new wave”, Godard’s documentary about the construction of a dam, Opération béton (Operation Cement), is described as being, “a very conventional document” (50).
Central to any discussion of Varda must be her own concept of cinécriture, literally meaning cinematic writing. This is a concept derived from Astruc’s notion of the camera-stylo, the camera pen, and goes well beyond the conventional notion of the director as auteur. What Varda’s notion signifies is that the film has been authored by someone who not only writes, directs, edits, scouts locations, casts, etc., but that all aspects of the film have been chosen deliberately in order to create specific meanings that the cinécririste is aware of. This goes beyond the conventional notion of the auteur, which, in terms of making meaning, is considerably more passive than Varda’s intellectually active idea of cinécriture. Varda’s commitment to cinécriture is very apparent in her interviews and in her discussions of her own work where her attention to detail and thoughtfulness are always very evident. As she says,
A well written film is also well filmed, the actors are well chosen, so are the locations. The cutting, the movement, the points-of-view, the rhythm of filming and editing have been felt and considered in the way a writer chooses the depth of meaning of sentences, the type of words, number of adverbs, paragraphs, asides, chapters which advance the story or break its flow, etc. In writing it’s called style. In the cinema style is cinécriture. (51)
Between 1958 and 1962, Varda made two short documentaries, L’Opéra mouffe (1958) and Du côté de la côte (1958), and her most well known fiction feature film, Cléo dé 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961). Cléo dé 5 à 7 is the ninety-minute story of a beautiful young woman, a somewhat narcissistic singer, told in real time (its title should really be Cleo dé 5 à 6:30) who waits for the results of test, results that may indicate that she has a fatal illness. The central concern of the film is the move of Cléo (Corinne Marchand) halfway through the film from object to subject, which arises through her anxiety in waiting for the test results. As Flitterman-Lewis puts it,
Céo’s transformation hinges on a turn of phrase: ‘How do I look?’ This question, traditionally connoted as feminine, is displaced from its passive, objectified meaning (‘How am I seen, how do I appear in the eyes of the world?’) to its active complement (‘How do I see, how is the world viewed by me?’)(52)
Varda is also very clear on this transformative moment in the film, a moment that occurs precisely at the halfway point of the film, and is signalled visually by Cléo’s change of appearance: she removes her white clothing, and returns wearing a simple black dress. She pulls off her wig, at the same time remarking, “If only I could pull my head off too!” Varda says of this transformative moment in the film:
In the middle of the film I wanted a clean cut, a sharp change. Forty-five minutes into the film, the beauty feel herself cracking. The baby doll, the blond starlet, everything cracks. She rips off her negligee, her wig. She leaves. At this point, she begins to look at others. She looks at people in the streets, in cafés, she looks at her friend, and then the soldier. I consider this a feminist approach. I wanted to focus on her as a woman who defines herself through others’ vision. And at some point, because she’s the one looking, she changes. She redefines herself on her own. (53)
As well as being about the object and subject of the look, Cléo dé 5 à 7 is also about the perception of time, about the subjective and objective experience of time. Divided into thirteen chapters, all of which state the time, we are constantly reminded of the regular and unstoppable progression of time, yet this contrasts sharply with Cléo’s subjective experience of time, which for her is slowing down as her frustration and anxiety build up, each second seemingly longer than the last. Varda also draws us into Cléo’s subjective world, an example of which is a short sequence in Chapter XIII of the film, which Neupert describes as, “demonstrating Varda’s radical approach to time” (54). In the sequence, as Cléo leaves a café and walks down a street it appears that she is being stared at by everyone, something that would have brought her pleasure in the first half of the film, yet she seems almost horrified by the gazes, as if realising for the first time what they really represent. She ends up running away, as the man with the skewer through his arm prophetically shouts, “Open your eyes.” Yet although Varda does not explicitly signal this, we have the impression that Cléo is not really being watched in so obvious a manner by the people on the street. The shameless gazes that we see are the gazes as Cléo experiences them; raw, oppressive and judgemental. These shots, intercut with shots that can only be Cléo’s memories, skilfully take us from reality into Cléo’s subjective inner world.
3. Towards a Legacy of the Left Bank Group
It is to be hoped that this all-to-brief discussion of the history, context and key films of the Left Bank Group has served to demonstrate the wide and, most important, innovative approach to filmmaking taken up by Marker, Resnais and Varda. As well as being radical filmmakers of the late 1050s and early ’60s, it should be noted that all three continue to make highly regarded and highly innovative films. Alain Resnais won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for his film Cœurs (Private Fears in Public Places,2006)and his new film, Les Herbes folles (Wild Reeds)is due for release in 2009.
Chris Marker’s beautiful and innovative 1983 documentary, Sans Soleil (Sunless), won many awards, and, thanks to the fact that it was released on the same DVD as La Jetée in both the UK and USA, it is perhaps one of his more widely seen works. His 1998 CD-Rom, Immemory,was, and still is, a most remarkable synthesis of art, photography, film, literature and multimedia technology (55), all the more incredible when one considers that Marker created it when he was seventy-seven. In recent years, there has been something of a Marker revival, with three books being published about him since 2004, and many of his films at last being released on DVD.
Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), which won the Golden Lion, did much to revive Varda’s reputation as both a great filmmaker and to remind the world of her importance as a feminist filmmaker. Her documentary Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000), which won numerous awards, reminded audiences that she was also a great documentary maker. It can only be regretted that Varda has said that her film, Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), which won the Best Documentary Award in the 2009 Césars, will be her last.
As well as continuing to produce important and innovative works for more than fifty years, we must also, if somewhat briefly, note the influence of the Left Bank Group on modern film theory, particularly as regards Gilles Deleuze’s work on cinema and the time image. For Deleuze (56), Resnais (along with Stanley Kubrick) forms a new kind of intellectual cinema, a cinema of the brain.
Also, in recent years, both Susan Hayward and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis (57) have sought to increase our understanding of Varda’s importance for feminist film theory.
Ultimately, the legacy that is most strongly supported by the above discussions is that whilst the Right Bank-Cahiers group of filmmakers were seemingly (and very visibly) creating a radical cinema in the first period of the New Wave, it was Marker, Resnais and Varda, the Left Bank Group, who were genuinely, and more quietly, creating a truly radical cinema that variously embraced the ideas of philosophy, politics, history, time and memory, feminism, literature and the nouveau roman, the ambiguous relationship between fiction and reality and between the past, present and future, unreliable narration, and complex narrative structures. It is clear then that the achievements of the Left Bank Group were both radical and remarkable, and it is to be hoped that in time their work will come to be more widely admired and celebrated than that of their more famous contemporaries.
This article has been peer-reviewed
- Some of the key works about the French New Wave that spring to mind include Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), Michel Marie, translated by Richard Neupert, The French New Wave, An Artistic School (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), Genevieve Sellier, translated by Kristin Ross, Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), Dorota Ostrowska, Reading the French New Wave: Critics, Writers and Art Cinema in France (London: Wallflower Press, 2007) and Naomi Greene, The French New Wave: A New Look (London: Wallflower Press, 2007).
- Much has been written about the individual directors over the years, some of the best studies available being in the French Film Directors series published by Manchester University Press. However, there is no one book dedicated to a study of the Left Bank Group as a group.
- James Monaco, Alain Resnais (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978), p. 9.
- Harvard Film Archive (2000) The Left Bank Revisited: Marker, Resnais, Varda [online]. Available from:http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2000mayjun/leftbank.html [Accessed: 22 December 2008]
- Chris Darke, “The French New Wave”, in Jill Nelmes, Film Studies, 3rd Edition (London: Routledge, 1966), p. 444.
- Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 261-2.
- Michael Koresky, Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein [online]. Available from: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/658 [Accessed: 22 December 2008]
- Neupert, p. 299.
- Raymond Lefevre, quoted in Neupert, p. 299.
- Ginette Vincendeau, The Companion to French Cinema (London: Cassell-BFI, 1996), p. 110.
- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 2nd Edition (London: McGraw-Hill, 2003), p. 449.
- Alison Smith, Agnès Varda (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 201.
- Monaco, p. 10.
- Smith, p. 7.
- Flitterman-Lewis, pp. 261-2.
- Vincendeau, p. 110.
- Thompson and Bordwell, p. 449.
- Neupert, p. 299.
- Claire Clouzot, quoted in Flitterman-Lewis, p. 262.
- Flitterman-Lewis, p. 262.
- Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 145.
- Clouzot, quoted in Flitterman-Lewis, p. 262.
- Vincendeau, p. 110.
- Raymond Borde, quoted inNeupert, p. 34.
- Hayward, p. 146.
- Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 205.
- Monaco, p. 9.
- See Roy Armes, The Cinema of Alain Resnais (London: Zwemmer, 1968), pp. 66-7; Monaco, pp. 34-5; Neupert, p. 304.
- See Amy Lawrence, The Films of Peter Greenaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 60-3.
- Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 53.
- Ibid, p. 63.
- Neupert, p. 311.
- Monaco, p. 53.
- John Russell Taylor, Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 224.
- Ibid. p. 227.
- Vincendeau (2005).
- Peter Cowie,quoted in Wilson, p. 81.
- See Monaco, pp. 53-73.
- David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 233.
- Ibid. p. 232.
- Neupert, p. 324.
- Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pp. 13-4.
- Ibid, p. 9.
- Sarah Cooper, Chris Marker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), p. 11.
- Michael Tanner, Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 50.
- Agnès Varda, La Pointe Courte: Interview with Agnes Varda (video), in 4 x Agnès Varda, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2007.
- Neupert, p. 208.
- Agnès Varda, quoted in Smith, p. 14.
- Flitterman-Lewis, p. 269.
- Agnès Varda, Cléo dé 5 à 7: Remembrances (video), in 4 x Agnès Varda, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2005.
- Neupert, p. 343.
- For Francophones, Immemory is (or was) available for both PC and Mac from the Centre Georges Pompidou. For English-speaking monoglots, Immemory is only available for Mac users, although it has at last been made available again in an OSX compatible version from Exact Change.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
- See Susan Hayward, Beyond the gaze and into femme-filmécriture: Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), in Susan Hayward and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, French Film: texts and contexts (London: Routledge, 1990).
FILMOGRAPHY (Chronological Listing)
La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1954), DVD, The Criterion Collection
Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955), DVD, Nouveaux Pictures
Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory of the World,Alain Resnais, 1956), DVD, Nouveaux Pictures
L’Opéra mouffe (Agnès Varda, 1958), DVD, The Criterion Collection
Du côté de la côte (Agnès Varda, 1958), DVD, The Criterion Collection
Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima My Love, Alain Resnais, 1959), DVD, Nouveaux Pictures
L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961), DVD, Optimum Releasing
Cléo dé 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, 1961), DVD, The Criterion Collection
La Jetée (The Pier, Chris Marker, 1962), DVD, Nouveaux Pictures
Muriel: ou le temps d’un retour (Muriel: or the Time of Return, Alain Resnais, 1963), DVD, Koch Lorber Films
Le Bonheur (Happiness, Agnès Varda, 1964), DVD, The Criterion Collection
La Guerre est finie (The War is Over, Alain Resnais (1966), DVD, Image Entertainment
Le Sixième faces du Pentagone (The Sixth Face of the Pentagon, Chris Marker and François Reichenbach, 1968), DVD, First Run Icarus Films
Roy Armes, The Cinema of Alain Resnais (London: Zwemmer, 1968).
——, French Cinema (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985).
David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Routledge, 1985).
Cannes (2008), Cannes Festival Archives [online]. Available from: http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archivesPage.html [Accessed: 3 January 2008]
Sarah Cooper, Chris Marker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), pp.11-71.
Chris Darke, “The French New Wave”, in Jill Nelmes, Film Studies, 3rd Edition (London: Routledge, 1966), pp. 421-50.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
Harvard Film Archive (2000), The Left Bank Revisited: Marker, Resnais, Varda [online]. Avaliable from:http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2000mayjun/leftbank.html [Accessed: 22 December 2008]
Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2000).
——-, French National Cinema, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2005).
——- and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, French Film: texts and contexts (London: Routledge, 1990).
Michael Koresky, Eclipse Series 9: The Delirious Fictions of William Klein [online]. Available from: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/658 [Accessed: 22 December 2008]
Amy Lawrence, The Films of Peter Greenaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London: Reaktion Books, 2005).
Michel Marie, translated by Richard Neupert, The French New Wave, An Artistic School (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
James Monaco, Alain Resnais (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978).
Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2007)
Alison Smith, Agnès Varda (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).
Michael Tanner, Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
John Russell Taylor, Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear (London: Methuen, 1964).
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 2nd Edition (London: McGraw-Hill, 2003).
Agnès Varda, Cléo dé 5 à 7: Remembrances (video), in 4 x Agnès Varda, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2005.
——, La Pointe Courte: Interview with Agnes Varda (video), in 4 x Agnès Varda, DVD, The Criterion Collection.
Ginette Vincendeau, The Companion to French Cinema (London: Cassell-BFI, 1996),
—— (2005), Last Year in Marienbad: Introduction by Ginette Vincendeau (video), in Last Year in Marienbad, DVD, Optimum Releasing.
—— (2008), How Agnès Varda ‘Invented’ the New Wave [online]. Available from: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/497 [Accessed: 22nd December 2008]
Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).