Editor of Cahiers du cinéma between 1965 and 1973, Jean-Louis Comolli’s foundational place in the history of film theory will be assured by several key texts – among them “Technique and Ideology”, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” and “Young Mr Lincoln” – and his central role in the development of a Marxist theoretical approach towards the cinema in the aftermath of May 1968, along with fellow writers at Cahiers such as Jean Narboni, Serge Daney, Pascal Bonitzer and Jean-Pierre Oudart. But his activity in the cinema extends far beyond this period. Having steadily made films over the last 40 years – including the magisterial series on the French electoral machine, Marseille contre Marseille – Comolli has also pursued a prolonged theoretical pre-occupation with the cinema, which, in various ways, is profoundly defined by his earlier participation in Cahiers. Refreshingly, he has never sought to repudiate his radical past, but, rather, he still lives and works with the achievements and contradictions that marked this period. Together with Narboni, he has recently completed a documentary on their time at Cahiers, while a second collection of his recent writings on the cinema, Corps et cadre, has been published by Éditions Verdier. Following on from Part 1 in Senses of Cinema #62, the second part of this interview will focus on his activity as a theorist and filmmaker since leaving Cahiers.
After leaving Cahiers, you began your career as a filmmaker. In fact, of course, you had already made Les deux Marseillaises with André S. Labarthe in 1968, but La Cecilia (1975) was your first experience making a feature film, making an auteurist film. You could be seen to have been following the path of your illustrious predecessors at Cahiers: the likes of Godard, Truffaut and Rivette.
In fact, I had written an article a few years earlier called “Le Détour par le direct”, (1) so I would be tempted to summarise this period as “Le Détour par la fiction”, because La Cecilia is a mock-historical film, not in the sense that the experiences shown in La Cecilia did not actually happen – of course, they did. Nor in the sense that the evidence of this experience was lacking – it was amply documented. In truth, the subject, or the theme, of the film was concealed, since it was really a film which spoke about what had happened in the Cahiers group in the months beforehand. The group exploded in the summer of 1973, and I shot La Cecilia in December 1974, so about one year later. I left Paris – the film’s production was not a simple matter, and I had to find a co-producer – and moved to Rome, for six or seven months, in order to finish working on the script and, having done this, to meet actors, scout locations and begin preparing the shoot.
So I was far from Paris, from the life I led at Cahiers. I didn’t know what was happening to the magazine anymore, I had broken all ties with it, but at the same time I was close to it, since I was writing the script, which, while not distancing itself from the historical experiences of Giovanni Rossi, inflected it towards the questions which Rossi posed to his comrades, and which we also posed to each other at Cahiers during this time, in all their severity and all their cruelty: that is, the question of leadership. Unlike the group in La Cecilia, however, we were not a group of anarchists. For anarchists the question of leadership is always posed, as they strive to avoid having a leader, while, of course, in the reality of every group a focal point of authority emerges. In the context of La Cecilia, Rossi was obviously the father-figure, who conceived, founded and promoted the group, and thus had many of the traits of a leader, but due to an admirable excess of historical awareness, he refused this role, because he steadfastly held to anarchist ideology, which rejects the idea of a boss.
The question which I raised in this film: if a group does not want a leader, what should it do to avoid having one? It’s a question which goes beyond the episode depicted in La Cecilia, and even beyond our historical reference point, my past experience at Cahiers. This question concerns the far left as a whole. It’s a question concerning political organisation as such, and it’s paradoxical because when there is the desire to be organised, when the necessity is felt for there to be an organisation, there is also the suspicion and the refusal to have a leader, or leaders. This paradox has been felt in every revolutionary movement, in anarchist movements of course, but also among Maoists and even orthodox communists.
So this question was posed, and I made Rossi the main character of the film, as a character who does not want to take power. He is horrified by power. In a way, this film depicted Jean Narboni and myself at Cahiers, given that we had abolished the position of head-editor, and shifted to sharing power – a relatively derisory power, granted, but power all the same. Without pausing to think about it, we found ourselves directly confronted with the question of taking charge of responsibilities, of wielding power even when we thought we had rejected it. I think this refusal is both correct – on the theoretical and purely political level – and, at the same time, totally catastrophic. On the practical level, even if there is no leader, there still needs to be leadership. It isn’t certain that the tiny community of the members of the editorial committee can provide such leadership. This was part of the problem at Cahiers. For me, there is an almost direct continuity between my experience at Cahiers and my new experience of shooting a film whose theme was based on such recent events.
At the same time as there is a continuity between your time at Cahiers and your experience making La Cecilia, there is also a rupture. Your work at Cahiers was carried out in the name of Marxism-Leninism, whereas you then went on to make a film about a group of anarchists. Did this decision – which could have appeared provocative in some quarters – reflect a change in your own political opinions?
I can’t analyse such matters very well, but I do know that, from the anarchists I worked with, I found a counterweight to dogmatic Marxism. Obviously, I read texts and newspapers from both movements, and I began to think that, when it comes to Marx and Bakunin, both are necessary. You can’t simply take one over the other, it’s extremely complex. The question of freedom, including individual freedom, can not be avoided in revolutionary struggle. I think Marx would have agreed with this. So the question is posed of the tension between the group and the individual. This interests me as a matter of experience, a practical, historical matter. Even back then I had read a lot on the Paris Commune and I had already been struck by the emanations of anarchist thought.
In a way, the Cultural Revolution was my path to this thinking. But let me be clear: the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as we experienced and thought about it in Paris. It is evident that we had no idea of what was really happening in China during this time: the texts and documents were either rare, or entirely filtered by the dominant Maoist ideology. As Jean-Claude Milner rightly notes in his magnificent book L’Arrogance du Paysan: (2) not only was it impossible to know anything, but there was a desire not to know, which was linked to our phantasmic investment in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was our own revolution, not that of the Chinese. We held onto this notion, made it our own, it became our point of reference. Mao’s writings truly inspired us, made us think, like On Contradiction, (3) but we did not ask ourselves what the contradiction within Maoist politics itself could be. This is just one of many contradictions. Maoism was extremely fragmented and contradictory itself. All this is to say that Maoism was the ideal – not only for us at Cahiers, but also for the Gauche prolétarienne, (4) for the Althusserians, and so on. The revolutionary ideal of Maoism allowed us to distance ourselves from Stalinism, and to renew a revolutionary fervour which no longer seemed to be what distinguished the European communist parties. In short: the reference to China was somewhat romantic. But we never considered ourselves as Red Guards, because our reality was the opposite of that of the Red Guards, and because there was an intellectual approach to Maoism which was infinitely more complex than that of the Red Guards. The residue of Mao’s thinking was infinitely richer, more complex, more piquant than that.
With regards to the anarchist movement, I had no particular ties to them, Obviously we were very distant from each other: in our imaginary Maoist castle, revolutionary practice and struggle were very distant. In my case, the reference to anarchism mainly came from books. I had read Fourier before La Cecilia, and, like everyone who reads Fourier, I was absolutely dumbfounded, both by his formidable system, and, at the same, by his excess of freedom, his sheer weirdness.
Indeed, Fourier had enchanted me, and this enchantment was reinforced by reading Barthes. Sade Fourier Loyola left a strong impression on me. (5) As it happens, I had read Sade before reading Fourier. The link between Sade and Fourier was striking. I was pretty much infused with this. I was strongly influenced by this literature, as well as painting and the entire surrealist milieu. In the end, everything centres on the group, whether it is communist, anarchist, or surrealist.
For a long time, while I was working at Cahiers, I had been searching for a film to make. Nothing really imposed itself on me, and I tacitly searched for a project for two or three years – a search which became explicit after leaving the magazine. While I was at Cahiers I couldn’t start filming as soon as I wanted to, because I was on a collective journey, and couldn’t just drop everything to make a film. I could not grant myself the liberty of breaking with this collectivist logic in order to make a film. In any case, I still had not found the film I wanted to make. Then, entirely by chance: I was often in Italy for Cahiers, and during one of these stays in the country, I bought a collection of records called “Albums of the Sun”, which was a collection of revolutionary and political songs, an immense corpus of anarchist, communist and socialist songs. Among them, there was an anarchist song called “La colonia della Cecilia”, which was a homage to this experience. I wrote a script on Giovanni Rossi based on this song, and the research I had undertaken. He was a Fourierist, and a critic of Malatesta, who was the great leader of the anarchists at the time. La Cecilia was one of the great experiments in communal living in the 19th century, and it was also the birth of anarcho-syndicalism.
My time at Cahiers was one of cinephilic activism. If we were activists, it was only to this extent. We were never active in any organisation whatsoever, nor in any trade union whatsoever. In this regard, we were perfectly unengaged. But we were engaged in the “Semaines des Cahiers” [“Cahiers Weeks”], we made trips, we participated in protests. We were cinephilic activists, active in spreading cinema. Our major reference point, more than Mao, was Althusser, who had elaborated the notion of theoretical practice.
I thought this notion was quite correct, because it allowed us to put an end to the numerous divisions between manual and intellectual labour which we found unbearable – I don’t believe that the manual labourer does not think, he thinks with his hands, with his eyes, his ears, his feet. The distance between the manual labourer and the intellectual is not very great, even if the way they spend their time diverges radically. Thus, there is the notion of practice, the notion of an engagement in practice, and then there is the notion of passion – practice and passion, it seems to me, go together. This practice must be linked with passion. I was taken with the logic of theoretical practice, and when I went to make a film, I found myself in an entirely different kind of practice, which could no longer be theoretical, because, in the end, in order to think about the cinema, a practice is necessary, and this is where the questions present themselves: what is this film? Where shall I put my camera? Should I use close-up lenses or not? This is practice, but it is also theory. So I wanted to show that they are one and the same.
But when I arrived on set to shoot La Cecilia, I must confess that an abyss opened up between the theory I was able to develop in the previous issues of Cahiers on the one hand, and practice on the other hand. A process of repression took place: repressing the last year at Cahiers, the unpleasant, painful year, the year of crisis and failure. So the passage to filmmaking practice involved a repression of what went on beforehand, and I found myself all alone, with a film to make. It was violent: I had concretely finished with the group. I forgot, or repressed, all the theorico-practical or practico-theoretical considerations which I had formulated in the preceding years, and which proved my value as a film theorist. In my own eyes, when I had to make a film I no longer found myself in a position of total control. Quite the opposite: I was in a position of great weakness. The Comolli who left Cahiers in 1973 and began to work on this film was inevitably a weakened creature. He had lost the battle. He had lost some of his convictions, he had lost the possibility of applying this renowned theoretical practice to the film set, and so this weakening was, in fact, very beneficial. What do I mean by this? Far from trying to stand my ground, I accepted this weakness, which surprised me, because it was the opposite of the supposed control that I wanted to exercise when I was at Cahiers. I found myself in a situation of an absolute lack of control, wherein I had lost the force of the group. Quite simply, for reasons which I am still unaware of, I accepted this situation of weakness – possibly because it corresponded to my childhood, but I don’t know, I’m not a psychoanalyst.
I found myself opening the door rather spontaneously, without particularly calculating what would happen. I flatly did not play the role of master director, in total control. Obviously, it was a form of self-representation, because if something happened which was stronger than what I had experienced at Cahiers, it was precisely because I was not in a position to assume power over the different elements of this film in the making.
This form of idiocy, of dumb innocence which opened up before me, turned me into a figure which was very different to what someone in my position was supposed to be like. I was the young rookie – although I was nearly 40 – in a film where I did not comprehend what was going on, with actors who I could not understand (in reality, they directed me, rather than vice versa). It was a very joyful adventure. When authority is not being exercised on set, people start having fun, and they have the right to. Later, I compared the film set to a funeral ceremony. Inevitably, there is something funereal about a film set. When you shoot a film, you are filming the death of something, the death of an idea, the death of the bodies, which pass from a real to a virtual existence. As Cocteau said: every metre of celluloid shows death at work. In the case of La Cecilia this was also the case, but not so much, as the weakness of the person who was supposed to be director was so obvious that the troupe began to have a party as much as they were making a film. It was perfect! So I was very happy with this system.
And were you happy with the end product, with the results of your work?
It is very difficult to say, because in this instance the power of what happened on the set totally dominated the entire experience. Even forty years later it still has this grip on me, and this is what I always end up seeing. I re-watched the film recently, because it came out on DVD and I had to see to the transfer, and I must confess that it is impossible for me to be an objective critic of this film, because all I end up seeing is reminiscences of the shoot. It was also the moment that I discovered what I would later call improvisation. I was so overwhelmed by what was happening around me that nothing panned out the way it had been foreseen.
If one can speak of jouissance in the psychoanalytic sense, that is, both something perverse and something incredible, then I absolutely experienced this jouissance during the shoot. I suddenly entertained the notion that, in principle, everything was possible. You can change the story, you can re-write the script, you can do anything. I discovered in practice what I had already discovered theoretically in my writings on direct cinema, on documentary cinema. I had already written on Rouch, on Renoir, on the great improvisers of modern cinema. With the experience of filming La Cecilia, something truly important was inscribed deeply within me. The mark of that shoot has always remained with me. This is why I was relatively unhappy when I went over to a “heavy” feature film with L’ombre rouge (1981) a few years later, because there I found it impossible to practice improvisation, given that the availability of the actors was already prescribed, like an orchestral partition. All these actors – who were excellent, by the way – had other things to do, they were in the theatre, or what have you. Since La Cecilia I have felt that directing a film meant messing around with the shoot: not shooting what was planned, shooting something different to what was planned. With documentary filmmaking you can do this.
What were the other lessons you took away from the experience of making La Cecilia?
I am a radical partisan of a pared-down cinema, full of austerity, of imperfection, but where, at the very least, something happens. This is, precisely, the resistance of matter to the idea, to quote Bazin. This is what counts. A filmmaker who wants his film to be the exact equivalent of what he had originally envisaged does not interest me in the slightest. What matters to me in the cinema is that the possibility is given to the spectator to be empowered – whether this is calculated or not. The position of the spectator is central. Is the position of the spectator handled in such a way that the site he occupies is moved or changed, and his original position has not been reaffirmed, or does the film unravel without the spectator reorienting his position? In the latter case, it is mere spectacle. The cinema spectator is much more interesting and much more complex than the spectator of a spectacle. And I would even say that going to the cinema to watch a film is a stronger gesture than watching fireworks, when it comes to subjectivity, the subject, etc. It seems to me that the spectator finds his position on the basis of the forms used. Rather than from the narrative, the plot or the actors, the spectator’s position comes from the bodies put to work [mis en œuvre].
What strikes me when watching La Cecilia is that we see the nature of the shoot in the film itself, we see the joy, the adventure, the spirit you have spoken about. Something has managed to be transmitted from the conditions of production of the film to the finished product, the film we can see. In contrast, in L’ombre rouge, your subsequent feature film, I have to say that we don’t see this.
L’ombre rouge was a pedagogical, didactic experience for me, because I found myself in an industrial structure of filmmaking. Without being overly expensive, the film cost a lot more to make than La Cecilia, and thus had to be much more organised – with a work schedule, precise dates, and so on. It was out of the question to change the role an actor would play, or to change the schedule around, or anything like that. I really made things tough for my assistant director, who was responsible for the material organisation of the shoot.
For me, this film was the discovery of what it meant to work with actors, which was important, obviously. But at the same time, it was not a very joyful experience, and there was no freedom. In my following film, Balles perdues (1982), which is unfortunately lost, I managed to keep this principle. The script for Balles perdues consisted of 50 blank pages. The shoot was very pleasant, but unfortunately the film was a commercial flop. And yet it was important for me to figure out that, between L’ombre rouge and Balles perdues, I was more on the side of adventure than the side of control over time, duration and form. I did not renounce making fiction films after this, and I have made a couple since that time.
Yes, however, with the exception of these couple of films, notably Le bal d’Irène (1987), you have since primarily dedicated yourself to making documentary films. What made you take this step? Why not return to the experience of La Cecilia in order to make a fiction film?
In the intervening time I have asked myself this question, and ended up elaborating a conception of the cinema wherein I bring documentary and fiction together. Firstly, I take Christian Metz’s proposition that “every film is a fiction film”, and then I take the corollary proposition, which is actually Godard’s stance: “every film is a documentary film.” Godard said that Le mépris (1963) is a documentary on Brigitte Bardot’s body. So all fiction films are documentaries about the bodies of their actors, and no filmmaker in the history of the cinema has managed to make a film that wasn’t a documentary.
At bottom, it is a matter of belief. I think the question of the belief of the spectator is absolutely crucial. If there is no belief, there is no lure. The lure only functions if there is belief. Belief and the lure are fundamentally linked, if not identical. And the question of belief is posed very starkly. I’m not speaking in an abstract or general manner, but based on my own experience in the cinema. It is difficult for me, today, to believe in contemporary fiction. I can believe in the fiction of earlier times much more easily. I believe in La règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939): I believe in the characters, I believe in the situations. I watched it again recently, and it’s a magnificent film, and what’s more, I believe in it. I believe in everything that goes on in this film. I believe in everything that goes on in a film which is even more “unrealistic”, like To Be or Not to Be (1942) by Lubitsch, where the artifice shines forth during every second of the film, and yet I believe in it.
In contrast, I don’t get very excited about contemporary fiction films today. They don’t share the same language as the powerful stories of earlier times. The more elaborate they become, the more they seem to be working on familiar ground. Whereas in the past, I believed in it, and still do. I believe in Rossellini’s film La prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (1966), even though I know that it is not Louis XIV, I know that the cinema did not even exist at the time of Louis XIV. None of this prevents from believing in it. This is the contradictory logic which I have already explained, the famous disavowal: “I know very well, but all the same…” I know very well that the cinema did not exist at the time of Louis XIV, but all the same, I have the distinct impression of watching a report on the court of Louis XIV. And from the moment that the cinema exists, it assumes the importance of reportage.
So on the one hand there is the appearance of a type of cinema which makes me believe in contemporary fiction films less, and then there is something else: at bottom – and this is not a banal matter – the history of the cinema is striated by history in the broader sense. And obviously World War II, and the extermination of the European Jews, has a major place in this crossed history. Even if the Nazis had wished to film the gas chambers, they were held back from doing so by fear. They wanted to be executioners on the condition that they not be too visible, that they not be totally visible. So they prohibited any filming. They prohibited themselves from being entirely followed. Even if Godard says that, somewhere, there is a film of what happened in the gas chambers, and that this film is yet to be found, I am certain that it does not exist, because the fear was too great, on the part of the Nazis themselves – so much were they paralysed by the horror of being shown.
Of course, while the two sides of this dispute are currently emblematised by Godard and Lanzmann, this controversy dates back to Adorno.
Yes, there is Adorno’s famous dictum – which he actually repudiated some years later – that “poetry is impossible after Auschwitz”. With regards to poetry, this statement is foolish, but it is less so with regards to the cinema, because there is the question of the body, the material body, the physical, carnal body, with a surface and depth – this body is conserved in Auschwitz. Of course this applies to poetry too, as well as speech and even painting. But the question of the representation of the body is critical in the cinema, and this was one of the questions posed by Auschwitz, to the extent that the Nazi prohibition of the representation of what happened inside the gas chambers precisely emphasised the denial of the possibility of representing a suffering body. Theoretically, I am still unable to truly come to terms with this, and to make cinema with coming to terms with this matter makes one a little weak.
Making films became a more serious matter. The force of the presence of the body, the real inscription of the filmed body in the cinematic system, has something essential today, far more than it did earlier. There is a challenge here. The challenge is to bring into existence those who are threatened, oppressed, weakened, to bring them into existence cinematically. It is a considerable challenge, a moral, philosophical, anthropological challenge.
When you film a documentary, you film everything, the entire subject: his body, his thoughts, his speech, his ideas. When it’s an actor playing a role, some of this is lost. Once you have actors playing someone other than themselves, then by definition it does not have the same force. I still believe in fiction, but it seems to me that something happens in documentary film, something to do with the status of both the cinema and the body, which does not happen in fiction.
After having distilled the distinction between fiction and documentary, I recall having arrived at some very simple conclusions. In a fiction film, the actor acts as if the camera is not there. In a documentary film, the person who plays the role of himself can not act as if the camera is not there. Why? For two reasons. Firstly, because he has not yet learned to repress the here and now of the filming process, as actors do, and secondly, because he must be filmed as such, as he really is. There is a desire for the camera among people who choose to be in a documentary. Now, this is what is repressed in fiction films – to my mind, definitively. But, on the other hand, it can not be entirely repressed, no matter how much you want it to be. There is a here and now which can not be totally lost. The cinema is the only art which records, and which therefore produces, its own fiction. This is the cinema: self-reflexivity comes into play. The camera records its own way of functioning. As such, I find it rather foolish to try to imaginarily annul this trace of the camera, and, in any case, it is not possible nowadays.
So, this is what, today, makes me believe more in the fictions which tell us about documentary characters than in the fictions which tell us about characters played by actors.
I think this discussion leads us to speak about what I consider to be your masterpiece, the grand series on politics in Marseilles which you made, along with Michel Samson, between 1987 and 2001 and which is now available in a DVD boxset titled Marseille contre Marseille. Maybe we can begin with the genesis of this series.
As it happens, the city of Marseilles occupies a special place in my mind, for a very simple reason, linked to my childhood. I lived on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Algeria, and at that time going to France meant taking the boat to Marseilles. So, in an almost automatic manner Marseilles was a kind of synecdoche for France in my mind. Secondly, I had an uncle who was a baker in Marseilles, and I once spent my summer holidays with him there, which made a strong impression on me. Thirdly, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I made my first trip alone. I had a German penpal and we proposed an exchange: he would come visit my family in Algeria, while I would come visit him in the south of Bavaria. It was the first time I travelled without my parents, and on the ship to Marseilles I was overcome with anguish. My father had given me anti-nausea suppositories and in a kind of alcohol-induced delirium I overdosed on these suppositories. My father was contacted by radio and took a plane to arrive in Marseilles a few hours before the ship so that he could receive me upon my arrival. So I spent the week with him in a hotel in Marseilles. This episode meant a lot to me, and Marseilles has remained a city on the frontier between France and the rest of the world, as well as a frontier between one age and another.
So, when I made my second feature film, I decided to situate part of the story in Marseilles, because the story dealt with arms smuggling organised by French communists in support of combat groups in the Spanish civil war. So a part of L’ombre rouge was shot in the port of Marseilles.
This was a powerful moment for me, as I truly loved filming there, so much that, a few years later, I embarked on the project to make a documentary film about the city. So I began to scout locations, I met a lot of people, and this film was initially going to be about religious communities in Marseilles: whether Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox – the whole gamut of religious denominations present in Marseilles. I had obtained backing from La Sept (the predecessor of Arte), and spent a month filming these religious communities. I filmed researchers, sociologists, ethnographers, and I managed to gather a lot of footage. But the film wasn’t quite there.
At the same time, a fratricidal struggle had been unleashed among the successors to Gaston Deferre. Deferre was a socialist politician who was the mayor of Marseilles from the Liberation up until 1988. He died in 1988 and an extremely violent war of succession immediately broke out within the Parti socialiste. Clan-like alliances had been forged, and the anointed successor, Michel Pezet (who was head of the Socialist Federation of Bouches-du-Rhône, and who had reduced Deferre’s influence within the party) was denounced by Deferre’s widow, Edmonde Charles-Roux, for having contributed to his death. So a certain suspicion was raised with regards to Michel Pezet, and the struggle for the succession became a tragic combat, which, with its intrigues, conspiracies and family feuds, was practically Shakespearian.
What was interesting was that something resonated in the French media, precisely because of this mythological aspect (with the myth of the father-figure, the black widow, and so on), and the story aroused a lot of attention. At one point, my producer and I, because we were in the midst of shooting in Marseilles, said to each other that we were much more interested in this story than in what we were in the process of filming. And so we made the decision – this is one of the strengths of documentary filmmaking – to change course and begin a new film.
I immediately realised that, in order to make this new film on the political battle being waged in Marseilles, I needed the support of someone who was intimately familiar with the city’s politics. I had read Michel Samson’s articles in Libération, and I found him a very interesting journalist, so I went to Paris and asked to meet him. When we met, I knew I would work with him right away. I said that I was interested in working with a journalist, because he has the requisite knowledge and contacts, an entire network that I don’t have access to, but only on the condition that he truly become a character in the film, because I had no desire to simply have an expert lurking in the shadows. I explained to him that I needed his body to be filmed. The body of the journalist had to become the body of a character, it had to be exposed, and its fragility, its weakness had to be shown.
Anyway, Samson agreed to participate, and he asked to see one of my films. I had just finished my second documentary – after Les deux Marseillaises twenty years earlier. In 1988 I made a two-hour film called Tous pour un, which followed the presidential contest between Mitterand and Chirac in that year, but from the perspective of the party activists who gathered in the campaign headquarters of the two camps. He liked what he saw and joined the shoot, which led to the film being radically overhauled.
The initial film, Marseille de père en fils (1989), contained two episodes, and was made for two networks – which was exceptional for television at the time – La Sept and France 3. Then, for the first time in several years, the Front national decided to run candidates for the regional elections in the Côte d’Azur. I had already filmed the Front national in Tous pour un: young activists in the party, their marches, and so on. So when it became apparent that Le Pen was going to descend on Marseilles, we proposed a second film to France 3, which would be called La campagne de Provence (1992). This film focussed on the manner in which the vocabulary of the Front national had come to be used by all the political parties in Nice during these regional elections. Thus, these films were all centred on the electoral cycle. For Marseille de père en fils it was the municipal election, for La campagne de Provence it was the regional elections, and for the following film in the series, Marseille en mars (1993), it was the legislative elections.
The most astonishing moment in this series, in my opinion, occurs in Marseille en mars when Le Pen is in a public space, walking through a street market, and all of a sudden he lashes out at a staffer, yelling “Don’t touch me like that, damn it!” At this moment, the reality of the Front national, of Le Pen, has been pierced. This sequence reminds me a lot of the film La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (Jacques Willemont, 1968), which you wrote about in Cahiers.
The structure of Marseille en mars was based on long strolls with the various figures involved in the campaign, with lateral tracking shots alternating between politicians and journalists. The idea was modelled on the philosophical function of the stroll.
Exactly. So this is how we structured the film, and then at a certain point we would stop: when there was what I call a fracture. This is what happened with the abominable scene where Le Pen plays his own character: he is smiling, saying kind words to passers-by, and then at a certain point everything freezes, it all goes wrong for him.
This is, in effect, the return of the real. Something which is erased, repressed, disguised, dissimulated, comes back in force, and we understand that Le Pen’s body is a living body. There is contact with another body, and he takes fright: “Don’t touch me like that!” He was touched, and this sets him apart from the political context for an instant. For me, it is important that the body of the politician can still be touched. It is not yet entirely inaccessible. Television gives the illusion that politicians have become inaccessible. It turns politicians into phantoms, and their audiovisual existence, on television, enables the body to become abstract. But the politician is not a ghost, he is a corporal being. This is the “haptic” dimension of the body, to use a theoretical term: to touch and be touched. And this is where Le Pen show his true colours: “I’m frightened.”
The success of the Front national from 1992 onwards is due, to a large degree, to the manner in which politics is dealt with on television. Why? Because Le Pen is a champion of the soundbite, he is a champion of the slogan. And this is what works, this is what the media revels in, because it’s short, it’s brief, it’s incisive, it’s rather violent, rather spectacular – in sum, it’s very effective. Now, the effectiveness of the public discourse of the Front national has had the effect of simplifying politics, of moving away from interminable debates, moving away from the complexity of every political issue, and thus moving towards a form of politics which resembles advertising, or PR. With our series, we tried to achieve the opposite effect: to complicate the issues, and give the politician the possibility of not just speaking in soundbites, but instead giving them the leeway of interviews lasting several hours in duration.
As we filmed, we also listened to the speech of our interlocutors. Shots showing people listening are very numerous in this series. They show that listening is very important, that it is essential to film with a camera as if it were an ear. The camera is there to listen, not just to film. The active sense, when it comes to filming, is hearing, not sight.
This is a rather Bressonian position, isn’t it?
Of course. I think that the cinema itself poses this question, because the cinema places the audio and visual data in a relationship which can never be tranquil. And invariably, it is the visual which prevails over the audio. Seeing dominates, and hearing is dominated.
If I could summarise the nature of your project, it is that you practice a resistance against the formal conventions of television. This resistance, in my opinion, takes place largely on the temporal level, in two ways. Firstly, there is the long duration of the series. You filmed Marseilles over the course of nearly 15 years, coming back to the site again and again to repeat the gesture of filming elections in the area – whether they are presidential, regional or municipal elections. Secondly, you give politicians an ample amount of time to express themselves, which television does not do. You absolutely reject the practice of using soundbites.
I seek to give the bodies of the politicians an extension in time, in duration. There are two sides to this duration. Firstly, there is the duration of the filming, which has the effect of opening up time, the time to ask questions, to dwell on issues, and come back to them later. And one of the effects of this long duration is that tiredness sets in. This tiredness is precious, but not in order to make fun of our subjects, to try to catch them out – quite the opposite, because after a two hour interview Samson and I are just as tired as the politician, if not more so. So both sides are tired. Neither side is stronger. But what this opens up is a certain charging of time: suddenly, speech is no longer organised in the same way. When you speak for a duration of two hours, for example, even if we only use two minutes of it in the film, these two minutes taken from two hours will be different to two minutes taken from twenty minutes, or two minutes taken from two minutes. The form of speech changes.
We discovered that the cinema opened up the possibility of acceding to different forms of recorded speech. In verbal communication, where the relationship is still subjective, these forms exist, but they are not very perceptible, because the accent is not put on the relationship of forms. It must be observed that speech is a form, a melodic, musical form. The whole dynamism of speech is totally dependent on the duration in which it has been deployed, in the same way that a musical form can not the same if it has been played for the last twenty minutes. So the idea of a relationship between duration and form seems very important to me, and explains a lot. Obviously, the longer the duration, the less control there is. Brief forms allow for much greater control than long forms do.
Thus, when opening up to long durations, we open up a relationship with the spectator, which is something I call “free association”. Why? Because the speech which is represented, if it is taken from a long duration, is a speech which has forms relating to this original duration, even if the duration is not present in the final edit. The spectator feels the sensation of witnessing a speech being invented on the spot, a living speech. This is the sense in which the issue of speech in the cinema is very important, because to film speech is to film a presence in motion. It is not filming the already-there; it is filming the not-yet-there.
There is a proximity, so to speak, and a very strong relationship between the functioning of a film and the functioning of speech. Films always present themselves to the spectator’s regard, as does speech. Past speech is speech which we can not hear. Hearing the act of speaking always involves the present, just as every vision of an image involves the present. The spectator’s role is to be the moment of the present in representation, and to transform everything that is presented to him into the present. A screening always takes place in the present. We have the extremely precious sentiment, even without knowing why, that we are contemporaneous with what is happening on screen, and that what is happening is not already set in stone. At bottom, as spectators, we are also cameramen.
The way speech functions is exactly homologous to the way cinema functions. Above all with these extremely long shoots, lasting two or three hours, when tiredness sets in, and the words do not make the same sound in the end that they did in the beginning. It reminds me of psychoanalysis sessions, where, for 40 minutes, the subject, the analysand, is supposed to speak, and this speech is supposed to be free: the subject is led to construct and elaborate his own speech: how to move from one sentence to another, what it means to go from one sentence to another, what it means to bring two propositions together. This is free association. This freedom of the subject in the analytic session is similar to the effects which the spectator experiences. Of course, the spectator is not in the position of the psychoanalyst, but nonetheless something presents itself to him which is not yet fixed, which is in the process of coming to life.
Knowledge, connaissance, is also a form of co-birth, co-naissance. The film is born together with the spectator. And this is very important because the spectator is positioned in the present. And if what is produced, what is represented, tries to evade this presence, a certain malaise, a certain difficulty will appear. For example, think of the way actors work, think of certain types of dialogue. The spectator will feel less of a participant, because the object is already there, it has taken place without me, who wasn’t there when it took place. I receive it as an object – there is an outside, but no inside. This is a central question for the cinema: there are things inside the spectator, even when everything happens outside him. This is a very important element, in my opinion.
In the end, this all comes down to improvisation. Of course, the film has already been finished by the time it reaches the screen, but nonetheless, we should have the feeling that it is being improvised while we watch it. In other words, each sequence should not be implied by the sequence which precedes it, even if it really is. Even if it is, there is always a certain floating, a certain openness. The hors champ [off-frame space] is essential because it leads back to the co-existence of what can be seen and what can not be seen. There is a logical connection between one shot and another. There is a logic when you pass from a close-up to a long-shot. The hors champ undoes this logic, and it allows for things which are tied to each other to float about. For me, this is very important, because it is the experience of a certain freedom on the part of the spectator, as if all had not yet been written, sketched out, fixed for eternity, as if he could still play around with the shots.
The power of art is that the spectator – or the listener in music – can always have the feeling that he is playing with forms, and that the forms are not yet there, even if he knows very well that they are there. All the same, I believe that they do become transformed, and that, to a certain degree, I can therefore play with them. The great works of art – in the cinema, in painting or in music – are those which are not exhausted by each new confrontation with them. It could be said that they are inexhaustible, and that each time they are watched or listened to, they are transformed, they have a different function, the dice are thrown once more. This is the meaning of Mallarmé’s image of the throw of the dice. Each time, the number is different, there is no repetition. The gesture is the same, but the result is different.
So I believe in this relationship. The event is not really external to the spectator. The art-work exists through the spectator (or listener), and is not external to him. Art is precisely what is transformed by this experience, and not what is under the absolute control of the artist. We must leave the logic of control and enter a logic of transformation, wherein I am transformed and the work is transformed as well. To put it bluntly, it is a matter of bringing the subject into the work, and perhaps the cinema, along with music, is the art form which most allows for this passage from the external to the internal to take place. The principal of the cinema is that the spectator should enter into the film.
This discussion takes us to your recent activity as a film theorist, and in particular your book Cinéma contre spectacle. What prompted you to return to the article “Technique and Ideology” and speak about it in your new book? Nearly 40 years separates the two publications.
This text, as it turns out, marked the era in which it was written. It has often been cited, and translated into numerous languages. It comes back to me from without: for many cinephiles I am simply the person who wrote “Technique and Ideology”. So it has almost been like a burden that I have carried with me.
Your renown in the English-speaking world, in particular, is largely due to “Technique and Ideology”.
Of course. In truth, it so happens that after I stopped writing on the cinema and began to work on La Cecilia, to a certain extent I withdrew from theoretical reflection on the cinema, and from writing about the cinema. I only wrote on rare occasions. I needed to stop, I needed to separate myself from it all, I needed to repress part of what went on, with the failure of the left in France in the years 1974-75. For a while, making films replaced writing about films. And then I took it up again. After this silence of several years duration, there was a transition period where I took up writing on jazz (notably, on improvisation in jazz), and then I felt able to start writing on the cinema again.
I immediately became aware that I had in fact come back to the terms and questions which were broached in “Technique and Ideology”. I think everything that I have written since 1988 is linked to “Technique and Ideology”, whether film reviews, interviews, or theoretical texts. It all represents a kind of extension and proliferation of the terms which formed the basis of “Technique and Ideology”. Like many of the texts of the era, the series finished with the words “To be continued…”. And I would say that I have been trying to realise this “To be continued…” Evidently, this happened through my experience with what is known as documentary cinema, because, in working in this cinema, I became aware, in a very powerful way, that the issues are very simple. When it comes down to it, film theory is extremely simple.
Let’s talk, then, about the way your work as a documentary filmmaker has intersected with your more recent attempts to theoretically grapple with the cinema.
The simplicity of film theory is illuminated by the practice of documentary cinema, which is much less muddled than fiction filmmaking. The means at your disposal are much more limited, you can’t use a tracking shot, the crews are much smaller (they will have four or five people, rather than 40 people), there are no monitors, little extra lighting, and so on. When you have such limited means, you are constrained to use them in a limited manner, because you are not in a position to light up the port of Marseilles in order to shoot a night scene, for example. So a whole series of elements ensures that making documentary films is a simplified practice when compared with fiction filmmaking. Simplified does not mean stupid or naive, however: one ought to understand that with these limited means, with this simplification, the mental work required is much greater. But it is a simplified practice. And the fact that this practice is simplified led me to think that the parameters of film theory were founded on precisely such a simplified practice. To start writing on the cinema again, I began to think about how the films of the Lumière brothers were made. And I understood that, while a certain number of elements had changed, most of the elements had not changed. There is still a camera which does the filming, images are recorded onto celluloid (or magnetic tape), and so the base apparatus, to use Baudry’s term, has basically remained the same.
What has changed has done so under the pressure of economic and ideological forces. The cinematic image, as I said in a rather simple manner, has become naturalised. And yet the cinematic image does not resemble what I see in real life. It is framed, whereas life is not framed. This is how I distinguish cinema from spectacle. The cinema can be radically distinguished from what is shown in real life, where there are no visual fields, no frames, etc. This is the primary contradiction between cinema and spectacle. Admittedly, in the cinema there is a dose of spectacle, and in the spectacle there is a dose of cinema. Nonetheless, they constitute divergent paths. They diverge with respect to the spectator: in the spectacle, the spectator is placed before his expectations, desires and satisfactions, and he literally can not move himself to think about anything at all.
When it comes down to it, there are two conceptions of the world – sorry, but that’s how I have to put it. In the first conception, the cinema, nothing is already there, everything is still to be done, to be constructed, elaborated, and so on. In the second conception, spectacle, everything is already there, and all you have to do is marvel at the work of the Gods. It is akin to the parable of the fall from paradise. In paradise, there are no worries, nothing needs to be done, and then there is the fall. So, I think that the cinema is what comes after the fall – it’s not what comes before the fall, but what comes afterwards.
- See: Jean-Louis Comolli, “Le Détour par le direct (I)”, in: Cahiers du cinéma #209, February 1969, pp. 48-53, and “Le Détour par le direct (II)” in: Cahiers du cinéma #211, April 1969, pp. 40-45.
- See: Jean-Claude Milner, L’Arrogance du present: regards sur une décennie 1965-1975, Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 2009.
- See: Mao Tse-Tung, “On Contradiction” (1937), in: Idem., Mao: On Practice and Contradiction, ed. by Slavoj Zizek, London: Verso, 2007, pp. 67-102.
- The Gauche prolétarienne (Proletarian Left) was a short-lived but relatively prominent Maoist group in the early 1970s.
- See: Roland Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971.