A Certain Incompatibility: British Cinema and French Film Criticism

Alex Dudok de Wit is a freelance writer and assistant editor at Time Out Paris. His chief interests are Japan, cinema, and above all Japanese cinema. Here, he explores the difficult relationship between French film critics and British Cinema.

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In 1968, the British Film Institute invited French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard to give a lecture at the National Film Theatre in Waterloo. The invitation was accepted and travel arrangements were made; but in the event Godard never showed up, sending two telegrams in his place:

IF AM NOT THERE TAKE ANYONE IN THE STREET THE POOREST IF POSSIBLE GIVE HIM MY 100 POUNDS AND TALK WITH HIM OF IMAGES AND SOUND AND YOU WILL LEARN FROM HIM MUCH MORE THAN FROM ME BECAUSE IT IS THE POOR PEOPLE WHO ARE REALLY INVENTING THE LANGUAGE STOP YOUR ANONYMOUS GODARD

followed by

WILL NOT COME TOMORROW MOVIES HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH CIGARETTES AND REALITY WITH SMOKE YOUR UNKNOWN GODARD

This kind of stunt, this reactionary stance and obtuse language, was the modus operandi of Godard, the great terrorist of French cinema. Yet it also reveals something that’s bothered me since my arrival in Paris, and whose lineage can be traced back to the New Wave criticism of Godard’s contemporaries and beyond: the utterly dismissive attitude of the French towards Britain’s film culture.

If we’re to trace this lineage, Godard’s films and writing are a good starting point. In his monumental film Histoire(s) du cinéma, he all but writes Britain out of his historical narrative – hardly surprising, given his lament in an article of 1958 that the state of cinema in Britain “is enough to make one despair. Except that to despair of the British cinema would be to admit that it exists.” This hostility pervades the writings of his colleagues at the legendary film revue Cahiers du cinéma (founded in 1951): François Truffaut, the most influential among them, had the cheek to remark to Alfred Hitchcock (who was English) that there appears to be “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘cinema’”.

The extreme terms in which these attacks are phrased point to one of the chief motivating factors behind them. The Cahiers critics of the ’50s and ’60s were above all polemicists who did not deal in mild language. By denying the very existence of a British cinema, Truffaut and Godard were articulating their nascent theories of what constitutes cinema, whereby a distinction was made between films that reflect the creative vision of their maker – their ‘auteur’ – and those that have been artlessly churned out for consumers by a studio. They believed that a true director would stamp his authorial voice on each of his films, in the form of innovative aesthetic or formal techniques – never mind what the film was actually about.

Hollywood directors such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles were canonized as auteurs; in contrast, all of British cinema was denigrated as slavish plagiarism of Hollywood production values at best, and vapid crap at worst. According to the Cahiers argument, Britain occupied a position of cultural subordination to the States (not least because of the shared language), and so simply handed over its few good filmmakers – Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin – to Hollywood without a fight. Those that remained in Blighty were only capable of churning out staid literary adaptations (Brief Encounter, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) and spineless comedies that placed more importance on content than on formal innovation, and so betrayed a lack of creative talent.

There’s a certain Anglophobia at work here too. The Gallic perception of Britain as a nation deficient in the visual arts has been around for a while – film theorist Peter Wollen suggests that it stems from the absence of British works from the Louvre when it opened as a museum under Napoleon, which has more to do with the fact that Britain wasn’t under French imperial control than anything else. This bias is already detectable in pre-war French writing on British cinema (and other arts), where it often turns into an attack on the British national character: starting from the neo-Hegelian belief that a nation’s spirit expresses itself in art, early French critics often held up the internationalism (read: ties to Hollywood) and creative timidity of Britain’s films as proof of a kind of inadequacy in the British way of being.

Truffaut was certainly channelling these xenophobic preconceptions when he said to Hitchcock “I get the feeling that there are national characteristics – among them the English countryside, the subdued way of life, the stolid routine – that are antidramatic in a sense.” These are the criticisms of a man who doesn’t know Britain – indeed, Truffaut was familiar with very little outside his native Paris, at least until he swallowed his pride and came to England in 1966 to film his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (after which he publicly retracted much of what he’d previously said about the country). His articles also disclose a hint of resentment over the British victory in World War II: when he writes “I am also exasperated by English discretion faced with pain: ‘look at us, we do not cry, our emotions are intimate; we are great”, he comes across like David Brent lashing out at popular boss Neil, with a pathetic sarcasm that screams self-loathing.

In this light, questions of whether the Cahiers critics were being fair to Britain’s cinematic output fade in importance. Their specific mission was to elevate certain works of cinema, a medium then still widely considered mere populist entertainment, to the level of art by demonstrating that they were the product of a sole creative mind – a very 19th-century Romantic vision of what defines art, and a questionable one at that, especially when applied to the collaborative endeavour that is filmmaking. This project entailed establishing a pantheon of Hollywood auteurs, against which the less formally radical British directors served as a convenient foil. Thanks to relentlessly polemical writings of Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the lot, the auteur theory became gospel in film criticism both French and Anglophone, and with it the perception of British cinema as auteurless, lifeless and dull.

The caricature lives on. The French have made progress towards recognition of Britain’s achievements in film, beginning with the pioneering research of Anglophile Cahiers critic Bertrand Tavernier and continuing with Ken Loach’s mad success at Cannes throughout the 90s and 00s; but a core section of French cinephilia retains its hostility. British directors are routinely overlooked in the otherwise wonderfully diverse retrospectives put on by the Cinémathèque Française. A list of the 100 greatest films of all time published by Cahiers du cinéma in 2008 featured a grand total of zero British films; Jean-Michel Frodon, then editor, pointed out that “until now there has been no British cinema”. His comment reveals how little French attitudes have changed since the 50s.

Which is ironic, given how much has changed otherwise. We’ve spent the last few decades trying hard to shake off charges of philistinism. Since the war, British and French approaches to state funding for the arts have gradually converged on a model that balances public and private investment, and initiatives such as the National Lottery Arts Council and Channel 4’s film ventures have stimulated the kind of independent, innovative filmmaking that has paradoxically found a rapt audience in France (Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh). British cinema, at once maligned and ignored by the French establishment, is now the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, early Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan, the radical formal experimentation of Derek Jarman and Ken Russell, the wild baroque surrealism of Peter Greenaway, the searing social realism of Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, the warmth of Mike Leigh, the coldness of Peter Strickland, the weirdness of Ben Wheatley and the bitter nostalgia of Terence Davies (whose Distant Voices, Still Lives was singled out by Godard as the only good film ever made in Britain). For a critic, to dismiss it is to surrender professional integrity in the service of an outdated national stereotype that didn’t stand up in the first place. Truffaut’s critical project is long dead; now let’s bury it.

Incidentally, Hitchcock’s reply to Truffaut, too rarely quoted, was: “I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.”

Alex Dudok de Wit

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