Does ‘the Phantom of the Auteur’ Haunt French Cinema?

The haunting presence of the auteur has long loomed over the French film industry; it was in France itself that the auteur theory as a major film discussion was first established. Because of this, a long tradition dating back farther than (but popularized by) the French new wave had firmly placed the auteur at the very forefront of cutting-edge, innovative, and creative French filmmaking. The young filmmakers of the new wave were mesmerized in their idolization of up-and-coming American auteurs such as Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. The new wave’s fascination with these directors was rooted within their ability to consistently project a sense of personality and filmic persona into the very essence of the films they made, especially while working within such a producer-oriented studio system present in Hollywood at the time. Critics such as François Truffaut were angered that the French film industry did not offer the same opportunities and respect for directors, but instead, favored screenwriters such as Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. In his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’, Truffaut offers a stern attack against such high praise given to screenwriters, and goes on to suggest a French oversight in disregarding the role of the director. He states, “I believe it needs to be made perfectly clear that directors are and want to be responsible for the scripts and dialogue they illustrate.” (Truffaut, 1954) If this desperate need for the auteur was relevant in the French film industry during the mid 50s, then what is the relationship between the auteur and the French film industry under a contemporary gaze? Emma Wilson, writing about contemporary French cinema, highlights in a rather cautious way that, “the phantom of the auteur still haunts French cinema.” (Wilson, 1999) Whatever happened between Truffaut’s desperate cries to raise the reputation of the auteur and Wilson’s rather symbolic depiction of an industry perpetually haunted by a looming phantom figure in the shape of an auteur? Has the auteur outstayed its welcome within French cinema? Or, is the auteur’s influence on French cinema now more needed than ever?

An important film to focus on when examining the relevance of the auteur in contemporary French cinema is Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film, Irma Vep. Like Truffaut, Assayas spent an early part of his career writing film criticism at Cahiers du Cinema; and, also like Truffaut with The 400 Blows (1959), would cast Jean-Pierre Léaud within a central role in Irma Vep. The film concerns a crew of young filmmakers centered on the older auteur figure, René Vidal (Léaud). They attempt to remake Les Vampires (1915), a classic of French silent cinema. The main acting role in this remake is to be played by Maggie Cheung, a leading actress from Hong Kong, taking a traditionally held French role. Léaud’s character within the film not only represents the paradoxical personification of Assayas, but also of the auteur described by the French new wave. Vidal is obsessive, passionate and innovative, yet strangely out of touch. The younger crew members that surround Vidal appear to adopt a somewhat more conversational, logical, and technical eye for filmmaking, for they are seen discussing and arguing film culture, whereas Vidal appears more intellectual, choosing to watch and think about filmmaking not as a process, but as an art that must be considered in order to master.

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As Vidal watches a previous film starring Maggie Cheung, he reacts emotionally, expressing his excitement for the images via physical responses. Vidal’s passion for the cinema is nostalgic, he represents a past era of film history, one in which the silent era was still largely influential for young filmmakers, but also one in which filmmaking itself was starting to become a tangible possibility for new talents in the form of lighter and cheaper types of cameras and film equipment. Grace An picks up on an interesting parallel regarding this issue, she states, “perhaps it is not ironic that the film-within-the-film is a remake of a vampire movie, for the narrative of the vampire serves to thermalize the tension felt between a certain ‘dead’ or not completely ‘un-dead’ cinema.” (An, 2000, p.400) The film seems to take place during a transitional moment of film history; the classical French new wave vision for the auteur is not yet ‘dead’, but not completely ‘un-dead’. Vidal exists within the middle ground of a contemporary shift in French film history, one in which international influence and commercial success have both become more vital than cinematic knowledge in sustaining artistic power within the cinema. We can view the true-to-life implications of this shift when examining the death of the new wave itself, which included its directors having to make the choice between a more mainstream cinema (Truffaut and The Last Metro (1980)), or becoming sidelined and labeled purely as an independent, avant-garde auteur (Godard and Slow Motion (1980)). Within Irma Vep, Vidal is unsuccessfully attempting to straddle this auteur/film director line, but is only able to subvert back to his original position as an auteur towards the very end of the film when his final version of Les Vampires is revealed. Vidal transforms and modernizes the film, recreating its classical aesthetic under a highly stylized and avant-garde tone. He scratches shapes into the film’s celluloid surface, disrupting and penetrating its internal filmic space, while also physically applying his own bodily self into the material space occupied by the filmstrip. This is an auteur expressing his emotional closeness to the cinema, while also articulating his internal frustration and anxiety towards what it has become and what it may become in the future.

With Irma Vep, Assayas creates an intertextual film, directly addressing the role of the director in contemporary French cinema while paradoxically working within it. This creates a dynamic by which the self-reflexive voice of Assayas begins to haunt the frames of his own film; Assayas is a metaphorical presence in the film, but is not visually present on the screen itself. Paul Sutton picks up on this, stating, “(a) sense of anxiety is captured powerfully in Assayas’s obviously self-conscious and self-reflexive film. (Sutton, 1999, p.71) Interesting to note is that the ‘anxiety’ experienced within the film falls mainly on the shoulders of Vidal, who is inadvertently driven to emotional depression by its events. Vidal becomes less relevant as Irma Vep progresses, he deconstructs his once highly respected role within the young film crew, who are eventually assigned a more mainstream, efficient, and financially trustworthy ‘film director’ (as opposed to ‘auteur’) to work with. Irma Vep represents cinematic globalization within the microcosm of a film set; using this, the film then investigates a certain auteur identity crises by highlighting the modern degrading of traditional ‘Frenchness’ within the role. Grace An reflects on this, stating, “the viewer is confronted with conflicting attitudes about French cinema at the end of the 20th century and on the edge of a future that promises cultural and artistic uncertainty.” (An, 2000, p.399) Truffaut and the French new wave presented the original concept of the auteur within a certain French essence. Indeed, even the way in which we refer to the ‘auteur’ by using the French term within the English language reflects this; France is the birthplace of the auteur, its spiritual home. Vidal is now working within a largely diverse crew, one in which the French intellectuals and cinephiles of the new wave have been replaced by a broader mix of people, from a broader mix of background. The French connotations behind the phrase ‘auteur’ are partly blurred within the film by Maggie Cheung, who disrupts the Frenchness of the filmmaking space, and instead implies a broader and more fluid range of international influence. Irma Vep is ultimately focused on what it means to be an auteur working within contemporary France, but the film is also a visual depiction of national filmmaking space becoming vulnerable under the influence of international cinema. The film is concerned with what it means to be a French filmmaker at a time in which the artistic authority of the traditional auteur is being called into question.

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Another interesting film to focus on when mapping the position of the contemporary French auteur is Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991). The film itself was made for an estimated $28,000,000 (1), partly due to the huge construction of a replica Pont-Neuf outside Paris. The overall scale of the film is extremely large, incorporating a great array of scenic Paris locations, as well as a long elaborate sequence set during the French Bicentennial celebrations of 1989. The film, as a production, reflects a Hollywood method of filmmaking. Whereas Irma Vep is a personal film, creating the impression of Assayas single-handedly constructing its frames as a lone and self-reflective auteur, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is one of great scale, harboring mental images of Carax struggling at the reins of this great beast of a film, while also dealing with a huge crew and an ever-increasing production budget. Wendy Everett explains that, “Carax was increasingly characterized as an idealistic and unreliable director … it was almost inevitable that when the film finally appeared it had already been labeled as extravagant and self-indulgent” (Everett, 2006, p.209) On its surface, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf echoes a major film production; Carax constructs the film as a contemporary film director, yet shoots it as a classic auteur. The aesthetic of the film is largely handheld, fluidly kinetic, and often surreal in tone, thus a sense of Carax’s voice and presence lives within its frames. The film’s size would suggest a reduction of creative power to Carax from the studio, yet the filmic tone of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf manages to maintain an independent aesthetic, one of personal expression and vision. Carax attempts to modernize the traditional values of the auteur by using an epic quality and sense of gravitas as the backdrop for a more personal narrative, just as Godard had attempted while making Contempt (1963).

This hybrid nature of both the commercial and the independent mixed unsuccessfully for Carax. The identity of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf often feels confused, caught within an awkward space; the film could be identified as too personally expressive for broad, mainstream audiences, yet too romanticized and expansive for a smaller cinephile or art-house audience. Using Les Amants du Pont-Neuf as an appropriate example, it could be said that the auteur haunts contemporary French cinema, bringing with it the advantages of creative command and advance knowledge of cinema history, but the disadvantages of smaller audiences and little commercial power. The French cinema has, since the new wave, been occupied with this creative command in the form of the auteur, but to describe its presence as ‘haunting’ is an appropriate one. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf fails because of its stubbornness to submit to the binaries of contemporary film culture. The film refuses to easily classify itself as a ‘mainstream’ or ‘auteur’ film; it aspires towards the global greatness of a Hollywood blockbuster, while at the same time being unwilling to shed its avant-garde skin because of a certain French loyalty to the auteur and what it stands for. The cinema of the auteur placed France on the map of important filmmaking nations, but as contemporary French cinema sleeps uneasy at night, the auteur lingers within the shadows, perpetually haunting the very space from which it was originally created. The new wave, and in particular Truffaut’s essay, will continue forcing the French cinema and the French auteur to look brutally and honestly towards their own relevance and purpose within an ever-changing cinematic world.

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Within the films studied in this essay, it seems appropriate to suggest that what happened between the period of Truffaut’s cries and Wilson’s warning was that the auteur lost its French identity; this was in part due to cinematic globalization, but was also the result of the amplified commercialization of film throughout the later half of the 20th century. Films such as Les Amants du Pont-Neuf have attempted to fight this battle only to suffer severe and painful defeats, yet the French film industry continues waving a supportive flag for the auteur. This is because the French auteur stands for creative freedom and expressive thought. The result is an industry known for innovative and interesting films, yet one in which hardly any large audience outside France manages to experience this innovation on any significant scale. However, as for the central question, is it fair to say that the presence of the auteur ‘haunts’ French cinema? Yes, but the auteur also guides and empowers French film, serving as the ultimate artistic credibility for future French filmmakers. French cinema now holds a love/hate relationship with the auteur. In many ways, the French auteur holds back the French film industry, yet in many others, expands France’s influence beyond that of any other important filmmaking nation on the planet. It falls into the hands of future French filmmakers to decide where to next take the industry; either towards the temptation of the commercial mainstream, or back towards the looming phantom of the auteur.

 

  1. ‘Box office/business for Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’, available online at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101318/business?ref_=ttrel_ql_4 (accessed, 16/03/2016).

An, G. (2000) ‘Par-Asian Screen Women and Film Identities: The Vampiric in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep’, in Sites, Vol. 4, issue 2 ‘Cinema/Video/New Media’ pp. 399-415.

Everett, W. (2006) ‘Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf’, in The Cinema of France, ed. Phil Powrie, London: Wallflower Press.

Sutton, P. (1999) ‘Remaking the Remake; Irma Vep’ in French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference, ed. Phil Powrie, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truffaut, F. (1954) “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’, originally printed in Cahiers Du Cinéma, January 1954, available online at: http://www.newwavefilm.com/about/a-certain-tendency-of-french-cinema-truffaut.shtml (accessed, 23/03/2016).

Wilson, E. (1999) French Cinema Since 1950: Personal Histories, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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