By Buchsbaum, Jonathan
The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995 by Martin O'Shaughnessy. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007. 195 pp. Hardcover: $80.00. Before 1968, debates concerning politics and film in France were usually conducted in the film journal Positif. The more famous Cahiers du cinema had championed a "politique des auteurs," which had little to do with politics. That changed in 1968, when Cahiers moved radically left, profoundly influenced by intellectuals such as the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In his new book, Martin O'Shaughnessy, a professor of film at Nottingham Trent University in England, tries to limn a recent "paradigm shift in the mode of appearance of social struggle in French cinema" since the concerted efforts of Cahiers to articulate a theory and criticism of political film.
O'Shaughnessy poses the central question of how films can formulate political critiques after the collapse of the grand leftist narrative(s) of the twentieth century. The book contests the analysis staked out by Cahiers after 1968, which he finds still regnant at Cahiers almost forty later. In so doing, the book uses a corpus of some fifty films made by roughly forty filmmakers. Some will be familiar to readers in this country (Laurent Cantet, Claude Chabrol, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Robert Guediguian, Bruno Dumont, Bertrand Tavernier), others less so (Laetitia Masson, Herve le Roux, Dominique Cabrera, Christian Vincent).
O'Shaughnessy chooses to begin his analysis in 1995, not only because of the release of new political films after that moment, but also because of the large protests mounted in France in that year against the government's attempts to reform social security benefits in the public sector. Filmmakers joined that movement, and subsequently led resistance on other fronts as well, notably the undocumented immigrants (the sans papiers), and part-time cultural workers, known as the intermittents du spectacle.
New political filmmaking, then, appeared as part of that resistance, and O'Shaughnessy wants to demonstrate the inadequacy of the old Cahiers schema, but more significantly, to proffer a new analysis that will recognize the value of contemporary political films that models inherited and adapted from the earlier Cahiers era dismiss. Cahiers continues to privilege films that not only engage clearly political issues, such as strikes, but also interrogate cinematic form (the Dziga Vertov group's Tout va bien, 1972, is a favored example). Films that adopt conventional forms cannot be political, for their enclosure in realism precludes reflection on these forms (as in Marin Karmitz's Coup pour coup, 1971).
To address the Cahiers position, or positions, O'Shaughnessy begins his critical account with Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, who writes, appropriately enough, for Positif, the old antagonist of Cahiers. In his writing from the 1990s, Jeancolas suggests a return to Andre Bazin's commentaries on realism, and O'Shaughnessy responds to that call, noting that Bazin's writing on Italian neorealism contains aspects that can be found in contemporary French committed cinema, specifically its loose narrative construction, the use of nonprofessional actors, and the absence of an overarching grand recit to connect cause and event, a particularly salient affinity for O'Shaughnessy.
While the book accepts a description of the films as broadly realist, O'Shaughnessy adds a crucial idea from an article by Patricia Osganian: the esthetic of the fragment. As O'Shaughnessy relates it, the fragment refers to "the evacuation of the social so that what is left is the uncushioned conflict between individuals." O'Shaughnessy elaborates this idea throughout the book, recurrently invoking the "central characteristics" of this paradigm shift, "the raw, quasi-mute corporeality that ensues from the individualization of social struggle and the loss of collective voice."
The argument of the book draws perhaps even more crucially on the work of French political thinkers (Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere, Robert Castel, Etienne Balibar). O'Shaughnessy cogently synthesizes a number of their claims to argue that the once powerful organized left, built through soldering class analysis to collective struggle, has imploded. Privatization and the globalization of capital have defeated that left, leaving workers ma rooned from the mooring of unions, shunted to precarious employment, reduced to elemental struggles to subsist. The collapse of a leftist imaginary has deprived these atomized individuals of a common language: "a Marxist or related viewpoint is no longer available to provide an overarching, totalising vision that can connect local and specific struggles to a broader narrative of emancipation."
Joining these cinematic and political interpretations, the book traces the "shift from an esthetic of the totality to an aesthetic of the fragment." Curiously, although the book concentrates almost exclusively on fiction films, a much-discussed documentary film emblematizes the transition of the paradigm shift, and elicits the longest and most fully realized film commentary in the study. Herve le Roux's Reprise (1995) is organized around a short film from 1968 made in the courtyard of the Wonder battery factory in a Paris working-class suburb after the union leadership had agreed to return to work. Le Roux tracked down many of the workers seen in that film, most of whom take positions coinciding with their identifications with political formations, whether management, Communist, or Maoist.
One woman, however, in the original film, but never located, objects strenuously to the capitulation of labor, animatedly gesticulating as she speaks, and Le Roux repeatedly returns to her image. For O'Shaughnessy, "the corporeality, emotional intensity and melodramatic self-representation which the woman has to call upon when she feels that she is no longer being represented" are the strands that O'Shaughnessy picks out as the expression of "raw, untheorized revolt." O'Shaughnessy finds that this woman's exaggerated gestures figures exactly the kind of untamed excess characteristic of the contemporary resistance no longer armed with the once powerful language of the organized left.
In rich, compelling, and often brilliant detail, O'Shaughnessy charts the conceptual trajectory from the films of the "emergent fragment" to the fully formed esthetic of the fragment. In the emergent fragment, memories of the past organized struggles and their explanatory narrative remain, but they no longer have purchase on the present. The hard to see early films of the Dardenne brothers introduce this category, which also includes many others. Guediguian's films fall into this group, where older characters recall that past, while younger characters are struggling in the present.
Some readers, including this one, might regard Guediguian's films as indulging in a demobilizing nostalgia. O'Shaughnessy's analysis deflects that criticism by placing these films in the trajectory of the fragment. That is, they are part of fictional efforts that bear witness to the dissolution of the old, recognizing that that option is no longer available. The book does not necessarily deny their nostalgia, but rather asks persuasively to see these films of the emergent fragment as transitional, caught between the familiarity of the past and the still exploitative but perplexing contours of the new.
In the esthetic of the fragment proper, signs and hopes of the past have disappeared. The later and more familiar films of the Dardenne brothers serve as exemplary illustrations, among many others. The young protagonists may have inconstant, marginal jobs, at best, but they cannot turn to worker organizations for support or understanding. Instead, they act out violently in interpersonal, often familial, relations. The teenage son of The Promise (1996), fired from his automobile apprenticeship because of the demands of his father's illegal trafficking in immigrant labor, eventually defies his father by helping an African family widowed by the father's negligence. The so-called banlieue films (see special dossier in Cineaste, 33:1, Winter 2007) are set in former bastions of a militant working class outside Paris. Despite the estheticized photography of La Haine, the encounters of its young multicultural protagonists when they leave their home turf for Paris dramatize class tensions, illustrating the exclusion of new immigrant groups from the official promise of universal inclusion in French citoyennite, or citizenship.
Most of the critical apparatus concentrates on the esthetic of the fragment, but O'Shaughnessy adds one important, if more controversial, piece. While he notes that Bazin lamented the Italian filmmakers' penchant for melodrama, O'Shaughnessy sees melodrama as an important complement to realism. Following the theory of melodrama advanced by Peter Brooks, O'Shaughnessy writes that just as core features of melodrama were used by realist writers of the nineteenth century to fill in the absence left by the French Revolution, which overthrew the explanatory regime of the sacred, melodrama can be used today to make the now hidden oppression of capital visible. The violence of exploitation has not ended under today's accelerated globalization, and the excessive expression of melodrama can help to bring that violence to the surface, restoring a "transparency" lost by the defeat of the workers' movement and obscured by the new multinational opacity of capital flows. The insistence on melodrama, as O'Shaughnessy acknowledges in citing Bazin, is normally seen as antithetical to realism. Clearly, O'Shaughnessy wants to analogize the French Revolution's smashing of the old order to the shattering of the traditional left narrative, in both cases leaving the survivors without a replacement world view to navigate the new landscape. Using melodramatic devices such as contrived situations may indeed bring characters into unexpected dramatic confrontation, but these moments would seem to contradict the earlier approbation of episodic plot construction, whose appeal lies in the apparently random construction of the narrative episodes. Nonetheless, O'Shaughnessy's critical intelligence may outstrip the theoretical ambition here, for many of the descriptions of the films do highlight revelatory moments of pantomime, muteness, as well as excess that do indeed foreground eruptions of resistance and revolt.
The book, then, provides a grid to read characteristics of the films as illustrative of persistent, if still incipient class analysis. Unlike most books on film, which devote serially one passage to the consideration of one film, the chapters return polyphonically to many of the same films, applying varied criteria to detect the new signs of revolt. Workers on the shop floor in Human Resources refuse management overtures either mutely or in one case by literally barking, "the workers' loss of a collective voice." The buffeted camera movements following the title character in Rosetta stress the physicality of both suffering and struggle of the young woman, "an isolated and driven social atom moving through space, encountering obstacles and colliding with others." Slaughter of a bourgeois family shatters the calm surface of a superficially consensual world in The Ceremony, "the continuation of class struggle in worlds from which it had seemed banished and in which there remains no language with which to name it."
O'Shaughnessy stresses the element of raw and corporeal resistance to distinguish political cinema from a "social cinema" that only records the predicament of the exploited submitting to the violence, fixing them in passive identities. The task of political criticism is to show those individuals in struggle, even at the most elemental, at times atavistic, levels: "a probing of the real that must be worked upon to bring socio-economic violences, divisions and barriers back into visibility in a way that allows the voice of refusal and alternative values to be heard and make sense (or their silencing to be seen and understood)."
O'Shaughnessy has written a powerful and eloquent polemic for retaining a class analysis of film. Theoretically sophisticated, the book also provides a model of what form that analysis might take, directing us to the signs of resistance which criticism can make politically meaningful.-Jonathan Buchsbaum
Copyright Cineaste Spring 2009