You are all Witnesses in this Trial—French Cinema is Withering under the Burden of False Legends


(This essay originally appeared in the newspaper Arts—special issue, Cannes Film Festival, May 15, 1957. It is excerpted here. Translation by Dorna Khazeni).

Is cinema an art?

In most cases the answer can be summarized by the word yes. There are always exceptions that prove the rule, and in this case that answer is: cinema is not an art, because films are products of collective work; a film is an ad hoc creation.

One could just as easily say, contrary to what is written in all the Histories of Cinema, contrary to the claims of directors themselves, that a film is no more a team effort than a novel, a poem, a symphony, or a painting.

The great directors, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophüls, Robert Bresson, and many others, wrote films that they themselves shot. Even when inspired by a novel, a play, or a true story, that point of departure is merely a pretext. A filmmaker is not a writer—he thinks in terms of images, of mise-en-scène. Working with a pen just bores him.

A screenwriter’s role, compared to a great director’s, doesn’t go beyond that of a technician—lending a hand for dramatic structure, a knack for “tying up” a complicated plot, suggestions for dialogue. A screenwriter talks to the director and “throws the ball back in his court.” Credits don’t mean much in the end. Cecil Saint-Laurent and Annette Wademant—who received screenplay and adaptation credits, respectively, for Lola Montes—tell me that Max Ophüls did not preserve any of their work, which doesn’t make either of them any less of a fan of the film or Ophüls. […]

Directors, who, as I have already stated, think in images, are loathe to explain their intentions verbally—a reticence generally matched in inverse proportion by screenwriters—hence Max Ophüls’s refusal to explain his intentions to several close collaborators. […]

This article—which will make those inside the “industry” it doesn’t infuriate smile—is dictated to me by my profound and total love of cinema and by my scorn for all who live off it without loving it. There is no crisis in cinema, for if there were, producers would cease to produce, which is not the case, as investment figures climb higher each year, as do, it is true, shortfalls. But therein lies the divine mystery. […] If there were a crisis in cinema, it would be a crisis of men and not a crisis of subjects—subjects, unlike vegetables, don’t depend on climate in order to grow better or worse.

Anyone can be a director or an actor

In fact, I think it’s stupid to complain, no matter where on the ladder one happens to be. Those who work in cinema who are dissatisfied should change professions. No one has come to the movies other than voluntarily. If screenwriters are disappointed by directors, why not shoot the films they write themselves? If directors aren’t happy with their producers, why not finance their own films?

Anyone can be a director, anyone can be a screenwriters, anyone can be an actor (the director of photography’s job is the only one that requires some technology). Three hundred meters of raw stock costs thirty thousand francs. A large production uses two thousand five hundred meters. One might deduce from this that all it takes to make a great film is a million francs. That is, if we leave out camera rental, lighting costs, and above all laboratory costs (developing the film, printing, etc.), sound, editing, mixing, assuming everyone’s working for nothing. Let’s say the camera could be borrowed, that the film could be shot entirely outdoors (eliminating the lights) and that—seeing as what matters most is the shooting itself—there’d be no immediate necessity to develop the film. Then, in such a case, one would reach the amazing conclusion that in a country where the average cost of a film hovers at around ninety million francs, a plucky young man, so to speak, could make a film for four or five million!

This kind of math is only possible outside that admirable establishment that is French cinema, thanks to which you don’t have the right to buy film stock without a shooting permit, which can only be obtained upon the presentation of a budget that, if below about four or five million, will not be considered “serious.”

It is possible, without going to too much trouble to come by film stock illegally, to shoot illegally, and to develop the film illegally (the proof: clandestine porno films that are screen in apartments on the rue Blanche).

Your film, once finished, risks running into all sorts of trouble with the organizations you’ve bypassed while shooting it; there again, it is possible to bet on the elasticity of a system prevented from being too rigorous by the very infrequency of exceptions to it.

Agnès Varda’s La Pointe courte is a film that unfortunately speaks to a very limited audience—the one Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut might have addressed, had its story been about a commonplace prisoner and not a lieutenant in the Resistance—shot in a village close to the Sète using real interiors and street locations. It was financed by individuals working as a cooperative—the technical team and the actors worked together, that is to say, they would be paid in eventual profits. The film cost, I believe, about ten million, which is very little given the enterprise’s amazing meticulousness and how very respectably it was received.

This is also how Little Fugitive—a film that had an international career—was made by three young people in America.

When things in cinema aren’t going well, all we do is hope they will get even worse, so the columns of the temple, which has gradually turned into a brothel, might crumble and bring about a renewal from the bottom up. […]

There are no bad films—there are only mediocre directors.

I don’t believe in good and bad films, I believe in good and bad directors. It’s possible that a mediocre or a very average filmmaker might from time to time make a successful film, but such success doesn’t count. It matters less than a Renoir failure, insofar as Jean Renoir is even capable of making a film that fails. Among his films, the one I like the least is French Cancan, where exterior contingencies seem to me to play too great a part. Nonetheless, French Cancan, by virtue of its subject (an inveterate showman’s merging of his personal and professional lives), and of Françoise Arnoul’s guiding performance, mattered more in the year 1955 than all the rest of French cinema put together.

A director possess a style that one will find in all his films, and this is true of the worst filmmakers and their worst films. Differences from one film to the next—a more ingenious script, superior photography, or whatever else—don’t matter, because these differences are precisely the product of exterior forces, more or less money, a greater or shorter shooting schedule. What’s essential is that an intelligent and gifted filmmaker remain intelligent and gifted no matter what film he is shooting. I am therefore an advocate of judging, when there is judging to be done, not films but filmmakers. I will never like a Delannoy film; I will always like a Renoir film.

The film of tomorrow will be made by adventurers

Were one to be pessimistic, this is what one could write about French cinema: At the very moment when Hollywood cinema is liberating itself, when filmmakers are finally starting to make the films they want to make, when Nocholas Rays, the Richard Brookses, the Aldriches, the Anthony Manns, the Kazans, the Mankiewiczes, the Logans are shooting films about war, against war, against publicity, films that are extremely free in every way, French filmmakers are taking the opposite tack, preparing to ape the Hollywood of five years ago. Our filmmakers are becoming slaves to spuer-production, and because they don’t all have the force of an Ophüls, they allow themselves to be devoured, to be absorbed by the disproportionate status of films today. […]

The more expensive the films, the stupider, in our system of production, and the more impersonal and anonymous, as well. […]

The film of tomorrow seems to me therefore more personal even than a novel, individual and autobiographical, like a confession or like a personal diary. Young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will tell us what happened to them: it might be the story of their first love or of their most recent one, their finding a political consciousness, a travel journal, an illness, their military service, their marriage, their most recent vacation, and it will necessarily be likeable because it will be true and new.

For a film that cost three hundred million to break even, it has to appeal to all social classes in all countries. A film that cost sixty million can break even simply in France or by connecting with small groups in lots of countries (Little Fugitive).

The film of tomorrow will not be made by functionaries behind a camera but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a formidable and exalting adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportionate to the number of friends the filmmaker has.

The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.

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