Unraveling French Cinema: From L’Atalante to Caché
By T. Jefferson Kline
Wiley-Blackwell, January 2010
For those of us seeking to get a fuller understanding of French film, Kline’s book is a godsend.
His book doesn’t aim to give a comprehensive history of French cinema, but instead provides close readings and discussions of just over 10 key films, ranging from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) to Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adele H. (1975) to Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005). The most recent film discussed, contra the subtitle, is Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One (2006).
Kline’s purpose is to aid you, the reader, in understanding and better appreciating these particular films, as well as to provide the intellectual tools to allow you to approach other French films with something that approximates to confidence. And in this he pretty much succeeds.
Early on in the book, Kline compares French film-making to the Hollywood film and he concludes that the central difference is that in making a particular film, whatever it might be, French directors usually have an ulterior motive (one, at least). That motive is to test, demonstrate or explore some notion of what cinema (as an art/medium) is or is ‘like’ (whether that be poetry, story or – a French delicacy – an antinominal ‘up yours’). There is also the related question of what the experience of watching a film is most akin to (with dreaming, undergoing hypnosis, being manipulated and/or helpless being some options); and this too has exercised French noggins (to use a word that Queneau would surely have approved of).
One key factor about French cinema is the emphasis on discontinuity, disruption and fractured narratives; to aim for a fluidity of images which allows the viewer to painlessly immerse himself in the narrative seems a mite too simple to them.
I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be challenging, rewarding and worthwhile. I learnt a lot. Kline has an engaging prose style and clearly knows his stuff. Envy his students.
Recently, I reviewed a related title The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks, edited by Peter Graham (2009). To read this review, click here.