By David Swanson
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A Short History of Cahiers du Cinema

This article is over 12 years, 4 months old
Emilie Bickerton, Verso, £12.99
Issue 346

The influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma effectively invented serious film criticism when it started in the 1950s.

It was intimately connected with the French New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut who wrote for it before going on to make their own films. It embraced May 1968 in France, became explicitly Marxist, and for a period was home to debates on art and revolution by film makers and critics with an intensity rarely seen since the Russian Revolution.

This excellent short book traces the magazine’s journey from the early days through to its eventual decline into “another banal mouthpiece” for the latest Oscar hopeful.

Cahiers began by developing ideas such as auteur theory, which emphasised the importance of the individual director, and the semi-mysterious concept of “mise-en-scène”, essentially an attempt to analyse visual style. Marxists would generally respond to auteur theory along the lines of Bertolt Brecht, “Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?”, yet the theory does reflect an element of truth.

You can tell when you’re watching a film by, say, Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky or Godard. But more important than the debate itself was that such ideas gave birth to a film theory which judged film as film, took it seriously as an art form and analysed its particular form and content together.

In those early days Cahiers was un-political; the Algerian War only gets one mention in its pages during the 1950s. But this changed with the increasing radicalisation of the 1960s, reaching its peak in 1968, when the cinema world, along with wider French society, was swept up in collective organisation and class confrontation.

In parallel, an analytical shift occurs, away from the early auteur theory and towards an emphasis on contextualising film in terms of how it is produced and understood. These processes led them back to the ideas of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, to Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.

Sadly, a retreating movement can lead the most enthusiastic participants into giving up or becoming ultra-left. Post-1968, Cahiers went with the latter in the form of Maoism and became the film criticism equivalent of the Red Brigades. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the journal never really recovered.

Emilie Bickerton’s book provides an enjoyable overview of the many individuals and ideas connected with Cahiers over the years, and it is a useful springboard to finding out more. Many of the old magazine articles can be found online for free if you do enough digging and it is worth the effort. Easier to find are their top ten lists for each year. Watch as many as possible, immerse yourself in great cinema like they did, and then go make some films.

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