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The Left Bank

Incorporating the Anomalous

 

If the Right Bank filmmakers within the New Wave (Nouvelle vague) like Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol concerned themselves with the history of cinema and stars, the Left Bank filmmakers could appear more politicized if for no other reason than that they seemed more interested in history and people. Yet this would be far too bald a dichotomy, no matter if Genevieve Sellier in Masculine Singular admired in filmmakers from the Left Bank like Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, George Franju, Chris Marker and Jacques Demy their apparent political position over their adulatory relationship to Hollywood, “all of whom shared the idea, already explicitly practised in some of their short features, that stylistic experiments can be articulated with a progressive political commitment.” This was surely truer, though, for some of the filmmakers than for others. Agnes Varda could make this claim throughout her work, and it is already very evident in her first feature, a film that anticipated the New Wave by five years. La Pointe courte once led the critic George Sadoul to call it “truly the first film of the nouvelle vague”. Here was the opposite of a cine-literate filmmaker, with Varda claiming, many years later, however disingenuously, that she had watched almost no films before making La pointe court and could recall only seeing one. The film was Citizen Kane – according to Ginette Vincendeau in her review of Varda’s film for Criterion. If the Right Bank filmmakers were soaked in cinema, Varda was more drenched in life. The film was made on a tiny budget for Varda’s own company Cine-Tamaris and filmed in the town of Séte, on the Mediterranean coast. She used professional actors (Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort star), but also utilised local people and documented the environment in which the central characters play out their love story.

Varda’s oeuvre has often possessed a documentary dimension (and later work included documentary features like The Gleaners and I and the Beaches of Agnes), and with her second film Cleo from 5 to 7 in 1962, she took the opportunity to record the streets of Paris as her central character waits for the results of a cancer test. Yet there has frequently been a formal dimension too that questions this realist aesthetic. The editing on La Pointe Courte was by Alain Resnais, and its experimental nature anticipates the innovative director’s own films. Varda’s Le Bonheur, made in 1965, meanwhile, would seem very far away from realism. Its rich use of colour and Mozart on the soundtrack lulls us into a false sense of security so that a shocking moment seems all the more horrifying in that Varda denies its formal anticipation. Many a filmmaker who wants to show us a tragedy does so by anticipating it if not narratively then at the very least formally: through a hint of brooding music, darkening colours, askew camera angles. Varda absorbs the suicide of the central character’s wife after she finds out about his affair within the formally optimistic, and it is as if instead of the form aligning itself to the story, the story aligns itself to the form: the film remains visually optimistic throughout, as though the pessimism in the tale has to find its own optimism despite the apparent despair contained within it. This is why many find the ending so troublesome: with the husband and his kids now part of a new family with the mistress replacing the wife.

This particular type of formal experimentation, with the story slightly at odds with the visual form, is also to be found in Jacques Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, from 1964. Demy was Varda’s husband, and had previously made Lola in 1960. The earlier film was a drama with musical interludes, but the later film was a musical where all the dialogue was sung, and Demy’s tale of doomed romance and emotional compromise is played out against an exuberant colour scheme, using Eastman stock, and Michel Legrand’s equally rich score. It is as if both Varda and Demy wanted to work with Hollywood optimism of form but not of content, to share mass cinema’s fascination with visual gloss, yet contain within it emotional complexity. Both Varda and Demy would go to LA in the late sixties, but the films they made there – Model Shop by Demy, and Lions Love by Varda – were hardly classic Hollywood. The filmmakers were both more interested in capturing the times, it seemed, than recapturing the Dream Factory’s golden era. Model Shop shows the eponymous character from Lola (played by Anouk Aimee) working in a photographer’s shop in LA. The film’s lengthy and ambitious opening tracking shot anticipates the film’s exploratory dimension, as Demy searches out Los Angeles rather than using it merely as a backdrop. It remains one of many great outsider films: films made by European filmmakers with a European sensibility documenting the US. One thinks of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and Paris, Texas, Herzog’s Stroszeck, even Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Varda’s film seems a more ad hoc work, with a tentative love triangle offering the opportunity to look at various counter-cultural movements of the time.

Perhaps the most important filmmaker of the Left Bank was Alain Resnais. When his first film Hiroshima mon amour came out in 1959, the Right Bank filmmakers at Cahiers du cinema arranged a round table, with Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and other critics at the magazine discussing its importance. Partly what was so interesting from the point of view of these cinephiles was that, as Godard noted, “it is totally devoid of any cinematic references”. Rivette noted however that though it wasn’t homaging as the new wave films often were, it was a film he believed that recalled Eisenstein, where the great Russian director’s ideas were put into practise, “and, moreover, in  a very new way.”  What did Rivette mean by this? Perhaps he was proposing that where his fellow Cahiers colleague, the late Andre Bazin, had proposed that cinema’s truth lay in the long take over the montage techniques promulgated by Eisenstein and other Russian filmmakers of the twenties, and filmmakers like Griffith before them, Resnais had welded the problems together. Had montage earlier been used not for its truth seeking value, but more its manipulative purpose? Bazin wanted filmmakers to create longer takes that would give the viewer space to think and feel their way around the frame. Yet in Hiroshima mon amour Resnais does not manipulate, but instead uses the editing to ask questions, to seek out the truth as Bazin would have indicated, but through montage rather than through the extended shot.

We see this in the scene where the central character played by Emmanuele Riva believes that by going to the museums in Hiroshima she had understood something of the atrocity. Her Japanese lover insists she has seen nothing of Hiroshima; she claims she has seen everything. As Resnais moves from close-ups of two bodies making love, to tracking shots at a hospital, and shows us various characters lying in bed at the hospital which Resnais illustrates through a series of match cuts from one to the other, so the director questions Bazin’s notion of cinema as a window onto the world. If the camera never lies, then it can certainly mislead, and it is as if Resnais is saying one way of arriving at the truth is questioning the image itself. As he then moves onto images of the museum as Riva lists in voice-over what she has witnessed, so the viewer is placed in a position of asking what is the everything she has seen in Hiroshima, and what is she not capable of seeing according to her lover, whose family were killed in the city when the nuclear bomb exploded there. Here Resnais’s montage doesn’t manipulate the viewer into specific feeling, nor does it offer long-takes refusing manipulation but insisting the image is ‘true’, but uses montage to question the assumptions we have concerning both content and form.

It is this questioning that can equally lead to the “ontological ambiguity of reality” that Bazin thought was vital to cinema. From a certain point of view Resnais’ following film, Last Year at Marienbad, would be thoroughly Bazinian in its aims even if it happened to be antithetical to Bazin’s ideas in its form. Here we have three character in Marienbad, and Resnais so plays with time that the temporal coordinates collapse against the characters’ faulty memories.  At various moments characters describe verbally what we see in flashback, but what we see in the flashbacks contradict what they are saying. This is more the ontological ambiguity of memory rather than of reality, yet some critics saw in Resnais’ radically ambiguous cinema an element of a movement that was central to Bazin’s developing aesthetic principles: neo-realism. In Cahiers du cinema, Andre S. Labarthe reckoned many of the films Bazin admired presented the “spectator with raw material (even if it has in fact been heavily worked on) from which he may extract his own film”. Resnais just happened to take the gaps that allow for ambiguity in neo-realism and other long take works, and make them impossible to fill in adequately. Resnais was as interested in truth as Bazin, as interested in montage as Eisenstein, but in the process joined two apparently disparate perspectives together.

Resnais continued to experiment with time throughout the sixties, in Muriel, La Guerre est finie and Je’ taime Je ‘taime, but these are the two films that have imprinted on cinema history unequivocally, and indeed more than any other works by the Left Bank filmmakers. If the right Bank is represented historically by Breathless, 400 Blows, Jules and Jim and Le Mepris, Resnais’ two works are of equal importance.

A filmmaker like Chris Marker is of immense import too, but that significance seems quite different from Resnais’, and the latter’s impact on early sixties cinema. Marker is a filmmaker who in some ways has never impacted on cinema at all, as if his own famous reticence (no interviews, almost no pictures) is matched by his films being quietly important rather than noisily eventful. This quiet presence though is also because Marker has worked almost exclusively in non-fiction film, a rare exception a short he made called La Jetee. The film is fictional but hardly conventionally so – since the only moving image in this twenty nine minute film is a momentary eye movement. The rest of the film is made up of stills and voice over, as the film explores the problem of time: a man possesses a key memory from Orly airport; can he access it and change the nature of events? The film’s been described as a photo-roman, a photo-novel, and the film fits perfectly into the concerns of the Left Bank, since the filmmakers were often influenced by or came from a literary rather than cinematic background. Resnais’ scriptwriter on Hiroshima mon amour was Marguerite Duras, an important figure in what was called the nouveau roman – a fifties literary movement concerned with creating new perceptual possibilities in the novel through no longer asking the reader to “receive a completed finished world, closed in on itself”, but instead “to participate in a creation, to invent the work – and the world – and thus to learn to invent his own life.” The words are Alain Robbe-Grillet’s – the scriptwriter on Last Year at Marienbad, and along with Duras a major figure in the nouveau roman. Like Duras he went on to become a director also, and both are included not only as writers who contributed scripts to Resnais’s films, but as directorially part of the wave also.

Indeed the Left Bank movement always seemed more flexible and inclusive than the Right Bank, since it could incorporate not only the cinematically fictional, but also the literary and documentative. Marker’s own background was in literature: he was one of the editors at a modern publishing house, Les Editions du Seuil, who printed works by Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Franz Fanon and others. His films frequently utilise dense voice-over that muses over the image and creates intimate complicity with the viewer, evident in Letter from Siberia from the late fifties, but also work into the eighties The Last Bolshevik and Sans soleil.  Perhaps his best known film of the sixties, alongside La jetee, was Le joli Mai, an examination of Parisian attitudes in the early part of the decade, where Marker interviewed various people about their lives, often catching them quite casually on the street, and linking the interviews with archival footage that contextualised people’s remarks within a broader political reality. Marker, whose real name is Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, and who is now in his nineties, is well-known for remaining a very private person for all his interest in the social environment. When he ‘appeared’ in Varda’s recent film The Beaches of Agnes, he did so through the image of a cat. Perhaps as much a writer as a filmmaker (he’s written brilliantly for example on Vertigo) his films are often held together by the provocative and suggestive commentary, and through his interest in excavating time through archival footage. His films are not especially made up of memorable images; more by memorable perspectives on the image. In a film he made in the nineties, Level Five, he shows us footage from Okinawa, where people would throw themselves off the cliff rather than surrender to the Americans at the end of World War II. Marker wonders whether the presence of the camera made them jump, made them act heroically for posterity, and thus the camera becomes not a silent witness but a murderous device, urging people on to their death by its very existence at the event.

If Resnais was the most influential of the filmmakers from the Left Bank, that was partly because his films as we’ve proposed undeniably impacted on the culture in the early sixties. A director like Georges Franju was probably more accessible and commercial, but he never seemed a filmmaker synonomous with what was known in the sixties as film culture. There were eight or so filmmakers – Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel, Bergman Resnais, Kurosawa – whose films had to be seen, and then there were works by others that were important, but didn’t seem to be part of the cinematic noise. Franju had made a very memorable documentary in the late forties called Blood of the Beast, about the abbatoirs at La Villette in the north east of Paris, and was also one of the figures behind the Cinematheque, so frequently attended by the right bank filmmakers. But his films of the late fifties and early sixties (Eyes without a Face, Judex) were minor works of surreal feeling, capturing the ghastly, almost ghostly horror in the former of a surgeon determined to give his daughter a beautiful face after a horrible accident. Unfortunately to do so he has to murder young women in the process, and with no guarantee that the new face will take. In the latter the film works with a deliberately broad stroke approach to good and evil in a homage to silent cinema and Judex.

One refers to the films as minor for no better reason than that the great works of the period were pushing and questioning form, and examining or symbolizing social problematics. Franju’s work seemed a quiet retreat into genre, into the horror film and the thriller. In different ways most of the other Left Bank filmmakers wanted to create anomalous, contradictory feelings in the viewer, evident in the problematic pathos extracted in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or the troublesome optimism at the end of Le Bonheur. Nobody wanted complex feelings more than Resnais, and his capacity to go deep into the emotional crisis of his central character in Hiroshima mon amour and link it to contemporary history, and his ability to leave the viewer incapable of discerning truth from falsity in Last Year at Marienbad, are easily the equal of high art complexity in the theatre, the novel etc.

If Franju became a minor figure because of the generic elements, perhaps in Robbe-Grillet and Duras’s case it was the opposite. Both were as experimental filmmakers as they were writers, though both approached film with a different problematic. Robbe-Grillet was fascinated by the problem of film as a medium that only possessed a present tense, while Duras wanted to separate word from image. When Robbe-Grillet differentiated his perspective from Alain Resnais, he believed, according to Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1: The Time Image, that while Resnais was interested in an architecture of time, in time falling into infinity, Robbe-Grillet was interested in a “perpetual present”, in an image that concerns itself not with the problem of memory, as in Resnais’ films generally, but with time stuck in the present and incapable of moving forward. As he says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror, commenting on his own past. “All this is real, that is fragmentary, fleeting, useless, so random and so specific, that any incident at any moment appears gratuitous and any life seems, after all, devoid of the slightest unifying significance.” It was this that he wanted to capture in his novels, and also in his films. As if to escape the nature of causal time and consequence he would sometimes base his films on principles from music and mathematics (which he had studied alongside biology). Eden and After was based on twelve tone music, while other works showed the influence of games. As Bruce Morissette says in relation to Robbe-Grillet’s prose in ‘Games and Game-Structures in Robbe-Grillet’, “from the outset the proliferation of game structures in the works of Alain Robbe Grillet identifies the writer as a notable example of artifex ludens”. The same principles apply to his directorial work, often with at the same time a fascination with sexual, sado-masochistic possibilities as the ludic is taken into the visually explicit in films like Trans-europ express, Playing with Fire and La belle captive.

If Robbe-Grillet’s images became explicit, many of Duras’s images could be described as implicit, implicit in the sense that the image and words were separated from each other so that the image no longer finds its certitude in the addition of sound, but gets called into question by the abstraction, even prominence of the audio. In most directors’ work the sound is bridesmaid to the image, in Duras’s films the audio gets to walk down the aisle. As Jill Forbes says in The Cinema in France, “The sound cinema has always been concerned to avoid what it considers redundancy; you do not say what you can show. But because in Duras’s films (India Song, Nathalie Granger) the soundtrack has a fully-fledged and autonomous existence, the pleonasm so feared by conventional film makers can become a positive quality.” Interestingly, if Robbe-Grillet wants his images to be seen as exclusively in the present, Duras is a fine filmmaker (as well as writer) of invoking the past. In India Song for example she relies on narration as the central female character does not speak at all in the film. The voice over conveys a sense of events past rather than events happening in the present.

In sum, what we can see in the new wave is a richness so great that it managed to create two simultaneous but far from identical movements. It is rather like a city enjoying a great footballing renaissance on the basis of having two clubs of equal greatness playing a quite different game. The Right Bank may have been seen as the more defensive, working within the memory of Hollywood as readily as moving forward formally. But these were both finally attacking teams, flamboyant and innovative. Maybe the sporting metaphor isn’t too gratuitous. Deleuze has a nice passage in Negotiations where he says, “All the new sports – surfing, wind-surfing, hang-gliding – take the form of entering into an existing wave.” Many a new film has equally been influenced by the wave that was the French Nouvelle vague.

 

©Tony McKibbin