The Critical Function
By Serge Daney

What form should our ‘interventions’ take? How has ‘film criticism’ been defined in Cahiers? (It’s after all our main inheritance from the journal’s past.) There have been two answers, two periods, two tendencies, the one hiding the other and both marked by a certain dogmatism.

First, the aesthetic criterion and the political criterion are given equal status. We assume that ‘if there is something missing on the formal level there must also be something missing on the political level’. We remind those inclined to forget it that ‘forms are not neutral’, but this is just an excuse for not investigating their very real content, for not spelling out this content in political terms – we leave that to others.

Second, politics is ‘the order of the day’. We no longer leave it to others to pronounce on political content. But we don’t look any further than the scenario, and we limit ourselves to orthodox Marxist-Leninist Theory, conceived more as an ultimate reference point than as a (critical) guide to action.

The difficulty, as one can see, is to think of the aesthetic criterion neither as equal (equivalent, analogous) to the political criterion nor as flowing automatically from it but as secondary. This is a very real difficulty and one which must be tackled. For example, by asking ourselves (which we have not done) apropos of progressive films, from Z to Sate of Siege (1) (for these are our primary concern), how we can criticize them effectively, how we can make them progress even further, and ourselves with them, how we can give concrete, straightforward support to those who are using these films today, whether through positive or negative example, in cine-clubs, youth clubs, etc (2). A question which must serve as a guide for the ‘film criticism’ which we have neglected for too long. This text is simply a first attempt at setting the problem out. Others will follow.

To write about films (to ‘intervene’) is perhaps, in the last analysis, to establish how, for each film, someone is saying something to us. In other words it is to specify two terms: the statement (what is said) and the enunciation (when it is said and by whom) (3). People will say that it’s a truism. That every Marxist knows (it’s the first thing they learn) that dominant ideas are those of the dominant class and that a film is a means like any other for the bourgeoisie to impose its vision of the world. But this knowledge remains dead, dogmatic, stereotyped and – as we have discovered – ineffective if we are unable to understand how it is imposed in particular films.

In this very journal we have tended for a long time to look for this ‘how’ in areas where no one, except on the mystical far left, was looking for it: in the basic apparatus, or in the structure of fiction or in the configuration of a cinema and the places it assigns. It is not that we were wrong, that all this is false and that all work along these lines must be abandoned. It’s rather that by indicating obstacles which seemed to have to do with the very nature of the cinema, we were bound to have nothing to say when called upon to make a concrete, ‘intervention’ in respect of particular films.

We urgently need to give ourselves the means, including the theoretical means, to specify the exact relation that each film maintains between statement and enunciation – above all, in borderline cases where the relation is unclear and where therefore the element of mystification is greatest.

This must be done for films where the statement predominates. In a documentary or a television programme, a discourse is presented, but it is so neutral, so objective, that it seems to be coming from no one in particular. We have to remind people forcefully, with examples to prove the point, that there cannot be disembodied statements, a timeless truth or an isolated, free-floating discourse.

And it must be done for films where the enunciation predominates. In a film d’auteur there is indeed a discourse, but it is spoken by someone who claims so much attention (the auteur) that it fades into the background. We must clearly remind people that behind the auteur and his rich subjectivity there is always, in the last analysis, a class which is speaking. And a class has objective interests, quite apart from the fact that any enunciation implies a statement. Let us note, in passing, that these two aspects can perfectly well co-exist, as in Antonioni’s recent film on China (4). An excess of neutrality (no one is speaking but something precise is being said) or an excess of subjectivity (someone is speaking and saying nothing): these are two denials which we ought to be able to recognize for what they are. This said, they are not symmetrical and they have to be fought against with different weapons: you wouldn’t handle the false neutrality of the commentary in a television programme on Stalin in the same way as you would the false ‘drifting’ of Bertolucci’s latest film (5).

These are extreme cases. Between the two you have the mass of films that still go under the heading of ‘critical realism’, and among them the so-called ‘progressive’ films. The very expression ‘critical realism’ indicates how necessary it is for film-makers to think as much about their statements (realism) as about their enunciation (critical realism). Now, in these films (whether R.A.S. or Lucky Luciano (6), you can be sure that there will be others), the dividing line between statement and enunciation is always mobile, shifting, unclear. This is what allows these films to function.

Let us take R.A.S., for example. You have the time of the statement (1956; the Algerian war; the recalled soldiers) and the time of the enunciation (1973; France; the loi Debré; the ‘army crisis’ and the youth movement (7)). Even if the statement appears easily to predominate, you can’t get away from the fact that each scene of the film is readable in both contexts, it can be read either way and the reader can choose. Let’s be clear: it isn’t this double reading which is awkward. A film on the French army during the Hundred Years War couldn’t fail to be seen in the light of the army of Massu and de Joybert (8). A double reading is not awkward: it is inevitable. What is problematical is the film-maker’s relation to this double reading: this is what allow us, in specific situations, to distinguish between a reactionary, a progressive and a revolutionary film-maker depending on whether he denies it, whether he plays on it or whether he is truly responsible for it.


Permutations of the statement

Who says what? Where and when?

Nevertheless, for any class, in any class-based society, the political criterion comes first and the artistic criterion second. (Mao)

Destroying an idea

We must get rid of a generally accepted idea according to which ‘positivity’ (the positivity of a message or of a hero) is of interest only to the propagandists, the party men, the big sectarian and Zhdanovian dinosaurs. It is nothing other than the outmoded and tedious consistency required of conscious heroes, clear messages, a precise political line; which makes it somehow edifying (in the religious sense) and, as they say, ‘heavily didactic’. Instead of this, in 1974, bourgeois film-makers (Malle, Cavani, etc.) prefer to ‘decode’ the past, no longer even trying to prove anything at all. Fascinated by the inexplicable, they explain virtually nothing, being content – supported, valorized by a servile criticism (9) – to be ‘daring’ and show what was still hidden only yesterday (sex and politics and what passes for their privileged meeting point, fascism). Their courage is praised; people are grateful to them for not presenting things in black and white and for so pleasurably suspending judgement as they offer tragic dossiers of the kind that television is forever reopening: the Occupation, racism, fascism. Their positivity resides, if you like, in the fact that instead of generally accepted explanations they offer no explanations at all or else an overabundance of them. Too many explanations or too few.

We have no intention of replacing their ‘ambiguity’ (another fetish word) by our certainties, Marxist-Leninist or otherwise. To re-emphasize, in response to Malle, the truth and nobility of the Resistance (which he does not deny) or, in response to Antonioni or Yanne, the massive achievements of the Chinese people (which they fully acknowledge – just like Peyrefitte (10)) is a correct but defensive manoeuvre, the very minimum that has to be done. For ambiguity involves not a failure of knowledge or an uncertain knowledge (in which case it would be enough – armed with superior, indeed absolute knowledge – simply to fill in the gaps) but another type of knowledge. Malle and co. do not specialize in the inexplicable (despite their inner agonizing), but in the inexplicit. The inexplicit is not the opposite of positivity, it is one of the forms it takes (the dominant form, even).

In other words: each class possesses its own style of ideological struggle, its own way of putting across its view of the world, its (positive) ideas. Positive: that is to say, effective, easy to adopt and to put into practice. Bourgeois propaganda doesn’t take the same form as revolutionary propaganda, any more than bourgeois information, or criticism, or art.

In short, we must destroy the idea that positivity is a limited concept or one left over from the past. It is not true that on the one hand you have the ‘system’ (art or commerce, art and commerce) and on the other ‘militant’ films (politics without either art of commerce). Positivity is not the exception but the rule. All films are militant films.

A film is always positive for someone

A class puts across its positive ideas, its ‘natural’ conception of the world. That means it puts its ideas into action (and in the case of the cinema into images) in such a way that they can be not only read and recognized but adopted and transformed into something else, into a material force, for instance. Take ideas like: ‘Our motives are decidedly impenetrable’, or ‘There’s something of the torturer and the victim in everyone, that’s for sure’ – two fashionable, retro-style stereotypes. Their formulation may well be negative or ambiguous, but from the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie and its immediate interests they are nevertheless positive ideas.

And these ideas are all the more harmful for never being made explicit in the body of the film. It is the hypnotized spectator who ‘freely’ draws the lesson whispered in his ear, who cuts along the dotted lines he cannot see. The film’s implicit discourse sends the spectator into a frenzy of interpretation which makes him or her forget the poverty and banality (sometimes the sheer stupidity: Cavani) of the lesson (11).

But how is the question of positivity any different from that of meaning, of signification? The fact is that the question of signification, taken by itself, is a meaningless one, of no concern to anyone. In Cahiers itself, the battle cry has been: ‘You don’t see a film. You read it.’ Fine. But this reading, this search for ‘discrete elements’ here, for bits of information there, wouldn’t serve much purpose (except as fodder for academic rumination, as sustenance for semiologists) if one didn’t know what it is that happens on the side of the receiver. The critic must be able to read a film: he or she must also know how the others, the non-readers, read. And there is just one way to find out: by inquiry. For it is a question not only of reintroducing the receiver into communication theory, not in the abstract sense (the general public) nor even in the concrete sense (a given social group or individual); but of remembering that the receiver is also something other than a receiver. Just like the film he is seeing, he is involved in the class struggle, he plays a part in it. And it is on the basis of this struggle, and the turns it takes, that the problem of positivity, as it affects all films, can be posed (for whom? against whom?); on the basis of this struggle too that one can begin to reply.

1974: Even for Pariscope, there are political films (12)

For whom? Against whom? We do not raise these issues out of dogmatism or a likeing for clear-cut oppositions. For if the bourgeoisie never poses this question of positivity (if it did it would have to admit the class nature of its power), it is always coming up with answers. And especially so today. In 1974, all the way through (13) the system of film production and distribution, in France and also no doubt in Italy, right-wing film-makers have seized the initiative. Via all the reactionary, period-style films sympathetic to fascism (or just fascinated by it and therefore – and this is what gives cause for concern – incapable of struggling against it). Malle, Oury, Yanne and the rest have set themselves an ambitious task, politically, ideologically and indeed formally: to propose a new image, a new characterization of France and its inhabitants, the French, to represent on the screen the ‘average Frenchman’ and his two Others, the two objects of his increasingly obvious racism, those who are not French (foreigners) and those who are not average (those who are relegated to the margins). In other words: bourgeois ideologues and artists are working steadily to build a new image of the French people (14).

As a result of this shift (the death of Gaullist ideology, the death of Pompidou, the crisis of a bourgeois humanist discourse in need of patching up), it is no longer enough to criticize mainstream cinema as one has done for years, taking it to task for ‘abandoning the real’, for neglecting certain subjects, for excluding or repressing others. It is no longer a simple question of repression. It is not enough to reproach bourgeois film-makers for not speaking of politics or sex or work or even History since they are the ones talking about these things today. The bourgeoisie can very well hold a (bourgeois) discourse on what, only yesterday, it still wanted to hide: it can film sexual debauchery if it keeps its monopoly over a normative (educational) discourse on sex. It can anchor its fictions in History if it has emptied the word of all content. That is how Malle’s ‘decoding’ operation works (sex: Le Souffle au Coeur; History: Lacombe Lucien; the working-class situation: Humain, trop humain).

‘Progressive’ film-makers are disconcerted by it all. To take an example: how do you explain the commercial success, at the same time, of two films like Lacombe Lucien and Les Violons du bal (15)? The fact is that they bring alive, for the public at large, a part of recent French history that has been veiled in secrecy or misrepresented for far too long. And yet these two films do not occupy the same ground, do not engage in any sort of struggle with each other. The humanist denunciation of racism in Drach’s film would have to be aimed at a cinema which suppressed racism, which refused to speak about it, to have any impact. Even a purely abstract denunciation would then have some point, some urgency. But in the light of Malle’s film it appears for what it actually is: humanitarian and ineffective. For what Drach must repress in the name of his abstract humanism (class contradictions). Malle allows himself the luxury of inscribing (Lucien, the illiterate peasant boy, etc.). Where Drach says nothing at all, Malle exaggerates. For it is obvious that the fact of inscribing such details doesn’t make Malle (any more than the Kazan of The Visitors) a progressive film-maker: class contradictions, for him, are basically no different from other contradictions – they can always be overtaken and absorbed into a metaphysical overview in which they become accidents, particular (historical) instances of an a-historical split: the eternal ambiguity of ‘human nature’ (16).

We have to recognise that fascist ideology (and this is one of its characteristics) accepts the existence of contradictions, of the class struggle (usually to deplore it, to move beyond it). We have to know that today the struggle must encompass point of view as well as choice of subject. As our Italian comrades of La Comune remind us: ‘It is not enough to counter the false statements of the bourgeoisie. In and through our own statements we must convey a different view of the world.’ For film-makers of all leanings, in this near-open battle, in their very craft of film-making, a single problem emerges: How can political statements be presented cinematically? How can they be made positive?

Statement/enunciation [énoncé/énonciation]

This cinematic presentation carries another name: enunciation. It consists in the articulation of two main terms: the carrier of the statements (who is speaking?) and the terrain on which they are brought into play (where and when and in what context?). A film’s positivity (whose interests are served?) is based on the nature of the link between statement and enunciation. That is why criticizing a film doesn’t mean shadowing it with a complicit or, as Barthes would say, cosmetic discourse. It doesn’t even mean unfolding it or opening it out. It means opening it up along this imaginary line which passes between statement and enunciation, allowing us to read them side by side, in their problematical, disjointed relationship – and so not being afraid of destroying the false unity conferred on them in the ‘present’ of a cinematic projection.

There can be no statement without enunciation. This is the inescapable reality of all discourse, of all fictional films. It is what allows us to avoid the trap of a content-based criticism (a trap which lies in wait for militant criticism, one it falls into all too often). For a criticism of content which did no more than assess the truth (or falsity) of statements, which failed to examine the part they play in the film’s organization, would be (and is) singularly lost for words, singularly ineffective (and quickly reduced to indignation or dogmatism) when required to intervene in day-to-day ideological struggles. ‘Belief in the intrinsic force of the true idea’ is not enough, was never enough to bring a (political or ideological) struggle to a successful conclusion. As Serge Toubiana reminded us, apropos of La Villeggiatura (17): ‘Just because a character makes some politically valid comments doesn’t mean that the film’s discourse, the author’s discourse, has taken it over and is fully responsible for it.’

For what characterizes a discourse, a statement, is that it can be made, quoted, repeated, carried by anyone. The links between statement, carrier and terrain are not obvious and natural: we are always dealing with some combination of the three. In a future text, we shall try to describe some of these. The list is long and varied; statements can appear to have no carriers, or too many, they can be carried badly, they can be lost, stolen, hijacked, etc. But there is one of these combinations which we encounter all the time: when a statement that is (politically) true is taken over, carried, by its worst enemy on a terrain where it can have no impact at all.

One example (among thousands). Not so long ago the ORTF showed a short film on prisons. While the camera panned smoothly along the white walls of a model  prison, the voice-over took up, in its own right and in its own language, a certain number of demands and problems expressed elsewhere (that is to say everywhere except on television) by prisoners themselves. A content-based criticism will be satisfied with that and rightly see in it the effect – to be read in to the film (18) – of the prisoners’ real struggle without which the film would never have been made in the first place. But isn’t it obvious to everyone that a film like this is inherently different from Attica (19)? The difference can be briefly resumed in the following way: not only are the prisoners in Attica the carriers of true statements which express the truth of this revolt, and every other, against the lies of those in authority, but the prisoners are also those for whom these statements are true (those who can appropriate them and mobilize them for their future struggles); they are the right people to be carrying them. Finally they are carrying them on a terrain (the yard that is occupied, filmed, transformed into a set) that they have built themselves, creating the material conditions for their enunciation and ‘producing’ a great film.

Anti-retro (continued) (20)

Two false couples

I would like to come back to The Night Porter and, in particular, to a scene that occurs towards the end of the film. In it we see the night porter (Max) meet his friends (Hans and co.) who, like him, are one-time Nazis gradually shedding their guilt – forgetting the past – and finding their place again in society. To be more exact, Max appears before them for – in this matter of his past, linked to theirs, a past in process of liquidation – there are things he must account for. The scene takes place at the top of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Hans and the others are deadly serious; Max, on the contrary is ironical and derisive. To cut short this interview which is getting him down and which, as far as he is concerned, is totally pointless, he tries a mock Hitler salute to which the others – reflex action or the return of the repressed? – respond, giving him just enough time to slip away.

At this precise moment in the film, we the spectators know a certain number of things about the night porter. We have seen him meeting up ‘by chance’ with his favourite victim, resuming relations with her, etc. Having been placed in the position of a voyeur (one more eye), we know things about Max that other people (Hans and the others, for instance) don’t. We are in control of this story that is being told for us alone. Hans and his companions are wrong for two reasons: first, because they have been Nazis and are still Nazis at heart since they are still interested in power; and, second, because they don’t see, know or guess anything of what is happening to Max, either in his head (inside him) or in his flat (his private space). They are doubly inferior for reasons which relate first to content and second to the mise en scène of this content in and through the fiction. We, on the other hand, are right for two reasons: first, because we are not Nazis; and, second, because we can observe and perhaps understand what is going on in the mad love between Max and Lucia. We are doubly superior first because we have a clear conscience and second because this clear conscience is reaffirmed in and through the fiction. Let us assume the existence of a law, one we had better know about, concerning the organization of fiction: a piece of fiction (the network of events seen, known or implied, everything that constitutes a film’s internal knowledge) is not only an enigma for the spectator but also, in the imaginary space where they exist, for the ‘characters’ themselves, shadowy beings who also want to find out more, to see more.

This knowledge (about the film, within the film), this mastery, this clear conscience have their price. Let us come back to the scene on the cathedral rooftop. Between Hans, the neo-Nazi undergoing social recycling, and Max, the ex-Nazi who is willing – fairly romantically – to die for it, we simply have to choose. We will be (whether consciously or not doesn’t really matter) in favour of the one who ‘assumes’ his Nazi identity and gets back in touch with his humanity (21) (Max), and against the one who represses himself as a Nazi and so continues to seem completely inhuman (Hans). We will be on the side of madness and humour and against the killer (a torturer yesterday and today). The whole film must, in a sense, culminate in this choice, make it seem natural, obvious to us. To refuse to make this choice (in the darkness of the cinema) is to refuse to see the film, to enter into it, to be one more eye. But as we know – and this is the point – the film is not short of spectators (336,107 admissions to 3 September 1974).

Not so long ago a television series, Dossiers de l’écran, devoted a programme (a film plus a debate) to Count Ciano (22). The pretext was that the countess of the same name – daughter of Mussolini and widow of Ciano – had (finally!) accepted an invitation to participate. The film was Carlo Lizzani’s feeble Il Processo di Verona [1962]. The question it raised was to what extent Ciano, a fascist but a germanophobe, had moved away from the Duce (who got rid of him). Already in the film, forced to choose between a Mussolini removed from the scene but all the more present for that and a Ciano who is indecisive, human, full of doubts and worries, the viewer could hardly not ‘sympathize’ with the less bad of the two, that is to say, with Ciano (just as he or she would no doubt have tended to ‘sympathize’ with Mussolini if the choice had been between him and Hitler). In the debate that follows, there is absolutely no mention of the Italian resistance. It’s as if the main opposition is between Mussolini and Ciano, with the latter representing from within fascism everything in the Italian people which resisted fascism and fought against it. Let us add, for the record, that Ciano’s widow, whose contribution to the debate is entirely frivolous, did nevertheless have the last word, stating that fascism (she admits: ‘Perhaps, I’m stupid’) had been and continued to be ‘the best thing for Italy’ – an idea that P. Cardonnel has rightly protested against in a recent article in Le Monde.

Either/or

What do these two examples (Hans and Max, Mussolini and Ciano) have in common? They make you choose (you have to make up your mind) the less bad of two terms (chosen in advance from within the enemy camp). The main opposition (the real one, the one in relation to which you have to situate yourself) moves elsewhere, passing through one camp only, that of the enemy. Knowing which one, out of Hans and Max of Ciano and Mussolini (and one would guess that the list is endless, that these false couples are everywhere: Hitler can be set against Röhm, Nixon can be compared with Wallace, Guy Lux with Michel Droit (23), Pariscope with Ici-Paris, etc.), represents the lesser evil becomes the only question that is asked and, very soon, the principal question. What is important is that, in this displacement of the opposition, the spectator has something to gain, something that has to do with the fulfillment of desire: a privileged view from above, a chance to step outside History, the right to enjoy the spectacle of contradictions between famous people and to choose between them. (This ties in with a whole conception of History ‘for the people’, Historia, etc. (24)) Nothing could be more fictional than this right that is conferred on the spectator of fiction. Manipulated, he or she joins the ranks of the televised housewife who recognizes (by touching them or smelling them, I can’t remember) which of two piles of laundry is the whiter, not realizing that she is being made to perform twice over: by the ORTF and by a corporation like Unilever feigning – in her person – a competition all the more frenetic for being illusory.

We are saying: the spectator’s knowledge is bought at a price, and the underside of mastery is submission. This submission doesn’t come about only in the cinema: you choose between two presidents, two answers, two names, two washing powders within the same ‘either/or’ framework, failing to remember that you can refuse to choose between these two terms and insist on others that are more legitimate and more in line with your interests. For there is only ever one question, that of knowing exactly who is asking the questions.

Let us go a little further. A characteristic of bourgeois ideology is that it is for ever asking you to choose. A characteristic of the ‘retro style’ is that this choice is always situated inside the camp of yesterday’s enemy (so that nothing has to be said about today’s). Struggling against this twofold mechanism means not only criticizing the way in which the bourgeoisie in general poses its questions, but also finding another questioning system to put in its place. For this, two things are needed. First, a theory of what I shall call ‘compulsory choice’ (or arbitration). This would help us to detect the ‘either/or’ configuration everywhere it operates (elections of course (25) – questionnaires, surveys, opinion polls – fiction), and show us that it is a manipulatory, hence authoritarian technique. Second, what must be called (and not simply as a piece of wishful thinking) a definition of what constitutes the people’s camp in France in 1974. Only in this definition can we even roughly trace a line from which we can start to learn to ask questions again – our own.

Compulsory choice

I must now answer a question that the reader must have asked him or herself. We know that The Night Porter is not seen by a ‘spectator’ aloof from the class struggle but in the main by a petit-bourgeois audience whose ideology and fantasies it echoes and supports (conferring on them, by way of a bonus, the dignity of the work of art). It is therefore dangerous to assume that a popular audience will react in the same way to this particular film as the intellectual petite-bourgeoisie. What is at issue is the social class of the audience. Two things follow from this. First, the mechanism of ‘compulsory choice’ is integral to bourgeois ideology. It becomes more specific when it is taken over, internalized by the different classes dominated by the bourgeoisie. According to whether it is experienced (taken over) by the petite-bourgeoisie or experienced (suffered) by the masses, it takes different forms – and a knowledge of these forms will depend on surveys still to be carried out, practical surveys into how films are actually received. Second, a further specification, relating to the particular medium of film: there is hysteria (26) inherent in cinematic projection.

Arbitration

Let us come back to our two examples. The television programme on Ciano was not so much trying to make the viewers think as to get them to commit themselves emotionally. Let us suppose that a popular audience, even if the choices presented to it are not its own, comes down in favour of one side or another. This, travestied in the bourgeois presentation of sport, is the logic of the supporter. But it is also, when seen in its true light, that of commitment. The petite-bourgeoisie on the contrary – this is the very form its fantasy takes – internalizes both sides, both terms, and is for ever keeping the score. To take the sporting metaphor one step further, this is the logic of the referee. Acting the referee, for a class that is divided, hesitant, unsure of itself etc., is a means of preserving its existence, of giving itself, a little weight, a little meaning. To be a referee, to be an arbiter, you have to know the rules and be able to apply them. Legalism: taking the Other at his word, the Other: the bourgeois.

Two different attitudes are involved here. In the very excess of his commitment, the supporter may always see the feebleness of what he is supporting and redirect the excess in positive ways. The referee, on the other hand, is easily convinced of the importance of his role: without him, so he thinks, the game could not take place. He easily forgets that there is no referee for the class struggle.

This idea that the class struggle can be followed from a distance and pronounced upon, though completely false, is very much alive, even among the masses. Revisionism has a lot to do with it. You cannot with impunity present class confrontation in terms of a peaceful rivalry, you cannot ask the masses to choose, on the evidence presented to them, the least bad manager of bourgeois affairs, without making them more aware of  the ideological hegemony of the petite-bourgeoisie (a hegemony in which the general idea of ‘arbitration’ is a principal element).

That is why it is no good saying to oneself, by way of reassurance, that The Night Porter is just a petit-bourgeois film. In the domain of the cinema, the assimilation of the dominant ideology by a popular audience means that the auteur film (thought, reflection, experimentation, a signature) can combine with the pornographic-film-set-in-a-concentration-camp, a ‘popular’ genre of which there are many recent examples, like Camp spécial no. 7 or Uncle Tom by the fetid Jacopetti. And this combination is precisely what we find in The Night Porter.

Hysteria

The fantasy of being the referee or arbiter (knowing the rules, applying them and, in this case, taking the Other at his word) goes with the position of the spectator. The hysteric is a prisoner of the discourse of the Other. And fiction relies crucially on the desire for this discourse. In letting the (desiring) spectators into the rectangle of light, it presents them with two Others (in the enemy camp) and forces them to choose the one whose discourse they will support and identify with. It’s what Hollywood film-makers have always known. Take Hitchcock. What finer metaphor for the place of the spectator (for hysterical desire) than North by Northwest? A man (Gary Grant) is accidentally mistaken for another, an Other who is about to be killed. To save his skin he tries to become this Other. He is not successful; for the Other does not exist: he is a fictional character invented by the FBI as a bait for some spies (in the pay of the Soviets). It is Gary Grant (and not the Other he wanted to become) who ends up helping the FBI of his own free will. In the film, as in the reality which produced it, fiction is a power structure.

The people’s camp

The fiction (27) we are talking about here, the kind that obliges you to make choices from within the enemy camp, must be fought against, and therefore understood. We have to be able to say why these couples, these choices, are false, why the really important opposition – yesterday as today – is not between Hans and Max or Ciano and Mussolini. There is, of course, no question of denying these oppositions, but it isn’t tolerable, even in a film, that they should function as the main ones, and the point needs to be made urgently. There is also, of course, no question of denying that something can be learned, that there are lessons to be drawn from these oppositions, but ‘teaching by negative example’ simply doesn’t work, is just an idle illusion, unless a positive alternative already exists in relation to which the negative can be situated, graded and criticized, and can provide valuable lessons. Now, the question of the positive alternative is always specifically, directly political. Where is the main dividing line in France, today? Where is the analysis of class in French society? These questions should not be thought too large or too general. In so far as film criticism aims to intervene politically in the ideological struggle, it must link up with what it considers to be the people’s camp (always in the making through popular struggles), beginning from (but not limiting itself to) the particular place from which it speaks (the cinema).

For that, it is not enough to recite ‘On a just resolution to contradictions among the people’, to say with Mao that ‘the notion of “the people” assumes a different meaning in different countries and a different periods of history’. Or to recall that there exist different types of contradiction and therefore different modes of resolution. These (infinitely true) principles are likely to prove irrelevant if they are made to function dogmatically. It was Mao who said: ‘The dogmatic are lazy.’ They are lazy if they do not consider what (or who) is involved and what is at stake in different kinds of contradiction. Fighting dogmatism means, for a film critic, facing up to a question that has become unavoidable: in the name of what do I criticize?

Criticism in the name of what?

Let us return once again to our point of departure: the ‘retro-style’. Its ‘merit’ was to bring to light the weakness, the ineffectiveness, and even the mistakes of a criticism based on principles. A criticism that brings only moral disapproval into play. A criticism that reproaches Malle or Cavani for the philosophical assumptions of their films. These assumptions relate to the most hackneyed idealism. But precisely, the struggle against idealism is eternal (Engels). A criticism, finally, which consists in setting these films against ‘historical truth’. For this truth is not a given. It can’t be reduced to a formula like ‘Gradually the French people recovered the desire to fight’ (Foucault’s example) or hollow stereotypes like ‘The French people resisted heroically’. This truth needs a corpus that can be assembled and reassembled; the fact that the image of the French resistance, for example, is monopolized by Gaullism and the PCF [French Communist Party], and that there isn’t another one, must not be repressed. Now that a rich literature is being published on this period, now that a man like Guingoin is finally publishing his memoirs, it’s a question of saying: this image can be assembled, the image of a maquis organizing the people for the postwar period. It’s time to say: that could be the subject of a film. And to add: our comrades in Lotta Continua have done it for Italy.

Film criticism in the name of what? In the name of something which is not given, but which exists in embryo, in the form of scattered elements that are repressed and disguised, impossible to recognize on occasion because they are differently coded. How can we build on these elements if we are not in a position to encourage them when they surface, to bring them back to life when they disappear? It is then, as we sift through the evidence, that principles come into their own, are truly useful, and that the experience of our Chinese comrades, for instance, becomes something other than a bleak recitation.

In the various individual confrontations of the class struggle, the enemy can score a point only if there is weakness on the other side. One such weakness is the absence of what might be called a perspective of the left on the analysis of fascism, one that is reasonably coherent and actively applied. Fascism poses two questions today: that of power as an exception (the departure from bourgeois democracy) and that of the eroticization of this power. On these questions the Marxist economic tradition, which has come down to us along with revisionism, has nothing to say. And what we know is that if this perspective of the left can be constructed, as it must be, it won’t be in the name of some remote dogma, or even the endlessly repeated names of Brecht or Reich, but on the basis of what, today, in the practice of those who meet these questions in their struggle, already contains this construction.

Criticism would then become something more heterogeneous, something less settled than the simple metalanguage it is today. Neither a catalogue of what is beautiful (old-style cinephilia) nor an account of what is wrong (new-style dogmatism). For there are beautiful films that are harmful (‘poisonous plants’, as they say in China) and mistakes from which much can be learned. To criticize would be to specify, for a film or a mode, the precise terrain (28) on which it intervenes, the issue on which it adopts a position. You would no longer say: Malle is an idealist or Malle is an academic film-maker (though these statements are true). You would say: the real subject of Lacombe Lucien is the memory of popular struggles. From his point of view, that of an upper-class liberal, Malle is right: this terrain, deserted by revisionism, is still neglected; and there is hardly anyone in a position to make it productive (but there is Le Peuple français (29) in France, and in Italy Dario Fo).

From our point of view, we must build on everything that will help us establish a perspective of the left on popular memory (we must read, investigate, translate the considerable contribution of the Latin Americans, Sanjines, Littin, etc.).

This perspective of the left doesn’t yet exist, it isn’t there for us to apply. Often, it will even require translation. Let us return to the example of Malle’s film and ask a simple question: is there anything today in the cinema (in this specific arrangement of images and sounds) that you could set against Lacombe Lucien? There is not. But in another area, itself heterogeneous (history? literature?) M. Foucault’s work on Pierre Rivière provides a starting point, a possible counter-argument to Malle’s theme of the ‘primitive as plaything of a stupid history’ (30).

This argument has already been set out in the interview with M. Foucault. Let us return to it briefly.  What is important for Malle? That Lacombe doesn’t internalize anything or memorize anything, that he can be made to carry statements that he doesn’t even understand (31) and would be incapable of making in his own right? For Malle, Lacombe is a barbarian (who answers to nothing but nature, human or vegetable). For the revisionist Emile Breton, on the other hand, Lacombe bears witness to the ‘confusion of certain social strata as yet incapable of producing for themselves a scientific analysis of the world’ (Nouvelle Critique, no. 72). His development has therefore not progressed very far. The problem is: how can we think of Lacombe as anything other than a barbarian (who lacks humanity) or as underdeveloped (lacking knowledge)? When Foucault speaks about Rivière, what he emphasizes is that, if Rivière lacks knowledge, he doesn’t lack discourse, or memory. Alienated doesn’t mean a-historical.

The fact is that Malle poses (and resolves – for the bourgeoisie) a problem on which a left viewpoint can be established. The problem is this: how can you construct a piece of fiction (a story) from a perspective which does not imply an ‘absolute knowledge’ (of History)?

In Malle’s system (to which, in this very journal, we had applied the term ‘modernist’), the only person you could possibly contrast with Lacombe is not another peasant but a master – even if, cunningly, the master is unworthy (the schoolmaster in the film) or easily blamed (Malle since 1968). To get out of the system you have to ask another question (Littin’s, for example, in this issue): how can you accurately retrace a process from the viewpoint of those who do not master it fully, those who neither speak nor theorize?

This question is always going to require our intervention. That is the meaning of ‘anti-retro’.


Translated by Annwyl Williams in Cahiers du Cinéma: Volume Four, 1973-1978 : History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle : an Anthology from Cahiers du Cinéma, Nos 248-292, September 1973-September 1978, By Jim Hillier, David Wilson, Nick Browne, Bérénice Reynaud, published by Routledge, 2000, 323 pages

Originally published as ‘Fonction critique’ in three parts in Cahiers du cinéma issue 248, September 1973-January 1974, issue 250, May 1974 and issue 253, October-November 1974

Notes:

(1) Z (1968) and State of Siege (1973): films by Costas-Gravas, the first about a plot to murder a left-wing Greek politician, the second about the clandestine involvement of the CIA in Latin America.

(2) Youth clubs: the publicly funded Maisons de la Jeunesse et de la Culture. (Translator’s note)

(3) The statement and the enunciation: in French, l’énoncé and l’énonciation, a usage deriving from the linguist Emile Benveniste’s distinction between the art whereby an utterance is produced (énonciation) and what is uttered (énoncé).

(4) I.e. the documentary Chung Kuo (China), discussed by Jacques Aumont in Cahiers 248.

(5) I.e. Last Tango in Paris. We have been unable to identify the televison programme referred to here.

(6) R.A.S. (Yves Boisset, 1973); Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1973).

(7) The loi Debré: a law which obliged students to complete their military service before the age of twenty-one. It was perceived by the left as a way of suppressing the student movement.

(8) Jacques Massu and Marc de Joybert, French military leaders during the Algerian war. Massu was dismissed by de Gaulle in January 1960 for publicly opposing his policy of self-determination in Algeria.

(9) An example of ‘impressionable’ criticism: Bory (on Cavani): ‘Where reason is powerless, where logic disappears, where morality is beside the point, where darkness, the unconscious, the unavowed and the unavowable hold sway, how can you analyse? It’s better to show.’ (Author’s note)

(10) The reference is to Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo (1972) and Jean Yanne’s Les Chinois à Paris (1974). Alain Peyrefitte, French politician and writer, published a book on China in 1973. (Translator’s note.)

(11) This is what happens in advertisements where, as P. Bonitzer has suggested, the manipulation involved in the message appears less and less as a shameful conditioning technique but demands to be recognised, studied and desired as such. Advertising knows all about desire, and hence about the signifier. (Author’s note)

(12) Pariscope: organ of the lumpen intelligentsia. Tries desperately to mimic Parisian intellectual debates. A Filipacchi publication (Author’s note.) The publisher Daniel Filipacchi had bought Cahiers in 1964. When he wanted to dispose of it in the aftermath of May 1968 and the magazine’s politicization it was bought back from him.

(13) It would be totally false to oppose the film d’auteur to the commercial film. This distinction exists but is of secondary importance. From Lacombe Lucien to Les Chinois à Paris via Le Führer en folie (Philippe Clair) it’s the same ideological tendency that emerges. (Author’s note)

(14)This does not happen automatically. A class, even when it is in power, takes a little time to find its ideologues, the people who will operate on its behalf in this or that situation. It too must work, or rather it must try to make something out of what it has inherited: in this case a certain tradition of French cinema (Pascal Thomas claims to take his inspiration from Renoir) or a reassuring classicism (Malle, Granier-Deferre). The cinema too is returning to the past. But acritically. (Author’s note)

(15) Les Violons du bal (1974): a self-referential film by Michel Drach, about his experiences as a Jewish boy in occupied France.

(16) There are two ways for bourgeois ideology to ignore contradiction or do away with it. Either it sees it nowhere (universal harmony) or it sees it everywhere (universal contradiction). Malle chooses the second solution with a zeal and an application which give Lacombe Lucien an almost touching quality. One is tempted to announce, as in a film, in alphabetical order: collaborator/member of the Resistance, father/son, Jew/Gentile, law/desire, man/woman, nature/culture, peasant/bourgeois, torturer/victim, etc. You can say that he has simply overdone it and that these contradictions are not all on the same level. But that’s where Malle succeeds in his sleight of hand: making us believe that he is being analytical. For him, not only are all the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production present, but they are all fundamental! It is not too difficult to see how, in these conditions, being unable to establish any kind of hierarchy, Malle and his heroes can never hope to understand anything. (Author’s note)

(17) La Villeggiatura: a film by Marco Leto, reviewed by Serge Toubiana in Cahiers 249.

(18) To read or write something into a film. This much bandied about phrase might benefit from being considered historically. For example: when Resnais’s Muriel is shot, in 1963, the Algerian war, torture, are in effect forbidden topics in the cinema. To write this prohibition into the film, to import it in the form of an empty and all the more disquieting signifier (‘Muriel’ precisely) is a way of getting round the problem. That is what revisionist critics forget when they read anything into anything. Theirs is an accommodating reading of an inscription that poses no danger, no longer a ruse but a compromise, with film-makers (and critics) accepting that they no longer have to define themselves (their practice, their weapons) in the teeth of the restrictions imposed by a political power. (Author’s note)

(19) Attica: a 1973 documentary by Cinda Firestone, focusing on the conditions at the Attica State Penitentiary in New York, which provoked a major prison riot. The film is discussed by Thérèse Giraud in the same issue of Cahiers.

(20) Anti-retro: a reference to the interview with Michel Foucault in Cahiers 251, translated in this volume, Ch. 12.

(21) There can be no ‘retro style’ without a discourse on human nature, without bourgeois humanism. And no such discourse without prior repression of class determinations. In Cavani’s work, this takes the form of neutralization. It had to be the case that Max was socially dominant (linked to Nazi power) and Lucia a victim of this power (socially dominated), and the opposite had to be the case as well (Max a night porter and Lucia married into money). The ‘human nature’ effect is obtained by somehow inscribing the class struggle as a simple struggle for position, a game of musical chairs in which whoever loses wins. This can easily be proved a contrario: the story of The Night Porter played by a working-class couple would make people laugh (cf. Reiser, in Charlie-Hebdo) or bore the upper classes stiff. (Author’s note.) Charlie-Hebdo was a weekly paper which used the crude simplifications of the comic-strip format to make social and political points.

(22) Ciano was Mussolini’s minister for foreign affairs. He was implicated in the coup which overthrew his father-in-law’s regime, but was captured and shot by the renegade fascists of the shortlived Salo republic.

(23) Guy Lux was a television entertainer and game show host; Michel Droit was a famous television journalist.

(24) Historia: a glossy magazine edited by right-wing historians, which presented a popular, romantic view of history.

(25) For which the electoral system is the ultimate model and guarantee. The late Murray Chotiner, a formative influence on Richard Nixon’s political thinking, was of the opinion that people generally voted against something or someone, rarely for. Indeed, choosing the lesser evil has become the rule in American elections. The more the electoral apparatus is distanced from the people and from the real political life of the country, the more it has to highlight whatever little differences can still be found and make them sparkle in its own sphere (star system); a huge amount of energy, money and talent goes into it. The same could be said (minus the talent) of a particularly stupid ORTF programme, L’Antenne est à vous, where the Saturday-afternoon viewers are always voting: for one Western against another, for one cartoon against another, for one song against another. The point being that they should experience little differences as absolutely fundamental, and their vote as an act of world-shattering importance. (Author’s note)

(26) And this hysteria cannot (cannot only) be exchanged for the illusory mastery that knowledge confers. The cinema makes use of knowledge, but only to refocus on the belief that lies at its heart. (Author’s note)

(27) The famous argument that ‘forms are neutral’ depends on another: that there is only one ideology, the dominant one. Those two arguments, taken together, allow two others to be discounted: the argument that forms are not neutral, that they are themselves a form of action (in other words that they are linked dialectically to the ideologies which inform them), and the argument that there is something which resists the dominant ideology and which, for want of a better term, we must call working-class ideology. This ideology needs forms;  it needs to know that fiction, for instance, is not an empty mould but a power structure, so that the question of its own power (its own ideological hegemony) can be posed. (Author’s note)

(28) The ‘real’ subject is not the scenario of the theme. Determining the real subject means taking it over by force. You have to re-insert the film-object into a scene whose very existence it denies: that of the battle of ideas where no blow is lost, where no object stays empty for long. Taking it over by force:  it is essential not to cut ourselves off from the ideological/political conjuncture. And this conjuncture isn’t only what circulates as ‘news’, but what we can learn from popular struggles, provided we stay in touch with them (the famous ‘cultural needs of the people’: who could produce an account of ‘Lip and the cinema’?). That means you have a foot in the apparatus (where struggles are taking place) and a foot in popular struggles (where the question of the apparatus is debated; cf. the cultural front). What is certain is that from the apparatus you can only see the apparatus. (Author’s note)

(29) Le people français, a journal of popular history launched over three years ago by a group of teachers. Published quarterly. (Author’s note)

(30) See Ch. 12 in this volume

(31) Lacombe to Horn: ‘My friends don’t much like Jews.’ By implications: I (nature) can’t see the difference (culture). The whole film is in that statement. It would fall apart if Lacombe were just to day: ‘I don’t much like Jews.’ (Author’s note