Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Sylvie Blum

A State of Crisis

 


 

 

 

Phil Powrie

_French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity_

Oxford University Press, 1997

ISBN 0-10-871119-0 (pbk)

203 pp.

 

 

Coming from a British perspective, Phil Powrie is one of several British film historians who have published a book-length study of recent French cinema. Powrie's introduction assesses the condition of French cinema in the 1980s in a state of crisis. These words echo _Cahiers du Cinema_ articles through the 80s. According to Powrie, the crisis is many-fold, and ranges from the decline of French-made productions to American blockbuster films arriving en masse in France where audiences flock to see them. The crisis is further exacerbated by the declining audience in the 80s, added to a similar crisis of style and genre. These crises are cause for alarm since they undermine the very specificity of national cinema.

 

Powrie also laments the loss of the auteur, and briefly explains the concept coined by Truffaut, whose death in 1984 'marked the watershed which now divides auteur cinema and big budget commercial cinema' (4).

 

The central argument of the book is that 1980s French cinema avoids reality: 'A few films engaged with contemporary conditions of issues, for example, the Beur film (i.e. films centring on the lives of second-generation Arab immigrant families).' I will address this point later in the review.

 

The first set of films discussed are organized under the category of 'the nostalgia film' or films dealing with childhood. The first chapter introduces nostalgia in film, defines the concept, and locates it in films such as _Un Amour de Swann_ (Schlondorff) -- a German film adaptation of Proust's novel, _Coup de Foudre_ (Kurys), Berri's _Jean de Florette_ and _Manon des Sources_. According to Powrie, these films share a reworking and rethinking of the past 'by the crisis of masculinity which they vehicle' (8).

 

Parallel to the crisis of French cinema, but central to Powrie's argument, is the crisis of 'masculinity' that surfaces in French cinema and society during the 80s. However, in the introduction, the definition of a masculinity in crisis is nowhere to be found. If there is a crisis, Powrie establishes it by implying that the 'advent of feminism' in France, and the arrival of women in the workplace are responsible for the crisis of masculinity.

 

Powrie refers to the 'arrival of the new man' in the 80s. Elizabeth Badinter's essay 'XY On Masculine Identity' (1992, 1995 translation) validates his argument that the consequences of feminism have caused men 'to repress traditionally masculine traits without anything to replace them, hence the crisis of masculinity' (11). However, Powrie does not return to Badinter beyond the introduction, yet he seems to be in constant dialogue with her. Badinter herself led an impressive study of masculine identity based, in a large part, on Anglo-American documentation.

 

Three genres of mainstream commercial films are successively discussed: the nostalgia film, the polar (detective film/film noir), and the comedy. All genres are seen as the best vehicles of the 'crisis of masculinity'. The position of the spectator in these films seems to be a crucial component here, as they are directly affected by this crisis because of the identification process at the core of the film viewing experience.

 

1. The Nostalgia Film

 

The concept of 'nostalgia film' needs to be defined. Powrie's work is inspired by Higson's study of the British 'heritage film', and parallels it. I'm not convinced that the return to World War II is exemplary of a trend of the decade where Powrie sees that 'the dramatic potential of war clearly accounts for the numerous films located during the Second World War' with Truffaut's _The Last Metro_, Malle's _Au Revoir les enfants_ and such. Henry Rousso's 'Vichy Syndrome' is not resolved by the 80s or 90s.

 

Nostalgia in France is perceived as a recent phenomenon brought about by the industrial revolution that he locates in 1945-1974. France's boom saw the decline of its rural population, coinciding with the development of urban centres leading to the disintegration of the family. Tavernier's film _Un Dimanche de la campagne_ becomes the model of such a nostalgic moment.

 

Powrie includes a German film, _Un Amour de Swann_, under the 'European' values celebrated by the film and the fact that it is a literary adaptation of one of France's most important writers, himself dealing with the 'past', scripted by one of France's most prolific screenwriters, Jean-Claude Carriere. The incorporation of musical elements next to the notion of nostalgia is quite important. However, Jankelevitch's seminal study on nostalgia and 'les musiques de la nostalgie' is entirely ignored.

 

Powrie discusses how each film constructs the spectator's position. Such positions are assumed to be regressive and sado-masochistic positions. 'I would like to propose that the nostalgia film constructs a position for the spectator which can be defined as depressive masochism, a rejection of phallic sexuality associated with the new, and a submission to the fantasy of childhood dominated by the all-powerful mother, associated with an unproblematic past.' (47)

 

Each film essay structuring the book concludes with a statement on the spectatorial position. For instance, Tavernier's _Un Dimanche de la campagne_ becomes nostalgic 'because women have apparently become too strong and men feel that they are failure' (49). Spectators of _Jean de Florette_ and _Manon des Sources_ are subjected to extreme violence and 'hysterical castration'.

 

In his analysis of Diane Kurys's _Coup de foudre/Entre nous_, the author skilfully weaves in Christine Holmlund's and Chris Straayer's respective arguments in order to show that the film might be more about 'female bonding' to the exclusion of men. Using Kleinian psychoanalytical theory, Powrie wants to show that the nostalgic narrative places the spectator in a mourning position that attempts to 'reintegrate what has been lost: the good objects, the parents before separation' (74).

 

2. The Polar

 

In the part about the Polar Powrie takes up Fredric Jameson's argument about the postmodern text. He wants to reappraise the 'cinema du look' that has been so severely condemned by _Cahiers du Cinema_ critics.

 

The ideological function of the 'cinema du look' is to express marginal consciousness by the younger generation. Shifting the discussion of the 1980s polar away from a socio-political perspective, Powrie moves towards an investigation of what film noir have traditionally mediated: a crisis in masculinity. One of Powrie's chapters constitutive of his polar section covers such films as Bob Swaim's _La Balance_, Pialat's _Police_, and Godard's _Detective_. These films reject the classical film noir narrative. They all share the feminization of the male characters, which Powrie terms 'discomfiture of the male' -- a Godardian formula. All three films are narratives of Loss. Laura Mulvey's article, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', is frequently cited in this study, where male characters are instead 'marked as the object of an erotic gaze'.

 

The chapter on Beinex's film _Diva_ integrates a fascination of postmodernism and the hi-tech. Women in the film, as exemplified by the diva, are objects to be admired, and stereotypes of the passive female.

 

Powrie does not consider race as an issue here and contends that Beinex does not even consider it. 'Women have many and various roles in the film, and the principal role, that of the diva herself, shows not simply a strong independent woman, but one who is black and whose role is non-racial . . . makes no special point of her race . . . no particular emphasis on her race' (112-113). This reading is problematic since Beinex has cast mostly non-white women in the leading roles of _Diva_. Jules is clearly infatuated with the voice of the diva, who is black. Alba, with a play on her name meaning white, is Franco-Asian, and probably never saw Vietnam, as a child of the Vietnamese diaspora living in France. The Taiwanese gangsters are representatives of the East, and Gorodish's 'middle European name' is more likely to be a Jewish figure -- Europe's other. However, Powrie discards these notions and focuses on _Diva_'s postmodernism and loss of innocence.

 

3. The Comedy

 

The last part of _French Cinema in the 1980s_ scrutinizes French comedy. Powrie picks three comedies that have been exported. He points out that many French comedies, such as Jean-Pierre Mocky's films, never make it outside of France. Coline Serreau is included in this category with _Trois hommes et un couffin_. These films usually pair two male actors who are also 'male losers'. 'The function of comedy is at one and the same time to express a problematic male identity and to alleviate male apprehension in laughter. As was the case with the polar, women characters are repatriated within the Law, or, failing that, excluded or ridiculed.' (146)

 

As one of the biggest hits of the decade, _Trois hommes et un couffin_ has become a much discussed film especially by feminist critics. Powrie contextualizes Serreau's career and her beginning, but did not do the same with Leos Carax. His reading of the film applies Tania Modleski's article on the American remake to the French original version. The film was successful 'because it touched a nerve in French spectators'. Powrie draws a parallel with an on-going ad campaign showing a pregnant male, but does not further explain it. 'The film's success . . . was largely due . . . to its articulation and problematization of changing gender roles' (148).

 

Powrie suggests a position of 'hysterical mobility of men in this film'. The term of 'hysterical' resurfaces at different moments in the book (i.e. the chapter on _Jean de Florette_) but is never quite explained. Where Modleski sees the film as regressive for women, Powrie insists on the homoerotic undertones and the display of men's bodies. The chapter's summary statement weakens his analysis on the crisis of masculinity: 'There will be a reorientation of desire as men get in touch, literally, not just with themselves, but with each other . . . Mothers are babies, and men are boys being mothers, and discovering how they like to touch each other after all' (158).

 

Filmmaker Bertrand Blier comes last, but should really exemplify any book whose ultimate claim is to analyze French cinema of the 1980s and masculinity. By only adopting _Tenue de Soiree_, which he sees as a remake of _Les Valseuses_, the study limits its scope.

 

Viewing Gerard Depardieu as of central importance (and 'etymologically stretched on the cross, as the emblematic figure of crisis for this book, the 'suffering macho''), Powrie appropriately cites Ginette Vincendeau who was among the first critics to analyze Depardieu's position in French film and society. The book ends with a star analysis, which he considers as the latest emerging area in French film studies since the 80s.

 

All of Blier's films since _Les Valseuses_ have the same theme: the crisis of masculinity in the wake of feminism. The crisis has deepened in the years that separate the two films _Tenue de Soiree_ and _Les Valseuses_. Woman's frigidity, humiliation, and ensuing punishment, are the central elements of Blier's misogynist films. According to Blier himself, his films are a response to feminism. Powrie, in the footsteps of Guy Austin's earlier study _Contemporary French Cinema_, opts to reconsider Blier's films as a critique of traditional masculinity.

 

The conclusion covers the problematic position of women in the films and the discomfiture of male characters. According to him, even films made by women are problematic. However Powrie has only analyzed two films made by women directors, Kurys and Serreau. The study ends with a brief passage on Claire Devers's _Noir et blanc_, which he did not discuss earlier save for a preliminary quote. That film gathers all the elements of the crisis of masculinity: women are left out, and the focus is on two males and their sado-masochistic relationship. 'Here in _Noir et blanc_ the issue is of identity . . . whereas in _Tenue de Soiree_, it was on sexual orientation'.

 

'But unlike many of the films studied in this book, _Noir et blanc_ disengages itself from regressively nostalgic melodramatizing by pointing forward to one of the main concerns of the 1990s French cinema, ethnicity and difference.' (186)

 

Powrie ends his book by pointing to the 90s as a moment when French cinema finally turned to racial issues. Unfortunately, the refusal to incorporate or acknowledge discussions of race ('ethnicity') and postcolonialism as an intrinsic part of the 80s decade is his personal choice. Films about a multi-ethnic France were already made in France in the 70s. After all, the 80s do count such films as Euzhan Palcy's _Rue Case-Negres_ (83), Mehdi Charef's _The au harem d'Archimedes_ (85), _Miss Mona_ (87), and Claire Denis's _Chocolat_ (1988). Race is a dominant subtext in _Police_ (Pialat) and _La Balance_ (Swaim) with its stereotypical representation of Arabs in France. A multi-ethnic France is already profiled in the 80s, with films already dealing with the banlieue. Serreau's later film _Romuald et Juliette_ (89) deals with the unlikely pairing of a French white CEO and his black African office cleaner. Ultimately, as Carrie Tarr notes, Claire Devers's _Noir et blanc_ 'provides a sado-masochistic twist to the master-servant relationship of colonial times' ('French Cinema', in Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney, eds., _Postcolonial Cultures in France_, p. 68). If 1980s films avoid reality then where should one place Mehdi Charef's first film (and novel) _The au Harem d'Archimedes_, or Claude Berri, or Tchao Pantin, both of them dealing with 'beur' protagonists, unable to escape from the dark city or suburban projects? Where does one place _Laisse Beton_ (Peron), another early film dealing with projects and youth?

 

Powrie is strongest in film analysis. The different essays are particularly enlightening and would work well in 'a women in film class' as they point to a crisis of masculinity brought forth by the increasing importance of women in French society and the rise of feminism.

 

One of Powrie's overall arguments is that 1980s French film 'is obsessively concerned with repositioning men, and keeping women in their place'. If women are ridiculed and men are in an impotent position, how does one account for the discrepancy between the emerging leadership role of women in French society and the lack of its representation in film?

 

Are the 80s globally different from the 30s and 40s? Have women's roles in film essentially changed throughout French film history? Looking back on Gabin's role in the 30s would also seem to point to a 'feminized man'. This study leaves the reader/spectator with many questions that are sure to generate heated debates in the classroom.

 

My last point is about nostalgia in French cinema. Admittedly, recent French film studies are difficult to make since such histories are still close to us. Establishing 'nostalgia film' as a phenomenon of the 80s, outside of a historical contextualization, eliminates earlier moments in film history where films were already evocative of nostalgia. French films of the 30s evoked a certain form of nostalgia, which in turn, especially for poetic realist films, generated its own nostalgic 'brand' that can still be found in the 50s and 70s.

 

University of Florida, Gainesville, USA

 

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Sylvie Blum, 'A State of Crisis',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 2, January 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n2blum>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

  

 

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