Academic journal article Framework

"Objects Became Witnesses": ÈVe Francis and the Emergence of French Cinephilia and Film Criticism

Academic journal article Framework

"Objects Became Witnesses": ÈVe Francis and the Emergence of French Cinephilia and Film Criticism

Article excerpt

"Perhaps it [cinephilia] has also something to do with bearing witness . . ."

-Paul Willemen

In her memoirs of the teens and twenties entitled Temps héroïques [Heroic Times] the Belgian born actress Eve Francis recalls the revelation she and her paramour Louis Delluc experienced on stumbling into a cinema in the midst of the First World War. The two had gone to see a particular American film in which "[f]or the first time on the screen, objects became witnesses."1 Francis' apprehension of film's ability to interfere with the normal order of things by allowing the passive object-world on screen-décor and props-to adopt the witnessing properties of humans, abbreviates one of the key themes animating film criticism of the period. It also alludes, if obliquely, to her own mostly under-recognized participation in that culture due in part to her primary status as a repeatedly objectified actress. In an attempt to map the broader relevance of Francis' recollection and the more specific contours of Paul Willemen's enigmatic suggestion that witnessing plays a special role in the history of cinephilia, I want to explore this loaded phrase, "objects became witnesses," in relation to three contexts: first, Francis' muse-like relationship to the most important French film critic of the era, Delluc; second, the persistent though by no means unified film discourse developing in the period on film's affinity with the inanimate; and third, the purportedly masculine, individualist, elitist, and fetishist underpinnings of the cinephiliac strain in French criticism.2

This inquiry is part of an attempt to account for the marginalized muses and midwives of the birth of French cinema adoration, whose writings on the cinema, from the film criticism of Colette to the memoirs of Francis (which remain untranslated), have long remained in the shadow of their arboreal giants-Delluc, Jean Epstein, and perhaps most significantly, Germaine Dulac.3 While one obvious reason for this neglect stems from the relatively small volume of Colette's and Francis' writings, another has to do with the fact that the specific history of cinema to which they undoubtedly belong-that is, the history of cinephilia-is in a sense yet to be written. A second reason might have to do with the conventional association of French cinephilia-variously denned in recent treatments of the topic as "a way of watching films, of speaking about them, and then of diffusing this discourse," a "certain kind of intense loving relationship with the cinema," and "the desire for the cinema"-with the postwar culture of the NewWave, rather than with the "first wave" of cinephilia that blossomed in France in the late teens and twenties, which Godard and Truffaut recognized as their closest model.4 In addition, as Antoine De Baecque and Thierry Frémaux have suggested, the real history of cinephilia is particularly elusive, in part because if one wanted to get at the intensely personal heart of the phenomenon (in which they too privilege the NewWave version) such a history would necessarily have to rely on the terrain of the "anecdotal": ephemeral and often traceless moments of watching, rewatching, and remembering films.

In other words, the study of cinephilia must contend with the realm of fleeting experiences that tend to hustle the historian onto the slippery slope of untrustworthy genres such as memoirs, characteristically crammed with the derided stuffing of the personal.5 To give an example of where such evidence leads the historian, it will soon become apparent from my own reading of Francis' particularly intimate chronicle of cinephilia that the emergence of Delluc's foundational and mythical obsession with cinema was inextricably connected to the blooming of his love life. Revelations indeed! And yet I am not just interested in asserting that Delluc's love for the cinema finds its origins as a monument to his love for a specific woman. While I'm not averse to toying with the idea that the origins of French film theory go back to a series of flirtatious date-film encounters, what interests me even more is addressing a certain blind spot in De Baecque and Frémaux's gender-free plea for the personal in histories of cinephilia, and unraveling from within Francis' memoirs the ambivalent engendering of one of modernism's allegedly most masculine modes of loving: cinephilia. …

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