Incorporating Images in Film: Truffaut and Emblems of Death

By Smith, Alan K. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1999 | Go to article overview

Incorporating Images in Film: Truffaut and Emblems of Death


Smith, Alan K., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Recent discussions of the tense relations between the specialized codes of film and the cultural codes and genres that englobe the cinematic apparatus have identified an underlying dynamic of "incorporation." A term that carries complex historical and psychoanalytic facets, incorporation has been used by Brigitte Peucker to describe the inclusion of literary and painterly images and tropes in classical cinema. As she explains, the embodiment of such images mobilizes cultural anxieties and questions concerning sexuality and death by foregrounding a crucial opposition between the "living," organic, naturalistic field of representation that is the purview of artistic and literary media, and the uncanny, mechanically reproducible aspect of the cinematic apparatus that - since it tends to fragment and mutilate the body - is aligned with death (3-12). In Timothy Murray's post-Lacanian study of the ideological fantasies that mediate among film, theoretical speculation and cultural identities, incorporation designates a nexus of mourning and repressed memories. As he sees it, iconographical allusions and stills in recent, avant-garde films function as ekphrastic incorporations or "de-compositions" that stage a disturbing merger of death and sexuality (25-64, 101-69). Despite important differences, both studies point to the crucial role that cultural artifacts from other visual media and genres play in cinematic representation.

The films of Francois Truffaut (1932-84), the best-known filmmaker of the French New Wave, provide a doubly fertile ground to explore the way such artifacts extend and complicate the convergence of eros and thanatos in cinema. Not only did Truffaut develop an innovative and highly crafted approach to directing but it could also be said that death and desire are his constant preoccupations. based on both written sources and original screenplays, his twenty-one feature films portray characters caught in a wide array of tragic and comic dilemmas, and the enigmatic quality of these works owes much to their incorporation of photographs, paintings, maps and various forms of writing. Far from being a mere aesthetic exercise, moreover, this patterning of visual artifacts and narrative develops a crucial, historical inflection in Le Dernier Metro (1980); set in Occupation Paris and one of Truffaut's last films, in Le Dernier Metro configurations of sexuality and death are mapped onto speech and various propagandist slogans and poster art.(1)

Adopting a slightly different kind of historical inflection, in the following essay I wish to show how Truffaut's practice has much in common with the Renaissance memento mori and related allegorical tradition, focusing specifically on a 16th-century emblem by Andreas Alciato entitled "De Morte & Amore." As Tom Conley has noted, the combinatory impact on cinematic meaning created by the collage of writing, narrative, and dialogue "derives from movements that are common to emblematic traditions in literature" (xi; see also 222-23n17), and in the case of Le Dernier Metro, the interplay of visual representation and rhetorical address in Alciato's emblem especially helps us understand how the staging of graphic imagery in Truffaut's film mobilizes its underlying thematics of death and sexuality into a critique of the semiotics of fascist ideology. As a way of highlighting the cultural project in which Truffaut is engaged in this work, I will first begin with a brief survey of visual objects and media in some of his other films, and then provide a close reading of how poster imagery functions in Le Dernier Metro, in the process demonstrating how it relates to Alciato's practice. Because they are separated by over five centuries, Alciato and Truffaut obviously bring different solutions and ideological contexts to the fundamental problem of representing/talking about death, and thus in my conclusion I will go on to discuss the particular problematics of Truffaut's linking of eros and thanatos, as well as the way that his incorporation of emblematic images and voices in Le Dernier Metro also delineates a camouflaged and troubling relationship with both the historical past of its narration and the artistic horizons of French New Wave cinema. …

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