The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s

By Hilliker, Lee | Film Criticism, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s


Hilliker, Lee, Film Criticism


The French New Wave is, at this point in time, hardly a mystery to critics, historians, or filmmakers. This well-known movement flourished in France during the 1950s and early 60s and has since exercised a powerful influence on film cultures as diverse as those of German New Cinema, American independent film, and African cinema. Expanding on Italian Neorealist innovations in the early 50s and perceived American auteurism in the same period, New Wave filmmakers experimented with form and content in an attempt to renew both film production and product at a time when studio system economics and hierarchies dominated French film practice, and when divisive colonial wars with accompanying sociopolitical upheaval and censorship were the norm in French society. The New Wave was both diverse and prolific in this tumultuous period and the films, in both stylistic and thematic terms, run a wide gamut--from Godard's experiments in form, for example, to Varda's dramas of isolation to Resnais' historical meditations and Truffaut's autobiographical evocations.(1)

One aspect of this diversity rarely mentioned in connection with the New Wave, however, is that of futuristic fiction, and neither traditional nor more contemporary histories of French cinema devote much ink to this type of work. Alan Williams, in his 1992 history of French film, for example, does not discuss the science fiction genre, nor does Susan Hayward in her 1993 treatment of the same subject. Although they traditionally have not and do not now have the currency of their North American counterparts, notable futuristic films have been made in France.(2) During the period under consideration here, two filmmakers associated with the New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, both made films that speculate on the shape of a future French society. Marker was part of what was called the "Left-Bank" faction of the NewWave, filmmakers who came from more literary backgrounds and who were often more overtly political in their aims than the "Right-Bank" faction associated with Cahiers du cinema. In the early '60s he was (and remains) best known as a documentary filmmaker, having made several acclaimed short films in the 1950s. Godard was and is considered a major force in the New Wave, as well as in cinema in general, both because of his critical writings in Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s and his now legendary feature film career, which got its start with the ground breaking A bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1959.

Marker's speculative film from this period, 1962's La Jetee, is a half-hour meditation on time travel, the image, and death, done entirely with black and white still photographs. Godard's genre entry, Alphaville, was made in 1965 and is a noir / sci-fi hybrid set in a sterilized Paris of the distant future. Both films come at significant junctures in terms of post-WW II French culture and individual biography. During the period of the 1950s and early 1960s, France, with American Marshall Plan aid, began the postwar economic upturn that led to the French version of consumer and media society.(3) The healthy economy benefitted film culture as well, beginning particularly in the late 50s, and filmmakers often received state aid (derived from gross receipts for all films) for particular projects. Marker and Godard, who started in the short film and cinema journalism respectively, both began their rise to prominence in an economy and a culture which were finally making a significant recovery from the devastation of WW II and in which both the financial impact and the art of filmmaking were taken seriously.

This was also the era, however, of state imposed media bans related to the divisive and difficult colonial wars in Indochina (1948-1954) and in Algeria (1954-1962). In the late fifties and early sixties censorship surrounding the Algerian War reached its hysterical peak with the state censor active in post-publication suppression of both newspapers and books. …

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