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Landscapes of Loss

Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema

Naomi Greene
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Landscapes of Loss
    Book Description:

    InLandscapes of Loss,Naomi Greene makes new sense of the rich variety of postwar French films by exploring the obsession with the national past that has characterized French cinema since the late 1960s. Observing that the sense of grandeur and destiny that once shaped French identity has eroded under the weight of recent history, Greene examines the ways in which French cinema has represented traumatic and defining moments of the nation's past: the political battles of the 1930s, the Vichy era, decolonization, the collapse of ideologies. Drawing upon a broad spectrum of films and directors, she shows how postwar films have reflected contemporary concerns even as they have created images and myths that have helped determine the contours of French memory.

    This study of the intricate links between French history, memory, and cinema begins by examining the long shadow cast by the Vichy past: the repressed memories and smothered unease that characterize the cinema of Alain Resnais are seen as a kind of prelude to a fierce battle for national memory that marked so-calledrétrofilms of the 1970s and 1980s. The shifting political and historical perspectives toward the nation's more distant past, which also emerged in these years, are explored in the light of the films of one of France's leading directors, Bertrand Tavernier. Finally, the mood of nostalgia and melancholy that appears to haunt contemporary France is analyzed in the context of films about the nation's imperial past as well as those that hark back to a "golden age," a rememberedparadis perdu, of French cinema itself.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2304-8
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. I Introduction
    (pp. 3-30)

    One of the most striking phenomena on the French political and cultural landscape of recent decades is, surely, a preoccupation with the national past and the ways it has been remembered. Not only has this preoccupation found an important echo in French cinema but films have played, and continue to play, a vital role in the way France remembers its past and, consequently, conceives of its present. That role is the subject of this book: through an analysis of selected figures and directions in postwar French cinema, it explores the ways in which films have both reflected and formed national...

  5. II Alain Resnais: The Ghosts of History
    (pp. 31-63)

    Although the cinema of Alain Resnais spans a period of half a century—his first film,Van Gogh, was made in 1948—the director’s name invariably calls to mind a series of deeply historical films he made relatively early in his career in the 1950s and early 1960s. Focused on the worst horrors of our time, these works echo with the roll call of the dead: with the untold millions who died in the Spanish Civil War (Guernica, 1950), in the camps (Night and Fog), and in the ashes of Hiroshima (Hiroshima mon amour). Deeply embedded in a Cold War...

  6. III Battles for Memory: Vichy Revisited
    (pp. 64-97)

    In october of 1997, more than a half-century since the end of the Occupation, France was riveted by the start of a trial that harked back to those dark days. The accused was Maurice Papon: now eighty-seven, Papon, who had held high positions in several postwar governments, had served in the Vichy government as secretary-general of the Girondedépartment. It was in that capacity, the prosecution charged, that Papon had committed crimes against humanity in supervising the deportation of nearly sixteen hundred Jews (including over two hundred children) who, from 1942 to 1944, were sent first to the French camp...

  7. IV Bertrand Tavernier: History in the Present Tense
    (pp. 98-129)

    In the wake of May ’68,rétrofilms were not the only ones to challenge long-standing images of national history. Still other works, often inspired by the new social history as well as the militant political perspectives of the 1970s, posed that challenge in terms of the nation’s more distant past. In so doing, they traced what might be seen as a “counterportrait” of French history. It was a portrait that focused on the abuses of power, rather than its glories; on the internal wars and divisions that had torn the nation apart, rather than the patriotic impulses that had...

  8. V Memory and Its Losses: Troubled Dreams of Empire
    (pp. 130-158)

    While therétroyears dominated historical films of the 1970s, by the end of the following decade still another traumatic and defining moment of the national past, the turbulent postwar era of decolonization, was finding a second life on-screen. Nearly fifty years after the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu—a defeat that ended French rule in Indochina (and that set the stage for American involvement)—and more than thirty years after Algeria won its independence, films seemed intent on bringing this difficult period to life. In addition to Bertrand Tavernier’s documentary,La guerre sans nom, the year 1992 alone...

  9. VI A la recherche du temps perdu: The Specter of Populism
    (pp. 159-189)

    The melancholy contrast between past and present that permeates the works discussed in the preceding chapter also characterizes the films that I would like to turn to at this point: notablyDiva(1981) andLa lune dans le caniveau(The Moon in the Gutter, 1983), both by Jean-Jacques Beineix,Les amants du Pont-Neuf(1991) by Leos Carax, andDelicatessen(1991) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. But here the past that gives rise to such intense nostalgia has become even more remote and spectral. For unlike virtually all the films discussed thus far, those explored in the following pages are...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 190-194)

    To some extent, the insistent nostalgia characterizing so many of the films discussed in the preceding pages recalls the so-called cult of memory that flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Then, as now, the preoccupation with memory and the past came at a time of great uncertainty concerning the nation’s identity and destiny—a time when the national “substance” was felt to be at risk. Then, as now, those on the extreme Right urged a return to the virtues of the past to combat the perceived “decadence” of the present. Observing that the theme of “decadence” is...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 195-226)
  12. Index
    (pp. 227-234)