Cinema Belongs To Us : The phenomenal success of the French Film Festival

লিখেছেন:অরিজিত মুখোপাধ্যায়

‘It is a question of the minds. What culture deals with is not that we have to learn to see all the Italian painting, all the Spanish painting— this is piling up information about culture. But what culture means is that we are able to associate real things, nature, paintings we have seen, music we have heard, a book we have read, a film we saw, with our real life, our emotional life, which means a lot.’

- Agnès Varda


There is no denying the fact that we are standing at a crossroads in the history of modern civilization. There is a frenzied albeit calculated drive towards inventing newer ways to control the minds and bodies of citizens almost everywhere. On the conscious level, the desires and fantasies of the socially-abiding unsuspecting individual are under subjugation, but he is either blissfully ignorant or ignorantly blissful. This kind of ignorance has always preceded cultural complacency. There is a gaping paucity of movements rooted in – and backed by – strong collaborative cultural representation. Anti-establishment protests remain largely ineffective as they lack cultural and, more specifically, artistic engagement, therefore rarely having a consolidating effect. The complacency of popular culture is no less harmful for the youth than any provocation to spread hate. Yet, for all the discrimination and hate around, we have a Jafar Panahi among us— a man with a movie camera who refuses to budge and continues to speak out using the medium that reaches out most convincingly to a global audience. At a time when bad television and social media have filled up the voids of a dying middle-class visual culture, it is becoming clearer with each passing day that cinema can give us redemption. Contemporary filmmakers from all over the world are opening up debates on the oppression of linguistic, religious, racial and sexual identities. The films of Brellait, Almodovar, Ozon, Amos Gitai, Ruben Ostlund, among others, are subverting generic codes and conventions in newer ways, making us witness as well as participate in the evolution of spectator-text relationship outside the realms of the mainstream. Adding to that, the works of the masters, the classics, are refusing to keep silent. They still stand tall and make us seek them out in the melee of mediocre images and sounds that keep bombarding our surroundings. 

Kolkata, a city which is known to devour good cinema, was recently treated to a plethora of contemporary and classic French films at the French Film Festival organised by Alliance française du Bengale. Tributes were also paid to Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.  


At one point in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Film Socialisme’, the narrator observes: “Today’s fascists are sincere!” Godard’s concerns seem to be crystalizing with every passing day. Today’s authoritarian forces are sincere, and therefore, more dangerous. So the question arises— what path remains for the common man? What is there for the uninitiated to turn to? Fortunately, cultural forums and gatherings still give us breathing space and have a huge role to play in our society. Film festivals dedicated to the cause of meaningful cinema bring people together and create spaces for collective human involvement on the emotional and intellectual level. Despite the mushrooming of OTT platforms in the last few years, there is still nothing that beats the experience of watching a ‘400 Blows’ or a ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ together on the big screen, in a filled auditorium. This was again evident during the first edition of the French Film Festival organised by Alliance française du Bengale. People turned up in large numbers to watch contemporary French films as well as masterpieces of the French New Wave. The occurrence of the latter was a particularly welcome sight, proving once again that the sheer undying enthusiasm among film-lovers for the works of the masters, the auteurs of world cinema, shows no sign of fading away. People from all walks of life queued up in almost ridiculously huge numbers to watch works by Truffaut, Godard, Agnes Varda, Jaques Rivette, Louis Malle, etc.  Once again, the immortal words of Ritwik Ghatak rang true: ‘Film going is a kind of ritual. When the lights go out, the screen takes over. Then the audience increasingly becomes one. It is a community feeling, one can compare it with going to a church or a masjid or a temple.’  

If modernity has given us wars, disjointed families, uprooted people and confused identities, it has also gifted mankind with cinema – arguably the most potent modern tool which has the capacity to engender introspection, engage and interweave texts from various other disciplines and combat anti-intellectual forces most effectively. As much as the urge to keep up with the works of contemporary filmmakers is important, revisiting and discussing the masterpieces is perhaps the need of the hour. Film festivals are among the handful of spaces remaining where intellectual discourse gets an attentive audience. It was more than heartening thus, to once again see the city of Kolkata revelling in the spirit of good cinema— this time from that culturally indomitable part of the world called France. Some of the most widely acclaimed and frequently discussed films of the French New Wave were screened at the festival, including ‘Jules et Jim’ (François Truffaut), ‘Contempt’ (Jean-Luc Godard), ‘Paris Belongs to Us’ (Jacques Rivette), the delightful ‘Zazie dans le Métro’ (Louis Malle), the devastatingly melancholic ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’ (Alain Resnais) and ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ (Agnes Varda). In this essay, we try to look at some of these films, but more than that, we try to look at the socio-cultural-political climate of that era, which had profound bearings on the works and thoughts of these masters.


It was the late 1950s. Some time had passed since the Second World War had ended. A defining era for cinema had been taking shape for some time. Artists and intellectuals from backgrounds in theatre, painting, photography, visual arts and criticism were exploring newer outlooks to filmmaking and film criticism. It was not mere coincidence that the surrealist, avant-garde and, to be more precise, the underground film movements were gaining momentum during this period. A crop of new filmmakers were questioning established trends in filmmaking and subverting formulaic conventions through which Hollywood had been penetrating the audiences’ consciousness. Not all were ‘new’: some, like Jean Renoir, Yasujiro Ozu and Alfred Hitchcock, had been making films since the silent era, but their rejection of Hollywood norms was equally, if not more, significant. However, it was American cinema that still dominated not only popular perception of audio-visual narrative styles rooted in realism, but also fuelled the sustained hegemonic social construction of gender stereotypes, essentialist approaches to sexuality and the naturalization of the heterosexual male gaze. The American gangster films and spy thrillers, which had begun as a take-off of the Germanic film noir during the 1930s, had consolidated its powers through a huge commercial production system— a well-oiled assembly line production system that produced movies and movie stars with equal efficacy. It is not to say that all films made all over the world were a direct influence or imitation of American cinema, but as far as popular taste was concerned, American films reigned supreme. Studio-era Hollywood films had become the most influential commodity for mass entertainment by the 50s: that is before television started to give it an almighty fright, and before a certain French New Wave happened. To that effect, one might go one step further and say that the mid-1950s and the 1960s marked the coming of age of cinema.

The 1960s were a time when commitment to an ideal, commitment to anti-war, anti-occupation and feminist movements, were reflected not only in political but also cultural gatherings. All over the world, artists, songwriters, playwrights, and filmmakers were subverting norms and traditional practices in their respective disciplines. Critical approach to making, viewing and writing about cinema radically changed in the 1960s and one of the most powerful centres of this intellectual overhaul was undoubtedly France. It is well known today that most of the major New Wave filmmakers started out as critics whose reviews of mainstream French films, films from other parts of the world and especially studio-era Hollywood films were published in Cahiers du Cinema, the now-iconic film journal started by Andre Bazin. The critical essays of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol are considered to have set a benchmark in the field of film criticism, with an incisive, clipped style of prose which even the most knowledgeable anglophile critics have not been able to replicate. Agnes Varda, another master of world cinema, started out as a photographer, something which is evident in the minimalist way she frames and constructs her shots, which look fresh and innovative to this day. Kolkata had been waiting for a very long time to watch her masterpiece ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ on the big screen. 

As for the Cahiers ‘mafia’, the first out of the closely-knit group of critics to make a full-length feature film was Jacques Rivette. The writing and production of ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ (Paris Belongs to Us) was done between 1957 and 1958. However post-production work (and also much of the shooting) got affected due to lack of funds. Rivette sought out financial help from Cahiers du Cinema to buy cases of film while the crew and cast were hired as participating ‘partners’. The film was finally released in 1961. By then the first films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard had changed much of the traditional orientations of cinematic language as well as the very notion that filmmaking was essentially an expensive business. 

Paris Belongs to Us’ is set in 1957. Many of its shots contain direct references to that period, but it is the overall mood of those uncertain times which remains with the viewer long after the film has ended. Rivette creates an atmosphere of grim presentiments, existentialist anxieties and a general sense of confusion among the youth. Rivette may have also alluded to the potentially implosive political environment at that time, with McCarthyism and the Nuclear arms race having subliminally entered the minds of young people all over. Too much was confidential and shrouded in mystery. In the film, shadowy unnamed figures are on a killing spree. However, although Rivette gives the film a detective story treatment, nothing is resolved in the denouement. There are other sub-plots here that do not seem to converge— a narrative style reminiscent of Faulkner’s ‘Wild Palms’ that was used to great effect by directors like Godard, Varda and Truffaut in some of their films. One of the sub-plots involves the rehearsal of Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’ (a rarely produced play) on a low budget. A sense of gloom has filled up the inadequate rehearsal room; actors keep making themselves unavailable and those present give a rather poor account of themselves. Gerard, the director, while bidding farewell to yet another one of his cast, laments, ‘This project is crazy. The odds are we’ll have a flop.’ It is probable Rivette had foreseen the fate of his first film and was alluding to it. Indeed, upon the release of the film, Truffaut wrote: ‘The undertaking [of the film] was doomed from the outset, yet it was not entirely foolish.’ Rivette knew at the outset that his ‘project’ too was crazy. He would develop his distinctive style much later in his more famous films. However, ‘Paris Belongs to Us’ has, over the past few decades, grown in stature among cinephiles and has matured like the finest of French wines. The relevance of its complex themes are never lost on the 21st century audience, probably because history has again placed us in a situation when we are not sure about the nature of danger that may befall us (or someone we know), but we are sure about an impending danger of some kind. It is this sense of impending danger, uncertainty and a sense of perpetual gloom that pervades the novelistic film that is ‘Paris Belongs to Us’. Truffaut and Chabrol co-produced the film. On the eve of its release in France and across Europe, Truffaut wrote: ‘Of all our band of fanatics, Rivette was the most fanatical... was more of a cinema nut than any of us, and his film proves that he is more of a moviemaker than any of us as well.’  

The first years of the 1960s, the time when many New Wave filmmakers made their first films, were not as rosy as it might appear from a distance. The period marked an extremely important chapter of French political history, the significance of which could only be matched (and eventually overshadowed) by the events of May 1968. In 1960, the same year ‘Breathless’ released, as many as 121 French writers, actors, filmmakers and theorists including François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Simone De Beauvoir, André Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet signed Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement on insubordination in favour of those soldiers who were deserting in Algeria and also those French people who were aiding the F.L.N (Front de libération nationale). There was the grave fear of being persecuted, and the fear would have been understandably more in the case of filmmakers and actors. Adding to that, as early as 1961, barely two years since the triumph of ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) at Cannes heralded a promise of artistic renewal in French cinema, the New Wave ‘phenomenon’ (a term Godard preferred) was staring down the barrel. There had been a major drought of successful “New Wave” films since the indisputable success of ‘Breathless’: ‘a film that would please both the critics and the public’, as François Truffaut put it. The number of skeptics within and without the French film industry grew by the minute, along with their skepticism. The right-wing editor of film journal Arts, who had earlier published Truffaut’s criticism of France’s mainstream cinema, was one of them. They published Old Wave screenwriter Michel Audiard’s diatribe against the New Wave filmmakers. In the article, published as a review of ‘Breathless’, Audiard called the new filmmakers “Rebels without a cause, certainly, but not without a goal. The goal is to impose themselves on this hardly-comprehending society.” Indeed, one of the reasons ‘Paris Belongs to Us’ too failed to gain popularity upon release was because it was deemed ‘incomprehensible’ even by a large section of critics. In truth, many producers excited by early euphoria around the New Wave had gone to the extent of recruiting their own young directors. In the process, mediocre new filmmakers flooded the cinema theatres with mediocre films. Left-wing critics, on the other hand, questioned the political commitment and, in some cases, even the political allegiance of the New Wave directors. What missed both factions completely was the fact that the French New Wave had given France its distinctive national cinema, the development of which had been discussed in the pages of Cahiers du cinema and its predecessor La Revue du cinéma for more than ten years. 

A major cultural development was shaping up in France surrounding the New Wave, the overall impact on the masses being far more than what the Nouveau Roma had created in modern French literature— something which would go on to transcend the barriers of language and national borders, and not only influence filmmakers all over the world but also have lasting repercussions on the political and social scenario in France. The French New Wave was not as fragile as many thought. As Richard Brody writes, ‘The New Wave defied predictions of its early demise’.

The New Wave gave France, Europe and world cinema its new stars – a primary reason why cultural development could sustain itself irrespective of political support. Indeed, it was not the doctrinaire right, nor the old ‘nominal left’ which supported the New Wave, but the unorthodox, rebellious youth, of which the new stars were a telling representation. Spectators, critics and producers – the Americans in particular (quite ironically) – were gushing over these new stars of world cinema. This was no less historic a phenomenon than the happening of the French New Wave. For the first time ever, since the arrival of synchronized sound in cinema, mainstream audiences were flocking cinema halls to see non-American, non-British stars in essentially non-American movies. This was another reality that missed the skeptics completely. 

By 1962, Jean-Luc Godard had decided that he wanted to work with the most discussed celebrity of France, Brigitte Bardot, whose performance in Roger Vadim’s ‘…And God Created Woman’ (1957) had seemed to him and his friends at Cahiers like a riotous, erotic intrusion of brash youth into the sclerotic French film industry. Godard structured his 1963 film ‘Le Mepris’ (Contempt) around the troubled relationship between a ‘reflective’ writer and her ‘instinctive’ wife played by Bardot. It is one of the few films which revolves around the making of a film. Interestingly, Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, also about the making of a film, was also released in 1963, and both preceded Truffaut’s film about filmmaking (‘Day for Night’) by exactly ten years. ‘Contempt’ is memorable for the immense star value Bardot brought to the film. Godard sketched the character of Camille keeping her in mind – someone who by that time was known more for her celebrity and scandals than for her acting skills. According to Godard, it was true that any other actress playing Camille would have given the film a ‘much more pronounced psychological aspect’, but the film would also have been that ‘much more unbearable’. The film is also remembered for the role of the director played by Fritz Lang (who plays himself). Godard was known to be an admirer not only of Lang’s movies but his well-documented integrity. This was Godard’s first film which required him to prepare a proper shooting script. Godard wrote pages and pages of detailed sketches of his characters and handed them out to his American producer, telling him that some of the plot details must be saved for the time of shooting. In the script, Godard describes the character of the director (Fritz Lang) thus : ‘Thirty years ago, or almost, Goebbels summoned Lang to his office and asked him to run the entire German cinema. That evening, Lang packed his bags and crossed the border…’ 

Contempt’ is regarded by critics as one the great films ever made about filmmaking, along with Fellini’s 8 ½, Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’, Mrinal Sen’s ‘Akaler Sandhane’, Kieslowski’s ‘Camera Buff’ and Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’.      

In both ‘Contempt’ and Truffaut’s ‘Jules et Jim’, it is the woman in the central role who drives the plot forward : a plot which puts under scanner the traditional practice of satisfying spectator-expectations by resolution through the image of the compatible heterosexual couple. Both, Godard’s Camille and Truffaut’s Catherine are ‘irresistible forces of nature’ who make sure their rage and anguish are fully realised entities and not mere tools for them (her) to become possessions of a man. Much like Varda’s Cleo, Camille and Catherine refuse to be bound by the ‘unconcious of patriarchy’ (E. Ann Kaplan’s coinage) embedded deep in the psyche of not only their lovers but also the essentially ‘male’ spectator.  

One cannot help but admit that the syntax of cinema was revolutionised and altered forever by the French New Wave. The rate of expansion of the New Wave did slow down considerably after 1960, but that was the time when the movement began to crystallize, mature, eventually spreading beyond France into an international phenomenon, and advancing, ‘both practically and artistically, for many decades and arguably to the present day’ (Brody).

We live in uncertain times. If literary and visual culture have to survive disintegration, it is imperative for the masses to be exposed to the classics. Revisiting the classics – novels, plays, movies – play an extremely important role in keeping the spirit of compassion and human communication intact. The organisers of the French Film Festival have to be commended for their initiative. Hats off! 

*Arijit Mukhopadhyay is a freelance writer on cinema, member of Drishya, a non-profit film appreciation and research organisation


  • avatar

    19 April, 2024

    A thorough research work on french movies and the work of movie directors revolving round from 1957 to modern society. Arijit's choice of word and selection of narrative expressions are praiseworthy.

  • avatar
    Arijit Mukhopadhyay

    20 April, 2024

    Thank you for your kind words. It really means a lot.

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