Roland Barthes was notorious for his self-proclaimed “resistance” to the cinema. In fact, he hated the medium so much he could only bring himself to go the movies once a week. A paradox, of course. But it is an enigma befitting a thinker who, Jacques Rancière claims, “is never talking about cinema when he’s talking about cinema” (Watts, pp. 104-105). Barthes undeniably left a rich seam of writing on the subject, and his texts on the cinema now form one of the cornerstones of the field of film studies. For the most part, however, these articles form a (friendly) challenge to the cinephilia that underpins our attachment to the art form, the reason we study film in the first place. His most famous texts discussing the cinema talk precisely about leaving the movie-theatre, rather than entering it, suggest that the aesthetic value of a filmmaker such as Eisenstein can best be derived from looking at stills from his films rather than the films themselves, and speak of loving photography in opposition to the cinema. If anything, Barthes’ continued critical engagement with the cinema led him towards becoming progressively more dismissive of the “seventh art”: whereas his early pieces on Hollywood films contained in Mythologies sought to “demystify” American cinema by gently lampooning its more egregious stylistic effects, by the time the “holy trinity” of landmark texts of the 1970s were written (“The Third Meaning” from 1970, “Leaving the Movie Theatre” from 1975, and Camera Lucida, composed in 1979), he appears to have assigned the very mechanism of the cinema – its “apparatus”, we might say – to a theoretical purgatory. Indeed, there is even something touchingly anachronistic about Barthes’ stubborn reticence towards the cinema: who, after all, at the dawn of the 1980s, could still say that they have an aversion to the moving image as such? Who could claim that it innately lacks “pensiveness”? Who could find the irrepressible flux of images intolerable, and bemoan the fact that when they close their eyes before the movie screen they see a totally different image upon re-opening their eyelids? In the 1930s, already, Walter Benjamin had labelled such attitudes as being hopelessly outdated.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

As always, however, things are not that simple. A counter-current of writings and interviews from throughout Barthes’ life gives a more positive account of the cinema: his first published article, after all, was a laudatory review of Bresson’s Les Anges du péché (Angels of Sin) from 1943, while soon before his untimely death in 1980 he had written a moving letter to Antonioni, singularly praising the Italian filmmaker’s work. In between, his 1963 interview with Jacques Rivette and Michel Delahaye for Cahiers du cinéma stands not only as an extensive and nuanced discussion of the relationship between cinema and semiotic theory, but also represents a watershed moment in the political and theoretical evolution of the journal itself. Barthes manifested a prolonged interest in film criticism and theory. As is becoming more and more clear to contemporary researchers, he owed a profound debt, in particular, to André Bazin, whose ideas resonate throughout Barthes’ writings, and he entertained amicable relations with a number of younger film critics, who avidly attended his Collège de France lectures and repaid the favour by exposing him to new trends in filmmaking.

It may thus come as a surprise that, until now, nobody had taken it upon on themselves to devote a monograph to the question of Barthes’ sinuous, contradictory relationship with the cinema. This situation has changed, however, with the near simultaneous publication of two works focussing fully on the encounter between theorist and medium: Roland Barthes’ Cinema by the American scholar Philip Watts and La nuit sera noire et blanche: Barthes, La Chambre claire, le cinéma by ex-Cahiers editor Jean Narboni. 1 The two books represent very different projects: the former is a broad overview of Barthes’ thinking on the cinema, and the multiple permutations it adopts over the course of nearly four decades, while the latter is a rather unique entity centring mainly on a fascinating first-hand account of how Camera Lucida came into being.

Moreover, above and beyond their common subject matter, a common pall of morbidity unites the two works. The cinema, as Jean Cocteau reminds us, films death at work, and the nexus between human mortality and the mechanically-reproduced image pervades Barthes’ final book. The recent death of his mother, and his discovery of a photograph of her as a child in a winter garden at Chennevières-sur-Marne (surely the most famous photograph in the world that nobody has seen), no doubt played a major role in this “hantological” aspect of Barthes’ discussion of photography. For Barthes, the punctum of an 1865 photograph of Lewis Payne, a young man condemned to death for an attempted assassination, is the thought: “he is going to die”. But this sentiment equally applies to every photograph featuring living creatures. Photography is the trace of “a catastrophe that has already taken place”; it gives us death in the future tense. That Barthes, struck by a laundry van, should die within months of Camera Lucida’s publication – the instantaneity and unforeseeability of the event lending Barthes’ death itself the aspect of a snapshot photograph – has given his last work a powerfully mournful aura which forms the emotional core to Narboni’s chronicle of its creation.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes’ Cinema

In the case of Roland Barthes’ Cinema, the tragedy is doubled: Philip Watts was working on the manuscript when he was diagnosed with cancer, and the text was left unfinished when he passed away in the summer of 2013. Believing the work to potentially be the “crowning book” (p. xi) of a figure who devoted his life to charting the history of 20th century French intellectual culture, a team of four scholars and friends of Watts (Dudley Andrew, Yves Citton, Vincent Debeane and Sam Di Iorio), at the request of his wife, undertook to bring the manuscript to a publishable state. In their preface to the volume, the editors acknowledge the difficulties inherent to such a project, and opted to keep their own interventions to a minimum: for the most part, they tell us, this was limited to completing footnotes and occasionally polishing the main text to ensure its legibility. The inevitable result is a lacunary work: an introductory chapter focussing on Camus, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s writings on film was too incomplete to be published, while the final section linking Barthes with the theories of Deleuze and Rancière on the cinema was also left in a piecemeal state, and included in the volume as “an invitation to poursuivre la réflexion.” (p. xii) Other gaps can be discerned elsewhere in the book – sadly, the extent to which these were intended to be filled by Watts, or left to the initiatives of others, is now a moot question.

Nonetheless, the resulting volume is a model of scholarship, combining both exhaustive research and an original, intellectually creative sensibility. In charting the vicissitudes of Barthes’ responses to the cinema, Watts also convincingly controverts the common conception of the evolution of Barthesian theory more generally. Barthes is generally understood to pass from a Marxist-inflected project of “demystifying” the products of bourgeois ideology in the 1950s (what Watts, following Ricœur, calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion”), through a phase dominated by structuralist and semiotic ideas in the 1960s, to his overtly sensuous, even hedonistic approach to texts and cultural phenomena in the 1970s (beginning, notably, with The Pleasure of the Text). For Watts, however, this is an over-simplified picture of the theorist, and he insists on the idea that the “interpretative” and “sensualist” sides to Barthes’ thinking coexist, in an uneasy but prolonged tension with each other, throughout his body of work. It is this exemplification of the broader fault line within film theory (that between the “hermeneutic” and “poetic” camps) that means that a work such as Mythologies, far from being a musty relic of a historically remote political conjuncture, is strikingly pertinent for our own times. Hence, while Barthes denounces,in “a rhetorically perfect piece of Marxist and Brechtian demystification” (p. 15), Eliza Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) as a work of capitalist propaganda, his essay on Greta Garbo partakes of a “camp poetics”, and his take on her role in Queen Christina (Ruben Mamoulian, 1933) can even be seen as presaging his analysis of Balzac’s Sarrasine in S/Z.

A similar dialectic pervades a pair of short pieces on film from the late 1950s, focussing on the advent of CinemaScope and Claude Chabrol’s early nouvelle vague film Le Beau Serge (1958) respectively. 2 Far from deprecating Hollywood’s adoption of the wide-screen configuration as a desperate gambit by a cultural machine whose economic model had been threatened by the rise of television, Barthes sees CinemaScope as providing a new, far more immersive form of perception than the traditional cinematic format allowed. Likening the film spectator to the prisoners in Plato’s cave more than a decade before Jean-Louis Baudry would make the same analogy, Barthes even conjures a utopian vision: a ‘Scope version of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (which, although Watts neglects to mention this, was officially banned from public screenings in France until 1953): “Imagine yourself watching Battleship Potemkin, no longer positioned behind a spyglass but pressed up against the very air, the stone, the crowd: this ideal Potemkin, where your hand can finally reach out to the insurgents, where you can share in the light and receive the blow of the tragic Odessa steps right to your chest.” (p. 26) In discussing Le Beau Serge, however, Barthes is more circumspect: admiring its “Flaubertian asceticism”, he nonetheless comes out against its right-wing politics, and begins his appraisal of the film with the dispiriting assessment that “in France talent is on the right and truth on the left.” (p. 30)

Roland Barthes

Queen Christina (Ruben Mamoulian, 1933)

Barthes’ appreciation, in this essay, for “the New Wave tenet that the camera on location reveals the wonders of the world, even its most incidental details” (p. 30), leads Watts to the centrepiece of his text: a prolonged comparison of the work of Barthes and Bazin. The relationship between these two figures, indeed, has undergone a sweeping metamorphosis: as Watts notes, “A generation ago everything seemed to separate Bazin from Barthes; today everything seems to bring them together.” (p. 35) But he also insists that the prevailing focus on the affinities of Camera Lucida to Bazin’s ideas is overly restrictive, and instead the chapter primarily charts parallels between critical texts written by the two figures in the 1950s. For Watts, the common points between them – with both figures discussing CinemaScope, Queen Christina and The Lost Continent (Leonard Bonzi, Enrico Gras and Giorgio Moser, 1955) within close proximity of one another – suggests that “Barthes, while never citing Bazin, read and responded to his writings on cinema.” (p. 36) These correspondences can, of course, be ascribed more to circumstance than an implicit theoretical dialogue – Queen Christina, for instance, had a prominent re-release at the time the two critics wrote about the film. To provide ammunition to Watts’ argument, however, I would add that I have always felt his Garbo essay owes a debt to Bazin’s 1948 article “Le Mythe de M. Verdoux”, which makes much the same argument about Chaplin’s evolution from the “Charlot” figure to the character of Verdoux – although Bazin, evidently more familiar with film technology, ascribes this transformation at least in part to the shift from orthochromatic to panchromatic film stock (he even claims that imagining “the Little Tramp in Technicolor” is inconceivable). 3

Watts does not, however, shy away from broaching the negative flip-side of this relationship: while, in the 1950s, the two writers shared “a common understanding of the image as analogon”, they nonetheless entertained a rivalry that was “political and institutional in nature” (p. 39); Watts even posits that Barthes contributed to “the ‘erasure’ of Bazin from the French intellectual scene.” (p. 40) For Watts, this erasure primarily takes the form of two texts: the 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the Image” – which tacitly recasts many of Bazin’s arguments from “Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in semiotic terms in order to account for “the ‘precious miracle’ of photography” (p. 42) – and Camera Lucida. Although much of the latter text seems to draw from Bazin, the film critic is, famously, only mentioned by name once, in passing, when Barthes brings up his notion of the frame as a cache (“mask”, although the English translation of Camera Lucida gives it as “hideout”). But more on this later.

The following chapters of Roland Barthes’ Cinema focus largely on the connections between Barthes’ later writings on the cinema and other strands of structuralist, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic film theory in France. His two texts on Eisenstein from the early 1970s, inspired in part by Cahiers’ vast project to translate the Soviet filmmaker’s theoretical writings, depart significantly from the more widespread Marxist understanding of Soviet montage practices, but in doing so they do not, in Watts’ view, replace “politics with sterile aesthetics” (p. 58); rather, these texts denote the presence of a form of Deleuzian micropolitics in Barthes’ thinking, which, when tackling Eisenstein’s films, he detects more in the subtle depiction of gestures and gazes (Lessingian “pregnant moments”) than in vocal denunciations of capitalist exploitation. Similarly, “Leaving the Movie Theatre”, Barthes’ response to the psychoanalytic conceptualisation of the cinematic dispositif in the 1970s texts of Metz and Baudry, specifically undermines the tenets of “apparatus theory” by “delighting in the pleasure he feels when the altered state into which the film has put him lingers on beyond the end of the projection.” In resisting the “overreaching universalising gestures” of the semiotico-psychoanalytic approach to cinema, Barthes instead turns his attention primarily to the phenomenological experience of movie-going (pp. 67-68).

Watts’ chapter on “The Melodramatic Imagination”, meanwhile, attempts to tease out relations between Barthes and Foucault by analysing a handful of 1970s films to which the former had connections. While it is fascinating to learn of his cameo in André Téchiné’s 1979 film The Bronte Sisters (“Diderot, Eisenstein, Brecht” was in fact dedicated to Téchiné), and the possible intersections with Truffaut’s Adèle H. (1975) and La Chambre verte (The Green Room, 1978 – even the title, Watts, muses, seems to be echoed in Barthes’ final text), these discussions tend to be inconclusive, and Watts admits, by the end, to the “tenuous and circumstantial” nature of the links he outlines (p. 95). Further research, no doubt, would have allowed him to make more solid claims on the basis of the hunches sketched here, and more convincingly associate Barthes with Foucault’s contemporaneous work on the Pierre Rivière case.

Finally, Watts concludes by adumbrating a possible legacy of Barthes’ thinking in the more recent, and highly influential, theories of Jacques Rancière. Barthes’ increasing distrust in the methods of “demystification”, notably present in a 1970 preface to a new edition of Mythologies, parallels Rancière’s post-Althusserian critique of the social hierarchies produced by such intellectual operations; on a more profound level, both shared “a common emphasis on the tension between narrative and sensuality” and a “common desire to pay closer attention to the sensible tissu of film.” (p. 99) In a coup for the editors, Watts’ conjectures are confirmed by an interview with Rancière appended to the volume, in which the philosopher specifically credits the essay on “The Reality Effect” for saving him from “wasting my time reading all the Tel Quelian texts.” (p. 112) At the same time, however, Rancière does not refrain from a critical reading of Watts, or of Barthes, and claims that the later Barthes makes a “withdrawal and retreat from any of the possible political consequences of an interpretation of images and texts.” (p. 110) In the end, Rancière makes the cryptic assertion that Barthes “incarnates the ‘modernist’ misunderstanding about modernity – but in such a rigorous way that I find him to be an absolutely ideal partner.” (p. 111) Given the enigmas of Barthes’ attitudes towards the cinema, this paradoxical legacy in Rancière’s thinking is all too appropriate.

Roland Barthes

La nuit sera noire et blanche

Despite its fragmentary, incomplete nature, Watts’ posthumously published study is nonetheless a fully recognisable, and exemplary, instance of a familiar type of work: the scholarly monograph. Jean Narboni’s book, by contrast, is of an altogether different, more difficult to categorise breed: La nuit sera noire et blanche is perhaps best described as the memoire of a book’s production process from the point of view of its editor. A decidedly uncommon genre, I think we can agree. Off the top of my head, I can only evoke Max Brod’s writings on Kafka as being in any way comparable to Narboni’s undertaking. In this sense at least, Narboni is, modestly, replicating his subject matter: in the introduction he quotes Éric Marty as saying that, with Camera Lucida, Barthes “had invented an entirely new object, a unique object, as new and singular as Breton’s Nadja.” (Narboni, p. 9) There are undoubtedly good reasons for why such works are rarely written: how many books have publication backgrounds worth devoting a treatise to? In the case of Camera Lucida, however, Narboni is perfectly justified in asserting that the story of its genesis “abounds in intriguing traits and oddities, which have mostly passed unnoticed, but which were not without their effects on the movement and the meaning of the book.” (p. 8) Such mysteries, in Narboni’s view, go far beyond the well-known enigma of the absent photograph of Barthes’ mother, the “burning centre” of a book cloven into two disjunctive sections. The purpose of his book, then, is to bear witness to the “displacements, adjustments and substitutions, the lure effects and incidental events that […] punctuated its composition.” (p. 8)

That Narboni is not only the editor of Barthes’ final work, but also a crucial figure in the history of film theory in his own right – author, while at Cahiers, of “Cinéma/idéologie/critique”, “Vers l’impertinence”, “La vicariance du pouvoir” (a review of Straub/Huillet’s Othon [1969]) and other key articles – and that he was a first-hand witness to Barthes’ long association with Cahiers, only heightens the interest of this work. Indeed, the first section of La nuit sera noire et blanche gives a fascinating chronological overview of the interactions between Barthes and the journal. While some of these encounters are now well-known – his 1963 interview with Rivette and Delahaye, the publication of “The Third Meaning” in 1970 – others are less so. Narboni gives a passionate account of Rivette’s short text “Revoir Verdoux”, which in retrospect stands as a highly Barthesian clarion call for cinematic modernism, as well as Luc Moullet’s denunciation of structuralism at a round-table at the 1966 Pesaro film festival featuring Barthes, Metz and Pasolini. Moreover, he provides a key to reading the conclusion to The Pleasure of the Text, whose discussion of “writing aloud” (l’écriture à haute voix) was, he persuasively contends, inspired by a memorable excursion Barthes made with the Cahiers critics in a cramped Citroën 2CV to catch a screening of Othon in an outer suburban auditorium. 4

Roland Barthes

Othon (Straub/Huillet, 1969)

The 1970s also saw Narboni’s growing attachment to the idea of founding a publishing arm to Cahiers du cinéma: initial efforts had been made with releasing Godard’s and Eisenstein’s writings with the publisher Christian Bourgois, and for a time special issues of Cahiers also played a surrogate role in this project, but by the late 1970s Narboni felt bold enough to propose a co-publishing arrangement with the esteemed maison d’édition Gallimard. Remarkably, Gallimard not only agreed to the project, but, exceptionally, gave him full editorial control over the series. Having gained the assent of Barthes to “launch” the collection with Camera Lucida, alongside an anthology of Oshima’s critical writings, Narboni then endured a memorable incident that attests to the paranoiac disposition prevalent in the world of French letters: Barthes’ life-long publisher was Gallimard’s rival Seuil, whose editor François Wahl met the Cahiers critic in the Atrium café, and angrily accused him of “kidnapping” one of Seuil’s most treasured authors. After Barthes’ own mediation, an accord was reached between the three parties, resulting in the unique triple-barreled publishing entity responsible for Camera Lucida: “Cahiers du cinéma-Gallimard-Seuil”.

The middle, and longest, section of Narboni’s book is thus concerned with the editing process itself. As Narboni tells it, once Barthes had submitted the manuscript – after a six-week burst of writing between April and June 1979 – little needed to be changed in the text itself. Its “non-linear, arch-like construction” comprising “two sections or panels of equal quantitative importance but of a perceptibly different tonality” was already present in the original manuscript, as was the “absent centre” of the winter garden photograph, which Narboni compares to the geographical structure of Tokyo as outlined in Barthes’ Empire of Signs (p. 59). Notably, he describes the two halves of the book in diurnal terms: with each one precisely 24 chapters long, the “day” of the first part is followed by the “night” of the second, haunted by the maternal quietus, and declared to be the “palinode” of its predecessor. For Narboni, this is all too appropriate, given that “time becomes without contest the principal character” in Camera Lucida (p. 58).

While the text required little revision, the inclusion of photographic accompaniments to Camera Lucida was a protracted and eventful process: an initial list of 56 photographs had been drawn up by Barthes, only some of which made it into the final version of the book. Many images, even those to which Barthes was initially attached, fell out of favour with the author, while others were late additions. Rights, too, had to be cleared with the photographers in question, or their heirs, a process not without its own peripeteia. While Barthes declared his aesthetic goal to be a “montage” between text and image, the final selection and positioning of the photographs took place at the very end of the production process. Nonetheless, striking montage effects are present in the book, the most notable of which is the photograph of Nadar’s “mother” (actually his sister, Narboni confirms for us). In the initial version of the manuscript, Barthes wrote “It was as if […] I had substituted my own mother for Nadar’s mother, who he photographed with a flower brushing against her lips.” (p. 94) This was deleted, however; instead, the photo itself is reproduced in the middle of the passage where Barthes speaks so affectingly of his materfamilias. Although the analogy is no longer explicitly spelled out, the same effect is produced: there is not a single reader of Camera Lucida, I would wager, who has not unwittingly made the same mental substitution of the elderly, flirtatious woman in Nadar’s photo for Barthes’ own mother. Conversely, as Narboni points out, Barthes does indeed show us his mother as a young child, not too distant in age from the time of her winter garden photograph, but the fact that the girl is his mother is so allusively mentioned as to be missed by most readers: our attention is instead purposefully drawn to the “formidable, monumental, Hugolian” bearded man (her grandfather, and thus Roland Barthes’ great-grandfather) in the centre of the image that is dubbed La Souche, and tersely attributed to “the author’s collection”. After having emphatically denied us an image of his mother, and providing a surrogate to sate our curiosity, Barthes now reveals her to his readership, but does so, in Narboni’s words, in the form of “a purloined letter, crushed and rendered invisible by the stature of her grandfather.” (p. 122)

Roland Barthes

“La Souche”, from Camera Lucida (Roland Barthes)

The final section of Narboni’s book delves more deeply into the theoretical foundations of Camera Lucida, and it is here that, I feel, he and Watts may well have been sharing crib notes with each other. 5 Narboni helpfully points out that Barthes’ polemical claim that it is the invention of photography, not the cinema, that is a fundamental dividing point in the history of the world, is an incisive rejoinder to Pierre Legendre, who made the contrary claim in an interview published in Cahiers in February 1979 (and conducted by Serge Daney and Narboni himself). But, inevitably, it is the affinity between Barthes and Bazin that dominates the bulk of this chapter. The founder of Cahiers is described as “the great absence of the book” who “haunts Camera Lucida like a spectre” (p. 129), and the parallels between their ideas are sketched out at length by Narboni, who discusses not just the common preoccupation with the “ontology of the photographic image”, but also the importance of Sartre’s L’Imaginaire for both figures (Camera Lucida is, in fact, dedicated to the work), and even the shared deployment of Mallarmé’s phrase “tel qu’en elle même” (such as it is in itself) to designate the authenticating power of the image. 6

This said, I can not help but think that La nuit sera noire et blanche has its own “great absence” – in other words, that Narboni is replying to his own unnamed interlocutor. Hervé Joubert-Laurencin’s monograph on Bazin Le Sommeil paradoxal, published in 2014, makes a similar point about the debt Barthes owes to Bazin in Camera Lucida, but casts the relationship in a very different light: Bazin is here described as Camera Lucida’s “sombre precursor”, consciously repressed by Barthes, whose final book consists of an “accumulation of arguments for the objection made over the course of twenty years, in the name of structuralism, […] to Bazin’s supposed naïveté.” 7 In placing an emphasis, like Watts, on the deeper correspondences between the thinking of Bazin and Barthes, Narboni appears to be offering a tacit reproof to his colleague, albeit without citing Joubert-Laurencin by name.

And yet, as Joubert-Laurencin asks us with typical trenchancy, if Barthes has no reason to hide the influence of Bazin on his thinking, then why does the erstwhile structuralist give only a single mention of the film theorist by name, and without even granting him the privilege accorded to other sources of “the elegant bibliographic signal in the left-hand margin” of the page? Is it because “Bazin is not legendary for Barthes”? 8 It is worth reproducing the passage in question here: “The cinema has a power which at first glance the Photograph does not have: the screen (as Bazin has remarked) is not a frame but a hideout [cache]; the man or woman who emerges from it continues living: a ‘blind field’ [champ aveugle] constantly doubles our partial vision.” 9 The cadre/cache dichotomy derives from a mid-1950s article by Bazin titled “Peinture et cinéma”, reprinted in volume II of Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, and Narboni expresses his regret at not having asked Barthes directly whether he had read this text or not (p. 135). Both he and Watts, meanwhile, suggest that the notion may have come via an indirect source, namely, Narboni’s fellow Cahiers critic Pascal Bonitzer, who Barthes knew well. Watts even produces a compelling piece of evidence for this surmise: the term “champ aveugle” is never pronounced as such by Bazin, but is repeatedly deployed by Bonitzer in texts from the late 1970s, and is used as the title for a 1982 anthology of his writings.

On this matter, I believe I can be a little more concrete than either Narboni or Watts: Barthes did indeed derive this segment of his text from Bonitzer, and not directly from Bazin. This is the reason why Bazin is granted neither a mention of his name in the margin of the page in which he is cited, nor a listing in the index of Camera Lucida. The Bonitzer paper that Barthes drew from, tellingly titled “La vision partielle”, was published in Cahiers du cinéma in June 1979. In a key passage in this article, Bonitzer not only discusses his notion of the champ aveugle, he also quotes the cadre/cache passage from Bazin at length, albeit giving the text a loose citation. The extract is given as being from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, but no page number or even volume is specified, and Barthes evidently did not take the trouble to track down an exact reference. 10 How can I be certain that Barthes was familiar with this text? Because, as a brief note at the beginning of the article tells us, it was originally delivered as a lecture in January 1979, at Roland Barthes’ own seminar in the Collège de France, a couple of months before the writing of Camera Lucida. Barthes was in the audience for Bonitzer’s address, and in all likelihood discussed the subject-matter with him after the presentation. In a further twist, Bonitzer would go on to review Camera Lucida for Cahiers in May 1980, soon after Barthes’ death, and he here quotes the passage on Bazin in its entirety. 11 Modesty, one assumes, prevents him from taking credit as the conduit between the two theorists.

Perhaps, then, these observations help to clarify one little mystery associated with Camera Lucida. As Narboni reminds us, however, one of the most enigmatic works in the history of critical theory still retains many other unsolved – and doubtless unsolvable – riddles for those readers who succumb to its charms.


Philip Watts, Roland Barthes’ Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Jean Narboni, La nuit sera noire et blanche (Paris: Capricci, 2015).



  1. Roland Barthes’ Cinema was initially published in a French translation (by Watts’ widow Sophie Queuniet) as Le cinéma de Roland Barthes (Paris: De L’Incidence, 2015) in October 2015, in order to coincide with the centenary of Barthes’ birth. The English version is released in April 2016.
  2. Helpfully, the volume is rounded out by nine articles by Barthes relating to the cinema, all of which appear in English for the first time.
  3. See André Bazin, “Le Mythe de M. Verdoux”, in Qu’est-ce que le cinéma, vol. III (Paris: Cerf, 1961), pp. 89-113.
  4. The quixotic adventure is also firmly lodged in the memories of Jacques Aumont and Pascal Kané, who attest to Barthes’ sense of unease at being driven out to one of the more insalubrious corners of the Île de France.
  5. The two authors knew each other, made presentations at the same conferences (notably a 2009 Paris conference on Bazin) and had a large number of mutual acquaintances. Nonetheless the books appear to have been composed independently of one another.
  6. Mallarmé actually used the masculine gender (tel qu’en lui même) in his poem “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe”. Bazin retains this form in his “Ontology” essay, whereas Barthes feminises it for grammatical reasons.
  7. Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, Le Sommeil paradoxal (Montreuil: Œil, 2014), pp. 42, 40-41.
  8. Ibid., p. 41. Narboni notes that the very act of referring to Bazin without his first name is already a significant homage: for a long time, mention of “Bazin” was more likely to be a reference to the author Hervé than the theorist André.
  9. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 55.
  10. Pascal Bonitzer, “La vision partielle”, Cahiers du cinéma 301 (June 1979), pp. 35-43, here p. 37.
  11. Pascal Bonitzer, “Le hors-champ subtil”, Cahiers du cinéma 311 (May 1980), pp. 5-7, here p. 6.