Cinema certainly has many films that are happy to fall under the nostalgic, and even has plenty of devices to convey it. The use of songs from the period, a fond voice-over recollecting in tranquillity, the trigger object or situation that throws someone into their flashbacked past. But film sometimes accesses nostalgia that seems less based on the simplification of feeling, than the troubling complication of it. But what is nostalgia? In Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, the writer works through various translations of the word. The Greek for return is nostos, he reminds us, and algos means suffering. He then says that the Spaniards have añoranza, the Portuguese saudade. “In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one’s country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called ‘homesickness’. Or in German: heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee.”1 Kundera goes on to explore the word in various other languages and in various nuances, noting, for example, that the French have it in noun form but not as a verb.

Nostalgia, then, is a word that takes different forms in different cultures, and would seem to vary in its importance. A diasporic nation like Ireland or Greece might be more inclined to see its import over England or Germany, but we might also muse over the idea that certain sensibilities possess this capacity for nostalgia aesthetically. The French may not have a verb for nostalgia, but Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Philippe Garrel are three French directors who in very different ways manifest a fascination for the nostalgic. They may not have the verb form in language, but they have discovered it cinematically, searched for a method that will convey nostalgia as a temporal crisis rather a geographical problem. The former indicates ontological impossibility; the latter “merely” geographical difficulty. To lose one’s home is no small thing, but to lose one’s past is both inevitable but in some circumstances the most awful of tragedies.

Philippe Garrel

Philippe Garrel

Philippe Garrel is one of the greatest of nostalgic filmmakers because he allows it to take two forms: socio-political and erotico-chemical. May 1968 is the moment that everything could have been different and wasn’t: it was the month that got away, and Garrel returns to this event in various manifestations all the better to acknowledge that it is a time that can not easily be regained except in the pain of recollection, even if the event is sometimes taking place in front of our eyes. Le Vent de la nuit (1999) and Les Amants reguliers (Regular Lovers, 2005) take very different approaches but emotionally arrive at the same place. In Le Vent de la nuit, 1968 is thirty years in the past, but Serge (Daniel Duval) isn’t so much stuck in that past (there are no flashbacks) as unable to live in the present. When Kundera in Ignorance says that Odysseus loses contact with his home it rests on travelling through the years without companions to remind him of it. Everyone who has stayed at home possesses numerous memories of him as Kundera notes that “during the twenty years of Odysseus’s absence, the people of Ithaca retained many recollections of him, but never felt nostalgia for him. Whereas Odysseus did suffer nostalgia, and remembered almost nothing.”2 It is this type of nostalgia we might believe that Serge suffers as he remains taciturn through Garrel’s semi-road movie, which sees Serge going from Paris to Italy and then to Berlin, including a visit to Portofino where other 68ers would hang out after the disappointment of May, and where he will visit his wife’s grave in the German city. He will reluctantly talk, courtesy chiefly of a young sidekick Paul (Xavier Beauvais), who is youthfully fascinated by the past just as Serge is warily intimidated by his own memories. This is the historical past as emotional sore spot, with Serge keen to keep his thoughts to himself when they coincide with feelings he might not wish to access. May 1968 might be public knowledge but for Serge it is also a private affair, equal to other moments that he believes one should keep one’s counsel over. In one scene during their trip round Europe, Paul asks Serge about women and Serge replies that some things are sacred. Serge is a little like Odysseus: he suffers nostalgia. His past isn’t there to be discussed; it is there to be felt, painfully.

This notion of suffering from nostalgia creates a paradox in Les Amants reguliers as Garrel creates a nostalgic present. This is not the homogenising nostalgia Bernardo Bertolucci accesses in The Dreamers (2003) but the heterogenising nostalgia of a director who wasn’t really there. Bertolucci plays up the idea that he was a filmmaker who could replicate the period, soberly aware of the nature of events; Garrel indicates instead that to be present was to be so inside the event that there wasn’t much there there. In Les Amants reguliers he offers his usual cinema povera with a poverty of external memory all the better to locate it in the suffering of central character Louis Garrel (who has a leading role of course in Bertolucci’s film too, and is Philippe’s offspring), but also to access a past that is more complicated than merely looking at the diegesis. There is something non-diegetically fascinating about the son called in to play the role of a figure with similarities to the father in a film that, like many of Philippe Garrel’s films, flirts to the point of a sustained relationship with autobiography. In one scene we see Francois (Louis Garrel) talking to his grandfather (played by his actual grandad Maurice), frail and pigment-spotted, as if Philippe were filming his father aware that he might not have too long to live.3 In Les Amants reguliers we see Louis, young and vibrant, with almost Samsonian significance given to his locks, and his grandfather, still with a full head of hair but like the last of life might very soon leave him. The film is a hymn to May ‘68 but also a prayer to the father, as if determined to keep him alive by cinematic means. Here the socio-political is also the familial as Francois hides out with his family, just as in A Burning Hot Summer the socio-political is incorporated into the familial too. Maurice Garrel returns as a ghostly presence after Louis Garrel’s central character tries to take his own life, talking about his experiences in the Resistance. This is the socio-political as the personal, with Garrel incorporating his own family into his work, accessing intimacy that can appear tantamount to a home movie.

But there is also the erotico-chemical: the degree to which heroin and emotion impact on the nostalgic element in Garrel’s work. In Les Amants reguliers, Francois falls in love and falls into heroin use, and by the end of the film we can not easily distinguish one addiction from the other. “Physiologically, there is almost no distinction between withdrawal from heroin and withdrawal from the intoxication of infatuation” says Ethlie Ann Vare in The Huffington Post. 4 No filmmaker more than Garrel has explored this interconnection. Love for Garrel is not impossible (as we find in Brief Encounter [David Lean, 1946] or Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942]), probable or inevitable (as we find in many a romantic comedy with their cross-cutting scenes early on where we wait for the characters to meet cute), but hopeless. It is, like drug addiction, a descent rather than an ascent, and Francois can not get over his affair with Lilie (Clothilde Hesme). For Francois, as for other Garrel characters, there really aren’t other fish in the sea: they flap on the dry land of missing affection. If Garrel’s is not a voluble cinema it is because characters cannot easily talk about their feelings: there is no three-step recovery programme as loss remains integral to their nervous system, value system and the social system they can never quite belong to. In Les Amants reguliers, Francois retreats ever further into himself after Lilie takes a job in the States with a big-name sculptor while Francois remains back in France, literally unable to live without her. 1968 is behind him and Lillie far from him, and the double nostalgia of looking back means he cannot find a way of moving forward. He dies, another victim of the emotion collateral damage that is Garrel’s cinema: people fall in love but also fall out of favour and falling out of favour is a descent indeed.

François Truffaut in The Green Room (François Truffaut, 1978)

François Truffaut in The Green Room (François Truffaut, 1978)

Truffaut is a nostalgic filmmaker of a very different hue, more given to melodrama and sentimentality befitting a director who Ingmar Bergman once described as a man who “wants to make money and he wants people to see his pictures.”5 This doesn’t make them bad, of course, but it does sometimes make for nostalgic hyperbole, whether it is L’Histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adele H., 1975) with the title character (Isabelle Adjani) losing her mind as she can’t get one lieutenant Pinson she is besotted by out of it, or La Chambre verte (The Green Room, 1978), with Truffaut himself playing the main character Julien Devanne, a man who devotes his life to the dead, and more specifically to his wife who died more than a decade before the film opens. In The Story of Adele H., Adele is a woman in her early twenties with her life ahead of her but who cannot imagine it without the lieutenant who spurned her. She has followed him from Guernsey to Nova Scotia as she vacillates in her new destination between dismay and anger, adoration and abnegation. Julian, meanwhile, is a WWI war veteran who believes his life is finished, and gives himself over to maudlin reflection. When the green room of the title that he has devoted to his wife’s memory is destroyed by a fire, Julien decides to turn a ruined chapel into a monument not only to his wife but also to the war dead too. He is a man who can’t seem to get grief out of his bones (he works as an obituarist for a newspaper), and if Truffaut’s weakness is that he exaggerates his plots, his strength lies in his ability to open up his theme. In both The Story of Adele H. and The Green Room, the subject of nostalgia (a late wife and a lieutenant respectively) gives way to a broader question of emotional solipsism. By the end of Adele H. Adele will walk past the man she loves unable to recognize him; in The Green Room a woman who loves Julien tells him that the only way he could love her back were if she were dead.

Though Truffaut’s work has always been shot through with nostalgia and loss – think of Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960) – this intractable problem of self-absorption becomes especially noticeable at the beginning of the seventies in Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent (Two English Girls, 1971). Reviewing the film, Pauline Kael concluded by saying “it’s an incredibly sad movie, bewilderingly sad”, while earlier in the review she says “Truffaut has always filled his movies with odd, idiosyncratic examples of human behavior.”6 What can sometimes make Truffaut’s films – and especially these three examples – bewilderingly sad is that we might feel that circumstances could have been very different if dispositions had been a little more compromising. When Stanley Kauffmann looked at Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. he noted that though the story claims itself as fact (based on the journals of Victor Hugo’s daughter), the impression the film gives is that Adele is around twenty when she would have been 33, and experts reckon no affair took place between Adele and Pinson, while the film indicates it had. Kauffmann concludes by saying that “up to now one could think that [Truffaut’s] sentiment about mad and dangerous women was at least partly unconscious, but how can one think so here?”7

Our perspective is that Truffaut had become more interested in nostalgia rather than event: that whereas in Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962), La Peau douce (Soft Skin, 1964) and even Shoot the Pianist, Truffaut captured the paradoxical nostalgia of the present, in The Story of Adele H. and The Green Room, as well as Two English Girls, nostalgia becomes much stronger than exuberance. Truffaut may have had no interest in showing the affair between Adele and Pinson but he needed the notion of an affair for his interest in nostalgia. Kauffmann notes that Truffaut wanted a youthful romantic Adele rather than a sexually repressed older one who goes crazy with sexual frustration. (Indeed aspects of this character had been explored through the masturbatory, repressed, supporting figure of Muriel in Two English Girls) Frustration is not nostalgia, and would have been of less interest to Truffaut than the recaptured past. As Annette Insdorff notes, Truffaut is fascinated by writing as a mode not only of communication but also of recollection: as if what matters are the ways in which we can keep the past in the present. As Insdorf observes, in Two English Girls, “the first words we hear him (Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Claude) speak over the credits are ‘some day I will write our story.’”8 as she wonders whether Truffaut is interested in placing “text over individual”. This is part of the nostalgia we are talking about. Adele scribbles her way towards madness, creating on the page what she can not recapture in her life. Julien in The Green Room makes his living, of course, writing about the dead.

While Truffaut is happy to utilise melodrama and sentimentality, he is also a director who works with distance and emotional delay. He will often use voice-over and Georges Delerue’s music to create a distance from the present, but then brings in the melodramatic as surprise rather than predictability. In both Jules et Jim and The Soft Skin we would be unlikely to expect the deaths the films conclude on as we would in a conventional melodrama that would meet with what in theatre is called “the obligatory scene”: the series of actions that find justification in the conclusion. If we had known far more about the wife’s jealousy in The Soft Skin, then the ending where she kills her husband would have been shocking, perhaps, but not surprising. In Jules et Jim, Catherine’s drive over the bridge seems almost like a whim rather than a motivated action.  We are perhaps reminded of Bergman’s comment on Truffaut, as if the French director was torn between a purity of vision and a commercial need for drama. We can view this as a flaw or as the intriguing result of a director making compromises that at the same time produced an authorial vision. Those mad heroines Kauffmann discusses provide both the commerce of melodrama and the singularity of directorial authorship. We might wish that the nostalgia Truffaut offers respected the passive state it suggests, but the director seemed consistently caught between dramatisation and reflection, which Insdorf explores well when discussing the characters’ interest in writing. The seventies films mentioned, whether focusing on male or female characters, brings out this solipsism, as if characters wish to hold on to the past to the point of madness if necessary, and hence the potential melodrama. Adele’s madness is melodramatic, but at the same time it comes out of scribbled reflection.

Thus the famous sadness we find apparent in Truffaut’s films lies in the combination of the event and its reflection, to varying degrees less or more present. Had Truffaut been given to event or reflection would the sadness, that bewildering sadness Kael mentions, have been so evident? It is as though the melodrama he finds is countered by the reflection he can not help but offer, so that the melodramatic gesture is the realisation of painful loss. But this is also where Truffaut understands cinema, comprehends that in many ways it is, at its base, a medium of nostalgia. The melodrama he shows is contained by the film that is being made, a film that has a future tense built into it, becoming a past tense that is the viewer watching it. We can think here of comments by Roland Barthes, Laura Mulvey and Stanley Cavell in exploring this question further. Cavell says in The World Viewed that “photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past.”9 Mulvey quotes Chris Petit, in his film, Negative Space, “the cinema is becoming increasingly about what is past. It becomes a mausoleum as much as a palace of dreams”. Mulvey adds, “as time passes, these ghosts crowd around the cinema as its own life lies in question and the years around the centenary saw the death of the last great Hollywood stars.”10 In a chapter from Camera Lucida, Barthes writes that “all the authors concur, Sartre says, in remarking on the poverty of the images which accompany the reading of a novel…”,11 before he goes on to discuss basic differences between the photographic and the cinematographic. But for our purposes we will conflate the photographic and the cinematographic, in order to differentiate them from the novelistic as Sartre sees it. There may or may not be a poverty of images in the novel, but those images are finally ours: we cannot grieve for anything more than a character in a book, but in cinema, taking into account Mulvey’s comment, we are indeed constantly grieving for more than the character because of the actor embodying it. The present that is filmed, which will become the past that we are watching in the present, becomes all the more so if we are watching actors who have passed away. When we watch Brando dying in the orange groves in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) or watch as he dies on the balcony at the end of Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), we are watching both death at play (diegetically) and death at work (non-diegetically). We are decidedly present at another’s absence, and a temporality that is missing in the theatre becomes a very feature of the cinema classic: the film that will be watched long after the star’s death.

Cavell notes this interest in nostalgia evident in Truffaut’s work when writing of Jules et Jim, “Truffaut uses the nostalgia of the old photographs of Paris streets and houses, and the heartbreaking beauty and terror of the soldiers rising like flowers from their fields” acknowledging that film is haunted by absence even when it shows presence. Cavell adds, “it is, to my knowledge, the most elegant, direct, and sustained use of the familiar device of newsreel clips in movies, a possibility of the medium which declares that the world of movies is an extension of the world of news.”12 Central to Cavell’s work is the idea that film could be, in Baudelaire’s phrase, a “memory of the present”.13 This is an ontology of film giving way as the digitisation of detail overtakes the magnification of presence, and it makes sense that Susan Sontag’s famous essay in the mid-nineties, “The Century of Cinema”, was also, elsewhere, called “The Decay of Cinema”: that what we were witnessing was the shift from chemical mummification to numerical recreation.14 Nothing was any longer strictly a trace, but a reconfiguration. Cinema was becoming a numbers game. Nostalgia really wasn’t what it used to be.

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

Perhaps nobody understood this better than Jean-Luc Godard, who not only made of course Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998), completed around the time of Sontag’s essay, and a film seen as central to the reflective melancholy around cinema’s possible demise, but also Eloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001) at the beginning of the century, combining black and white celluloid with colour digital. In an intriguingly odd claim Godard said at the time of Eloge that “cinema films illness, not good health. When you say that happiness does not make a story, that’s what it means. Television brazenly aggravates that. It can do that because we are no longer watching.”15 His claim is a little like a variation of Cocteau’s famous remark that cinema is death at work. Godard’s is that illness is at work. But don’t many TV shows and films offer exactly that, in numerous disease of the week movies and documentaries of personal decline? Godard must be saying something else here, and we can see it in the director’s interest in cinema as a mourning device consistent with Mulvey and others’ claims (and thus death at work), but also what we might call a free indirect subjective approach to the image that can indicate a certain illness at work.

In his famous article “The Cinema of Poetry”, Pasolini named Godard as a key example of this new approach to film, one that shows the director “has freed himself from his most deeply felt moment: he has finally been able to represent the world seen through his eyes, because he has substituted in toto for the world-view of a neurotic his own delirious view of aesthetics…”16 Pasolini is specifically talking of Antonioni in this passage but notices its pertinence in Godard’s and Bertolucci’s work also. It is this approach to illness that Godard captures so well and that television, it would seem, can not countenance. It is not the nature of the medium itself but what its possibilities happen to be. Cinema might lose its ontological privilege as film eschews its celluloid base, but that does not mean it need forego its relationship with the real as a means of making sense of our lives. TV it would seem, for Godard, cannot generally do this. Cinema can acknowledge illness at work in many and subtle formulations, and can offer an intriguing approach to the complexity of nostalgia.

In Eloge de L’amour the “illness” appears twofold: the depression of the suicidal figure Berthe whom central character Bruno enquires about in the first section of the film, and the grandmother’s physical fragility in the second section as she talks about her involvement in the resistance (played by well-known French publisher Francoise Verny). The frail grandparents are forced to sell their resistance story to Hollywood for money to save their restaurant, well aware that the story will be told without much respect for the specificity of the events. Berthe recalls her own parents’ suicide, and we look at the Renault factory that was so central to 1968. Godard fragments the film in so many ways that nostalgia can not be extracted from it as we would usually see in a film that so clearly signposts its present and its past (as Truffaut’s do). Godard wants to make the film fragile, as if resistant to the nostalgic by working out of the fragility of the granddaughter and the grandmother. If Pasolini could say that in Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964) “practically, the whole stylistic […] is a long ‘free indirect subjective’ based on the dominant state of mind of the protagonist, neurotic the young aunt”17, we might wonder if Eloge de l’amour combines the “illness” of Berthe and her grandmother. This has nothing do with point of view shots but instead a question of perspective. Free indirect discourse in literature removes the speech marks and closes the distance between character and situation. As James Wood says in How Fiction Works: “thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language, too.”18 Pasolini sees that what the director does is turn the convention of point of view into the dissolution of character and filmmaker.

This is partly why Godard’s nostalgia is much more complex than Truffaut’s, not only in a later film like Eloge de l’amour, but also a much earlier one such as Le Mépris (1963), which of course updates and reshapes the Odyssseus story. Georges Delerue had worked on Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim (and many of his later films though not, interestingly, The Story of Adele H. or The Green Room) but what Godard does is take Delerue’s great capacity for generating scores that indicate past emotion and put that emotion into an indeterminate present. It as if we were watching the film, in Pasolinian terms, from the perspective of Paul after the event even if the film offers itself in the present tense. It is as though Godard managed to look differently at the question of something happening this year or last year at Marienbad by creating a sense in which the present is happening yet within a past that is not acknowledged, except in the music and in the sense that whatever Paul does will happen inevitably anyway. Could Pasolini claim this is the free indirect subjectivity of the retrospective, grieving and now sick Paul looking back? Let us not be overly ingenious or impose a meaning on the film that cannot easily be justified by looking merely at the diegeis, but our point is how Godard manages to make his images contain the feeling of nostalgia without diegetically alluding to a past that will contain them, as Truffaut does using a retrospective voice over in Jules et Jim. Truffaut has no need of free indirect subjectivity as Pasolini would couch it because he relies on brilliant but conventional approaches to generating film tense. Godard has always been looking for ways to dissolve this notion of tense, understanding that film is both in the present of its making and the future of its viewing, and seems to want his films to exist in some intermediary plane that can make the films exist in the past and the present simultaneously. What are we grieving as we watch Le Mepris: the film that you are watching in the future, Godard might reply, and the deaths that will accompany that viewing, including the move towards one’s own. “You have to continue and discover the grammar of things”, Godard said in an interview with Hal Hartley and no doubt part of this is understanding film at its most fundamental and at its most advanced.19 This is to understand nostalgia not simply as an issue of the story, but also of the medium of film and film as a medium (almost in the spiritualist sense) where the dead can speak to us.


  1. Milan Kundera, Ignorance (London: Faber, 2002), p. 5.
  2. Ibid., p. 33.
  3. He would do it again in Un été brûlant (A Burning Hot Summer 2011) six years later and shortly before Maurice’s death.
  4. Ethlie Ann Vare, “Love Addiction: It’s For Real”, The Huffington Post, February 3, 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ethlie-ann-vare/love-addiction_b_1240652.html
  5. See Raphael Shargel (ed.), Ingmar Bergman Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), p. 83.
  6. Pauline Kael, Reeling, (London: Marion Boyars, 1976) p. 20.
  7. Stanley Kauffmann, Before My Eyes (New York: Da Capo Press, 1980),  pp. 183-186.
  8. Anette Insdorf, François Truffaut (London, Papermac, 1981), p. 93
  9. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 140.
  10. Death 24 Times a Second, London, Reaktion Books,, 2006, p. 17.
  11. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Flamingo, 1982), p. 89.
  12. Cavell, The World Viewed, op. cit., p. 140.
  13. Ibid., p. 23.
  14. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, New York Times, February 25, 1996.
  15. Quote in Michele Halberstadt, “The Artistic Act is an Act of Resistance”, Enthusiasm 5, pp. 2-7.
  16. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005), p. 179.
  17. Ibid., p. 180.
  18. James Woods, How Fiction Works (London: Vintage, 2008), p. 11.
  19. See “‘In Images We Trust’: Hal Hartley Interviews Jean-Luc Godard”, Filmmaker 3:1 (Fall 1994), pp .14, 16-18, 55-56. Repr. in https://cinemagodardcinema.wordpress.com/interviews/hartly/