There are so many ways into Daniel Fairfax’s vast and very impressive account of Cahiers du cinéma during the properly tumultuous period between 1968 and 1973. How could they not have been clamorous when France itself was rocked and many of its citizens restless after May ’68? If NPR was right to say this revolutionary moment “…encompassed a cultural revolution, even a sexual revolution, before a political one,”1 then why wouldn’t a film magazine be central to making sense of the times? Focusing on key articles published chiefly during these years, and the personalities involved, Fairfax’s book occasionally has the feel of an epic novel, a work where characters disappear from Paris and find themselves on the other side of the world, check themselves into mental institutions or discover their momentary lapse of concentration leads to an art work that makes them famous against their will. What could have been a dry and dusty work of academic virtue becomes in Fairfax’s account an examination of lives both chaotic and rigorous, with many of the figures living clearly a precarious existence while determined to express ideas with an authority that has left us with texts still of great value.

We can turn to some of these texts shortly, but it seems unfair to introduce a few of the more outlandish, tragic and spontaneous moments of the magazine without saying a little more. The tragic figure in this story is Jean-Pierre Oudart, someone who can be found making the odd remark in Bernard Eisenschitz’s Une partie de campagne: Les Cahiers du cinéma face au film in 1969, and would contribute often to the magazine during the next decade. But he was always seen as a “cooky oddball” (p. 666) and whose relationship deteriorated at the beginning of the eighties after “sending threatening letters to the Cahiers office” (p. 691). He was reputedly to be found after this in Saint-Anne psychiatric hospital. “Today, Oudart’s whereabouts are a mystery and none of his former colleagues can even say with certainty whether he is presently alive or dead” (p. 691). Occasional Cahiers contributor and long-term critic at Libération, Louis Skorecki says of Oudart: “heretical ex-theorist…and isolated slanderer exiled from himself, no doubt unaware that he is one of the two or three greatest film theorists of the century” (p. 691). It is Sylvie Pierre who refers to Oudart as an oddball, and she was so worried that Cahiers was losing touch with the sort of reality that Oudart seemed to depart from altogether that she went off to Latin America. “Pierre’s ‘search for the real’ led her to Brazil, where she lived until 1976” (p. 280). There were reasons for her departure beyond the specifics of what she saw as Cahiers’ Maoist fundamentalism. A filmmaker friend, Anne Thoraval had taken her own life, and Pierre and her husband, fellow Cahiers writer Jacques Aumont, divorced. Brazil wasn’t without its excitements, or terrors. Pierre recalls the shock of being directly exposed to the violent dictatorship after coming from the politically agitated but broadly liberal-democratic France. At a screening of Stachka (Strike, 1925) during a course she gave on Eisenstein in Rio de Janeiro, she was alerted by an usher to the presence of the secret police in the auditorium: “A shiver of intense physical terror shot up my spine. I can still feel it in my back, an absolutely violent sensation” (p. 556).

Pierre Baudry was a critic and filmmaker who became better known than he might have wished when he mislaid his address book and unfortunately for him it was found by the artist Sophie Calle. She returned the item to the authorities but also copied it, deciding to pursue the various contacts she found within its pages without ever expecting to meet the man himself. She published her findings in Libération and Calle described Baudry, Fairfax notes, in a way that wasn’t flattering and may have reflected other Cahiers critics in the seventies: “her Pierre D. is a whimsical yet solitary individual living in a cramped apartment in the migrant district of Barbès-Rochechouart, who has many acquaintances but few close friends” (p. 711). Amongst these acquaintance were Cahiers critics including Sylvie B. (Pierre), Paul B. (Pascal Bonitzer) and Jacques O. (Jean Narboni).

If Baudry was a minor figure at Cahiers who became briefly a major one through Calle’s work, Jacques Rivette during the red years was someone of immense importance. It wasn’t only that he had already made several features, and became a significant figure in French artistic life after culture minister André Malraux backed banning the director’s La religieuse (The Nun) in 1966, a film that galvanised many in the arts against the oppression of the French state, becoming known as the “affaire de la Religieuse.” Rivette, who edited the magazine between 1963-65, also “…enacted a subtle but important return to Cahiers in the years 1968 and 1969, which, as Bonitzer reveals, occurred after a ‘grave depression’ suffered by the filmmaker” (p. 472). Fairfax notes that “it was Rivette’s presence in the Cahiers offices, and the fact that he regularly accompanied his younger colleagues to film viewings throughout the late 1960s, magisterially conducting long discussions after the screenings, that perhaps most determined the Cahiers line during this period, particularly when it came to its presiding taste in films” (p. 476). Rivette would have been at least a decade older than most of the others, with many of the key figures during this period (Pierre, Serge Daney, Jean-Louis Comolli, Bonitzer, Narboni, Jacques Aumont, Pascal Kané) in their twenties or a little over thirty. Rivette, was forty in 1968, and was seen not so much as an older statesman – that was status reserved for the bourgeois, despised and pusillanimous Malraux – but as a cinematic guru. As Kané would say years later, speaking of Rivette’s “intellectual terrorism,” when Rivette and some of the other young Cahiers critics went to see Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967): “we left the screening overawed, in total silence, and then Jacques said ‘Oh, this film is intolerable! It’s odious!’ Everyone backed down completely. […] Nobody said anything good about Mouchette” (p. 476).

Rivette may have got Mouchette wrong, and the critics should have been bolder in the film’s defence, but by the beginning of the seventies Cahiers generated both a strong editorial position across numerous voices, and also nuanced debate amongst the hyperbole. While Fairfax’s book is fascinating for its anecdotal evidence as he interviews many of the main players in Cahiers during this period (Aumont, Bonitzer, Pierre, Comolli), all of whom will have no doubt lapses in memory, agendas of their own and positions that have shifted, what matters most is the quality of the work. Many have seen these years as a lost period, and a typical example of this claim is Nicholas Lezard’s when reviewing Emilie Bickerton’s A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma: “One can readily imagine what a grim experience reading Cahiers would have been in the early 70s, after years of increasing radicalisation and engagement with increasingly arcane varieties of socialism (the flirtation – no, marriage – with Maoism being the most revolting).”2 Whatever the financial problems, the falling readership, the tensions between the magazine’s writers, and the political positions taken that might now seem naive even to the writers themselves when they look back on the period, Fairfax would be inclined to disagree with Lezard more than a little vociferously. “I argue that, under the editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, the Marxist orientation it adopted, in combining Louis Althusser’s theories of ideology with a critical tradition rooted in the ideas of André Bazin, led to the journal producing an unprecedented outpouring of film theory that continues to have profound lessons for us today” (p. 13). It is a claim Fairfax more than justifies as he discusses a round table on editing with Rivette, Pierre and Narboni in 1969, an interview with Éric Rohmer in 1970, the essay “Technique and Ideology” by Comolli, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, by Comolli and Narboni, a collective essay on Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), Oudart on suture, and Bonitzer on the hors-champ (the out of field). These were only a handful of the many important articles coming out of the magazine during these years that Fairfax looks at. Just taking this small sample of pieces we can see why Lezard’s claim is invalid; that perhaps there was never a moment in Cahiers’ history quite as intellectually important as this. One way of viewing this period is to see that while ostensibly they were in conflict with the society they wished to change, they were also in dialogue with the critic they couldn’t help but respect: one of Cahiers’ three founding editors and surely the thinker most associated with the magazine, André Bazin. Bazin’s most fundamental claim, offered with numerous nuances and qualifications, was that cinema offered a window onto the world. Comolli and others saw cinema as a frame rather than a window, a constantly partial view that depended on the ideological forces upon it. Speaking to Fairfax in Senses of Cinema in 2012, Comolli said: “I must admit that we were very Bazinian, but Bazin is more complex than people take him for. He wrote things which, if not contradictory, at least tended to be open.”3

The main differences between Cahiers during the red years and the earlier work of Bazin rested on materialism versus spiritualism; montage versus the long take; the world as it was and the world as it could be. It was as though so many of the essays were productive arguments with the long dead critic, and this perhaps comes out most strongly in the interview with Rohmer. In this most tetchy of exchanges, the writers open by saying “everything in this interview with Éric Rohmer opposes us to him”,4 as they go on to tell the French director that “the cinema, as a window, the best equipped window possible, open to the world, the frame [cadre] as a mask [cache]. All of us are totally against this conception.”5 Rohmer insists that Bazin was right, saying “…it is above all in its respect for the world that genius of the cinema bursts out. Whether you like it or not, this is the nature of taking photographs. Bazin, therefore, put the finger on what was unique about the art of cinema in relation to all the other forms of art.”6 Rohmer agrees with Bazin that cinema has a great capacity for wonder, for showing the beauty of a world as it is, rather than manipulating it into something less attractive. The director reckons there is nothing more perfect than the world; the Cahiers critics see that this is no longer valid, as they claim the wonder of recognition is far less present than it once was and that it would be naive to claim otherwise. Film isn’t just there to shows us the world in various and myriad manifestations, it is also an ideological tool making us see things a certain way for certain reasons. These Cahiers critics in the piece of view it chiefly as a capitalist model and muse over how it can be resisted. Rohmer views it as a theological tool for enlightenment. He is neither left wing nor materialist. “There is no position more teleological, more theological, than my own” he says. He then adds later in response to an Eisenstein quote “absolute realism is in no way the correct form of perception. It is merely the function of a certain form of social structure,”7 that such a claim is of no interest to him whatsoever.

It is clear that the interviewers, Daney, Narboni, Pierre and Bonitzer, aren’t especially interested in the Rohmer film they are there to discuss; they are concerned chiefly with the ghost of Bazin that Rohmer can seem to embody. No wonder Rohmer spends much of the interview in a state of irritation and yet it is an important article. It helps the critics work out positions that would be examined in other pieces that preceded and followed it. The 1969 round table on montage could have been seen in principle as anti-Bazinian, or at least determined to revise his thinking for the critics’ own ends. As Narboni says, “here one finds the most extreme contradiction in Bazin’s analyses, preoccupied on the one hand by a belief in the ambiguity of reality, and on the other by the conviction that an international language exists, a natural and hidden meaning to things which the cinema does not have to produce, whose advent it need only – by virtue of its own perception and persistence – apprehend.”8 Instead, the younger generation of Cahiers writers and Rivette want to see how editing can contribute to the texture of a film according to specific ends. They looked at three chief areas: a dialectical montage practised by Eisenstein and others; the longer shot that seems deliberately to have eschewed editing but makes it present felt in its absence (Mizoguchi, Renoir) and films that make montage a necessary component of their problematic as they discuss most especially Méditerranée (Jean-Daniel Pollet, 1963). By making much of montage they wished to take Bazin’s resistance to its presence as a problematic and not a rejection of his thesis. Rivette sees montage over four periods of film history: Griffith and Eisenstein taking it in different directions, Hollywood and Pudovkin normalising it, post-war cinema questioning it with the use of long takes, direct sound, unprofessional actors, and a fourth stage where the first approach could be reassessed while incorporating the third. As Rivette says “to re-inject into contemporary methods the spirit and the theory of the first period, though without rejecting the contribution made by the third, but rather trying to cultivate one through the other, to dialectise them and, in a sense, to edit them.”9

A central question for Cahiers during this period was to show, under the influence of semioticians that saw cinema as a language, and using theorists who were chiefly concerned with language (Derrida, Kristeva, Sollers), that film was far from a natural product of recorded reality. It was a constant ideological project that created certain political affects through the stylistic choices adopted. Comolli notes in “Technique and Ideology” that the history of the long take like the close-up shouldn’t be seen only as technical innovations: they are economic and ideological. He acknowledges that “…the cinema does not possess a ‘natural ideological blemish’”. But adds that “this should not ‘conceal’, behind an inconsistent ‘scientific basis,’ the fact that it is under the effects of an economic demand – that is, within ideology and as an instrument of ideology – that the cinema is progressively imagined, made and purchased” (p. 155).

One way of looking at Cahiers during this period is to see that it wasn’t keen to lose the Bazinian sensuality of form but couldn’t accept either what may have seemed an innocence to Bazin’s project. This is often missed in the claims made about Cahiers during this period: that these were inert years where the journal took up numerous useless positions that it then reneged on later. As we find looking at numerous articles again, the best of them wanted to negotiate the nuances in Bazin’s essays by incorporating a greater political aspect, and Bazin’s own work helped encourage this project. The American critic and semiotically-inflected writer James Monaco noted in How To Read a Film that behind Bazin’s interest in the use of the long take “…these are ethical questions, since they determine the human relationship between and among artist, subject and observer.”10 Comolli quotes Bazin at length in the “Technique and Ideology” article, seeing that anybody pursuing a scientist discourse about cinema would have to accept that many of those involved in its inception weren’t scientists. This isn’t the place to go into the intricacies of such a debate, but it is to see that Bazin remained an important force behind the magazine at a time when it might have seemed so anti-Bazinian. It was as though it wanted to turn the Bazinian ethical question into a political one, to see that it wasn’t enough for the spectator to possess a phenomenological relationship with the image that would force upon the viewer an understanding of their implicated relationship with that image. They also wished to show how the viewer was culturally interpellated, how the viewer shouldn’t be seen as autonomously existential/phenomenological figures viewing images, but that they were also or more especially formed by structural conditions. Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation could meet with suture: that the viewer was both stitched into society and stitched into the film.

This is where psychoanalysis and Jacques Lacan proved vital, with Oudart adopting ideas by the French thinker to understand aspects of viewer engagement and pleasure. Fairfax does a marvellous job of giving back to the suture theory much of the complexity it has lost in the intervening years, and views Oudart’s article as a distinct thing rather than absorbing it into its more streamlined popularisation by Daniel Dayan, which was published much later and elsewhere.

For Oudart, the “… subject is the spectator in the movie theatre watching images on the screen”, whom he dubs the “filmic subject,” in contrast with the “filmed subject” (the on-screen character with whom the viewer may come to identify). Oudart adds: “It is the suturing function that allows the viewing subject to ‘read’ a succession of filmic images not as isolated, atomized spatio-temporal units but as articulated with one other, as operating within the same imaginary field” (p. 668). If Bazin took for granted the viewer watching the film, observing the images, Oudart wonders what generates that construction in various ways, paying attention both to the form and its history. While many may believe that a central aspect of suture is the shot/counter shot as the viewer becomes part of the film, this happens quite rarely in classic cinema. There was never a clear division if you like between films where we observe events and films where we are involved in them, even if we might note that some have a more observational style, like Neo-realism, Direct Cinema documentaries, Czech spring films and the work of Ken Loach for example, as opposed Hitchcock, De Palma and other filmmakers who implicate us into a voyeuristic perspective. As Fairfax notes, Oudart reckons “in order to forestall an avowal of the fictional character of the filmic signified, a more standard approach in ‘subjective’ cinema is to introduce a slight décalage or obliquity between the point of view of the character and the position of the camera (and, by extension, the viewpoint of the spectator)” (p. 670). In such a claim we seem far from a sclerotic ideological purity and find ourselves in the mind of a critic who wants to understand what the medium is capable of generating.

If Fairfax’s wonderfully large and copious tome has a purpose it seems chiefly twofold. To insist that this period in Cahiers’ history is surely one of its richest and not at all an idiotic blind alley, and secondly to attend very specifically to the articles from these years and to give back to them the intricacies that they possessed and which since have been sometimes ignored. The latter leads back to the former, and makes us wonder not at all why Fairfax has devoted what must have been years of his life to this maniacally specific project, but why it has taken someone fifty years to do it. 

Daniel Fairfax, The Red Years of Cahiers du cinéma (1968-1973). Volume I: Ideology and Politics; Volume II: Aesthetics and Ontology (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021).


  1. Eleanor Beardsley, “In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today — And Still Divide The French,” NPR, 29 May 2018.
  2. Nicholas Lezardm “A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma by Emilie Bickerton – Review,” The Guardian, 18 October 2011.
  3. Daniel Fairfax, “‘Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am…’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (Part 1),” Senses of Cinema, Issue 62 (April 2012).
  4. Pascal Bonitzer, Jean-Louis Comolli, Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, “New Interview with Éric Rohmer,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 54 (April 2010).
  5. Idem.
  6. Idem.
  7. Idem.
  8. Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre and Jacques Rivette, “Montage,” Oder of the Exile, no date.
  9. Idem.
  10. James Monaco, How to Read a Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 168.

About The Author

Tony McKibbin teaches Short Courses at The University of Edinburgh and writes for various magazine and journals. His website can be found at tonymckibbin.com, and some of the material from the website is in book form: On and About Film and Other Essays; Craig Dunain and Other Stories.

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