The relationship of cinema to politics has a rich and chequered history, effectively dictating the form of many of cinema’s most vibrant configurations (Russian cinema in the wake of the 1917 revolution, Italian neorealism after the Second World War…). The real stakes of the affair however were perhaps most clearly spelt out in France in the heady days following May ’68, the ‘red years’ that bore witness not only to the very real subsumption of film under politics, but also the gradual elaboration of a critical approach to cinema which understood that, at least in terms of ideology, “every film is political” (1).
Needless to say, times have changed, and the relation of cinema to politics is today, at best, obscure, at worst (seemingly) void. On the one hand, the essentially Marxist politics of ’68, which enjoyed access to an elaborate language together with clearly defined enemies and goals, has for the most part been discredited or simply abandoned in the face of the ‘realities’ of advanced globalisation. On the other, the filmic ‘grand Theory’ (as it has been dubbed by its contemporary detractors) forged in the fires of this political upheaval has effectively lost out to piecemeal theorising, most evident in the self-consciously ‘fragmentary’ works which fall under the broad heading of post-Theory. In brief, both cinema and politics (in their practical as much as theoretical guises) have had to face the seeming fact that there is no longer – and perhaps never will be – any tenable grand discourse (Marxist or otherwise) that can offer some overarching structure through which we might relate local struggles to a broader emancipatory narrative which is universal in scope.
It is with the loss of this rich tradition in mind – together with the void its passing has left in the political situation – that Martin O’Shaughnessy’s The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995 approaches the question of political commitment in contemporary French cinema. Implicitly accepting the thesis that any authentic politics is the sole domain of the left (inasmuch as real politics is centrally concerned with equality and novelty, values which are ultimately anathema to the ‘political’ right), O’Shaughnessy provides a broad overview of recent French cinema that can be seen to engage on some level – and in a manner wholly distinct from its predecessors – with ‘the political’. Focusing on seminal works by the Dardenne brothers (Je pense à vous, 1992), Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, 1995), Jean-François Richet (Etat des lieux, 1995), Dominique Cabrera (Nadia et les Hippopotames, 2000), Robert Guédiguian (La Ville est tranquille, 2001), Laetitia Masson (En avoir (ou pas), 1995), Laurent Cantet (L’emploi du temps, 2001), Erick Zonca (La Vie rêvée des anges, 1998), and others, O’Shaughnessy presents us with a vivid portrait of a national cinema still boiling with class resentment and the bitterness of exclusion, even if it is no longer exactly sure how to articulate its pain.
It is in fact precisely the question of articulation and its seeming impossibility that is at stake here. For articulation necessitates a coherent discourse, and, as O’Shaughnessy is at pains to point out, it is precisely a coherent discourse that is lacking, both in the real political situation and in the films he examines. Indeed, there is a palpable yearning – less nostalgic than prognosticatory – present in O’Shaughnessy’s writing as much as in the films he examines, resulting from their each being situated in something of a void zone between a politics that was (the Marxism that O’Shaugnessy holds is lost beyond all hope of recovery) and an as-yet unarticulated politics, a “politics yet to come” (p. 3). This political wasteland is, for O’Shaughnessy, foremost encapsulated in the figure of the mute body, effectively stripped of all intelligibility, reduced to its brute corporeality (2).
The New Face of Political Cinema thus traces, in film after film, a disparate collection of essentially mute figures, of solitary bodies struggling to find their voice and thereby accede to the political, drawn from various sites of exclusion (social, economic, racial…) such as the workplace and the banlieues. This cinema of broken and inarticulate bodies highlights the immense gulf separating the militant cinema of the post-’68 period – a cinema which took absolutely seriously its status as a ‘mass art’ and the political implications this entailed – and today’s ‘committed cinema’, which O’Shaugnessy holds aims less at popular mobilisation than documenting the gradual disarticulation of a once-vibrant political discourse. At the same time, this cinema attempts to hold on to – and put to productive use – pieces of “the shattered dramaturgy of class” (p. 56) and cast a spotlight on various sites of social exclusion. To this effect, we might usefully consider the difference between post-’68 French cinema and its contemporary counterparts as marked by a movement away from concrete politics (militant engagement in real emancipatory struggle) toward the more abstract realm of ‘the political’ (3). O’Shaughnessy nicely illustrates this distance in chapter three by contrasting Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972) and Marin Karmitz’s Coup pour coup (1971) with Hervé Le Roux’s Reprise (1997) and the early works of the Dardenne brothers, films which document the disintegration of broad oppositional narratives while at the same time struggling to resist their total dissolution.
This move away from concrete political action – from films which consciously seek to connect with ‘totalising’ emancipatory narratives, not only at the level of form and content, but also in terms of production and distribution – to a more diluted engagement with the political sphere constitutes the core argument of the book, namely, that while French cinema has undergone a decisive “paradigm shift in the mode of appearance of social struggle” (p. 128), it has nonetheless maintained its political sensibilities. Building on the work of Jean-Pierre Jeancolas and Patricia Osganian, O’Shaughnessy sees this shift as entailing an entirely new cinema whose principal characteristic is ‘the aesthetic of the fragment’.
With this ‘aesthetic of the fragment’ O’Shaughnessy has doubtless hit upon rich theoretical terrain. Not only does it link up nicely with the work of Jacques Rancière, who O’Shaughnessy claims as his principal theoretical interlocutor (of which I will say more below), and who equally sees politics and aesthetics as inextricably entwined, but it also neatly encapsulates the problems of social and political fragmentation – of the “absolute non-reconciliation of individual and society” (p. 25) in the age of aggressive neoliberal globalisation – while at the same time referring to the “raw, quasi-mute corporeality that ensues from the individualization of social struggle and the loss of a collective voice” (p. 25). The properly political capacity of such a cinema lies for O’Shaughnessy foremost in the individual films’ paradoxical refusal to contend with their fragmentary status, by either finding a way to connect their seemingly isolated struggles to some central process (and thereby return a measure of meaning to an otherwise senseless cycle of suffering and violence), or, through recourse to the techniques of melodrama, by “restoring eloquence and ethical transparency to a real that … no longer seems to speak to us” (p. 157) (thereby returning silent and invisible social and political fissures to the field of the visible and the sayable).
Key to this contemporary aesthetic is the idea that the narratives we are presented with are essentially deprived of both a past and a future. Clearly this relates as much to their being situated between a ‘politics that was’ and a ‘politics yet to come’ as to the immediate consequence of the collapse of the Marxist metanarrative, namely, the illegitimacy of any claim to History. Cut off from History, these films and the figures they represent seem condemned to exist within a fragmented, perpetual present. Curiously, while O’Shaughnessy finds support for this thesis in the figure of Alain Badiou – a figure who unfortunately serves as little more than window dressing here, the author making no attempt to consider his thoughts on either politics or art – he neglects to note that it is perhaps on this issue that Badiou and Rancière are most sharply opposed, Badiou eschewing History altogether while Rancière (in a move seemingly at odds with O’Shaughnessy’s overall argument) prefers to hang on to it in one shape or another.
In fact, were I to locate a central problem – or at the very least a point of concern – with The New Face of Political Cinema it would be that, despite its purportedly Rancièrian foundations, it nonetheless lacks a rigorous theoretical framework. This is important for a number of reasons, not least because, as I stated above, the question of articulation – of having (or not having) access to a coherent discourse – is so fundamental to the book’s overall argument. While the author invokes figures like Badiou (on the collapse of the left), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (on counter-hegemonic struggle), Etienne Balibar (on universalisms), and a host of others, his engagement with their thought is largely superficial. Even Rancière, the principal theoretical touchstone of the book, is effectively limited to his notion of disagreement (as constituting the basis for any authentic politics) and the constitutive theatricality of every political act. While these ideas are certainly fundamental to Rancière’s understanding of politics, this is a decidedly restrictive move on O’Shaughnessy’s part. In fact, outside of La Mésentente and a brief paper from Cahiers du Cinéma, the author does not take into account any of Rancière’s numerous other works on politics and aesthetics, a consideration which I feel, given his central argument, would have proven highly productive. Indeed, Rancière (and Badiou, for that matter) spends much time arguing for the political importance of art (especially cinema), holding that art’s political moment lies foremost in its aesthetic dimension, in its peculiar modification of the visible.
This leads us to another problem of The New Face of Political Cinema, which is its tendency to favour narrative description over formal analysis. While this is no doubt unavoidable in certain cases (a number of the films O’Shaughnessy cites remaining unavailable outside of France), his consistent recapitulations quickly come to feel laborious (and, in the later chapters, repetitive). The relative absence of any strong consideration of formal tropes such as mise en scène and editing is especially surprising given that O’Shaughnessy’s principal concern is with the ‘aesthetic of the fragment’, suggesting a more comprehensive consideration of film aesthetics would be on the cards. Moreover, as O’Shaughnessy is well aware, authentic politics necessarily involves novelty – not least in the realm of aesthetics – which is why it is so surprising to find that The New Face of Political Cinema’s principal concerns seem to lie less with formal invention than narrative inventory.
O’Shaughnessy’s book succeeds in bringing to light a new tendency in French political cinema, and as such will reward the attention of those interested in political cinema as well as French cinema more generally. The book also further opens up fertile terrain in the ‘aesthetic of the fragment’. It would have benefited, however, from a more comprehensive theoretical grounding, as well as a more thorough consideration of film aesthetics.
The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995 by Martin O’Shaughnessy, Berghahn Books, Oxford and New York, 2007.
- Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, in Leo Brady and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, p. 814.
- While O’Shaughnessy’s principal theoretical touchstone is purportedly Jacques Rancière, one cannot help but detect a certain Agambenien undercurrent. Indeed, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life” as outlined in his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998) seems to occupy an (ever unacknowledged) centrality in O’Shaughnessy’s book, so much so that one wonders if he might have provided a more fitting theoretical framework.
- In a more reactionary sense we could also see this shift as involving a reversal of Godard’s famous aphorism that “the problem is not to make political films but to make films politically”.