When I learnt of Claudine Paquot’s death, on June 22, 2011, after the first shock, the anger, the sorrow, my first thought was to write a text in English to share my memories of her, my experience of collaborating with her, my respect for her work. This was not easy. Claudine had been the sub-editor, and then the head of publications of one of the most respected French film magazines, and the 400 books she edited were published in French, with a few translated into English. It would be hard to convey the loss experienced by French-speaking readers and cinephiles to the Anglo-Saxon world, how her presence in the editorial staff at Cahiers du cinéma had had a definitive impact on the way cinema is written about.
Then I read the text posted by Serge Toubiana on his blog on June 23, and I felt he had accurately captured essential aspects of Claudine’s legacy and personality. While invisible to the public, Claudine was a permanent fixture at Cahiers. I will also add that she was not alone, and that a lot of the hard work at the magazine has been done, throughout the years, by an exceptional staff of women, working in the shadows of male writers. As Toubiana acknowledges, Cahiers was a very male bastion – especially in the late 1970s, when Claudine first started to work there. With her usual frankness, Claudine sometimes mentioned instances in which she had encountered specific obstacles, resistances, animosities, due to her being a woman, but she didn’t fuss about it, she took it in stride, it was just part of the job, and there was work to be done. Period. De facto, Claudine was a trailblazer, writing her own ticket as a female editor at Cahiers, and making it possible for a number of other women to write about film and to get published.
Later, by talking with her husband, Philippe, on the phone, we agreed – Toubiana’s entry was a just text – as when you talk about “the just placement of the camera”. While contextualising Claudine’s contribution, however, it was also taking the risk of being, at times, “just a text” and not only a “just text”, because it had been written in a state of shock, of deep-felt emotion. So I thought that the best way to honour my friend’s memory was to use my position as outsider/insider, treading two cultures and two languages, having somewhat shared the history of Cahiers while watching it from afar, and translate Toubiana’s text (which appears in this issue of Senses), rather than writing my own.
Yet, as I am doing this, I have in front of me a special issue of Cahiers du cinéma – because this is the first thing I took out of my library after I learnt of Claudine’s death. It is dated December 15, 1978, and entitled “Special Photos de Films”. On the front cover, a still from Frank Tuttle’s The Green Murder Case (1929); on the back, an image from François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959): young Antoine Doinel taking a publicity still of Ingmar Bergman’s Monika (Sommaren med Monika/Summer with Monika, 1953) from the wall of a movie theatre. This special issue was made under Alain Bergala’s direction, and designed by Serge Daney. Claudine has the second line of credit, between Bergala and Daney: “Documentation.” At the time, as Toubiana recounts, she was in charge of the Picture Library.
The first Cahiers “special issues” made use of the magazine’s growing collection of stills – that had steadfastly remained its “assets” even in periods of lean cows. Yet, what brought me to take this slim, elegant volume from my shelf, was the memory of an article, titled “The young woman, her bosom uncovered…” This is one of the rare texts published by Claudine Paquot (very modestly, she only signed it with her two initials). Some have suggested that Claudine had “written” indirectly, by working with such passion on the writings of others. In her own way, she was a passeur – a concept coined by Serge Daney, the legendary film critic and co-editor of Cahiers between 1973 and 1981, that can be best translated by “smuggler”, but also one who opens “passages” for others between filmmaking, film spectatorship and writing about film, one who conveys ideas, translates them from one realm into another. The passages she dug, however, were subterranean. She connected different forms of filmic experiences, suggested topics to writers and inspired collections – while remaining unknown to the larger readership. This text proves that Claudine could write – she made a choice of applying her talents to something else. Marguerite Duras once said that a film is built on the murder of a never-written book. Claudine’s tremendous legacy as an editor has been built on the murder of the texts she never wrote.
Yet, I have this text on my desk. It’s a commentary on a photogram from Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zemlya (The Earth, 1930) – how ambiguous and fallacious a single image can be, when isolated from the continuum through which it was meant to be experienced: Dovzhenko’s lyrical depiction of the process of waking up is read instead as a moment of terror. Claudine compares this photogram to a publicity still of George Abbott’s The Sea God (1929), in which a photographer extracts the essence of a sequence by restaging it as a still moment. After a short, but insightful analysis, Claudine concludes on the ambiguous desire that is at play in our contemplation of film stills: we are looking for a pleasure “these pictures unceasingly promise us and whose existence they assure us, [but whose] moment they endlessly differ, never allowing us to experience it.”
Writing about film or producing film books embodies a paradox, even a tragic one, since the books, the texts, the flat photographs can only be a stand-in for the “real thing”. Before the age of DVDs, reading about film, languishing in front of stills, was often the only way to have access to certain cinephilic treasures. Yet the satisfaction promised by the film book is always frustrated, and substituting one desire for another is a form of perversion. Claudine could edit film books because, as suggested in this 1978 text, she had an intimate understanding of the loss everyone who writes about film is revisiting through texts and images. The film is gone, and I remain. I could only catch a fleeting glance, and then the house lights came back. And here I am, in front of the white page (the computer screen), trying to recapture this magic through a series of suspended moments trapped in stasis. Four hundred books later, in the house that Claudine built, the magic of cinema is still elusive, but hours and hours of sheer reading delight remain.
And I can’t help thinking that all of this started with this rare and precious text. “The young woman, her bosom uncovered”, looks as if she’s uttering a silent scream while she’s just waking up: scintillating ambiguity of the cinematic sign that can be apprehended both in stillness and in motion. And this is why writing on cinema is possible.