“Cinema is the art of ghosts, the battle of phantoms. That’s what I think cinema is about, when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back. That’s what we’re doing now. Therefore, if I’m a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice, it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice that I allow to be taken over by another’s voice. Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts.”
– Jacques Derrida, quote taken from Ghost Dance (Ken McMullen, 1983)
If Derrida’s above claim is to be believed, what, then, do we make of the notion of auditory representation he posits, allowing oneself to be taken over by another’s voice? There is the obvious contention that Derrida puts forth, his own, unknowable, copied voices being brought to life (or rather, death) by the deteriorating ambers of celluloid. Additionally, there’s the authorial voice of the filmmakers, projecting – both orally and through a light and sound machine – a twisted, altogether amorphous version of the self. Ownership of such words within the above quotation are altogether circumspect according to Derrida, a projected and malformed being taking on – body-snatcher like – an uncontrollable representation of orally projected ideas, separated from their original speaker. Such questions of filmic representation were brought to mind from the residual elbow grease that stains the pages of Gemma King’s first published work, Decentring France. These filmic representations of cultures, ideas, dialects and states of being are clinically probed and spooled through with an alarming detachment and rigour, both of which are entirely necessary attributes when tackling the precariousness of cultural representation.
The main case studies for examination within King’s text are films that have created some kind of societal rift within France, showcasing the French language as a means of unifying cultures. The phrase “unifying cultures” most certainly reeks of colonialist, ethnic cleansing rhetoric, yet King is smart enough to bypass such pat and dangerous phrases. The book is more in line with the Deleuze and Guattari’s oft-referenced rhizome theory as opposed to the homogenous pop philosophy of a Whitney Houston song,1 positing French as more of a coping mechanism for maintaining a sense of self within a world where colonialism takes many different forms, even if said self is filtered through commercially viable French film. The eight films in question are Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) and Un prophète (A Prophet, 2009),Maïwenn’s Polisse (Police, 2011), Xavier Beavouis’ Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2009), Laurent Cantet’s Entre Les murs (The Class, 2008), Philippe Lioret’s Welcome (2009), Rachid Bouchareb’s London River and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Le Grain et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain, 2007), each holding a bevy of national film awards (Palme d’or, Cesar, the Prix Louis Delluc) and, if ticket sales are to be trusted, eliciting many a smitten response from CNC board members. The judgement of these films based almost exclusively on their cultural impact posits the book not so much as a work of traditional film criticism, but more as a linguistic and sociological approach to filmic representation. One specific point of fascination comes with the text’s analyses of the above films as objects, vestiges in a globalised world. Early on, King brings forth case studies of films that use foreign language as a form of background noise, films whose Frenchness is unclear. For example, Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp manufacturing company, intent on creating ambiguously foreign yet still blandly commercialised films (i.e. “content”2) is discussed, as is its place within the framework of filmic globalisation. The example of his film Lucy (2014) is brought up specifically, King duly noting the use of Mandarin as near-literal wallpaper:
In one of these scenes, Mandarin script is scrawled on the dirty walls of the gang’s hideout, yet Mandarin-speaking viewers have revealed the script itself translates to disjointed food related words (‘orange’, ‘tomato’ and even ‘keep hygienic’ (Sibor)). It is not the semantic meaning that is important for Besson, but its symbolic threat of otherness. (p. 26)
Besson seems to perpetuate, as evidenced in King’s text, a stagnant, safe attempt to depict globalisation and the homogenisation of language, culture and location as an easy solution, a functionally clinical way in which the world can continue. Whatever can be said about the eight films King discusses in depth, the attempt to exist and function within society as an outsider is made out to be a struggle, to maintain a form of dignity and sense of self.
If King’s book can not be placed strictly within a critical framework, then how can it be classified, and what are the effects of reading a book whose case studies build up to something larger, the constituents that make up a greater, holistic argument? To focus on a particularly illuminating section of the book, I will elaborate on King’s analyses of two films by Jacques Audiard, the previously mentioned Dheepan and A Prophet. While I had no particular aversion to any of the other filmmakers discussed by King, I was most cautious about reading the book’s third chapter, devoted almost entirely to the above mentioned filmmaker. I was worried my reservations pertaining to Audiard would discolour the rest of King’s book, a book which, up until that point, I had been enjoying immensely. Instead, it furthered my appreciation for King’s steadfastness in building up her overall argument, creating a new way of seeing these works within a broader context that, to quote King herself (in a phrase that best captures the spirit of her text): “can be both a wall and a bridge”. My reservations remain, yet various access points into Audiard’s works are illuminated by King’s arguments (much to my chagrin). An exemplary passage within this chapter reads as follows:
The concern of this chapter, however, is not to judge the quality of Malik and Dheepan’s characters as Malik evolves into the crime leader he ultimately becomes, and Dheepan reveals elements of the warrior he had formerly been. Instead, it is to examine how such impossibly ostracised and vulnerable individuals can find the means to harness such power in such improbable contexts, and to highlight the opportunities afforded to such disenfranchised individuals by a seemingly innocuous resource: language. (p. 113)
My reservations regarding Audiard are exemplified by Dheepan and the misguidedness of its bloodbath ending, preceded by the tonal whiplash of the titular, grizzled antihero, and his newfound family in their new home of London, surrounded by a near blinding whiteness (both in terms of their surrounding, lilywhite friends and the vaseline tinted glow of the happy, backyard gathering at the film’s end) that becomes synonymous with the i-dotting and t-crossing resolution to all of Dheepan’s problems and bone-deep traumas.
Unlike Audiard, King fortunately does not paint with broad brushstrokes, potentially giving his films more nuanced consideration than they initially seem to deserve, but that’s by no means a bad thing, and is merely a petty grievance with regards to my distaste for his films. It is essential for these culturally significant films to be analysed within a broader context, and that should be prioritised over my (or anyone else’s) pre-existing, opinionated baggage, especially given King’s aims towards shedding light on an ever-changing cultural landscape in France, above all else. These films constitute an ever-widening aperture through which King plumbs the depths of linguistic and cultural power relations, and how such relations can be strengthened through filmic representation.
Perhaps what’s most heartening about the book as a whole is its openness to the idea that the process of representation within film is a constantly evolving one, we have never reached – and perhaps never will reach – a zenith of perfected empathy on cinema screens. There exists within the text a hope for continual evolution, yet the atrocities that have shaped and continue to shape the world do not remain unacknowledged. Recent news that emphasises such worrying atrocities in France (and elsewhere) include an event in which women were arrested for wearing “burkinis” while swimming along the Riviera and then, in 2017, the passing of “Bill 62” in Quebec, which banned the wearing of the burqas in public. Connecting these two events is not only the common (albeit tenuous) thread of French language, but, more importantly, the idealised haven of equality, attributes that can often be pinned on each country’s current leaders: Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. The former gets by on good ol’ boy charm, whereas the latter seems to be publicly taken with exasperated relief, considering his former opponent in the fascistic Marine Le Pen. Little seems to be said about the former’s embrace of the Keystone pipeline revival and the latter’s comment that Africa has “civilisational” problems, the implication being that African people are inherently lesser as humans.3 These events took place after the book was written, reinstating that concerns of cultural oppression remain habitual and deeply engrained. No matter the time in history, there will remain a flux in societal oppression, with King’s book acting as a chronicle of the crevices in which outsiders can and continue to maintain an existence amongst rampant racism and xenophobia. It’s simultaneously present and timeless, hopeful and weary. Such paradoxical qualities can only be pulled off with an immense skill and openness.
Gemma King, Decentring France: Multilingualism and power in contemporary French cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017)
- Specifically, “Greatest Love of All”, keenly implemented as a slyly unifying lynchpin in last year’s tale of father-daughter reconciliation amongst the backdrop of globalised homogeneity, Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). ↩
- The ever popular buzzword of the moment used to categorise easily marketable films as consumable goods, blandly indistinguishable films that are given the connotation of filler (cf. Netflix, Youtube, Amazon). ↩
- SBS World News,. “France’s Macron Under Fire After Claiming Africa’s Problems Are ‘Civilisational’”, 11th July 2017, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/07/11/frances-macron-under-fire-after-claiming-africas-problems-are-civilisational. ↩