If Bazin’s classic essay collection was titled What is Cinema?, along comes contemporary French critic Alain Bergala asking how the subject should be taught. The answer would rest partly in one of the many conclusions Bazin came to: that cinema is a form that needs to be understood without assuming that the form itself is the thing. This is partly why Bergala very understandably insists that the teacher must retain a degree of creative freedom in the teaching itself. “A pedagogy of cinema stumbles most frequently over the manner in which it captures its subject. […] It’s always better to have a teacher who knows little, but whose approach to cinema is open, without betraying its real nature, rather than a teacher who clings to a few scraps of rigid knowledge and who begins by giving the definitions of camera movements and types of shots.” (p. 73) Thus Bergala differentiates between classical analysis and creative analysis, seeing in the former the need “to decode, to ‘read the film’ as they say in schools”. In creative analysis “the analysis is not an end in itself, but a movement towards something else.” (p. 74)

Bergala talks very usefully about what he calls choice, placement and approach, and how important it is to get the students thinking about the way films are made as creative acts. A classically inclined teacher might insist that the low angled shot registers intimidation, a high angled shot weakness, a close-up intense feeling, and a reaction-shot social approval or disapproval. Often that happens to be the case, but cinema is not a given formula; it does not have its Periodic Table. By emphasising the freedom available in choice, placement and approach, we do not turn teaching into rote exercises but into imaginative possibilities. Bergala gives as an example a filmmaker placing a bouquet of flowers on a table in the scene “which attracts too much attention between the two actors, and chooses instead another more modest bouquet.” (p. 78) But, of course, another filmmaker, once having placed the bouquet on the table, might insist that it looks absurdly large and plays up the anomaly, exactly what Rainer Werner Fassbinder offers for example in Martha, well analysed by Adrian Martin in Mise-en-scene and Film Style.1 What might seem like an error can be either eschewed, accepted as an error of judgement or seen as an aspect of the filmmaker’s style. A competent director would make the bouquet smaller, an incompetent one leave it there, but a great one might insist on its presence all the better to find their sensibility in the anomalous.

cinema hypothesis

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

It is not that there is no such thing as right or wrong; more that there are contingent modes of appropriateness. This contingent mode of appropriateness might require the filmmaker to abandon the film and start again. Bergala gives as an example Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964): “Pasolini […] convinced that the first days of filming lay the foundations of the film’s style by constraining the range of possibilities, tells how he realized, at the end of a week of shooting, over the course of an anguished night, that he had been wrong about certain stylistic choices from the start.” (p. 81) Pasolini realised “he was heading for aesthetic disaster if he persisted in filming […] as he had begun it – that is, by re-sanctifying with his camera the already sacred.” (p. 81) It is important for Bergala that one teaches cinema according to its making: to accept that most filmmakers do not insist on very preconceived ideas about what they are doing, but often work it out in the course of production: “it is simply the normal process of taking reality into account that must go into even the most meticulously planned, most firmly pre-determined production. It’s only by respecting these ‘listening’ conditions of reality that the film shoot avoids being a mere simulation of creative practice.” (p 111) Equally, the teacher and students should analyse the film according to a pragmatic exploration over a dogmatic interpretation.

This is why for Bergala choice, placement and approach are so important and are in some ways Bergala’s own version of semiotics. In How to Read a Film James Monaco says, utilising Christian Metz, “the syntagma of a film or sequence shows its linear narrative structure. It is concerned with ‘what follows what’. The Paradigm of a film is vertical: it concerns choice – what goes with what.”2 This is the codification of cinema as abstract entity. Bergala is much more interested in viewing film as concrete creation. Thus the film is not a text to be interpreted. It is an experience to be explored. Bergala studied with Metz, saying he attended his seminars, “where I would remain for years without ever completing my degree, staying as much out of admiration for his humanity as a teacher as for the actual content of his teaching.” (p. 14) But by exploring this idea of choice, placement and approach he opens up analysis to the conditions of a film’s making without reducing the work to the level of production history. What counts is the intentionality of a work, but this is neither some objective approach the teacher takes to production history, nor an imposed act of motivation that the teacher assumes in explaining the director’s reasons. In other words, the teacher would not state what happened on set as if this were some sort of answer to explain the result, nor would he or she assume that the director knew exactly what they were doing on it either. Bergala is interested in the mystery of the creative act, quoting Marcel Duchamp: “in the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.” Duchamp says. “In other words, the personal art coefficient is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.” (p. 92)

cinema hypothesis

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

By utilising the terms Bergala adopts, one can teach film with an awareness of how something is made without assuming this will make clear the result. We would not even need to know a film’s production history for this. We might just wonder about moments within the film that could seem anomalous to us in the viewing of it. We could wonder why in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the director takes so long to introduce us to the third character in the room when Nicholson goes to meet the manager. There Nicholson is in the office with two other people and Kubrick cuts back and forth between Nicholson and the boss. Even though the boss alludes to the third figure and looks in his direction, Kubrick withholds introducing us to him until quite late in the scene. In the director’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the film shows Tom Cruise getting a taxi from what would seem to be one part of town to the next, only for us to see when the taxi drops him off that within the shot we notice the place he has come from across the street. The film was of course not a location shoot: Kubrick recreated New York in a studio lot at Pinewood. Had Kubrick simply made a mistake, or did he want us to recognise a dream-like implausibility to the story? In each instance we might puzzle over the creative decision, feeling that the director had shown neither dereliction of duty nor astonishing and deliberate originality, but perhaps something in between. We might be reminded of Gilberto Perez asking Antonioni about breaking the 180-degree rule and the great Italian replying that he did it “deliberately and instinctively.”3

If Bergala believes that it is not unimportant for the teacher or critic to muse over the means by which something is made, this is tempered by an equally great need to believe in the illusion of reality: “even the most critical of critics and the most semiological of semiologists will not be able to hold back on this ‘suspension of disbelief’ if they want to immerse themselves even slightly in the film and to take pleasure in it.” (p. 75) When first watching The Shining our response is not likely to be based on the placement of the camera, and the number of shot/reverse-shots. It is often the anomalous nature of an aspect of the film that we recognise and then find the need to make sense of, just as in life we are still in the experience, still believing in the reality we are living, as we muse over why certain events are happening as they are. Partly what makes great cinema great is its ability to involve us in the work not unthinkingly but thinkingly: we are immersed in the experience but not oblivious to it as an aesthetic encounter. We might even say this has been central to the magazine Bergala has often been affiliated with, Cahiers du cinéma, and his closeness to Serge Daney, Jean Narboni and others. “I remain a loyal fellow traveler with the journal, which was the place where I learned the most, and learned of nothing but cinema, and where I felt what might have been a learning by contagion, listening to Serge Daney or Jean Narboni talk interminably about films that they had just seen.” (p. 15) One of the things that was very important at Cahiers were those moments that could be enjoyed beyond the ready context of the film, the cinephilic moments that Christian Keathley explores well in Cinephilia and History: Or The Wind in the Trees. Quoting Paul Willemen, Keathley notes that “if you read the early stuff that Truffaut and Godard were writing, you see that they were responding to films. They were not doing criticism but were doing written responses to films.” Willeman adds, “what they were writing at that time was a highly impressionistic account, in T. S. Eliot’s terms, an ‘evocative equivalent’ of moments which, to them, were privileged moments of the film.” Keathley observes that there are no objective criteria to this: “indeed there is no justification or rationale whatsoever.”4

cinema hypothesis

The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)

Such an approach to film viewing means that one does not get lost in the film; instead the viewer finds themselves in it, and Bergala is sympathetic to analysis that is based on clips as well as the screening of whole films. Discussing a “pedagogy of fragments”, Bergala says “a person can fall in love with a film on the basis of a glimpsed fragment, and the desire can be keener if the film object is not handed over right away as a totality to be skimmed.” (p. 70) If the Cahiers critics have often seemed so much more attentive to the subtlety of form than Anglo-American critics, then this rests not least on a relative indifference to story. Meaning is where they wish to seek it, and not as the screenplay would insist they find it. Equally, the teacher conveys their enthusiasm for moments in film and expands that pleasure into an aesthetic purpose. Bergala originally wrote the book in 2002, when he was employed by the  French Minister of Education Jack Lang, and he argued firmly for the then burgeoning DVD format, believing that it would be an important form of recorded film technology in the early 2000s. What he saw in DVD was a wonderful educational tool: “the DVD really makes possible what Nabokov desired for novel readers: the ability to access instantaneously, at the same time, both the whole work and its detailed elements.” (p. 67)

cinema hypothesis

El sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

Alain Bergala is one of the major critics in France, alongside amongst others Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour, Jean-Michel Frodon and Serge Kaganski. Like Brenez and Bellour, he is a writer who can examine film in analytic detail while retaining a nuanced approach that absorbs personal enthusiasm but does not weaken his acumen in the face of a work to which he shows such fondness. In an essay in Rouge on Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice, Bergala writes: “both began in cinema with a conviction that this art was, for them, indissociable from the childhood which they have made at once an origin and a subject. This profound similarity marks their belonging to a generation of children and adolescents born during and just after the war, of which Serge Daney and Jean Louis Schefer speak, who have had the indelible feeling very early on that films had ‘gazed at their childhood.’”5 By writing the book, Bergala acknowledges what we might call the profound enthusiasm for film: how we are touched by cinema at an early age and never quite recover from the encounter, perhaps spending the rest of our lives not lost in the illusion of the medium, but finding the means by which to make cinema central to our life just as it indelibly marked our own at a particular moment. If it gazed at our childhood, we must as adults look after it too, and allow it to gaze on the childhood of generations that come after us. To be a proper teacher of cinema, to write well on film, is to accept almost a custodial even more than a curatorial role. We keep cinema alive by keeping inside ourselves the childhood yearning for images that would sometimes protect us as the authorities could not, that could speak to our desires and anxieties as our peers and parents were sometimes unable, and could give us sustenance through images that we could call our own even if we would later find the feeling shared by many. What is cinema, indeed, and how close might it be to a psychoanalysis quite different from the form it happened to take during the 1970s and early 1980s? If many at the time believed that cinema was too often grounds for false consciousness, Bergala’s book helps us understand why it is no less a wonderful arena for the breeding of consciousness itself. As Bergala notes: “we know what role Moonfleet played for a generation of cinephiles, who forged a lifelong connection with cinema upon viewing it. These little boys. Many of whom had had their own tangles with the question of fatherhood (with fathers who were dead, absent, weak, or ineffectual) encountered in this film a lightning strike.” (p 51) This is cinema as coup de foudre, and first loves are likely to mark us for life. Our purpose is then to help others to be marked likewise.

Alain Bergala, The Cinema Hypothesis: Teaching Cinema in the Classroom and Beyond (FilmmuseumSynemaPublications), trans. Madeline Whittle (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).



  1. Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2014), pp. 82-87.
  2. James Monaco, How to Read a Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 341.
  3. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), p. 446.
  4. Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History: Or the Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 83.
  5. Alain Bergala, “The Pathways of Creation”, Rouge 9 (2006), www.rouge.com.au/9/erice_kiarostami.html