2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
From film criticism to filmmaking:
La Cecilia by Jean-Louis Comolli and L’Olivier by Jean Narboni et al.
In the summer of 1973, the writers at Cahiers du cinéma had reached a dead-end. Their project of developing a Marxist-oriented film theory and critical practice was exhausted. Despite the impressive theoretical work of the years preceding this moment—which yielded key texts such as “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” (“Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”), “Technique et idéologie” (“Technique and Ideology”) and “La Suture” (“Cinema and Suture”), among others—their turn towards a Maoist orientation from late 1971 onwards was proving less fecund. In a broader political climate of decline for the far left in France, Cahiers’ attempt to forge a “revolutionary cultural front” ended in disheartening failure: the gathering intended to launch the front held at Avignon in August 1973, into which the Cahiers team had poured their efforts over the course of a year, drew a meager turnout, and discussions at the event descended into sectarian mud-slinging between rival Maoist groupuscules. [open endnotes in new window]
Jean-Louis Comolli, who had been editor at Cahiers since 1965, has reflected on the sentiment of dejection prevailing among the journal’s core group of contributors at the time:
“We emerged from the failure of the Revolutionary Cultural Front bruised and bloodied. Afterwards, we met in a bar one evening, we looked at each other, and without needing to say much at all, we all profoundly understood that our will to continue this project had been broken” (Fairfax).
Although he and Jean Narboni had by that point relinquished their official title of editors-in-chief in favor of a less hierarchical editorial collective, the two senior figures at Cahiers nonetheless felt they were “morally and politically responsible for the situation”; and so they chose to decisively withdraw from the journal, leaving it in the hands of their younger colleagues Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.
The history of Cahiers since its near-demise is widely known: surviving the turbulent period of the 1970s, the monthly journal continues to appear to the present day. Less well-charted, however, is the subsequent fate of Comolli and Narboni themselves after decamping from an entity with which they had been closely associated since the early 1960s. Notably, both figures shifted their attentions to filmmaking in the years immediately following their departure. Comolli directed his first fiction feature La Cecilia (1976), based on a 19th century commune of Italian anarchists in Brazil, while Narboni became a key participant in a filmmaking collective based out of the Paris-VIII university at Vincennes, which would make L’Olivier (The Olive Tree, 1976), an essayistic documentary on the Palestinian independence movement.
Of course, moving from writing about cinema to making it was already a time-honored tradition at Cahiers. The core of the French New Wave was drawn from the journal’s ranks, while numerous other critics have used their time at Cahiers as a springboard for becoming a director. In the case of both Comolli’s and Narboni’s projects, however, they decisively repudiated and subjected to critique the auteurist model of filmmaking so stridently championed by the earlier Cahiers writers, premised on the near-demiurgic powers of a master-director. Instead, the two films are pervaded by a collaborative ethos—no less present in Comolli’s work, despite the singular authorial signature of La Cecilia, than in Narboni’s film, co-signed with five other participants. Such an emphasis on collective intellectual labor represents one of the key legacies for these two figures of the Cahiers project, with its own radical decomposition of individualized approaches to writing on cinema in the years 1968-1973.
Undeniably, much separates the two film projects: most notably, they straddle either side of the fiction/documentary divide (although both films will, in various ways, interrogate the validity of this cleavage). Furthermore, whereas La Cecilia takes a historically remote incident for its narrative focus, coming close to the genre of the “period drama.” L’Olivier is preoccupied with intervening in a particularly thorny contemporary political issue. Yet the parallels between the two films are far-reaching. This common ground was symbolized by the fact that the films were both released in cinemas at the same time (early 1976), and were discussed at length in the same issue of Cahiers (no. 264, February 1976).
Moreover, both La Cecilia and L’Olivier critically engage with the tradition of militant filmmaking and the broader question of the relation between politics and cinema, which had been an evident focus for Cahiers du cinéma in the period between 1968 and 1973. Coming in a moment of downturn in the fortunes of the French far left, however, this shared undertaking would diverge from many of the precepts of political filmmaking that had dominated Comolli and Narboni’s own thinking in their time at the journal. Such a disjunction colored much of the contemporaneous critical reception that the two films garnered upon their release. However, in retrospect, the two projects appear as important stepping stones in the broader development of two of the most significant people in postwar film theory.
Comolli often says his decision to tackle the historical experience of the Cecilia colony, conceived and piloted by the prominent Italian anarchist Giovanni Rossi, came as a direct result of the foundering of the Cahiers project. The film’s genesis, however, dates to well before this moment: an initial screenplay for La Cecilia was completed in collaboration with Eduardo de Gregorio in late 1971. Moreover, although he now considers La Cecilia to be his “first real film” (Lleó), Comolli actually had a reasonable level of experience in filmmaking. He had been responsible for television programs on Pierre Perrault and Miklos Jancsó, a documentary on the June 1968 French legislative elections (Les Deux Marseillaises, co-directed with André S. Labarthe) and two short fiction films.
Nonetheless, La Cecilia was to be Comolli’s first fiction feature, and represented—in both aesthetic and logistical terms—a breakthrough for the budding filmmaker. One of a large number of socialist communes founded in the Americas by European émigrés in the 19th century, La Cecilia was founded by Rossi and ten other colonists in Brazil in April 1890. Despite expanding to a population of around 150 with the arrival of the original settlers’ families, the colony collapsed within four years, and Rossi returned to Italy.
Trained in agricultural science, Rossi considered the commune to have been a successful preliminary “experiment.” In his view, despite the class and educational differences of its members and despite the material hardship involved in building a sustainable social unit from scratch, La Cecilia proved that communal, non-hierarchical living was indeed possible in modern-day society. Although La Cecilia was often riven with personality clashes and other contradictions, its inhabitants “led an existence that overflowed with vitality, that trembled with excitement,” and Rossi, who wrote a book on the experience, insisted that physical violence never broke out during the colony’s existence (Dossier, 39).
Despite Rossi’s unabated optimism, the initial version of Comolli’s project was guided by a critique of, in his words:
“what we called at the time (1971), in a rather condescending fashion, [...] the ‘anarchizing tendencies of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie’” (“Présentation,” 76).
Significantly, Comolli’s critique of Rossi’s “revolution in a small circle” had already been aired by other Italian anarchists at the time of the commune’s existence, and in the final film Rossi will even read aloud an opinion article in the anarchist newspaper Critica soziale accusing him of dilettantism.
Moreover, as Comolli’s project progressed, its critical target changed in nature, a “displacement” related to the shift in Cahiers’ political orientation over the course of 1972. From this point on, the film would interrogate the broader question of the revolutionary intellectual’s role in class struggle. Or as Comolli puts it:
“The negative character changed: it is no longer Rossi the anarchist (and through him the negative nature of anarchism), but Rossi the theorist, the master of the experiment who arranges matters so as not to be at risk. It is not only politics [...] that Rossi represses, but also the discourse and the body of the other, the desire of the other, about which he wants to know nothing” (idem.).
Perhaps Comolli had always been attracted to the material due to its resonance with his own experience in the theoretical and political cauldron that was the Cahiers team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is, the journal was cut off, to a large degree, from broader political struggles, and it obsessively focused on internal disputes and the clarification of its “line.” But once he had detached himself from the journal, La Cecilia much more tangibly acquired the status of an allegory for Comolli’s period at Cahiers. Looking at the work retrospectively, Comolli acknowledges that
“in truth, the subject, or the theme, of the film was concealed, since it was really a film which spoke about what had happened in the Cahiers group in the months beforehand” (Fairfax).
He even avows, “You can recognize several characters from Cahiers in La Cecilia” (Lleó).
While it would be relatively unproductive to pinpoint the characters he is referring to, it is evident that the figure of Giovanni Rossi is a cipher for Comolli and Narboni’s position within Cahiers, having voluntarily dissolved their privileged status as editors-in-chief into a broader collective grouping at the time of the journal’s radicalization.
Indeed, the question of leadership within far left movements is of fundamental importance in the film. As instigator of the commune and its theoretical driving force, Giovanni Rossi cannot help but play a role as leader, but he remains a character who refuses this role through what Comolli calls “an admirable excess of historical awareness” (Fairfax). At crucial junctures, however, La Cecilia needs leadership, and it is here that Rossi will abrogate his responsibilities to the group he had founded, preferring to play the role of external observer in a manner befitting his scientific background.
More broadly, the film’s dynamic is generated by the intersection of external historical forces and contradictions internal to the commune. Here it is noteworthy that even the very establishment of La Cecilia was marked by a curious paradox. After reading of Rossi’s earlier attempt at forging an agricultural commune in Italy, the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II granted a tract of land in the south of the country to Rossi’s group. This contradiction—an anarchist collective owed its existence to the whims of an interventionist monarch—would be key to Comolli’s treatment of the events at La Cecilia.
But in his account of the experience, Rossi himself is silent about the nature of the commune’s establishment. For the filmmaker, indeed, it is precisely those aspects of La Cecilia existence “censored” by Rossi which form the “motor elements” of the film’s narrative. Crucially, in Comolli’s view,
“what Rossi does not see is history, the historical determinations of his time, his present; that is, in the last analysis, the economic and political contradictions in which his project is caught” (“Présentation,” 72).
In La Cecilia, then, history functions not as an “absolute outside, a master-reference,” but as a “causal outside, an outside within the inside, which acts on it, determines it and transforms it in the very process of being repressed by it” (idem.).
Thus, the film is punctuated by incursions of outside history into the enclosed world of the Cecilia commune, frequently depicted through the use of framing and scenographic composition. For example, when Rossi and a fellow communard, Rocco, venture to a general store to buy supplies, they are met with hostility and aloofness from the store-owner and local customers, who see Italian migrants as an unwelcome threat to their standard of living. This economic contradiction
forms not only part of the plot—the storeowner sets unfair prices for the two communards—but also the spatial construction of the scene. As a caption in Cahiers puts it:
“The two universes are hermetically sealed from one another, there is no communication apart from the exchange or purchase of domestic products; hence, there are no common visual codes. Nobody is worthy of a look, nobody is seen by anybody else” (Cahiers no. 264, 47).
Similarly, news of the emperor’s overthrow and the installation of a republic in Brazil reaches the commune by a Portuguese-speaking messenger boy who interrupts a dinner celebrating May 1. Later, when the group pays a collective visit to the governor’s house to discuss the revocation of their title deed to the property at La Cecilia, the contrast between the communards and the functionary they address is multiply connoted. Their working-class dress and impassioned diction stand in contrast to the stiff formality of the bureaucrat who receives them, while their ebullient gestures and movements perpetually spill out over the boundaries of a scenic space that can barely contain them.
It is at this point, however, that the internal contradictions within the group burst out into the open. With Rossi traveling to Italy to give lectures on free love and the abolition of the family, and thus unavailable for guidance, a mass meeting is called to discuss the situation facing the commune. A sharp division arises between those who insist that a vote be taken on sending the group’s proletarian members to a government road-building unit in order to pay off La Cecilia’s debt to the new republic, and those—led by Luigi, who throughout the film embodies an unwavering, purist attachment to the ideals of libertarian anarchism—who see this as the onset of an insidious form of “parliamentarism.” No political common ground exists between the two groups. They are shown facing off against each other from either side of a visual chasm.
From this point on, the commune will be divided along class lines: alternating scenes show those from a peasant background remaining to till the land, while the proletarians and intellectuals perform menial work for the state. Such a division of labor is deepened by the arrival of the settlers’ families in the third part of the film. To the earlier exacerbation of class distinctions is added a restoration within La Cecilia of the bourgeois family, seen by the real-life Rossi as the most formidable impediment to the advent of socialism. While the commune is now materially more secure—its members sleep in large wooden cabins rather than out in the open—it is also more prone to petty squabbling and selfish behavior, as the collective is progressively segregated into smaller family groupings. Rossi, however, is inattentive to these issues, and matters come to a head when Luigi is seen with the peasant Tullio’s daughter Angela. The subsequent stand-off results in the departure of a large number of families, leaving behind a small core of members to rebuild the commune.
The most overt use of screen space to depict the pressures to which the group is subject, however, comes at the end of La Cecilia. In high spirits, the group stages a reading of Georg Büchner’s play Dantons Tod. Significantly, Luigi plays the character of Robespierre, while Rossi has no role per se, instead whispering lines from the text for all the characters—a function symbolic of his relationship to the commune. The intellectual Lorenzini, meanwhile, is given the role of a sans-culotte (a lower-class, radical militant during the French Revolution). He declaims, at one point, the revolutionary catch-cry “in the name of the law, there is no law.” The others applaud the uncompromising sentiment of the phrase, but Rossi himself stops and looks off-screen. A slow lateral pan reveals—by means of an “irruption of the hors-champ [off-screen space]” (Cahiers no. 264, 49)—an officer from the republican army standing in the doorway. He informs the inhabitants of La Cecilia that they have been conscripted to quash a nearby rebellion and will be escorted to military headquarters in one hour’s time. The group is crestfallen, their dream of an anarchist utopia has been snuffed out by the repressive state apparatus, but it is Luigi—not, pointedly, Rossi—who has the last word:
“Italy? Why not? Brazil? Why not? Anywhere is fine... But not here. Not like this. Our place is no longer here. There are other things to do.”
That La Cecilia should end on a theatrical scene was a deliberate move by the filmmaker, and formally rhymes with the film’s opening moments, in which Rossi meets Dom Pedro during the intermission of a performance of Nabucco in Milan. Here the two characters are framed within a “proscenium arch” formed by the royal box’s entrance. The film is thus bookended by allusions to the theater, which, Comolli claims, should be viewed as the
“toppling over of fiction, as the superposition, dislocation [décalage] or unhinging of two representations (the filmic scene and the theatrical scene), one on top of the other, one against the other” (Dossier, 104).
A similar bifurcation of the scene is produced within the shot itself through the use of depth of field. The deep-focus lenses used by Comolli in production yielded images whose multiple layers possessed equal visual clarity. Building on a theoretical discussion already adumbrated in “Technique et idéologie” in 1971, Comolli rejects Bazin’s notion that this technique reinforces the “realism” of the cinematic image. Instead, it “theatricalizes the shot,” denouncing the cinematic image as an artificial construction, most notably through the production of a “lateral-vertical decentering of the ‘subjects’” (“Présentation,” 78).
More than a mere “montage within the shot,” such an image offers a
“re-inscription of theatrical space and duration, [...] where the performance [jeu] of the actors involves an interplay with the other actors and the elements of the decor, and where the bodies are always captured within a given space and time” (idem.).
Certainly, La Cecilia is replete with striking depth-of-field compositions, and these are frequently combined with roaming, Jancsóesque long-takes, including one majestic shot early in the film that lasts nearly seven minutes. Formal inventiveness is also evident on the level of sound, where frequent bursts of anarchist song contrapuntally punctuate the film’s diegesis, as well as in La Cecilia’s lacunary, decentered narrative structure.
Nonetheless, whether these innovations represented a significant challenge to the formal conventions of mainstream filmmaking, as had been advocated by Comolli during his time at Cahiers, was a disputed question. Writing for rival film journal Image et son, André Cornand states,
“To say that La Cecilia breaks with the habitual working methods, just as it shatters the narrative, to say that it departs from the habitual codes of cinematic representation, amounts to either being ignorant of the cinema or to displaying a certain contempt for everything that has been made in the last few years” (76).
From an English perspective, Alison Smith will tentatively agree with this claim, writing that Comolli’s chosen aesthetic strategy is “rather a disappointment, or at least a strange compromise, and unadventurous in comparison with the ideals [...] Comolli praised in his theoretical work” (26).
Of further concern for Smith, and in this she echoed earlier reservations aired during an interview with Comolli by the magazine Ciné-Tracts after a poorly received screening of his film during a conference in Milwaukee, is the representation of women in La Cecilia (Smith, 26-29; Burnett/Vitone, 46). For most of the film, the only female inhabitant of the colony is Olimpia, who is presented in an idealized, Milletian manner as a paragon of swarthy beauty. She forms the object of desire for a number of the colonists, including Rossi himself, who embarks on an “experiment in free love” with her that consumes much of the latter half of La Cecilia. In contrast to Rossi’s abstract intellectualism, Olimpia embodies an intuitive instinct for the tenets of anarchism, and the portrayal of her character was viewed by many of those in the Milwaukee audience as sexist and outdated. There is certainly some justification to this viewpoint, and it should be noted that a feminist approach to film criticism was never adequately developed by Cahiers during Comolli’s time with the journal. Comolli, however, contested the notion that his film was sexist, claiming that the audience in question exhibited “a profound lack of understanding of how the image functions” by reading the character on a purely psychological level, rather than as a “logical sign” (Burnett/Vitone, 46).
The reception the film garnered on the pages of Cahiers itself was decidedly more enigmatic. While space was given to Comolli to elucidate the principles behind La Cecilia, the film also inspired three reviews—by Serge Toubiana, Serge Daney and Pascal Kané—which all seem to be written in a kind of private code: overtly speaking about the film at the same time as covertly discussing their earlier experiences with Comolli at the journal. Toubiana, for instance, writes about the “trauma” provoked by the group’s “encounter with the real” (43), while Daney begins his review with the statement:
“There is a phrase that one never hears in La Cecilia. ‘I told you so! I said that things would end badly, that it couldn’t succeed’” (52).
Kané, meanwhile, stresses the importance of play (le jeu) in Comolli’s film (21-24); when looking back retrospectively at the film, this is also the aspect of the film that the director himself emphasizes. Although he used professional actors, the nature of the shoot led to a jubilant spirit of freedom and improvisation reigning on the set, such that, in Comolli’s view, “the little troupe of actors and technicians unwittingly became a homologue to the pioneers of this anarchist commune” (Corps et cadre, 353).
In the process, Comolli’s own position as director was transformed, to the extent that he came to see all the participants, himself included, as equal collaborators on the project. This was partly, he retrospectively claims, an unforeseen consequence of his own inexperience on set:
“I was the young rookie—although I was nearly 40—in a film where I did not comprehend what was going on, with actors who I could not understand (in reality, they directed me, rather than vice versa)” (Fairfax).
After completing La Cecilia, Comolli would turn to a more conventional fiction film with L’Ombre rouge in 1981, but since then his filmmaking has largely focused on documentary work, yielding a corpus of more than 40 films. His experiences of improvisational cinema when making La Cecilia, however, have been formative for his later documentary films. In fact Comolli refuses to make a clear-cut distinction between the two forms: just as every fiction film can be viewed through a documentary lens, so too does every documentary possess its share of theatricality and artificiality. Moreover, the history of anarchist politics has been a long-term preoccupation for Comolli, and has yielded the film Buenaventura Durruti, anarchiste (1999) and an unmade project on Paris Commune leader Louise Michel. And yet Comolli has never fully identified as an anarchist, stating he is “not a partisan, not even a fellow traveller” of the movement (Voir et pouvoir, 467).
Instead, his attraction comes from another affinity: that between anarchist politics and the cinema itself. For Comolli, anarchism’s contradiction between “the logic of the individual and the logic of the group, between singularity and collectivity, evokes the matter, the fuel, of cinematic narrative” (468). Discerning this kinship, then, is perhaps the true legacy of La Cecilia for Comolli’s later, theoretically inflected filmmaking practice.
Narboni’s route towards filmmaking would be more circuitous than that of his colleague. Whereas Comolli had progressively turned towards filmmaking since the late 1960s, Narboni’s efforts were focused on teaching. From 1970 on, he maintained a regular appointment at the “experimental” campus located in the Bois de Vincennes (Paris-VIII), established as part of the re-structuring of the French higher education system following the student revolt of 1968. Narboni was involved in the founding of the film studies department at the university—a radical step in French academia at the time—and it was through his teaching activities here that the critic became acquainted with the individuals who would come to make L’Olivier: Ali Akika, Guy Chapouillié, Danièle Dubroux, Serge Le Peron and Dominique Villain.
The origins of the project came from Akika, an Algerian militant who had travelled to Jordan in 1969 and taken photographic slides for use at activist meetings in France; perceiving the limitations of this method, however, he met Le Peron at Vincennes to discuss the possibility of making a film on the subject (“L’Olivier,” 12). Soon a group of six collaborators had coalesced during the Avignon conference in August 1973—at the same time that Cahiers itself became mired in internecine recriminations. In a trip to Turkey, the collective travelled by car to Lebanon, making contact with Palestinian filmmakers and fedayeen fighters. Two years would pass between this moment and the completion of L’Olivier. The phases of the filmmaking process were coordinated with the demands of the academic calendar. The filmmakers dedicated the 1973-74 school year to archival research and initial contacts with European anti-Zionist activists. July and August of 1974 saw further trips to the Middle East, where the bulk of filming took place. Finally, they used the 1974-75 school year for gathering additional footage in Paris and transforming the eight hours of rushes into the final 85-minute edit.
The impetus to make the film came from two primary considerations. Firstly, of course, there was the political situation in Palestine itself and its resonances for the European far left. The group took up the project in the aftermath not only of the Black September massacres in Jordan in 1970, which decimated the Palestinian resistance movement, but also the hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which unleashed a wave of anti-Arab sentiment in Europe. This context is provided in L’Olivier, but mostly in a discrete prologue that uses television news footage to summarize the prevailing media discourse around the Munich massacres, shown as a counterpoint to the position that the filmmakers aim to relay in the rest of the film.
Additionally, the cinematic context at the time the film influenced the makers. Notably, 1973 saw the release of Claude Lanzmann’s Pourquoi Isräel, a propaganda film justifying the existence of a Zionist state in historical Palestine. While critiquing the film for “completely excluding the Palestinians,” the Vincennes filmmakers were careful to avoid conceiving of their film as a unilateral retort: “We had no wish to remake the Lanzmann in the opposite direction, that is to say, by excluding the Israelis” (“L’Olivier,” 14). Instead, Lanzmann’s work was subject to a cinematic critique, as Narboni explains:
“During the screening of Pourquoi Israel I was haunted the whole time by the insistence of a question absent from the film. [...] This question is quite simply: where am I? [...] What is this place from which I have obtained this frame, and at what price? What power pre-existing my own has permitted it? What new power effects does the place that I occupy authorize, and on whom? This is a question which [...] in all good conscience, Lanzmann does not even glimpse” (15).
The most striking example he gives of this problem in Lanzmann’s film is a long-shot of the Wailing Wall:
“What technical tour de force made it possible? Lanzmann’s genius, the skill of his cameraman? No, or not only. Rather, that of the Israeli administration which, since 1967, cleansed the surrounding Arab neighborhoods, and without which the filmmaker would never have been able to afford himself such a depth of field” (idem.).
The film stands in opposition to the Zionist viewpoint on the Palestine-Israel conflict—summed up, in Dubroux’s view, by then Israeli president Golda Meir’s statement that “the Palestinians do not exist” (“L’Olivier,” 12). Another key aim in making L’Olivier is to provide an alternative to many of the received norms of early 1970s militant filmmaking. This cinema had already been a target for criticism by Narboni and his fellow Cahiers writers during the journal’s Marxist-Leninist period, but the reproofs would change in nature with the journal’s re-alignment after 1973. Whereas the earlier Cahiers called for a “critical de-construction of the system of representation” (Comolli/Narboni, 256) governing both commercial and militant filmmaking, their later interrogation of political cinema would focus on more humbly concrete aspects of cinematic form.
When pressed on the matter by Serge Daney, Narboni admitted that “a certain type of political cinema made since 1968 was no longer possible” specifying that it was the “disdainful insouciance towards formal questions, considered as ‘bourgeois,’ [...] the catechistic tone, the artificial optimism and the denunciative droning of the voiceovers” that rankled in these films (“L’Olivier,” 18).
He noted in particular that a work such as Revolution Until Victory (1973) by the Newsreel group (a New York-based collective founded in 1967 that made militant documentaries and agitational films), despite being a “penetrating, admirably assembled” work, was nonetheless “suffocating, so rapidly did the information, dates, citations pass by” and felt that such an approach only led to “stunted, sterilized” discussions after screenings of the film (24). In contrast, L’Olivier is largely free of a voiceover—which, when it does come, is succinct and softly spoken—and relies mostly on interviews with activists and Palestinians. Care was taken to ground these voices in the context of their day-to-day existence. We thus see lengthy sequences where entire families are interviewed together, and other passages show Palestinians returning to their bombed villages or reminiscing about the olive groves of their childhood.
A key influence on this revamped critique of militant cinema came from a familiar source: Jean-Luc Godard, whose Groupe Dziga Vertov films made between 1969 and 1972 had been held up as exemplary by Cahiers. By 1976, however, he had released Numéro deux (1975) and Ici et ailleurs (1976), and both films had an enormous impact on both the Cahiers group and the Vincennes collective. Ici et ailleurs in particular, taking the Palestine resistance movement for its subject matter, was of obvious resonance for the makers of L’Olivier: Godard had travelled to the Middle East in 1970 with the aim of making a film confidently asserting the imminence of a revolutionary victory for the PLO, only to witness the Black September rout.
Five years later, the finished film would instead interrogate many of his earlier presuppositions, not only with regards to the dangers of unmeasured revolutionary optimism but also concerning his own cinematic methods, in particular the deadening effects of a peremptory voiceover determining the manner in which the film’s images should be interpreted by the viewer. The presiding metaphor of Ici et ailleurs that “the sound is too loud” was chillingly exemplified in its concluding passage, in which Palestinian guerrillas criticize their command for leading them to certain death. The images had been captured on film, but Godard only belatedly realized their import during the editing of the film, because the filmmaking team’s official translator had rendered their anxious concerns as blithe revolutionary slogans.
A similar—albeit less historically dramatic—transformation in the conception of L’Olivier occurred during the film’s production process. Le Peron notes that the schematic nature of their initial project, which inscribed the Palestinian struggle into a broader global movement against imperialism (equating the Middle East with events in Chile, Vietnam and other post-colonial countries), came to be rejected. Instead, the filmmakers adopted a framework emphasizing the “specific difficulty of the Palestinian problem” and focusing as much on the daily life of Palestinian families as it does on more directly political matters (“L’Olivier,” 16). Far from veering into a “suspect descriptivism, an ethnological approach,” Narboni viewed this method as the “struggle between a dynamic, ample conception of politics and a fossilized, bureaucratic point of view on the question” (32).
Notably, too, the filmmakers refuse to reduce the issue to that of a national conflict, and much of the first half of the film comprises interviews with Jewish anti-Zionist activists in both Europe and Israel, ranging from young Maoist militants to elderly Jewish Auschwitz survivors. In this sense, one of the totemic images of the film shows two members of the far left group Red Front—one Jewish, the other Arab—led from a prison van into a courthouse by the Israeli police, their legs manacled together. Regardless of nationality, this pregnant image suggests, the Zionist state is ruthless in its repression of those who resist it.
Another, more ambiguous, expression of Arab-Jewish unity was addressed by Narboni. During the shoot, the group interviewed a young Algerian migrant in Gennevilliers who justifies his belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis by inaccurately claiming that Jews were originally descended from the Arab people. Noting the potential “catastrophe” that arises when an interviewee “‘gets it wrong,’ utters false ideas with respect to the line taken by the mini-apparatus constituted by the filmmaking team,” Narboni argues that there are two dominant approaches taken by filmmakers in this situation. Either they can take a “sociological, objectivist or neutralist approach” and retain the entire sequence out of respect for the “complexity of the real,” or they can adopt a “militant, vigilant” stance that would “censure, redress and rectify” the passage in question either by cutting it entirely or smothering it with the “correct” authority of a voiceover. Against both of these positions, Narboni advocates a strategy that would highlight the “accent of truth” of such a moment (in this case, its prevailing sentiment of international solidarity) by “inscribing this scene in the economy of the film in such a way that this accent is rendered” (“L’Olivier,” 27).
Although the Vincennes group were wary of the premature triumphalism of much militant filmmaking, a cautious optimism is nonetheless discernible in the film, one which comes less from a resolute belief in the inevitability of a victorious revolution and more through a portrayal of the ways in which everyday life has already been transformed by the mass mobilization of the Palestinian people. In particular, the role played by Palestinian woman within the resistance movement was a major concern for the filmmakers. While the film includes a segment showing PLO leader Yasser Arafat addressing a congress of the Union of Palestinian Women, it is the footage depicting the activities of Palestinian women themselves that is of greater interest.
Often these are the wives or mothers of male fedayeen, but one sequence in particular shows a group of young Palestinian women from a Lebanese camp, probably in their mid-teens, sitting in a circle wearing battle fatigues and holding Kalashnikov rifles. A standard liberal viewpoint could very well decry such a scene as a deplorable example of the use of child soldiers by an unscrupulous armed movement, but the makers of L’Olivier chose to highlight the “accent of truth” in the scene, which comes through both in what the young women say—they speak of their visions of a future, liberated Palestine in paradisiacal terms, despite having never set foot in their homeland—but also in how they say it. Their words are free of the deadening jargon of many militant groups, and, at first hesitant, they soon gain the confidence to give free reign to their reveries. It is almost as if the process of political awakening is taking place before the spectator’s eyes.
Perhaps the most emblematic image of the film, however, is reserved for its conclusion. Here, a guerrilla fighter being treated after suffering injuries from an Israeli attack is lying on a hospital bed, his eyes covered in bandages, a bloodied cloth in his hand, and an intravenous drip attached to his forearm. With perfect lucidity, however, he asserts:
“We thank the progressive forces and peoples throughout the world for their precious support. Zionism disposes of powerful means of propaganda. We need this solidarity to defeat them, for our cause is just.”
The contrast with the forced stridency of the perorations preponderant in militant cinema is stark: here we are presented with an image of a bloodied man speaking with immense physical difficulty, but unbowed in his political determination. He represents, as Chapouillié notes, “the image of a Palestinian people that is wounded but fighting” (“L’Olivier,” 35).
The reception of L’Olivier upon its theatrical release, however, was divided. Following on from the bomb threats made to cinemas screening Ici et ailleurs, there were fears of similar attacks, especially given the fact that the film was being shown in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Paris. These never happened, but the cultural left in France—the film’s natural audience—was far from unanimous in their appraisal of the film. Cahiers naturally devoted ample coverage to a film made by one of its former editors, and the Maoist French film critic Guy Hennebelle, despite having frequently engaged in rancorous polemics with Cahiers, praised it as “one of the most successful feature-length films in contemporary French militant cinema” (122). Others on the far left, however, criticized the film for being equivocal on the question of Palestine’s claim to the occupied territories, and even attacked it for offering a “folkloric” and insufficiently political view of the Palestinian struggle.
Furthermore, the value of L’Olivier for Narboni’s later work is less straightforward than La Cecilia’s importance to Comolli. Whereas Comolli’s film was a foundational experience that inaugurated a forty-year spell of practicing and theorizing the cinema, Narboni would refrain from using his film as a launch pad for a directorial career, and for a long time L’Olivier was the only entry in his filmography. Instead, he continued to teach at Vincennes, and would later also return to the fold at Cahiers, re-joining the journal as an editor in the late 1970s, and establishing its prosperous publishing arm. Moreover, whereas Comolli has remained steadfast in his vocal attachment to radical politics, Narboni has generally shied away from overtly political matters in his more recent writings on the cinema.
Finally, there is the question of Narboni’s views on the Palestine-Israel conflict itself. As a Jewish pied-noir raised in Algeria, the issue has an obvious personal resonance for Narboni, but whereas during the time of L’Olivier he was unabashedly anti-Zionist and in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, more recent texts such as his adumbration of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in Pourquoi les coiffeurs... and his discussion of anti-semitism and the Holocaust with Godard in the film Morceaux de conversations avec Jean-Luc Godard (Alain Fleischer, 2010) evince a greater degree of sympathy with the Israeli perspective. When asked about this matter, however, Narboni did not agree that his views had substantially changed since the 1970s. He continues to believe in a right of self-determination for Palestine—while lamenting the “tragic”, seemingly unresolvable nature of the conflict—and he still looks upon his experience making L’Olivier in a broadly favorable light.
It may well be true that neither La Cecilia or L’Olivier would, on a first viewing, be immediately recognizable as the work of film critics who had held up the work of Godard, Straub/Huillet and the Soviet avant-gardes as the acme of politically radical cinema. Both films, however, can indeed be inscribed within the evolution of their respective authors. Despite taking divergent forms—a historical fiction in the case of the former, and a militant documentary in the case of the latter—the two films are also marked by significant commonalities. While they were made in the aftermath of a moment of defeat and disorientation for the Cahiers editors (as well as the far left more generally) and bear significant traces of the reconsideration of radical cinema that this downturn provoked, the two films persist in positing a latent political optimism.
Neither Comolli nor Narboni joined the large numbers of ex-militants and intellectuals who made ostentatious “conversions” to the political right during this period, and their films are testament to their continued identification with the political causes of the left. Both films, moreover, do not refrain from calling into question and interrogating the legacy of militant cinema, and they are both suffused with a collective approach to filmmaking that is of a piece with the overturning of social hierarchies inspired by the May ‘68 protests.
Most significantly, perhaps, both films evince a profound theoretical understanding of the cinematic image and the uses to which it can be put by filmmakers, resulting from more than a decade’s experience of criticism on the part of both figures. Indeed, the lengthy discussions surrounding the two films, printed on the pages of Cahiers du cinéma in three successive issues over the course of early 1976, offer a fertile intertwining of film theory and its application to practical questions of filmmaking that has few parallels in the history of the cinema. Engaging with these discussions immeasurably enriches the experience of viewing both La Cecilia and L’Olivier, and it is this imbrication of theory and practice that constitutes the principal value of these films for the field of film studies today.
1. For historical discussions of this impasse, see De Baecque, 248-263, and Bickerton, 78-84. [return to text]
2. An early, undated version of Comolli/De Gregorio’s script, noticeably different to the completed film, is presently available for consultation in the Bibliothèque du film’s archives in Paris under the reference code SCEN492-B145. De Gregorio was briefly associated with Cahiers in 1971, but severed ties with the journal in early 1972 along with Bernard Eisenschitz when the editors shifted towards Maoism.
3. Of these works, Comolli now only mentions Les Deux Marseillaises in his filmography. The two television programs, part of Labarthe’s “Cinéastes de notre temps” series, can be viewed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. The two short films, Un coup pour rien and Comme je te veux (both 1970), which were made under amateur conditions and never released commercially, are not presently available for viewing. A screenplay for the former film, however, is housed in the Bibliothèque du Film archives, and details a plot concerning two would-be left-wing terrorists who plan to assassinate a provincial industrialist.
4. One interesting parallel is that, as with the original settlement at La Cecilia, Cahiers in the late 1960s had only one woman (Sylvie Pierre) in an otherwise entirely male team.
5. Büchner’s play (Danton’s Death, 1835) follows the French revolutionary Georges Danton (a relatively moderate figure) during the 1793-94 “reign of terror,” and culminates in his execution at the hands of Robespierre’s more radical faction. There is some irony to the use of the play in La Cecilia: Danton’s Death is far from being an unambiguous celebration of the revolutionary zeal of the Jacobin wing of the revolutionary movement, which is the spirit in which the Cecilia group performs the text.
6. Comolli notes that this sentence possesses an “extraordinary violence,” and that the chosen conclusion to the film gestured towards “turning the end of the Colonia Cecilia into a larger version of all stories of failed utopias” (Lleó).
7. Comolli felt that the film’s music was “the other side of speech, the other sound of the voice, the other voice that is superposed on top of the voice making a speech [discours], the other discourse running underneath that of the logos, of ideology, anticipating it or prolonging it” (Dossier, 104).
8. Cornand even avers that Rossi’s failure is an unintended metaphor for Comolli’s own “failed” passage from film theory to direction.
9. Comolli’s film was also reviewed in Jump Cut, with Reynold Humphries and
Geneviève Sizzoni offering their own Marxist analysis of the shortcomings of Rossi’s commune.
10. The conference, organized by Stephen Heath and Teresa de Lauretis, was focused on the issue of “Cinema and the Apparatus” and featured contributions by Comolli, Metz and scholars from the UK and the USA, who mostly discussed film from a psychoanalytic perspective. The conference organizers were, however, themselves the target of claims of sexism and elitism, made by, among others, the editors of Jump Cut (for a summary of this critique, see Rich/Kleinhans/Lesage).
11. The fictional Olimpia is an amalgam of two figures from Rossi’s account of the Cecilia commune: an unnamed individual who was the only female member of the initial settlement, and a later arrival called Elèda with whom Rossi undertook his “experiment.”
12. Of these individuals, Danièle Dubroux, Serge Le Peron and Dominique Villain (who was married to Narboni at the time) would become regular critics at Cahiers in the 1970s. Dubroux and Le Peron, who had earlier experience in the Cinéluttes collective, would also become filmmakers in their own right in later years.
13. The filmmakers note that a 150-minute preliminary edit shown informally was first whittled down to 110 minutes for the film’s premier at the “festival du film politique” at Cannes in May 1975. The final cut was released in the Latina cinema in Paris’ Marais district in March 1976 (“L’Olivier,” 38).
14. A political reading of the conditions of the production of film images is also present in Comolli’s critical response to the film (“L’image absente,” 44-47).
15. The looser, but more widely available, translation by Susan Bennett renders this phrase as “a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality” (Screen Reader 1, 6).
16. The films were discussed in issues 262-263 (January 1976), 264 (February 1976) and 271 (November 1976) of Cahiers. While Ici et ailleurs had not yet been released in theaters, it is clear from their discussions that the Vincennes group had seen the film while working on L’Olivier. Serge Daney admits to being so emotionally affected by Ici et ailleurs that he vomited after watching it (Daney, Exercice, 252).
17. These figures include René Raindorf, an Auschwitz survivor and anti-Zionist campaigner, Piet Nak, a Dutch communist who led a strike of workers in the Netherlands against the deportation of Jews to the concentration camps when the country was under German occupation, and Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.
18. In his speech, Arafat declares his pride in the role of Palestinian woman in the armed struggle, stating, “By taking up arms, the Palestinian woman has forged an authentic revolutionary spirit.”
19. Their mode of speech is noticeably different to those of young boys (known as “lion cubs”) in a parallel scene: here one boy seems to speak for the entire group, and his summary history of the Palestinian revolution is recited in mechanical fashion, as if learnt by rote.
20. Narboni discusses these criticisms and ascribes them to the viewpoint of “some (French and Arab) bewildered dogmatists” (“L’Olivier,” 32).
21. The next (and so far only other) film for which Narboni would take a credit was À voir absolument (si possible): Dix années aux Cahiers du cinéma 1963-1973 in 2011, co-directed with Comolli. Made for cable television, the film was a retrospective look at their time with the journal.
22. One of the discreet ways in which Narboni has influenced the history of film theory came in the form of his close collaboration with Gilles Deleuze, who also taught at Vincennes, in the late 1970s and 1980s. The cinephilic guidance Narboni gave to the philosopher was crucial to the final shape his enormously influential two-volume work Cinéma (1983-1985) would take, and is perhaps one reason for the correlation between the corpus of films Deleuze discusses and the Cahiers “canon” of the 1950s-1960s (see Dosse/Frodon, 21-30).
23. The major exception here is his contribution to Les Années Pop: cinéma et politique, 1956-1970, a book which also contained texts by Comolli and former Cinéthique editor Gérard Leblanc.
24. Jean Narboni, private communication, April 2, 2014 (Paris).
Akika, Ali, Guy Chapouillié, Danièle Dubroux, Serge Le Peron, Jean Narboni and Dominique Villain, “L’Olivier: entretien et commentaires,” Cahiers du cinéma 264 (February 1976): 11-38.
Bickerton, Emilie, A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma. London: Verso, 2009.
Burnett, Ron and Phil Vitone, “Jean-Louis Comolli: On the Practice of Political Film. An Interview,” Ciné-tracts 4 (Spring-Summer 1978): 44-47.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, “La Cecilia: Présentation,” Cahiers du cinéma 262-263 (January 1976): 69-78.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, “L’image absente,” Cahiers du cinéma 265 (March 1976): 44-47.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, La Cecilia: Une commune anarchiste au Brésil en 1890 (Dossier d’un film). Paris: Daniel et cie, 1976.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, Voir et pouvoir. Paris: Verdier, 2003.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, Corps et cadre: Cinéma, éthique, politique. Paris: Verdier, 2012.
Comolli, Jean-Louis and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (1),” trans. Daniel Fairfax, in Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015, 251-259. Originally published as “Cinéma/idéologie/critique,” Cahiers du cinéma 216 (October 1969): 11-15. Also available, in a different translation, as “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (1),” trans. Susan Bennett, in Screen Reader 1: Cinema/Ideology/Politics (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1977), 2-11.
Comolli, Jean, Gérard Leblanc and Jean Narboni, Les années pop: cinéma et politique 1956-1970. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2001.
Cornand, André, “La Cecilia,” Revue du cinéma/Image et son (304): 73-76.
Daney, Serge, “Chantez le code,” Cahiers du cinéma 264 (February 1976): 52-54.
Daney, Serge, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur. Paris: POL, 1993.
De Baecque, Antoine, Cahiers du cinéma: Histoire d’une revue vol. II: Cinéma, tours détours (1959-1981). Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1991.
Dosse, François and Jean-Michel Frodon (eds.), Gilles Deleuze et les images. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2008.
Fairfax, Daniel, “‘Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” Senses of Cinema 64 (2012). http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/feature-articles/yes-we-were-utopians
Accessed July 11, 2015.
Hennebelle, Guy (ed.), “Cinéma militant: histoire, structures, méthodes, idéologie et esthétique”, special issue of Cinéma d’aujourd’hui 5-6 (March-April 1976).
Humphries, Reynold, and Geneviève Sizzoni, “Anarchism vs. reality”, Jump Cut 12-13 (December 1976): 30-32.
Kané, Pascal. “Le detour par l’enfance”, Cahiers du cinéma 265 (March 1976): 21-24.
Lleó, Rosa, “How to Film History: An Interview with Jean-Louis-Comolli about La Cecilia”, Afterall (2009). http://www.afterall.org/online/how.to.film.history.an.interview.with.jean-louis.comolli.about.la.cecilia#.VZt5H-2qqko. Accessed July 11, 2015.
Narboni, Jean. Pourquoi les coiffeurs.... Paris: Capricci, 2010.
Rich, B. Ruby, Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, “Report on a conference not attended: The scalpel beneath the suture,” Jump Cut 17 (April 1978): 37-38.
Smith, Alison, “Jean-Louis Comolli and La Cecilia: theory into practice,” French Cultural Studies 4 (February 1991): 13-33.
Toubiana, Serge, “Les arpenteurs,” Cahiers du cinéma 264 (February 1976): 41-43.