March 4, 2007

The City's Other Rendez-Vous

Cahiers du Cinema editor Frodon flashes back to the '70s with program in NYC

By Aaron Hillis

(L-R) Jean-Pierre Leaud, Bernadette Lafont and Francoise Lebrun in The Mother and the Whore, the closing night film of the series "French Seventies: Cinema After May '68" (Photo: New Yorker Films/Photofest)

For over half a century and through many transformations, the legendary French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma has been hailed as the source of some of the most prestigious and thought-provoking film criticism in the world. Jean-Michel Frodon, the institution's esteemed critic and editor-in-chief of, will be in New York this week on behalf of a new retrospective he has curated; produced by the French Institute in conjunction with the Center for the Humanities at CUNY's Graduate Center, "French Seventies: Cinema After May '68" features post-New Wave films that challenged society and the medium itself. The program includes ultra-rare screenings of Benoît Jacquot's The Musician Killer, Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably, Maurice Pialat's The Mouth Agape and Claude Faraldo's Themroc.

Frodon, who will join a moderated discussion with Dartmouth professor Lynn Higgins tonight to kick off the event, was gracious enough to talk about its origins, as well as defend Cahiers du Cinéma's choice of Lady in the Water as one of its Top 10 Films of 2006.

THE REELER: How did this series come to be, and what was your criteria in choosing these films?

JEAN-MICHEL FRODON: I went to New York last year to introduce French documentaries for Cahiers du Cinéma week with Alain Cavalier, and I met Sam DiIorio. He said he was working on this topic -- post-May '68 films and French theory in Cahiers from this period of time -- and was willing to organize something together so we could share our ideas. I mixed together my personal memories of films which were important for me and films that were milestone references for Cahiers du Cinéma in this particular time. Of course, we wanted to show significant directors of the '70s, and at the same time, we paid attention to what had been shown quite often in New York and what was still to be discovered; it was a mix of all these requisites. Also, some of them were too difficult to find, like Pierre Zucca's Roberte, a somewhat important film that had no print available.

It's certainly an amazing opportunity to experience some underseen greats.

Yes, well, I really believe this is an ongoing work because there is this idea that the history of cinema should always start again from 100 years ago. Actually, the importance of films fade away very fast, which means we have to bring more recent films back in the light. I think it's very important now to circulate because the elements exist, it has been put together, rights have been cleared, and so forth. For instance, Jean Eustache has been a big effort, because even in France it can become very difficult to see his films. But it's an ongoing process because prints are lost, and directors from previous and even recent generations are fading away. So it's a never-ending job to keep these ideas and emotions from cinema alive.

Audiences should understand that you don't need to know French history to appreciate what makes their artistry so potent.

Yes. As you know, these are not films about May 1968, and each are very different from the others. It was a kind of blossom of so many different ways to make cinema -- a huge freedom all over the planet. But this was a special flavor in France, probably because it inherited the New Wave intensity and strength to explore new directions, related also to the music, the use of drugs, the different kinds of relations between boys and girls, parents and children. It was a different kind of meeting between the histories of cinema and society in the '70s.

Were there other films you simply couldn't secure for the series?

I remember we worked on different options for Philippe Garrel. And it was difficult to obtain other films by Jean Eustache. We were hesitating between [asking ourselves], "Is it better to show Eustache's most well-known film, The Mother and the Whore, which still has to be re-discovered by younger people?" or "Is it better to show films that have almost never been shown in New York for a very long time?" Ultimately, the other Eustache films were almost impossible to get, so the answer was practically given to us. I don't know if it was the best choice, but it's a great one.

Let me plead with you now to bring Philippe Garrel to New York. There are cinephiles here who would do just about anything to see his earlier work.

We spoke about it, actually. Garrel and I planned a little trip together to New York and Boston, but then he cancelled. I'm not so sure he's so fond about traveling. He was starting to work on a new film, and when he's in the spirit, there's no space for him to work on any other project. But I haven't abandoned the idea, and hopefully we'll make him cross the Atlantic someday.

Cahiers du Cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon: "These are not films about May 1968, and each are very different from the others."

In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of chatter about a dwindling appreciation in film criticism globally. Could there be any truth to it?

I think there are worse threats to film criticism because it works opposite to the market process. It escapes from the advertising procedures, which are getting stronger and stronger and winning battles everyday. So obviously, it has become more difficult in major media like general newspapers or magazines to find a place for film criticism. We've kind of retreated away from institutions onto Web sites and blogs, where we are very often. I think criticism will become even more astute for this situation. Other kinds of works, like festival programming, film teaching, and even some theater programming are building alternatives to [have] complete power over the marketing logic.

With blogs, anybody can write a review and call themselves a film critic. Is there enough room for everyone, or could the potential oversaturation be detrimental?

I think it's great. At the same time, one should not mix different kinds of [formats]. What we do at Cahiers du Cinéma as a magazine is different from what can be done on a blog, for instance; it has another logic. Cahiers tries to build a different relationship between films, filmmakers and readers than what can be built in this very special wall-to-wall relation, what blogs are intending to build. We are at a Web site; we're also publishers. Cahiers is a monthly, and I believe each of these tools can have their own efficiency and support each other. We're not organizing festivals, but people who are programming important ones and teaching film at high schools and universities are all part of building this different place. I don't believe the Internet will swallow up every previous way of thinking, speaking and sharing cinema, nor do I believe that everybody who has something to say about film is the same.

You launched e-Cahiers this past month, an online format with English translations. With such densely written pieces, won't that be problematic to translate? It was pointed out online that Inland Empire, concisely summarized by Lynch as being about "a woman in trouble" now reads in e-Cahiers as "the story of a woman who has some problems."

Translation is difficult, especially whenever you have a little bit of ambition in the writing itself. Hopefully, it will be discussed. I'd be very happy about that. The people we choose to translate Cahiers du Cinéma have a knowledge of translation, and they also know cinema very well; they know our language. Of course, every translation is questionable, and there are some texts that are specifically difficult to translate, but I really believe that given the opportunity for people who can't read French, it's kind of opening. We don't have any financial backing to do it. It's really made from inside Cahiers as something extra besides what we're already doing. Certainly, we have to improve, and we will, because we launched as soon as it seemed possible to do it. I'm willing to accept any comments to learn and make it better, but I think it's already a significant step for Cahiers and people who only speak English.

When I first found out about our interview, the first thing I wanted to ask was if you'd mind defending Lady in the Water on Cahiers' 2006 Top 10 list.

[laughs] Yes, yes! I know M. Night Shyamalan got the worst director [Razzie Award]. I think it's a deep misunderstanding. I really believe Shyamalan is one of the most important directors working inside the Hollywood system. He has a very daring and unusual approach about what it is to tell stories, generate beliefs, what brings people together and what separates them. He tells fabulous, antique stories that do not pretend at all to be realistic, which I find really very beautiful; he has a wonderful sense of aesthetics. I saw the film four times, and I introduced him to students who didn't like the film -- like most people at first. But when we sat together and spoke about it together, we were able to change their minds. I think it's a very original way to work at the center of the system with science fiction or fairy tale stories, questioning from the inside what we believe in and why we are believing it. For me, it works as a disturbing piece in a creative way. Many of us at Cahiers truly love Lady in the Water, and we put it on the cover of the September issue. I'm awaiting the next one, but I'm afraid major companies will not accompany Shyamalan much longer because it was so [commercially] unsatisfying.

"French Seventies: Cinema After May '68" runs through March 27 at Florence Gould Hall and The Graduate Center, CUNY; Frodon will join director Benoît Jacquot March 6 for a discussion following Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably. Visit the French Institute's Web site for more details.

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