Book Review: OBJECTIF 49: COCTEAU ET LA NOUVELLE AVANT-GARDE (Gimello-Mesplomb, 2014)


What did it mean to be a cinephile in postwar France? If some historical studies give the impression that we’ve settled this important question, others, like Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb’s discerning new book, remind us that many stones have yet to be turned over. Relying on testimony from some sixteen original interviews and on data collected from a range of personal and public archives (all listed in the book’s detailed appendices), Gimello-Mesplomb, a leading economic and institutional historian of French cinema, sets out to demystify the legendary ciné-club Objectif 49 (1948-1950). He argues that while legend paints the club as the origin of the politique des auteurs (and thus as one of the roots of the nouvelle vague), in fact the legacy of the club rests with its institutional intervention. Indeed, even before the founding of Cahiers du cinéma (1951-present) well-known cinephilic tastemakers like André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc and lesser known ones like Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (future co-founder of Cahiers) and Claude Mauriac (critic for Le figaro littéraire) were committed to building alternative institutions that would both educate audiences and facilitate the rise of a new system of distribution, exhibition and reception in France. Cinephiles did not just have a keen eye for individual directors. They focused their attention on those institutions that formed the fabric of film culture–institutions that, if reformed, would empower audiences, encourage the industry to be more responsive to the interests of cinephiles, and improve the lot of “risky” filmmakers who, in the period before the New Wave, had difficulty in an industry queasy about film art that challenges the status quo.

In its two-year lifespan, the club united established figures and newcomers to the cultural scene who would become major players in French cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Generations of critics and filmmakers were standing arm-in-arm in a battle to rejuvenate film culture: Astruc, Jean-George Auriol, Bazin, Pierre Kast, Léonard and Léonid Keigel, Jean-Charles Tacchella, and François Truffaut, among others. Jean Cocteau was there at the movement’s origins. During the Venice Film Festival of 1948, he, Bazin, Doniol-Valcroze and Tacchella, all dismayed with the current state of French cinema, developed the idea for a new ciné-club, one that would not celebrate cinema of the past (as Gimello-Mesplomb reminds us, postwar ciné-clubs, by definition, would show movies over three years old (33)) but that would foster a new avant-garde, a new French cinema that pointed toward the future. The movement didn’t take long to grow. Soon, Cocteau, Roger Leenhardt and Robert Bresson were elected as the club’s co-presidents (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Objectif 49 advertisement.
Fig. 1. Objectif 49 advertisement.

And by the time it put on the Festival du film maudit (July 28-August 5, 1949), held in the coastal town of Biarritz, Eric Rohmer (Maurice Sherer), René Clément, Jean Grémillon, and the novelist Raymond Queneau had joined the club’s ranks (fig. 2).

Fig. 1. The members of Objectif 49 at the Festival du film maudit in Biarritz, 1949.
Fig. 2. The members of Objectif 49 at the Festival du film maudit in Biarritz, 1949.

With so many influential members, and with so very few detailed historical accounts of its origins, development and influence, it is not surprising that the club has for the last 60 years been the subject of much speculation. This is why this new study is so welcome. One of the myths that Gimello-Mesplomb confronts is the belief that every major development in the 1940s and 1950s contributed to the discourse of “auteurism”–to the influential reading practice that interpreted directors (and writer-directors) as legitimate auteurs who expressed themselves through the subject matter and mise-en-scène style of their films. (Other myths and biases that afflict postwar histories are enumerated on page 167.) Contrary to myth, Objectif 49’s intervention in the critical discourse involved not auteurism but refining its members’ ability to analyze individual films, Gimello-Mesplomb stresses (127-8).

The book scrutinizes other claims as well. Since the 1990s many critics have wondered whether Objectif 49 and Cahiers du cinéma were two parts of the same postwar “adventure.” Gimello-Mesplomb scrupulously weighs the evidence, and concludes that the links between these two era-defining cinephilic institutions are at best “indirect” (112). One of the most enduring legends that associates Objectif 49 and subsequent developments in film culture is what he calls the “Golden Legend” of the dormitory (pp. 106-110). Among historians of the New Wave there has been much speculation about the infamous dorms of the Biarritz lycée, where many young cinephiles were housed during the Festival du film maudit. What we can confirm is that Bazin, then affiliated with Travail et Culture (a state-funded movement that sought to foster ties between artists, intellectuals, workers and students) (31), found the funding to bring young cinephiles to the festival. Lydie Jearbreau (later Mahias), the future wife of Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, was in charge of the enthusiastic group, which included Truffaut, Rohmer, Jean Douchet, Jean Boullet, Chris Marker, Charles Bitsch and a British contingent consisting of Graham Greene and Lindsay Anderson (107).

But there is very little evidence or testimony to confirm whether Cahiers, its reading practices and the New Wave were “born” at the festival. Some young cinephiles met there for the first time (Rohmer and Truffaut, for instance), and there are some suggestive analogies between developments at the festival and events depicted in New Wave films–Gimello-Mesplomb points out on page 108 that this was Truffaut’s first time at the sea, an experience that may have inspired the enigmatic last shot of Les 400 coups (Truffaut, 1959) (fig. 3)–but one key member of Cahiers was absent from the festival, namely Jean-Luc Godard, who was in Mont-Riant for an art show in July 1949 (110). What’s more, Bitsch recalls that the festival simply did not lead to a collective initiative among the younger members of the club, for they went their separate ways after Biarritz, and didn’t even exchange coordinates (112).

Fig. 3. The last shot of Les 400 coups (Truffaut, 1959).
Fig. 3. The last shot of Les 400 coups (Truffaut, 1959).

Gimello-Mesplomb argues that if Objectif 49’s festivals (three, to be exact) and one-night events (48 in total, held between December 1948 and November 1950) were the result of a collective effort, developments in intellectual culture in the early 1950s, like the founding of new journals, were as a result of individual initiative by former members of the club. Objectif 49’s influence on these events is therefore “oblique.” After the death of Revue du cinéma founder Jean-George Auriol, Rohmer founded Gazette du cinéma (1950) and Bazin, Doniol-Valcroze and others, as we know, launched Cahiers not long thereafter, but neither of these developments can be traced directly to Objectif 49.

Objectif 49’s impact, both in its heyday and in its “poshistory,” was therefore felt most fully and concretely in terms of its attempt to launch institutions aimed at influencing distribution habits and taste culture through exclusive screenings. Objectif 49: Cocteau et la nouvelle avant-garde uses five chapters to develop this argument (here are the chapter titles, since they are difficult to find online): chapter one, “Objectif 49 and the Festival of film maudit Beyond the Legend” (pp.11-19), available online in here; chapter two, “Cultured Criticism and Cinephilia Pro- and Anti-Hollywood” (pp. 21-45); chapter three, “Objectif 49, a Singular Ciné-Club” (pp. 47-72); chapter four, “The Festival of film maudit 1949 and the Rendez-vous de Biarritz 1950″ (pp. 75-144); and chapter five, “The Ideological Legacy of Objectif 49 and the Genesis of the Concept of ‘Art et essai’ (1950-1955)” (pp. 147-180). Throughout, Gimello-Mesplomb draws a number of insightful and even provocative conclusions as it relates to:

  • Film theory and aesthetics. Objectif 49 was not a club devoted to promoting any of the theories of cinema developed by Bazin, Leenhardt or Astruc (18-19). Rather, its vision and aims were “ecumenical” and “pragmatic” (55).
  • “Hollywoodism.” One of the few trends in contemporary cinema that the club consistently supported was the “invisible” avant-garde of Hollywood genre cinema (64). In contrast to other more leftwing cinephiles of the period, Objectif 49’s members saw promise in Hollywood film practice; its inaugural event was the Festival du film noir américain (November 20, 1948), and approximately 50% of the films screened at the Festival of film maudit were American (119).
  • Tensions between the club’s “exclusive” and rigorous cinephilia and desire for publicity. In a remarkable turn of events that is a tribute to how much the club focused on cinema, Festival of film maudit organizers decided that journalists (national or local) who were not part of the club would be banned from screenings and discussions (92). But when the opening night of the festival failed to generate the publicity the organizers desired (after all, the event was designed to “make news” in the film industry, and local journalists were criticizing the club for its “licentious” and even “satanic” motivations (100)), the organizers staged a photo shoot on the coast with all of the club’s members, whence the image in figure 2 (94). It fell to the well-attired Doniol-Valcroze to ensure that the “society life” aspects of the events melded harmoniously with the “discipline” required by the challenging films selected for the event (105).
  • The concept of “film maudit.” Gimello-Mesplomb argues that the terms “film maudit” and “nouvelle avant-garde” carried many meanings throughout the existence of the club, but mainly they referred (in overlapping ways) to the masterpiece that had been a failure at the box office (pages 123-4, 132, and 155).
  • The collapse of the club. Gimello-Mesplomb’s account of the club’s end focuses on the failure of its second festival, the Rendez-vous de Biarritz (September 11-18, 1950). Not only did it receive less financial support from the city of Biarritz (which was experiencing something of a recession) (134), but many of the club’s founding members did not attend (including Cocteau, who focused more on his own film projects at this stage (136)). Moreover, Jacques Rivette, one of the young cinephiles who attended the event, gave it a poor review in Gazette du cinéma (fig. 4), a fact that Gimello-Mesplomb takes as emblematic of a clash between two conceptions of cinema at this time. Younger critics of the Gazette, we learn, preferred to focus on concrete aspects of a film, like how a film’s narrative action was staged and shot (mise-en-scène), while the critics associated with Objectif 49 tended to “extol” (in the words of Rivette) “a literary cinema using a complex and circuitous language” (cited in Gimello-Mesplomb, page 173). The club simply could not continue as a result of these and other pressures.
Fig. 4. Rivette's "Report on Biarritz," Gazette du cinéma (October 1950).
Fig. 4. Rivette’s “Report on Biarritz,” Gazette du cinéma (October 1950).

For all of these reasons, this book is an essential one for students of postwar cinema and cinephilia.

Like any good history, of course, Objectif 49: Cocteau et la nouvelle avant-garde leaves us with questions as well answers. What effect did the club have then on French film culture? Gimello-Mesplomb offers many answers, but chapter five, which examines the death and aftermath of the club, argues that it is best understood as part of a “long history” of French exhibition. He views Objectif 49 as an early phase in the development of a new kind of exhibition site in French cinema, namely the cinéma art et essai, which is a hybrid of the ciné-club and the commercial theater in that it seeks to promote “quality” cinema through exclusive screenings. But unlike the ciné-club, the cinéma art et essai is a for-profit entity. More broadly, it is the ideological legacy of the club to have shown the benefits of two concepts–of public support (recall that the city of Biarritz funded the club’s second festival) and of specialized exhibition circuits–to the health of risky, “non-commericial” filmmaking that would otherwise be trampled by commerce.

Fig. 4. The Panthéon "art et essai" theater.
Fig. 5. The Panthéon “art et essai” theater.

But what of Objectif 49’s new avant-garde? Was it as “open” as Gimello-Mesplomb claims? I would suggest that future researchers take his conclusion that many different styles and genres were promoted by the club not as a demonstration of the futility of trying to define Objectif 49’s “aesthetics,” but rather as a caution against reducing Objectif 49’s new avant-garde to a single artistic form. Perhaps the club’s members and events aimed to promote many different cinemas (or a hybrid mixture of styles and genres) as part of its avant-garde, but this certainly doesn’t mean that its conception of the vanguard had no bounds.

Fig. 5. Bazin's "Nouvelle avant-garde," in the Festival du film maudit catalogue.
Fig. 6. Bazin’s “L’avant-garde nouvelle,” in the Festival du film maudit catalogue.

In principle the club’s conception of the new avant-garde would be open or relativistic, but in practice its members tended to coalesce around specific kinds of filmmaking, as two important discursive interventions by influential members of the club attest. The first text is one of Bazin’s many “manifestos” for Objectif 49, an essay titled “L’avant-garde nouvelle” and published in the catalogue produced for the Festival of film maudit (fig. 6). (The full catalogue is available for download here.) Bazin declares that the very mission of Objectif 49 is to redefine the term “avant-garde”:

That ‘Objectif 49’ has elected to place itself under the sign of the ‘Avant-Garde’ leaves it open to misunderstanding. The term is in fact historically tied to a well-known moment in cinema. During the years 1925-28, the ‘Avant-Garde’ fiercely opposed all commercial forms.

Bazin emphasizes the club’s “relativistic” notion of the avant-garde:

One is at the avant-garde OF something. The relative failure of the pioneers of 1928 stems from the fact that they were not interested in being followed. They were combing the countryside while the whole rest of cinema advanced by quiet steps on altogether different paths.

This sanctions us to adopt a concept that has fallen into disuse, THE AVANT-GARDE, restoring to it a literal sense, and from this, its relativism. The avant-garde for ‘Objectif 49’ consists of those films that are in advance of the cinema. We correctly say of the CINEMA, which is to say the production of a popular industry in which it would be out of the question to dispute the fundamental law that involves seeking in one way or another the assent of the public.

As Bazin goes on, we learn that this avant-garde isn’t so “open” after all. Among other things, it is riskier than the avant-garde of the 1920s because it is associated with feature-length filmmaking, and thus expressly depends on the attention of a wide audience and on producer support:

This avant-garde is no less accursed than the other. On the contrary, it is more so, for to the extent that it does not seek, in principle, to be incomprehensible and endeavors to include itself in the normal conditions of cinema, it runs the severest of risks: the misunderstanding of the public and the immediate withdrawal of confidence from producers.”

He remarks: “The Patron Saint of this avant-garde is and will always be Erich Von Stroheim.”

Many questions–related to style, narrative and the postwar lexicon–are raised by this passage. Why hold up Von Stroheim as an emblem in this redefinition of the avant-garde? To ascertain which aspects of his films appear to be cutting edge, we would need to look into how Von Stroheim was written about and perceived by Bazin and other Objectif 49 members.

Poster art for Pattes blanches (1949).
Fig. 7. Poster art for Pattes blanches (1949).

But here’s a broader question suggested by all of this: what counted as “in advance of the cinema” for Objectif 49’s tastemakers? Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be gleaned in the second text I’d like to briefly consider here. One of Objectif 49’s most skilled presenters, Roger Leenhardt delivered an address at one of the club’s signal events, the premiere of Grémillon’s Pattes blanches (1949), whose celebrated director had failed to produce a movie in five years, a scandal given his talents. Speaking after Cocteau on this occasion, he elevated Grémillon by saluting his “contradictory and eclectic taste for the epic and the everyday, for music and line, for Brittany and Castile, for alcohol and pure water, for hyperbole and litotes!” (For the entirely of Leenhardt’s February 28, 1949 speech, see Roger Leenhardt’s Chroniques du cinéma (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1986), pp. 161-2.) This tribute to Grémillon would seem to suggest that Objectif 49 events were, to some extent at least, devoted to promoting auteurism (in this case, the appreciation of a film through the lens of the personal vision and style of its director), and that an avant-garde auteur’s style is far from pure. Rather, it might mix moments of excess (hyperbole) with moments of restraint and indirect expression (litotes).

In other words, to begin to ascertain whether the club had an impact on visual and narrative aesthetics, historians can ask questions that build on Gimello-Mesplomb’s work and that refine our sense of the styles and genres promoted in the writing and speeches of the club’s major spokespersons, not to mention in the films it screened. Perhaps this “aesthetic” (rather than institutional) approach could shed light on how the club’s founding members conceived of the new avant-garde, and whether they continued to throw support–institutional or rhetorical–behind similar experiments in the wake of the club’s demise.