Who Was Roger Leenhardt? A Conversation with Documentary Filmmaker Sidney Jézéquel

FRL

I am currently in Paris on a research trip , and today I had the pleasure of meeting the documentary filmmaker Sidney Jézéquel, formerly the head of Les Films Roger Leenhardt (or FRL Productions, as it is known today), an independent short film production company founded in 1934. Jézéquel made his final film in 2000, an insightful investigation of life in the Parisian suburb of Goussainville, titled Naissance d’une banlieue, mort d’un villageHe is also the son of the novelist Roger Breuil and nephew to Roger Leenhardt, whose critical writings in the 1930s (later collected in Chroniques du cinéma) influenced the theories of André Bazin. For two hours we chatted about Leenhardt and his work.

Fig. 1. Roger Leenhardt's Chroniques du cinéma (1986).
Fig. 1. Roger Leenhardt’s Chroniques du cinéma (1986).

I met with Jézéquel to continue my research on Leenhardt, a peculiar figure in French cinema, at once cherished and forgotten. It is, for instance, commonly held that Leenhardt was the “Father of the New Wave,” as Cahiers du cinéma dubbed him in 1962. But in speaking with Jézéquel it also became clear that very few people, even in France, remember his work as a filmmaker. While Leenhardt made two features, one telefilm and some 54 shorts between 1934 and 1985, very few even among diehard cinephiles can claim to have seen anything beyond his debut feature, Les dernières vacances (1948), and La naissance du cinéma (1946), a wonderful documentary about the history of cinema (you can view an except on the FRL website).  

Desert_1

Fig. 2 and 3. The opening credits of Paris et le desert francais (1957).
Fig. 2 and 3. The opening credits of Paris et le désert français (1957).

Jézéquel worked closely with Leenhardt for 25 years, collaborating with him on such documentaries as Paris et le désert français (1957) (fig. 2 and 3, and available to view here) and the docudrama La capricieuse (1973). Throughout our lunch, he was refreshingly candid about his uncle’s films and working methods, as well as his intellectual commitments and place in the history of French cinema.

Jézéquel believes that Leenhardt has been forgotten for a very simple reason: he doesn’t have much of a feature film career. Nevertheless, Leenhardt was greatly admired by postwar cinephiles like Bazin and Alexandre Astruc–and others who founded the ciné-club Objectif 49 (which I discussed in an earlier post). But, Jézéquel warned me, this was for reasons that intellectuals and cinephiles today might find banal. Jézéquel went on to explain that Leenhardt was held in high esteem not only for his theories or his ideas, but above all for his ability to navigate those institutions whose support would further cinephilic causes. Many of Leenhardt’s fiction and nonfiction shorts were commissioned by the state, so he had extensive experience working within bureaucracies. Jézéquel speculated that he would therefore have been quite useful to Objectif 49, especially in the lead up to the Festival of film maudit held in Biarritz in 1949, for he would have known how to earn the confidence and support of the city’s officials.

A common theme throughout our conversation was Leenhardt’s decision to maintain a relatively low profile in French film and media culture. Jézéquel made clear that Leenhardt never wanted to be a major auteur; he never desired that kind of attention. Moreover, when Leenhardt was offered the position of head of France 2 (the TV station) upon its launch in the early 1960s, he turned it down because he simply didn’t want to take on such a burdensome, high-profile responsibility. And yet, as Jézéquel explained, he would have been quite adept at it! I asked whether he “simply enjoyed life too much,” to which Jézéquel replied: “That’s it! He enjoyed life!”

Our conversation then turned to Leenhardt’s film practice, and I came to realize just how prescriptive our conception of the “auteur de film” now tends to be. Today we limit our idea of the auteur to filmmakers who are distinctive visual artists–that is, to directors who craft a unique “look.” But Jézéquel insisted that as a fiction and nonfiction filmmaker Leenhardt was (this is my term) logocentric. “He ought to have been a novelist,” Jézéquel declared, for he was much more concerned with writing, with a film’s découpage or script, than with the image. This prioritization of the word made for some tense moments in the working relationship between Leenhardt and René Zuber, the well-regarded nouvelle vision photographer who collaborated with Leenhardt well into the postwar era. In shoot after shoot, Zuber insisted on intricate lighting and visual flare, but Leenhardt preferred images that were more functional–or, in Jézéquel’s words, images that were “intellectual” (i.e., that served the film’s concept rather than titillated the viewer’s eye). Jézéquel watched as their relationship developed. Soon, fundamental intellectual commitments led to a split: “Zuber believed that certain aspects of the image were beyond language, an idea that Leenhardt could never have accepted.” Leenhardt once apparently rolled his eyes at the time it took Zuber to set up a shot at an industrial warehouse!

Finally, we arrived at Leenhardt the storyteller. According to Jézéquel, he was above all terrified of losing the audience. In other words, he was a fanatic of clarity, and despised ambiguity. This of course places Leenhardt in stark contrast with the art cinema auteurs who would come later, like Resnais and Godard. As Jézéquel explained quite colorfully (unfortunately, I can only offer an approximation): “Cinema presents us with a labyrinth, but Leenhardt would insist on leading the viewer by the eye–and the ear!–through the maze.” He preferred, as he once put it, “didactic elegance.”

Where did this commitment to clarity come from? I asked. As our conversation drew to a close, Jézéquel speculated that it was the “professorial” side of him. His father and his grandfather were both professors, and as time went on, Leenhardt appears to have developed a similar passion for lucid exposition.

Roger Leenhardt, it would seem, was a different kind of auteur de film. One with a modest output. One who favored the short film over the feature. One who worked well within institutions, and whose career was built on state commissions. And one who placed a premium on clarity and the written and spoken text, and rejected those aspects of narrative and style that later became a defining quality of European art cinema, namely ambiguity and visual flare. He was an auteur on his own terms–resolutely unassuming and unromantic–and what’s more, he even seemed to draw his energy from the idea that few, if any, would ever take notice.

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