50 Years of Cahiers du Cinéma

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As the Ciné Lumière toasts film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, David Jenkins asks if film criticism can still make a difference

The French never take film for granted. If you’re in any doubt of their serious commitment to cinema, just take a look at the range of film magazines on the shelves of their newsstands. Mainstream film titles such as Prémier and Studio sit next to Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif (which cater to a more cinephile crowd), while there’s also in-depth film coverage in journals such as Le Temps Moderne or Esprit. And that’s not even mentioning the dailies.

But it’s Cahiers du Cinéma that reigns supreme in British minds. Counting Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer among its early contributors, this Paris-based publication was among the first to grapple with cinema in purely aesthetic terms. The Ciné Lumière has organised a season of films to celebrate 50 years of its existence (even though it’s actually 59 years old!) which ties in with the publication of Emilie Bickerton’s indispensable biog of the magazine,
‘A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma’.

Even Michel Ciment, editor-in-chief of Cahiers’ long-time rival, Positif, has a kind word to say about the occasion: ‘Cahiers du Cinéma is a very important magazine. Many of the ideas they forged over the past 60 years can be seen in much of the film criticism now.’

Bickerton concurs with Ciment’s view of the cultural import of Cahiers, but sees its current incarnation as a pale shadow of its ’60s-’70s heyday. ‘Cahiers recognised artists at work, even in the mainstream. You just can’t repeat what Cahiers did then.’ Bickerton blames the films as much as the critics for this: ‘Hollywood in the ’50s was a really impressive industry and it was an industry with artists working within it. You had Howard Hawks doing the films he was asked to do, but still being able to make his mark. Today, Hollywood is alive and kicking, but are there many of these “artists” working within the system? I don’t think so.’

According to Ciment, while Cahiers now has less of an eye for locating artists like Hawks within the Hollywood mainstream, it still defends the work of certain, notable directors. ‘With Jean-Michel Frodon, who was editor for five or six years, he was a kind of ayatollah, and he defiantly exercised the politique des auteurs.’ Stéphane Delorme was appointed editor last July when publisher Phaidon acquired the title from newspaper Le Monde. Ciment has noticed a clear change of editorial direction: ‘What I’ve witnessed in the past six months is very encouraging, because its attitude has become less dogmatic and contemptuous and it is now taking a wider view on cinema.’

Like the rest of the print media, the French are also asking questions about how the medium will survive in the future. ‘With the internet, I’m reminded of that famous line about how “everybody is Caruso under the shower”,’ says Ciment. ‘So everybody’s a film critic, but the problem is not to be a film critic; it’s to be a good film critic.’

Buy tickets for the '50 Years of Cahiers du Cinéma' season

Buy Emilie Bickerton's book, 'A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma'

Author: David Jenkins



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