Reading the Modern: Narratives in Cinema and Literature

By Dorota Ostrowska

la-chinoise-jean-luc-godard.jpgLa Chinoise, 1967

In view of the poor fortunes of French post-war cinema and the critical immersion of the critics of Cahiers du cinéma in Hollywood, it is surprising that in 1959 it was nevertheless a film by a French filmmaker Alain Resnais, Hiroshima, mon amour, which won the greatest praise of those very critics. Hiroshima mon amour was recognised as a definite break with classical cinema and the beginning of modernity in cinematic history. According to Truffaut, “if our objective is to free cinema from the necessity of telling stories, there is still a lot to be done and with Hiroshima, mon amour, the film without a plot, strictly, poetic and emotional, Alain Resnais has just made a great step forward in the right direction” [1].

Such critical acclaim in Cahiers du cinéma is striking, given the fact that the film compromised one of the key premises of the politique des auteurs. Alain Resnais, film auteur, did not write the script himself, but asked a new novelist, Marguerite Duras, to do this for him. The participants of the Cahiers debate ‘Hiroshima, notre amour’ emphasised the fact that although the film had every chance of being "literary" due to Duras' contribution and, as a result, of compromising its cinematic specificity, it ended up demonstrating a uniquely cinematic quality. Cahiers acceptance of the film suggests that its formal experiment could be interpreted using the magazine's critical categories of the mise en scène and montage.

Reviews of Hiroshima, mon amour imply that the film successfully realised Rohmer’s project of creating visual literature with cinematic means. Godard argued that, with this film, Resnais filmed “the novel that all young French directors, people like Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Bastide and also Marguerite Duras are trying to write” [2]. For this reason, “cinema has managed to express something which was believed to belong exclusively to the literary domain.”

In support of Godard's point, Eric Rohmer also argued that Resnais had absorbed the lessons of American writers William Faulkner and John Dos Passos regarding the narrative, “even though this happens thanks to Marguerite Duras”. The cinematic narrative emerging out of the critical discourse of cinema in Cahiers in the fifties had the same formal features as literary narrative defined by Jean-Paul Sartre in his analysis of American novels in the thirties. His essay about Nathalie Sarraute's Portrait of a Man Unknown acknowledged the novelty of her creative achievement. Sartre argued that Portrait… belongs among those completely negative works which could be called the “anti-novels” in literature.

For him, Sarraute's novel was an attempt to explore novelistic specificity by altering the conventions of a detective story and by experimenting with characterisation (he describes Sarraute's novel as a parody of a crime novel where the detective is not able to build up a case and, as a result, abandons the investigation completely, only to turn out at the end of the novel to be the perpetrator of the crime himself). The same formal concerns were also identified by Jacques Rivette in Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), which was one of the key Cahiers examples of classic Hollywood cinema. Similarly, a comparison between the narrative techniques of Passos and Faulkner, discussed by Sartre in Situations, I, and elements of narrative in Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1953) and Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika (1952), examined by Godard and Rivette (1958; 1959) reveals some striking parallels.

According to the critics, these filmmakers and novelists rejected the importance of storytelling and chronology in their works. They also aimed at producing a different sort of characterisation, which was not based on detailed presentation of outer features. In Hollywood cinema, strict and detailed mise en scène was an expression of a very coherent narrative. The novelty of modern cinema lay in the way in which mise en scène was created through the relaxation of cinematic space.

According to Rivette, Rossellini for example gave the impression of opening up and relaxing cinematic space by presenting it in a fluid and asymmetrical manner. This resulted in a composition which gave a sense of greater freedom. In Rossellini's film, where the plot is suppressed, “one no longer knows what is going to happen, where and how; the event is hurried but it no longer progresses” [3]. The effect of halting the narrative observed in modern cinema was also present in modernist American novels. In both forms the transformation of traditional narrative structure brought about new types of characterisation.

Lang's characters were presented in a very abstract way. There were no real-life details, which would help the viewer to place them or to understand their particular condition. In other words, Lang's characters lost their individuality and became concepts. Sarraute's characters underwent a similar process of losing their individual identity. Sartre argued that, for Sarraute, a man was not a character, the story, nor a network of habits, but a limp to-and-fro movement between the particular and the general.

This process of abstracting characters was taken one step further in Resnais's Hiroshima, mon amour. Rivette suggests a conflation between the film's account of Emmanuelle Riva's efforts to reconstruct her fractured self and the presentation of the struggle of the city of Hiroshima to rebuild after nuclear disaster. For this reason, the film could be seen as a documentary about the city and the main female character. Rivette went so far as to suggest that Hiroshima, mon amour was a documentary about Hiroshima with commentaries by Riva. Such fusion between urban documentary and psychological introspection, between the collective and personal, the objective / factual and the subjective can be also found in Dos Passos's characterisation. He emphasises the tension between the external and internal by presenting the thoughts of his characters in the form of a news report.

Such challenges to plot and traditional characterisation changed the role of time in cinematic and literary narratives. Time, which was no longer chronological, became an incentive for the exploration of the workings of memory in both films and fiction. In Journey to Italy, time exercised immense pressure upon those elements of the mise en scène which had traditionally been linked to plot. Gestures, looks and the most banal events lasted for some time without giving an impression of working towards any definite resolution.

But it was really the use of flashback that seemed to bring the action to a complete halt and ultimately made the narrative inconclusive. It was a reflection of the characters' minds and emotions at a specific moment in time. Bergman also emphasised flashback as a tool in exploring the workings and the nature of memory. He was fascinated by the ways in which film gradually transformed a present moment into a past one. He wanted to capture in the present moment that which was the most fleeting in it and extend it to make it feel like eternity. Such explorations of the nature of time led modernist cinema and literature to create new narrative structures radically different from their 19th century realist forebears.


[1] Quote from ‘Le réalisateur, celui qui n’a pas le droit de se plaindre’, Le Plaisir des yeux. Paris: Flammarion 1987: 14.
[2] All quotes in this section are from ‘Hiroshima, notre amour’, Cahiers du cinéma 97, 1959: 1-18.
[3] Quote from ‘Lettre sur Rossellini’, Cahiers du cinema 46: 15.

This is extracted from Reading the French New Wave by Dorota Ostrowska, published by Wallflower Press in November.

Dorota Ostrowska is lecturer in film studies at the University of Edinburgh and the co-artistic director of the UK Festival of Chinese Cinema: Cinema China 2007. She co-authored European Cinemas in the TV Age (Edinburgh University Press, 2007).