Violating the Filmic Body in French Cinema
Written by Marcus Ogden
As outlined by David Bordwell, the film form of narrative cinema is designed so that the viewer can keep track of time, space, and cause-effect chains. He also outlined that the form of a narrative film is made to conform to the expectations of the viewer according to the film’s genre, plausibility, and story. Resistance against the formal practices of narrative cinema is prevalent in French cinema, as many movements sought to trouble the relationship between the spectator and the image. These movements would confuse, alienate, and discomfort the viewer in order to deliver an artistic message about the state of the medium. These violations of narrative film practice are often coupled with the human body in a state of distress under physical or sexual violence. This paper will argue that these violations of the body in French cinema are tied the violations of narrative cinema. To start, I will explore how the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel, 1929) sets the trend of transgressing film form and linking it to violations the body, then I will explain how these methods reappear in the French New Wave film Weekend (Godard, 1967) and in the French Extremist film Fat Girl (Breillat, 2001).
Un Chien Andalou is the brainchild of surrealist icon Salvador Dali and auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel, and troubles the ways narrative film form is able to make connections and construct space. Although it is explicitly an avant-garde film, the two filmmakers transgress narrative film form in a much more subversive way than contemporary works from Sergei Eisenstein or Dudley Murphy. Malcolm Turvey wrote that Un Chien Andalou did not forgo the conventions of narrative cinema, but rather appropriated the language of continuity editing to turn it against itself. Continuity editing is a system that was popularized by American silent films that organizes a film’s body in a way that makes sense to a viewer. Intertitles, Establishing shots, match-on-action cuts, and eyeline matches are parts of a connective tissue of space and time that directs the viewers focus along a linear path. Un Chien Andalou makes use of these methods, but the connective tissue of the film holds together incompatible pieces. Props jump around, appear, and disappear between scenes and cuts; character positions suddenly change between cuts; and doors open into impossibly placed rooms, forests, and beaches. The editing and the angles of all of the shots are all ‘correct’ in a sense where the 180-degree rule is never violated and action is always moving in continuous directions, but what is in the shots themselves is all wrong. In one scene, the man chases the woman out of her apartment. As she exits out of a door on the right side of the frame, a cut follows her barring the door on the left side of the frame. This has maintained the continuity of the space in an editing sense, but the viewer should notice the door in each shot opens in opposite directions. A subsequent shot reveals she has exited out of the right door of her apartment only to enter it from the left door, when previously the left door led to the street. This is an example of what Turvey identified as the film’s discontinuity being subversively presented as continuity.
Un Chien Andalou is notoriously fixated on body parts, and to list all of the bodily violations would be exhaustive. On a surface level, body parts in the film are also linked to its conflicts of sense and space. In one exemplary sequence the couple looks out of their window to see a crowd around a woman poking a severed hand with a stick, an image that is not given an explanation but can be loosely connected to the ant-handed man or the bicycle rider who had died on that curb. In the sequence where the man chases the woman and she flees out of one side of the room only to enter through the other side of the room, she slams the door shut on the man’s hand as a closeup shows the abject image of the ants crawling out of his palm. The most blatant link between the body and the film’s form is in the opening scene, wherein Buñuel slices the woman’s eye with a razor and exposes the vitreous fluid within. To put this film in conversation with its avant-garde contemporaries, Dziga Vertov wrote that film was a godlike eye that constructs its own world and famously imposed an image of an eye onto a lens in Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) as a visual expression of his theory. Although Turvey noted that this scene has been read as alluding to psychoanalytic theories, I see this moment as the filmmakers’ thesis on how it ‘slices open’ film form and exposes its ability to construct a world.
In the French New Wave counter-cinema aimed to disrupt the way narrative film form created meaning. The French New Wave is marked by resistance to what was called the ‘tradition of quality.’ In reaction to the flood of Hollywood films that became available after the war, French filmmakers focused on making big budget and conventionally made book adaptations or historical stories to compete. The New Wave emerged and focused on auteurs while it appropriated neorealist and cinema verité techniques to counter this tradition on the production end. To counter the traditions of film form Jean-Luc Godard directed Weekend using methods of counter-cinema, which Peter Wollen outlined as methods formally opposite to narrative cinema. Weekend has an intransitive narrative, wherein rather than playing out a straightforward chain of events, the film unfolds episodically with a series of digressions, interruptions, and loosely connected scenes. One example is the seven minute scene where the two slowly drive past an inconceivably congested traffic lane which is neither a cause nor an effect of anything in the film’s narrative. With the use of intertitles, intentional editing errors, and mis-mixed sound the film foregrounds its materiality rather than hiding it to maintain the viewer’s sense of plausibility. Identification with the characters is made impossible when Roland and Corinne comment upon the fact that they are in a film. Diegesis, the film’s enclosed world, and closure, the film’s focus on its own text, are elements of narrative film form that are troubled in Weekend as anachronistic figures like Emily Brontë appear, and when the man in the phonebooth seems to be from a musical and not the film’s own world. Other characters like the drivers from the car-tractor collision break formal closure when they allude to certain philosophies and heavily reference other artistic works, and disrupt identification when they break character and act unpredictably. In all of these practices of counter-cinema Godard is producing meaning by breaking the traditional approaches that produce meaning in narrative film and forcing the viewer to consider questions outside of the concerns of the narrative, such as ‘why do the two truckers monologue about Algeria and the conditions of Africans? Why is one speaking for the other?’ and so on.
Weekend seemingly takes place in a wasteland of car wrecks and corpses, and throughout the film its radical form is tied to gruesome and deviant treatment of the human body. Narrative intransitivity in the film is directly connected to the body, as many of the films digressions and interruptions involve death and violence. In the traffic scene mentioned above, the couple drive past a horse-drawn wagon, a sailboat, people in discussion and playing games, even a pair of people playing chess in the roadway. The digression is concluded when the couple come to the end of the traffic stop and find a grim car accident with the corpses of children and possibly their mother. Death and violence in the film are robbed of their meaning as reactions to them are often nonchalant, if they are even acknowledged at all. This is reinforced when later Corinne witness a man burn to death and exclaims at the tragedy of losing her Hermes bag. Violations of the body are brought into the carnal realm as in one scene Corinne vividly describes a ménage à trois that perversely incorporates wine, milk, and an egg. The film digresses away from natural storytelling just as the sex described digresses away from the natural interaction of bodies. The film foregrounds itself as it gets physically jammed in the reel and shows the spaces between frames as a car crash is heard. As the frames realign the image shows a bloodied Roland crawling out of the wreck while another driver stumbles out of his vehicle, on fire. I read this as the rupture in film form affecting the film’s diegetic world, the jam of the film causing the gruesome crash as frames themselves collide and crumple in the reel. In the scene with Emily Brontë wherein the films diegesis and aperture are widened, Corinne breaks from identification by exclaiming “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film” and attacking the author. This multi-level breakdown of narrative form and the burning of Brontë is a two-pronged attack on the ‘tradition of quality’ that focused heavily on literature rather than cinema. The moist poignant display of bodily harm in the film is in the final chapter when the narrative is fully halted as the couple is captured by a group of cannibalistic communists who name themselves after films. Roland is murdered, butchered, and fed to an indifferent Corinne alongside tourist-meat and pork. As Godard’s practice of counter-cinema in the film has broken down the meaning of film form practices, human bodies in the film are broken down into indistinguishable meat that Corinne eats with blasé.
The New French Extremism violates the generic and normative elements of narrative film form to play on how it develops feelings in the viewer. As James Quandt vividly describes in his damnation of the movement, the New French Extremism is an art cinema that incorporates the unsavory subject matter and the violent-erotic images that normally find their homes in ‘low’ genres such as horror and pornography. Other writers have noted that the artistic approach to these images and subjects adds an affective layer that challenges the viewer’s moral concerns. As Quandt says in an aside, the films have a “tendency to aestheticize even when aiming to appall” as the interaction of being engaged by the technical aspects of a film while revolted by the events within cause questionable feelings of complicity and guilt. Fat Girl is a prime example of this affect-based approach, as even the title implicates the viewer with an abrasive bluntness towards the main character. An example is the 20-minute segment, nearly a quarter of the film, wherein Elena’s law student boyfriend Fernando sneaks into the sisters’ shared room and wears down the teenaged Elena into having sex with him. An aspect of this scene to note is its excellent sound design with hushed voices, crisp sounds of sheets and clothes rustling, and the subtle chirps of crickets and birds outside that work to create an enveloping atmosphere. These sounds develop a sense that the room wraps around the viewer rather than it being projected towards them, which makes the viewer feel trapped in the scene as Fernando’s seducing becomes more and more predatory. As seen in Martin Barker’s writing on the responses to the film, rather than thinking of the scene as a consumable fiction the viewer is inclined to reflect on whether they have been the minor or the predator in similar scenarios. The New French Extremism and Fat Girl break with narrative film form in that rather than presenting a story that conforms to the viewers conceptions of plausibility and genre to foster immersion, the viewer is obligated to be critical of the film and themselves as they watch it.
Eugenie Brinkema identifies sex and death as recurring themes in Catherine Breillat’s films, with attention to how those states relate to the body. The first time Fernando pressures Elena into sex, the camera remains on Anaïs during the act itself. Elena’s agonized screams are heard and Anaïs lacks any obvious reaction. While the viewer may be inclined to consider her complicity as she does not try to stop her sister being taken advantage of, the viewer also has to consider their complicity as they let the event continue by not stopping the film. Although the bodily violation is only heard, it is still firmly attached to the affect of the film form at work. An instance that outlined by Brinkema is a sequence, which brings to mind Dalí and Buñuel’s exploitation of narrative editing, where the mother is driving Elena and Anaïs home and the film form directs the viewer to expect an imminent fatal crash, only to have them arrive safely at a rest stop. The viewer is forced to consider the fact that they are watching a film that is close to over, and consider why it feels unfitting that the intrusive thought of “these characters have to crash” was not sated. Although seemingly a reversal of my argument as this manipulation of narrative film form is accompanied by the sparing of bodies, the relief is suddenly disrupted by an unexpected encounter with a man who murders Elena and the mother, and assaults Anaïs. Brinkema points out that in this scene Anaïs and the murderer exchange looks in a pair of un-diegetic shots set between the axe hitting Elena and the mother being strangled, the stunned silence of Anaïs in this moment mirrors the stunned silence of the viewer as time is suddenly frozen. Barker notes that critics were upset by this ending while the intended effect of it was understood by those who enjoyed the film. The polarizing impression of this sudden violence is intentional as it encourages the viewer to be critical of it, favourably or not, just as the diversions from genre and narrative convention itself is grounds for debate and criticism.
In French Cinema, there has been endless tampering with the formal practices of narrative film. As I have argued, the human body is often a stand in for film form in French cinema and when the goal is to violate traditional film form it is done with a parallel harming of the body. In this way, tampering with the human body represents tampering with narrative cinema. In Un Chien Andalou, the body stands in for the ability for film form to create continuity, as it is displaced and damaged when the film is made discontinuous and unclear with the use of continuity editing principles. Weekend highlights its use of the methods of counter-cinema with bodily harm and as film form’s ability to create meaning within a narrative is disrupted, it is matched with an escalating breakdown of the body. In Fat Girl, narrative film form’s ability to envelope the viewer is used in tandem with breakages in genre convention and uncomfortable content to make the viewer question their relation and their feelings towards the film. These films are exemplary of how transgressions of the body have been an effective tool for expressing the transgressions of narrative film form in French Cinema.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat).” Women: a Cultural Review 17.2 (2006): 147-170.
Corrigan, Timothy and Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj, eds. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Horeck, Tanya and Tina Kendall, eds. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Neupert, Richard John A. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
Turvey, Malcolm. The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
Wollen, Peter. “Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, 120-129. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.