In these last few particularly trying months — which have included Brexit and Trump winning the US presidential election — there seems to have been a desperate scramble to make comparisons between current events and historical tragedies. In a time of understandable uncertainty and anxiety, looking back on history — even while some of the parallels are a bit of a reach — is a way to try to make sense what could lie ahead: from merely frustrating political conservatism to possible Cold war, nuclear war, or even an unthinkable third world war. It is with this mindset that I read editors Marcelline Block and Barry Nevin’s French Cinema and the Great War: Remembrance and Representation recently released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Great War. Part of Rowman & Littlefield’s Film and History series (which includes volumes on European cinema after the fall of Communism, Hollywood and the Cold War, John Ford, WWII in cinema, and more), this particular collection grew out of a 2014 La Société des Professeurs Français et Francophone d’Amérique academic conference and, as a result, the contributors are a combination of historians and professors.
And while French Cinema and the Great War is geared towards an academic audience, you certainly don’t have to be one to enjoy the book. A massive amount of cinema is concerned with how war (and often the political repression and violence connected to it) is represented and how we remember it, and in terms of these important subjects, Block and Nevins’ collection has something for everyone: if you’re a novice to the subjects of WWI history or French cinema, this provides is a fascinating introduction to that world, but there’s also plenty of fascinating discourse for experts on the subject (which all of the contributing authors clearly are themselves). The editors’ introduction sums up the aims of the book better that I could hope to: “The chapters presented herewith examine a corpus of silent and contemporary as well as canonized and neglected French war films and the representation of gender, disability, class, and French colonial Africa in select films. Taken as a whole, French Cinema and the Great War aims to broach issues such as developments and deviations within the war film genre, the relationship between the war genre and aesthetic style, and, on a broader level, the continued significance of World War I to contemporary French social, political, and cultural spheres.”
Due to the understandably profound impact the “Great War” had on French life, it has had a similarly proportionate effect on the nation’s cinema and French Cinema and the Great War runs the gamut from silent films made during the war years (1914-1918) to contemporary films like Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël (2005).The book is split into three sections: Recording and Remembering the Great War, Women at the Front, and Interrogating Commemoration. The first section begins with Maryann De Julio’s absorbing chapter on silent filmmaker Germaine Dulac, in particular her newsreel collage, Le cinéma au service de l’histoire (1935), and in general the book is filled with this type of unexpected analysis. Much attention is devoted to Le roi de coeur (1966), Philippe de Broca’s surreal comedy set at the end of the war in a village occupied by the former inhabitants of an asylum, but there really is a wide range covered. Cult cinema favorite Georges Franju (of Les yeux sans visage) is even given some attention with a discussion of his neglected film Thomas l’imposteur (1965), and fans of contemporary French cinema will find much on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Audrey Tautou vehicle, Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004).
While the second section, on the role of women in the war and how that is depicted in cinema, is among my favorite of the book (simply because I don’t know a lot of these titles well and felt like I learned a lot), the third section offers up four quite diverse chapters devoted one of the greatest films of all time — about war or any other subject — Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937). It would be impossible to approach a subject like French cinema and WWI without covering this film in depth, but the four chapters analyze it, and Renoir’s importance as a director, from a variety of angles, which makes this a particular must-have for fans of Renoir.
The book’s editors, Marcelline Block and Barry Nevin, sought to “provide the first English-language book-length study devoted to representations of the First World War in French cinema from wartime society to the present day,” and they have certainly accomplished that goal, spanning not only a range of years, but genres, including everything from propaganda and conventional war films to romance. And they both know their subject material: Block is a lecturer at Princeton University and has edited and written other books, including Situating the Feminist Gaze and Spectatorship in Postwar Cinema (2010), and she’s contributed essays to our friends over at Art Decades. Nevin is currently doing doctoral research on Jean Renoir (some of which can be seen in the final section of their book). Pick up a copy of their book.