Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema

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Masculine Singular is an original interpretation of French New Wave cinema by one of France's leading feminist film scholars. While most criticism of the New Wave has concentrated on the filmmakers and their films, Genevieve Sellier focuses on the social and cultural turbulence of the cinema's formative years, from 1957 to 1962. The New Wave filmmakers were members of a young generation emerging on the French cultural scene, eager to acquire sexual and economic freedom. Almost all of them were men, and they "wrote" in the masculine first-person singular, often using male protagonists as stand-ins for themselves. In their films, they explored relations between men and women, and they expressed ambivalence about the new liberated woman. Sellier argues that gender relations and the construction of sexual identities were the primary subject of New Wave cinema.

Sellier draws on sociological surveys, box office data, and popular magazines of the period, as well as analyses of specific New Wave films. She examines the development of the New Wave movement, its sociocultural and economic context, and the popular and critical reception of such well-known films as Jules et Jim and Hiroshima mon amour. In light of the filmmakers' focus on gender relations, Sellier reflects on the careers of New Wave's iconic female stars, including Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. Sellier's thorough exploration of early New Wave cinema culminates in her contention that its principal legacy-the triumph of a certain kind of cinephilic discourse and of an "auteur theory" recognizing the director as artist-came at a steep price: creativity was reduced to a formalist game, and affirmation of New Wave cinema'smodernity was accompanied by an association of creativity with masculinity.

About the Author:
Genevieve Sellier is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Caen

About the Author:
Kristin Ross is Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Thanks to this unwavering translation, Geneviève Sellier’s bracing exposé has stripped the New Wave of its stylish attire to reveal an unappealing male body. Vigilant and determined, she has trolled a sea of French criticism to net her evidence.”—Dudley Andrew, Yale University

“This remarkable book will change readers’ view of New Wave cinema. Geneviève Sellier approaches this key movement in French cinema from an original perspective, developing a nuanced yet incisive argument about the links between masculinity, auteurism, and filmic representations.”—Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341925
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Geneviève Sellier is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Caen. Her books include Jean Grémillon: Le cinéma est à vous and La Drôle de guerre des sexes du cinéma français, 1930–1956 (with Noël Burch). Kristin Ross is Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. She is the author, most recently, of May ’68 and Its Afterlives and Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture.

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Read an Excerpt

Masculine Singular

French New Wave Cinema
By Geneviève Sellier

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4175-8

Chapter One

A New Generation Marked by the Emergence of Women

A Sociological Phenomenon

It is well known that the expression "New Wave" first referred to the generation born before the war that entered adulthood after the Liberation. As the last generation before the birth rate exploded, the New Wave would soon be dethroned by that of the "baby boomers" (Sirinelli 2003), but it is the first generation to be understood in its entirety as a sociological phenomenon. At the end of 1957, the Institut Français d'Opinion Publique (IFOP) and L'Express-two media institutions that incarnate American-style modernization in France-simultaneously launched an investigative survey to attempt to categorize the specific characteristics of the generation born between 1927 and 1939. In the book published by Françoise Giroud in 1958 that provided commentary on a representative sample of fifteen thousand letters received by L'Express, Giroud notes a difference so evident between the men's and women's responses that she decides to present them separately:

Why isolate the women of the New Wave from the men of their age group? Not only is such a separation not artificial-it's frankly necessary.

In the first place, a careful study of the women's responses we received shows lines of division completely different from those we can trace among the men.

Young women define themselves less in terms of their milieu, their social class and the problems particular to that class, than they do in terms of their personal situation inside society.

Together, they constitute a class that has been called "the proletariat of man," of the man-boss, and they feel themselves determined first and foremost by their condition as women, a condition that we will divide into four large categories: single women under twenty-five, single women over twenty-five, married women who work (or who once worked), and those who do not work. (201)

Giroud's after-the-fact reflection suggests that neither the journalists at L'Express nor the analysts at the IFOP had considered ahead of time the pertinence of differentiating responses by gender, a problem that makes the results of the survey undertaken by the IFOP of no use whatsoever for what interests us here. But it at least indicates a solid myopia concerning the importance of the gender variable revealed by the survey of the fifteen thousand letters received by L'Express.

The letters published by Françoise Giroud in fact bear witness to the dominant conservatism of the young men when it comes to their vision of relations between men and women, regardless of their political opinions or social class. Most of the women, on the other hand, emphasize the good fortune they feel is theirs for living in an era of women's emancipation. Even if a majority of these women do not question their primary responsibility as wife and mother, their testimony is accompanied by a strong claim to the right to have access to higher learning and worthwhile employment. They frequently speak of the unbearable contradictions of their situation, torn between the will to be good wives and mothers, the responsibilities that weigh them down, and their desire for emancipation.

Because of this difference in perception, Giroud decides to present the letters from men separately, and differently, than those from women: the men are divided according to the social class of their author and, secondarily, according to his political leanings; for the women, on the other hand, marital status prevails, followed by salaried employment. We can, of course, view this presentation as a result of Giroud's presuppositions, but the content of the letters shows a distinct difference: most of the men speak at length about political and philosophical problems and have little to say about more concrete or personal problems, about which the women, on the other hand, express themselves at greater length, in particular because the difficulties of everyday life (the housing crisis, cost of living, child care) weigh essentially on their shoulders, and because they have personal aspirations whose realization seems to them to be out of reach.

These letters suggest that the new generation, for the most part, internalizes the role assigned to women to be that of maternity and the private sphere, but in a very different way according to gender: upper-class men express their attachment to that gender division of roles with a tranquil egoism; men from the lower classes aspire to it as the inaccessible ideal of having a salary large enough to be able to care for their wife and children. Women, on the other hand, regardless of their social origins and unlike the preceding generation of women, want access, like men, to a good job. But they acknowledge that this desire is nearly incompatible with their wish to raise their children, as well as with their inability to control the spacing of children's births, an anxiety that can be read between the lines of the letters from married women (in the France of the 1950s and 1960s, the state politics of increasing the birth rate meant the allocation of a unique salary and the outlawing of contraception and abortion).

Despite women's desire to marry, marriage is in fact lived by them as a radical loss of liberty, or of the possibility of an individual destiny. Not a single man, on the other hand, lives marriage in that way. The family is described by many men as a refuge against professional, social, or political frustrations, in a period perceived as particularly calamitous (the war in Algeria, negligence on the part of politicians, difficult living conditions).

On the subject of men, Françoise Giroud remarks that "in general, the fear is expressed by the whole New Wave generation that women would become more masculine because they are working and becoming interested in men's professions, that they would cease to be 'real women'" (322). This statement, of course, confirms the fact that this generation was confronted with the necessity of redefining gender relations, a process that would be far from painless.

The Emergence of Women in Mass Culture

What Françoise Giroud called the New Wave brought together the emergence of a new generation and the era of the mass media. Nothing shows this more clearly than the success of the 1954 paperback novel Bonjour tristesse by Françoise Sagan, then eighteen years old, and the "B.B. phenomenon" that resulted in the wake of the 1956 release of Et Dieu créa la femme. Several years later, the triumph of the 45 rpm recordings of "yéyé" songs made female idols out of young singers like Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, the immortal voice behind "Tous les garçons et les filles de mon age."

Film, the popular press, paperback books, records, and television were all part of manufacturing the New Wave and were carried along by it, along with female figures whose number and importance are unprecedented. These figures actualize a demand for liberty that scandalized the earlier generation, because it questioned the double standard of the bourgeois morality that imposes on "well-brought-up" girls the qualities of reserve, docility, and virginity until marriage while at the same time their future husbands are free to "sow their wild oats" before marrying.

Literature of the 1950s is also marked by the scandalous arrival of novels written by young women that recount with an unprecedented freedom the love affairs and sexual adventures of their young heroines: Françoise Mallet-Joris, in Les Remparts de Béguines (1951), recounts the sexual initiation of a very young girl to homosexuality; Françoise Sagan, in Bonjour tristesse (1954), coldly narrates the murderous jealousy of a young girl toward her father's mistress; Christiane Rochefort, in Le Repos du guerrier (1958), associates the discovery of physical pleasure with a humiliating sexual dependence that is daringly acknowledged by the heroine. These three novels of formation of the feminine describe in a lucid and often raw manner the contradictions of sexual and amorous emancipation for "modern" young women who are nevertheless strongly marked by ancestral mechanisms of domination. They also make clear, through heroines completely free of any feeling of guilt, the unbridgeable divide that separates the generations.

This new generation created scandal, and it would be stigmatized in particular by a director from the earlier generation, Marcel Carné, in his film Les Tricheurs-in which a young woman, Mic, played by Pascale Petit, expresses the "reasonless revolt" of the new generation. Based on a screenplay by Jacques Sigurd, the film came in fifth in box office receipts for the 1958-59 season, with five million spectators, and it won the Grand Prix du cinéma for 1958 before being named "the best French film of the year" by a referendum organized by Cinémonde and Le Figaro. In October 1958, L'Express devoted a special issue to the film, as well as to the social problems it excited. Centered, according to its director, on the inability of young people to commit themselves emotionally, the film is built around the narrative flashback of a young man (Jacques Charrier) after the death of the young woman he loved. But it gives the viewer a privileged access to the point of view of the young woman, whose first name, Mic, sounds very masculine, and whose malaise evokes the difficulties faced by young women of the new generation in constructing their identity outside of the traditional norms of femininity. Kristin Ross (1995, 54-55) quotes the character's remark that she "wouldn't mind dying like [James] Dean: young, and at great speed," thus identifying, despite the gender difference, with "the mutinous but self-reliant teenager" that Dean incarnated. Mic decides to acquire, by any means possible, "an extraordinary car," a white Jaguar. "When I was your age," her brother remarks, "girls were interested in dresses." "Not since the two wars," Mic retorts. The film ends with her suicide, which is whitewashed as a car accident.

For Edward Turk, "Les Tricheurs's success was in some measure responsible for the ease with which ninety-seven novice directors managed to make their feature débuts between 1958 and 1962. Like the most popular New Wave productions, Les Tricheurs's concern was youth. Its treatment of sex was explicit" (1989, 401). A little further on, Turk adds that the movie "steadily stigmatizes hedonism and exalts the wholesomeness associated with hard labor and monogamy, as epitomized by Roger [Roland Lesaffre, Mic's mechanic brother]." The problem with the film, for Turk, is that "Carné's attitude toward his characters is essentially one of prurience and guilt-ridden voyeurism." Despite the fact that "the film-maker is unable to break with the commonplace notion that love and sexuality best entail definitive pairing and exclusivity," it is nevertheless worth noticing that the strongest incarnation of youthful anxiety in the film is that of a young woman. Carné and Sigurd seem to register the strong and active presence of girls in the new generation. It goes without saying that the construction of the female character is not without a certain ambivalence: the girl's unhappiness, the film seems to say, derives from her desire to imitate the most cynical male behavior, which conflicts with her spontaneous desire to love and to be loved. But if cynicism is in fact embodied by a young man (Laurent Terzieff), the fear of expressing one's feelings paralyzes the two main characters (Jacques Charrier and Pascale Petit) to the same extent. And yet, it is the young girl who pushes her disquiet to a tragic end.

The Male Hero of the New Wave

But in New Wave cinema, the tragic dimension of the character-the element that elicits empathy on the part of the spectator-is systematically displaced onto the male protagonist, the director's (auteur's) alter ego, even when it is a woman who dies, as in Le Petit soldat or Tirez sur le pianiste. The way that Godard uses Jean Seberg in A bout de souffle, for example, is emblematic of these contradictions. The young American actress had just become famous for her role in Preminger's Bonjour tristesse (1958), based on Sagan's novel. She is both the heroine and the narrator of Preminger's film, in which she is associated with a white American convertible, the emblem of her happy complicity with her father. Godard managed to hire Seberg for his first full-length film (thanks to help from Chabrol and Truffaut), but in this film the actress lost the central role she had in Bonjour tristesse and became instead the object of an amorous fixation of the hero, played by Belmondo. We might say that Godard's film puts the female character imagined by Sagan back in the traditional place allotted to women in Western culture: not the subject of the history and the narrative, but the object of the male subject's love and/or hatred. The signification of the "borrowing" of the young actress from Preminger is obviously over-determined, since it also has to do with Godard's relationship to American cinema. But in the French cultural context, this reaffirmation of male domination by way of fiction is not neutral; by giving the role of Patricia to Jean Seberg, Godard expresses not only the erotic impact that American actresses had on the young Cahiers du cinéma critics (de Baecque 1998), and more generally on young men of his generation, but also a fascination and hostility for the young independent women that Françoise Sagan had brought to life so successfully in 1954.

It is not just the emblem of the white American convertible that became the object of a masculine reappropriation. Ross (1995) maintains that the movement's exhilaration, which seized both the (male) characters and the camera in New Wave cinema, is expressed above all through the experience of driving in a car as a suspended time in which past and future are joined. In the 1950s and 1960s, mobility was an economic imperative and the car permitted the individual's availability that is the basis for free-market ideology. The car is thus the metaphorical "vehicle" for this new subjectivity. But the popular press was busy showing that the car is "man's friend," while "women's friends," on the other hand, were household appliances. In Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, written by Roger Nimier (who was killed at the wheel of his own car shortly after the release of the film), the American convertible is an essential element in the seduction of Maurice Ronet-as well as the source of all his troubles. The opening sequence of A bout de souffle, in which Michel Poiccard (Belmondo) drives across France in a stolen American convertible, dramatizes the "only car on the road" feeling of ubiquity and speed as the mark of an independent spirit that manifests itself, among other ways, in Poiccard's disdain for "ugly" female hitchhikers. The hero steals this kind of car twice in the film, and he associates it mentally or concretely with his ability to seduce Patricia, the American (Seberg). As Ross states: "In the opening sequences of Jacques Demy's 1960 film Lola, the camera hugs the luxurious movement of the massive white American convertible-referred to by all the characters who see it as a 'voiture de rêve,' driven by a kind of white knight" (1995, 30). Cinema produces a masculine myth out of the aura surrounding the (American) car, at the same time that the automobile becomes everyday in its popular French version, with a good family-man father at the wheel. Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une femme (1966) helped manage to popularize the viril eroticism of the sports car (a Ford Mustang).


Excerpted from Masculine Singular by Geneviève Sellier Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: The Aesthetic Doxa on the New Wave     1
A New Generation Marked by the Emergence of Women     11
Cinephilia in the 1950s     22
Auteur Cinema: An Affair of State     34
Contrasting Receptions     41
The Precursors     70
Between Romanticism and Modernism     95
Nostalgia for a Heroic Masculinity     128
The Women of the New Wave: Between Modern and Archaic     145
Jeanne Moreau: Star of the New Wave and Icon of Modernity     184
Brigitte Bardot and the New Wave: An Ambivalent Relationship     199
The Independent Filmmakers of the Left Bank: A "Feminist" Alternative?     210
Conclusion: The New Wave's Legacy: "Auteur Cinema"     221
Box Office Results     225
The Press     227
Notes     231
Bibliography     245
Index     253

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