A Book Review by Margaret C. Flinn.
In 2004, Michael Temple and Michael Witt published the first edition of The French Cinema Book (Palgrave/BFI, 2018) – an extremely welcome volume that succeeded in forcefully reframing the project of introducing the history of French cinema in a single volume. Now, 14 years later, Temple and Witt have returned with a second edition, although “second edition” is somewhat misleading. New editions rarely comprise such a radically reworking and expansion as this – Temple and Witt’s claim that “It is essentially a new book” (xv) does not at all overstate the case. The new edition is first and foremost an expansion: the original volume had 21 individual chapters while the new has 37. But some of the original chapters have been replaced and many of the returning chapters have been substantially altered. Temple and Witt have also made a significant change by altering the chronological periods addressed by the different parts of the book. Where the original text had three parts that broke cinema’s long century into 1890-1930, 1930-1960, and 1960-2004, the new one has four parts that cover 1890-1920, 1920-1950, 1950-1980, and 1980-present (2018). What the new book maintains is the structural breakdown such that essays address one of each of the following areas of approach: people, business, technology, forms, representations, spectators, and debates. All of these areas are covered in each of the book’s chronological parts. However, where the original had only a single essay for each category, the new book allows for multiple contributions under “forms” and “representations” for all of the time periods except 1890-1920. This was a very wise decision, because it allows for more nuanced considerations of important issues. Thirty-year slices of time are still quite long – having multiple “forms” and “representations” chapters means that the new book has more space to engage questions such as gender, feminism, colonialism, ethnic minority representation, and queer visibility, as well as permitting decidedly more discussion of avant-garde/experimental and documentary filmmaking (as opposed to just mainstream, popular, and art cinema fiction filmmaking, although this type of film production remains the concern of the majority of chapters, and neither the history nor the current golden age of animation makes an appearance).
Temple and Witt’s “basic theoretical model” of seven different categories or approaches is motivated by three beliefs about what French cinema is (xvi). They believe “that French cinema should be appreciated in its full historical range,” “that French cinema is a diverse ecology of forms and practices,” and “that knowledge of French cinema should not be restricted to materials readily available in subtitled versions, whether in the context of teaching or research” (xvi-xvii). The book’s strict adherence to these beliefs will make it (like its predecessor) somewhat demanding to teach with, as it will require finesse on the part of the instructor to help students understand how to read and how to engage with what they have read – far more than single-author narrative histories do. Yet each of the essays is a jewel of erudition and insight, as well as a masterpiece of synthesis – accurately encapsulating even a single facet of 30 years of a national film history in 10-15 pages is quite a feat and rarely does one see 350ish pages crammed with so many discrete bits of information. While each author’s writing is stylistically clear, one fair reproach is that some of the chapters contain rather a lot of long lists, or indeed have a tendency to read like lists. The density of each essay means that the book lends itself to selective reading/assignment – fortunately, at a relatively student-friendly list price of 22,99 euros for the ebook and 31,02 euros for the paperback, The French Cinema Book could reasonably be required for purchase in conjunction with another book or books for a single course even if one were not to assign every chapter as required reading. The newly expanded edition makes this approach much more feasible for faculty, because the greater number of essays on forms and representations makes it more likely that “enough” essays will align with the preoccupations/focus of a given course and instructor. But like the first edition, the new edition is less of a textbook, although it presents itself as such, and more of a resource or reference work. Hard-core French cinephiles, master’s or doctoral candidates, and scholars embarking on new research will find the book to give an excellent “lay of the land,” whether read in whole or in part. Indeed, extensive bibliography (both as “Works Cited” and “Further Reading”) and a back matter section dedicated to online resources are helpful tools for students and researchers. The reader should be forewarned that this is the kind of book that requires either a great deal of preexisting knowledge or a very high level of motivation and equally high tolerance of “not knowing” or immediately “getting” all of the things being talked about in order to appreciate or enjoy, but with that caveat, the book is highly recommended.
Margaret C. Flinn is Associate Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University, where she researches and teaches on French and Francophone cinemas. She is the author of The Social Architecture of French Cinema, 1929-39 (Liverpool University Press, 2014). Her current book project focuses on the documentary in French cinema, in relation to globalization and technological change.