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The Battle of the Sexes

in french cinema, 1930 1956

Nol Burch and Genevive Sellier


Translated by Peter Graham

The Battle of the Sexes


Nol Burch and Genevive Sellier
Translated by Peter Graham

in French Cinema, 19301956

Duke University Press


Durham and London 2014

Translation 2014 Duke University Press All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America on acid- free paper Designed by Kristina Kachele Typeset in Garamond Premier Pro by Tseng Information Systems, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Burch, Nol, 1932 [Drle de guerre des sexes du cinma franais, 19301956. English] The battle of the sexes in French cinema, 19301956 / Nol Burch and Genevive Sellier ; translated by Peter Graham. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. isbn 978-0-8223-5547-2 (cloth : alk. paper) isbn 978-0-8223-5561-8 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Man-woman relationships in motion pictures.2. Motion pictures FranceHistory20th century.I. Sellier, Genevive.II. Burch, Nol, 1932Drle de guerre des sexes du cinma franais, 19301956. Translation of:III. Title. pn1995.9.m27b8713 2013 791.4309440904dc232013018959

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Contents
Introduction1 Part I. The Prewar Period, 19301939 Chapter 1. Panorama of a Cine- Family Romance15 Film Analyses54 Part II. The German Occupation, 19401944: Fathers Take a Backseat Chapter 2. Castrated Fathers91 Chapter 3. Women in the Service of the Patriarchy103 Chapter 4. Misogyny Lingers On114 Chapter 5. Absent Men, Fleeing Men125 Chapter 6. Women Take Control of Their Destiny133 Chapter 7. The Zazou Film: A Dissident Style during the Occupation140 Chapter 8. A Woman Faced with Her Desire150 Chapter 9. Gentle Male Figures and New Fathers164 Film Analyses180 Part III. The Postwar Period, 19451956: Settling of Scores Chapter 10. The Destabilizing Effects of the Liberation237 Chapter 11. Restoring the Patriarchal Order269 Film Analyses305 Conclusion341 References347 Index357

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Introduction

Although neither of the authors of this book is a trained historian, historical research of the kind that has emerged in France over the past fifty years or so, and in particular the history of representations, no doubt sparked our desire to approach film analysis from a fresh angle. This required a considerable change of course on our part in view of the fact that the disciplines that nurture film studies in France, quite apart from the traditional areas of aesthetics and art history, have, since Christian Metzs key contribution to the debate, been linguistics and psychoanalysis. Not that the history of the cinema has been unexplored territory in France: ever since Georges Sadouls first comprehensive surveys of the subject, many researchers have focused their attention on an art which, although only just over a century old, has not always been very accessible. But among the multitude of angles from which such a protean object as the cinema can be approachedas both a technique, a language, an industry, a business, an art, a popular culture, an institution, and an instrument of propagandawe feel that French researchers have so far failed to take full advantage of films potential as an ideal area in which to study the history of representations. This can perhaps be explained by the difficulty that film specialists and history specialists have in communicating with each other, the former often being

Introduction

enthusiastic cinephiles and too fixated on their subject of study (and love!) to be able or willing to use it as a way of achieving another end, the latter tending to instrumentalize the cinema as just one of several sources and to overlook its relative autonomy. Even the most pertinent historical work from our point of view (Ferro 1977/1988; Garon 1984) articulates its argument around a noncinematic factor (a political one in this case): films serve to gauge the impact of a political ideology on civil society or to confirm the existence of an ideology that opposes a given political regime. What we attempt to articulate here is an argument based on the films themselves. The cinema, a collective cultural product in the way it is both produced and consumed, is probably an ideal medium for the expression of a social imaginary. But it does nevertheless also constitute a language in its own right, whose highly complex and very diverse codes (mimesis, narrative, fiction, characters, lighting, sets, spectacle, music, dialogue, and so on) require a specific approach of the kind that the art historian Pierre Francastel wanted to see applied to painting. Our book is the result of our wish to combine certain aspects of contemporary historical research with our so- called inside knowledge of the cinema as an object and of the specific tools that have been developed to analyze it. Among the approaches that have changed the way we look at films, mention should also be made of the fairly recent discipline of cultural studies, developed chiefly in English-speaking countries, which seeks to understand the symbolic productions of a given society without reference to the evaluation grid imposed by the dominant culture. In France, Pierre Bourdieus (1979/1984) revolutionary approach to the sociology of culture adopted similar criteria, but Frances elitist view of culture is so pervasive that it acts as a hindrance to that kind of historical research, which is difficult to find anywhere except in the work of a historian like Pascal Ory (1989). In the field of cinema, in particular, the relatively recent strugglewhich has been crowned with success in Franceto get the cultural legitimacy of the cinema recognized by both the intelligentsia and official cultural institutions has had the effect of encouraging the setting up of a pantheon of great directors at the expense of a more modern (and in some ways more relevant) approach to cinema as a collective cultural production. This is the approach we have adopted in our book. Finally, the most recent but by no means least important ramification of the New Historythe history of women, or rather the history of gender relationshas begun to emerge in France with the five volumes of Georges Duby
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Introduction

and Michelle Perrots Histoire des femmes en occident (1991), whose scientific value is enhanced by the authors constant concern to weave together the material and symbolic dimensions of male domination of women that forms the basis of our societies. The historical precision of that collective work, which is based on the premise that sexual identities are not essences but relationships and differentiation processes inherent in a given society and period, lent a useful extra dimension to the work of English- speaking historians particularly in the field of gender studieswhich, while substantial, was all too often sub specie aeternitatis. Moreover most of those same historians work on cinematic representations of gender was chiefly, if not exclusively, concerned with U.S. cinema. It fairly soon became clear to us that, ever since Laura Mulveys (1975/1981) trailblazing essay, any analysis aimed at understanding the symbolic function of film and of its spectator as regards sexual relationships could not be applied directly to French cinema, for reasons that have precisely to do with history in general and cultural history in particular. We do, then, distance ourselves from the principal feminist theories in English-speaking countries insofar as we are unwilling and unable to lock ourselves into the notion that any analysis of representations of gender relations would be of interest only to women endowed with sexual awareness (an argument implicit in Modleski [1988]). Just as the French cinema continues to be aimed at spectators of both sexes without discriminating between them, we feel that gender relations concern men just as much as they do women. Equally, we have not followed the practice of most American feminists, who ignore the issue of class, for we feel that in the cinema of every period and in every culture that issue is profoundly interconnected with the issue of gender. In the end, while we would like our work to be seen as part of the general framework of the struggle for sexual equality, we regard as of secondary importance the theoretical construction of a female spectator, which can be used as a basis for reassessing movies against the grain, so to speak, in other words, without paying any attention to a films historical and social environment (Petro 1989; and, from a critical viewpoint, Williams 1988). We are more interested in identifying and understanding the generally conflicting and contradictory importance of gender relations at a given period, particularly since, in a country like France during the period under study, the spectators position is resolutely male, in that the great majority of women, at least up until the 1970s, had internalized patriarchal values along with the secular and libertine connotations peculiar to France (Fraisse 1992; Rosanvallon 1993; Viennot 1995). Our decision to focus on the period 193056 was motivated by various fac3

Introduction

tors. First, as can be seen from publishers catalogues, university degree courses, and art- house programs, most cinephiles and teachers of film studies are not overly familiar with French movies made before the New Wave arrived on the scene at the beginning of the 1960s and tend to look down on them, apart from a handful of established masterpieces. This can easily be explained by the history of film appreciation in France and in particular by the role played by Les Cahiers du cinma, in whose pages were elaborated the theories of the future New Wave filmmakers who came to prominence at the end of the 1950s by elbowing aside the previous generation. But before preNew Wave movies become totally incomprehensible once cultural benchmarks disappear, it is perhaps high time to rescue from oblivion those twenty- six years of French cinema, from the beginning of the talkies to the rise of the New Wavea period notable in France for enjoying the highest cinema attendances and drawing on the widest social spectrum of filmgoers. From the end of the 1950s on, government support for high- quality cinema brought about a two- tiered system, auteur cinema and commercial cinema, a situation that persists today for better or for worse. Irrespective of the changing tastes that have, over the past forty years or so, led cinephiles to prefer Hollywood classics to French films over the same period, we felt it legitimate for us to look back over that production so as to understand its place, its function, and its significance in French society of the time. More crucially our intention was to focus on our recent past, certainly more useful than a study of Hollywood movies in helping us to understand where it is that we come from. The choice of that period also seemed to us to be the right one for historical reasons: France was then going through the darkest and most traumatic years in its recent history; during the 1930s violent political clashes took place in an atmosphere of mounting ideological confusion; they were followed by the phoney war, resulting in military defeat and the Dbcle, an unprecedented political and human disaster, which in turn led to four years of German occupation with its attendant miseries, suffering, and humiliation; finally came the Liberation, which marked both a deliverance and the end of an epoch, one in which France could still claim to be a great world power. That situation was confirmed by Frances inability to escape the mechanism of the cold war, with the well- known impact it had on domestic politics. Ten years later, economic prosperity ushered in a new era, that of modernity and the consumer society. The Brigitte Bardot bombshell burst on the scene in 1956, the point at which we bring our study to a close. Halfway through that period came the four years of the Occupation, which
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Introduction

we have studied more particularly because, at a time when the French were going through the most painful ordeal in their history, the cinema occupied a very prominent place: along with sport, it was the only mass leisure activity that was authorized by the authorities and became, through the device of fiction, an outlet and an ideal means of expression for a society where the press and publishing were gagged by the dual censorship of Vichy and the German occupying forces. We were of the opinion that it was legitimate for us to delve more deeply into the film production of the time, which had hitherto been dismissed by film historians as merely a duller continuation of the cinema of the 1930s ( Jeancolas 1983). It was, on the contrary, on the basis of the abrupt change we noted between cinematic representation before the war and during the Occupation that we began to construct our argument, which seemed to be borne out by an equally marked shift that emerged in postwar cinema. Our definition of the corpus of movies we examined was geared to cultural history rather than a simple love of the cinema. So we watched, in the case of the 194044 period, a very large proportion of Frances output (180 movies out of the 220 produced), while in the case of the 1930s and the postwar period we focused on a very broad sample of films that was representative of every genre and of every economic and cultural level, initially leaving aside all qualitative criteria, whether those of the time or later. Indeed as we progressed in our research, we felt the need to redefine those qualitative criteria, with the result that what we regarded as the best films were those that succeeded in dealing with the issues that were to be found in all films produced during that period in a sufficiently complex way to bring out its conflicts and contradictions, regardless of stereotypes. These movies were often the same as those in the film buffs pantheon, but we approached them in a different way, which required us to eschew praise of their timeless beauty as created by some solitary genius and to demonstrate their extraordinarily acute approach to the problems of the time. As a result, certain other movies usually left out of the pantheon, often because they were not the work of established auteurs, came to be seen as more important. As regards our choice of the central issue, it arose initially from our desire to take into account the specificity of the cinema, and of French cinema in particular, whose fictional material derives extensively from interpersonal relations between men and women and/or between people of the same sex. In other words, an analysis of cinematic representations of gender relations as a particular expression of a social imaginary enabled us both to respect the relative autonomy of our subject (fictional films do not touch much on politics in
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Introduction

the strict sense of the term) and to avoid restricting ourselves to the myth of a timeless art devoted to the worship of beauty. It was also the work of Ginette Vincendeau, a British- based French researcher, that supplied us with the starting point for our undertaking. In addition to her remarkable analyses of the Jean Gabin myth (1985; Gauteur and Vincendeau 1993), her main contribution to our understanding of French cinema in the 1930s arose from her observation of the way the image of an incestuous couple recurred in movies produced between the beginning of the talkies and the Dbcle of 1940 (1989). And we ourselves were able to verify that such movies typically portray a middle- aged man who enters into a more or less explicitly amorous relationship with a very young woman. As Vincendeau suggests, this pattern was probably overdetermined by factors that obtained at the time, such as the fact that the leading male stars were then elderly and met the requirements of the talkies because they had a background in the theater, where the presence of rather elderly young leads was considered quite normal. Such relationships were all the more unremarkable because bourgeois values encouraged marriage along those lines, particularly after the slaughter of the 191418 war (McMillan 1981). That pattern also signified, more powerfully than any other, the prerogatives of the father, whose power over women was indistinguishable from his power over children and, like French common law (the Napoleonic Code), maintained them in the same state of submission. But to describe that narrative pattern as Oedipal, as Vincendeau does, runs the risk of producing a theoretical misinterpretation. We are happier with the other formulation she proposes: an incestuous pattern. Apart from a handful of movies labeled realist, whether or not carrying the additional epithet poetic, in which Jean Gabin usually has to face up to a domineering unworthy father, the most characteristic feature of those prewar films is that the subject of the fantasy is never Oedipus or Electra (the female child, according to the young Sigmund Freud), but the father as representative of the Law who tries to oust the son in order to appropriate the daughter. The term incest also makes it possible to tie that film theme in with a whole psychosocial paradigm in real life that extended well beyond arranged marriages between older men and young women, since sexual abuse of girls by men in a position of power over them is not just what a psychoanalyst might describe as a fantasy, as Nancy Huston (1979) and Marie- Victoire Louis (1994) have usefully pointed out. Now if the origin of that pattern of the incestuous couple is to be seen as arising not from a universal, hence innocent, psychical phase of human ontogenesis (if Freud is to be believed) but from a hidden yet very real vio6

Introduction

lence in society, its widespread occurrence in the films of that decade (almost a third of all movies) begins to make sense. The sexual self- confidence of such portly Lotharios as Raimu, Harry Baur, Jules Berry, and Victor Francen, combined with the submissiveness of young women whose faces and names were so quickly forgotten, can be interpreted as a denial of the crumbling patriarchal edifice, a denial symptomatic of a fear of changes already under way (Sohn 1991/1994). In the study of gender relations, it is commonplace to note that men as a whole, at all times and in all places, have displayed fear and mistrust of the female sex (Dinnerstein 1978). Given that context, under the particularly oppressive and outmoded patriarchy of 1930s France (McMillan 1981), such images of sexual submission by the child- woman were taken for granted and inevitably prompted some left- wing filmmakers to include examples of rebellion against the father. To be more specific, who was responsible for the fear of women that features in those films? Frenchmen (a facile generalization much loved by feminist writers)? French petit bourgeois? French intellectuals? The male community of filmmakers (in the broadest sense) and their boulevardier entourage? At the stage we have so far reached in our work, only this last hypothesis seems to us to be indisputable. Or could it be that we are looking at a displacement of more directly political fears toward the register of gender relations, which in that case would be a smokescreen: fear of war, fear of the loss of national identity, fear of the Other? That is the hypothesis favored by French film historians when they observe a thematic regularity in the cinematic representation of relations between generations and between the sexes (Bertin-Maghit 1989; Garon 1984; de La Bretque 1977). However that may be, such representations also probably reflect a fear of real womena fear exacerbated by modest social progress and the very reasonable demands of the feminist organizations of the time (Bard 1995). These same issues take on a completely different complexion in the light of the startling revelations that emerged from our close examination of four- fifths of French films produced between 1940 and 1944 under the German Occupation and the rule of the Vichy government. What we see from start to finish during that period is a veritable supplanting of the Law of the Father by a fantasized Law of the Mother. This reversal, which is to be found in almost all movies of the period, can be attributed, as we ourselves are tempted to do, to the trauma of defeat and the discredit that attached to a patriarchy closely associated with the Third Republic and its routed chiefs of staff. This hypothesis tends to substantiate, much more even than the incestuous pattern of the
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Introduction

prewar period, the existence of a male social imaginary as well as its surprising changeability: fear and hatred of women vanished in no time at all (we noted that the change took place in a matter of months) and were replaced either by a rigid female figure on a pedestal, like some monument to discredited masculinity (an attitude typical of the traditionalist right and its mouthpiece, the right- thinking Catholic press), or by a dynamic figure that foreshadowed a future renaissance (a left-wing stance, as, for example, in Louis Aragons novel Aurlien of 1944). That male social imaginary in a state of crisis, which can be detected in the work of the great majority of male directors, has its left- wing and its right- wing versions (which comes as no surprise, given that we are talking about France, where this division is traditional). But how can one explain why so many movies are capable of being interpreted in various ways (Le Ciel est vous [The Woman Who Dared ], 1944, is the most celebrated example) and do not contrast as obviously with one another as the unworthy fathers of poetic realism did with the complacent fathers of the boulevard films or Marcel Pagnols Provence? Pierre Laborie (1990) notes that the prevailing atmosphere during the prewar period in France was one of political and ideological confusion. Yves Chalas (1985) argues that the Dbcle and the Occupation caused people in all sections of societyfrom Resistants to collaborators, from right- wing Vichyites (supporters of Charles Maurras, traditionalist Catholics) to left- wing Vichyites (followers of Paul Faure, then leader of the Socialist Party) and even apolitical believers in a wait- and- see policyto yearn vaguely for something else, which he describes as a transcendence of liberal capitalism. Let us look a little more closely at the argumentadmittedly a controversial onethat some progressive aspirations emerged under Vichy. The theme of regeneration through women that can be found in the totality of film production at the time is comparable to the celebrated return to the land advocated by Philippe Ptain. Grard Miller (1975) notes that this theme was initially launched by the exodus of June 1940, when French living in the north, east, and Paris region turned their back on the modern, urban, and industrial society that had been the cause of upheavals since 1936 and had failed to protect them against the invading Germans, and sought refuge in the agricultural south, which also represented a retreat into the past. Christian Faure (1989) points out that, independently of Ptains propaganda, the Vichyite desire to promote the farming world resulted in the creation of a rural French ethnography (the opening of the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions) and a major
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Introduction

documentary school, the most famous example of which was Georges Rouquiers Farrbique (which was actually made after the war but grew directly out of one of Vichys official programs). Today, now that the farming community, the landscape of France, and the quality of its farm products are under threat from the increasingly absurd principles of liberal capitalism, we can take a more dialectical view of that phenomenon: the aspirations embodied in France under Vichy both by the official theme of upgrading rural life and by the activities fostered by that promotion, can be seen to anticipate certain aspects of present- day ecology. In that light, it becomes easier to see that it is a mistake to describe the ideological ambiguity that informed civil society, at least during the first two years of the Vichy government, in solely pejorative terms. Now the same is true of the aspirations reflected, for example, in the setting up of schools for women cadres, modeled after the celebrated Ecole dUriage for men, whose stated aim was to rectify the serious deficiencies of the Third Republic regarding the civic and social education of the national communitys female members. Those hopes of a greater empowerment for both sexes in society, as well as for a new relationship for couples and a new conception of fatherhood (Delumeau and Roche 1990), greatly influenced the Occupation cinema. Albert Camus, Emmanuel Bove, Jean- Paul Sartre, and Aragon were virtually the only writers at that time who exposed the male identity crisis triggered by the Defeat. However, in LEtranger, Le Pige, and Les Chemins de la libert (Aurlien, which was greatly influenced by Elsa Triolet, is a case apart), male self- doubt is accompanied by often violent misogyny, which is precisely what distinguishes these books by the literary elite from the great majority of films of the period. This difference between literature and cinema can perhaps be explained by the specific characteristics of the two artistic disciplines: the writer stands alone and is an heir to a French cultural tradition that gives pride of place to the male universe (Coquillat 1982). Although writers may be aware of the world around them, they do not write for it; they write for eternity. The collective artist that makes a movie (that is to say, both the directors team and the milieu of film professionals) has an attitude that is more receptive to the world as a result of belonging to a group, and awareness of the ephemeral nature of film (which was much greater then than it is now) meant that people making movies were working in the present for the audiences of the time. And let us not forget the commercial dimension of the cinema, which encourages the collective filmmaker, whether consciously or not, to be receptive to the Zeitgeistwhich in our view is not necessarily a bad thing.
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Introduction

However that may be, this complementarity between a male identity crisis and a regenerative view of the female is nowhere as patently obvious as in the cinema. True, in a handful of works for the theateranother collective art we find female effigies surrounded by men in a state of crisis according to a pattern similar to that of the most typical movies of the period. And Pierre Laborie (1993) has pinpointed how the Catholic press of southwest France used Joan of Arc as a symbol of unity and solidarity during the same period. The huge scale of the phenomenon in the cinema compared with its virtual absence from popular literature, for example, leaves several questions unanswered and probably touches on an area that has remained little explored up to now, at least in France: the specificity of various cultural practices, both individual and collective, in a given social formation at a given time. Taking the cinema alone, how did creators and technicians become mediators of the social imaginaryalways supposing that such an identity crisis of the sexes falls under that heading? The male identity crisis that regularly comes in the wake of a war, that supreme test of manly values (especially when it results in defeat), has begun to be investigated in the case of other periods and other nations (Theweleit 1987 89; Maugue 1987). As regards France in the 1940s, one could argue that as a result of the two national humiliations triggered by that warthe Dbcle followed by the Occupation, then the Liberation led by non-French forcesthe male identity crisis should be divided into two phases: a collapse followed by a backlash. Following two complementary trajectories, the active and independent woman of the Occupation turns into a diabolical figure (Panique [Panic], 1946), whose actions are exclusively directed against men, whereas the complacent male turns into a victim (Manges [The Cheat], 1949), as though echoing the image that the countless French prisoners of war had of themselves as they returned from their ordeal, terrified that women would no longer accept the submissive role they played before the war (Durand 1987). Film representations of the postwar period are, however, highly contradictory; in the context of a dominant atmosphere of misogyny, and at a time when Beauvoirs Le Deuxime Sexe (1949) was poised to become a best- seller of the 1950s, a number of truly feminist movies, in the modern sense of the word, were produced. Often remarkable, like Casque dor (Golden Marie, 1952), they attempted to reveal the workings of patriarchal oppression by demonstrating that it was also a burden for men. Thus more than any other means of expression, in our view, the cinema reflects the destabilization of gender relations in French society of the 1940s
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Introduction

that was triggered by political and military events. In this book we focus on their repercussions in the area of private life traditionally regarded as being governed by a different temporality (the longue dure of the history of mentalities). The sensitivity of the cinema to upheavals in the area of gender relations brought about by war and the Occupation proves, if proof were needed, how political the private sphere is. Moreover our bringing to light a layer of meanings perceptible only (for the moment) in fictional films, which account for only part of cultural output, should also demonstrate how useful it can be to approach the history of the cinema as an autonomous area capable of telling us much more about the state of our societies, provided films are no longer regarded as a mere reflection, or counterreflection, of ideas elaborated elsewhere. Our book takes the form of a triptych whose central panel consists of an overall analysis of the French cinema during the Occupation. Two side panels offer a more schematic overview of the prewar and postwar periods, each of which covers a decade. All three historical panels are accompanied by separate sections that analyze a number of moviesmany of them well known, others little knownwhose complexity we felt deserved special treatment. In each case, we try to demonstrate how the status of a masterpiece, whether or not recognized by cinephiles, derives not from some lofty isolation in the firmament of ideas and forms but from a particularly remarkable ability to bring out the contradictions of the period.
We warmly thank those who allowed us unrestricted access to their archives: Dominique Pani of the Cinmathque Franaise, Michelle Aubert and the Film Archive Department of the Centre National de la Cinmatographie, and Gabrielle Claes of the Cinmathque Royale de Belgique. In the case of prewar and postwar films, we have indicated their date of commercial release, whereas we have preferred to indicate the date when shooting began in the case of Occupation films, given the speed of events characteristic of that period and their effects on films as soon as production started.

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