The French Cinema Book is quite a read. Covering French movies and moviemaking from 1890 to 2004, it contains an astonishing amount of information. Essays by a variety of contributors are grouped together under three time periods – 1890-1930, 1930-1960 and 1960-2004. Within these groups the essays focus on key topics – People, Business, Technology, Forms, Representations, Spectators and Debates. From this, we get what the book aims to deliver: ‘an accessible, structured and innovative history’ of French cinema.
Its key line of argument is that there is so much more to French cinema than the likes of Renoir and Duvivier, the French New Wave, and Amelie. We’d all agree with that. And it’s heartening, therefore, to see editors Michael Temple and Michael Witt devote the first third of the book to French cinema before Renoir and before Duvivier, so that by the time we get to Ginette Vincendeau’s excellent, lucid analysis of classical French cinema aesthetics (Chapter 11: ‘Forms 1930-1960’) we’re already nearly halfway through (if, that is, you read the chapters in order). It’s fascinating to learn, for example, that, a quarter-century before Langlois and the Cinematheque set about immortalising the Cahiers crowd and associated cineastes, Paris in the early 1920s had CASA, the ‘Club des Amis du Septieme Art’, set up by Italian-born writer Ricciotto Canudo, and the ‘Club Francais du Cinema’, established by Leon Moussinac. These are among the personalities Richard Abel draws our attention to in the opening chapter, ‘People 1890-1930’.
There is a slight problem with this approach, though: there’s just so much information. Buy The French Cinema Book and you might never need (or want) another book on French cinema. In this respect its title is actually counter-productive. A ‘French cinema book’ would, one imagines, take the most mainstream journey through its subject – it would serve either as a first port of call or as a last word. This book is more specialist than that, for all its breadth.
And even for film students and academics, it’s surely far too dry. Every chapter is authoritative, but with so much to read here, one might wish for a little more personality in the pages. Maybe it didn’t help that my reading of it was sandwiched between two more established and disarming works – Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane and Robin Buss’s French Film Noir, both short books, partial and relatively narrow in subject matter, but both with a more dynamic command of history.
By comparison, The French Cinema Book can read sometimes like a government report. And the book’s introduction is crushingly boring. It’s not a good start. Maybe I’m expecting too much: after all, there is a wealth of information here. But don’t be surprised if your brain starts flashing ‘Overload’.