Cahiers du cinéma’s Maoist Turn and the Front Culturel Révolutionnaire

Daniel Fairfax
Goethe Universität-Frankfurt

Volume: “Cinema and Social Conflicts,” Volume 6 (2020)
Digital Object Identifier: 10.21431/Z31S3F
Keywords: , , , , , , , , ,

The French film journal Cahiers du cinéma has, since its founding by André Bazin in 1951, invariably served as a barometer of French politics, its vicissitudes reflecting those of the country as a whole. This was no more dramatically demonstrated than in the years following the May 1968 uprising, when, under the editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, Cahiers overtly aligned itself with a far-left, “gauchiste” position, which would be dominant for the next five years.1 While Comolli and Narboni’s October 1969 editorial “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” broke with the journal’s earlier political eclecticism—swaying from flirtations with the far-right to an increasingly left-wing orientation as the 1960s progressed—by affirming an avowed commitment to a Marxist-Leninist political stance that would also be decisive for their project of developing a historical materialist theory of cinema. While it is the theoretical advances made during this period—leading to notable texts such as Comolli’s “Technique et idéologie” series—the collective analysis of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), or Jean-Pierre Oudart’s writings on suture, that have ensured that the Cahiers of the Comolli and Narboni years retain a continued presence in the collective consciousness of the field of film and media studies, the more direct engagement the journal had with political activism is not only of indisputable importance for understanding the context in which such texts were produced, it is also an inestimably valuable experience for future attempts to develop a politically radical mode of film criticism.

The adoption of a clearly spelled out political “line” in Comolli and Narboni’s manifesto-style editorial did not, however, usher in a period of stability at Cahiers. Instead, between 1969 and 1973, the journal was in a constant state of flux: renouncing claims it had made in previous issues, peremptorily modifying theoretical stances it had peremptorily taken in the first place, launching disputes with other journals (notably Tel Quel, La Nouvelle Critique and Cinéthique) and then reconciling with them, and purging its ranks of those members of the team unable to keep up with the latest political turn. Paradoxically, it was the Parti communiste français (PCF) that formed the initial pole of attraction for Cahiers after 1968. While it was still nominally Marxist, and enjoyed a hegemonic position among the organized working-class in France, the party had been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most of the far left by the demobilizing role it had played during the events of May, entering into negotiations with the government rather than urging for its overthrow. At the same time, the party had become relatively open in its attitude towards artistic and philosophical questions since a landmark central committee meeting at Argenteuil in 1966, and the Cahiers critics have retrospectively insisted that the target of their collaboration was the intellectuals associated with the PCF’s cultural work (Louis Althusser, primarily, but also the critics at La Nouvelle Critique), rather than the party apparatus itself. By late 1971, however, the limitations of this attempted rapprochement with the PCF had become abundantly clear. A new trajectory was appealing: that represented by the French Maoist movement. Goaded on by the likes of Philippe Sollers and Jean-Luc Godard, who had already made spectacular conversions to “pro-Chinese” Marxism-Leninism, as well as the radicalized students they encountered while teaching classes in Parisian universities, Cahiers carried out a political volte-face that was confirmed in the editorial text “Politique et lutte idéologique de classes” in issue 234-235.2 From this point until late 1973 a Maoist political orientation dominated the journal. Even within this period, however, there were shifts in perspective and emphasis: the journal’s line became progressively rigid and more doctrinaire. As politics was “put in the command post,” less and less room was left for the kind of film theory Cahiers had been producing until then. Under the impetus of new recruit Philippe Pakradouni, their activity was instead focused on the formation of a putative “Front culturel révolutionnaire” (FCR), which was to be publicly launched at the Avignon cultural festival in August 1973. The perceived failure of this event, however, and the fear of an imminent collapse of the journal, hit the Cahiers critics quite hard. A period of soul-searching culminated in editorial control passing to Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, who, while retaining an identification with French gauchisme, steered the journal away from dogmatic Maoism and increasingly towards mainstream film criticism.

This article will focus, therefore, on Cahiers du cinéma’s Maoist period between 1971 and 1973, with a particular focus on the FCR project. A time of frenzied activity, political tergiversations and personal dramas, this phase of Cahiers’ history has tended to be looked at dismissively by historical accounts of the journal. Both Antoine de Baecque and Emilie Bickerton treat the project with a certain disdain, considering it to be a barely comprehensible aberration that was thankfully corrected in time for the journal’s demise to be averted.3 The British Film Institute’s four-volume set of English translations of Cahiers articles tellingly omits the FCR period entirely, tacitly assenting to Daney’s euphemistic statement that the jargon-laden texts written during this time “have not aged well.”4 Indeed, it is the Cahiers critics themselves who have often been most scathing about the journal’s Maoist orientation. For Pascal Bonitzer it was “a sinister era,” while for Narboni it represented an “arid, dogmatic and closed-off period”—and these two critics were among the chief proponents of the turn.5 It is undeniable that Cahiers’ Marxism-Leninism was an impasse, one in which the cinema was almost entirely abandoned as a concrete object of study and the editors turned against themselves in a series of show trials, purges and rancorous resignations. In this article, however, I will not content myself with a mere denunciation of the shortcomings of the journal’s Maoist period. Rather, I will seek out a political understanding of why this path should have been taken, and the reasons for its failure. It should be recalled that French Maoism was, albeit briefly, a significant and vibrant political movement in the early 1970s, around which gravitated some of the most charismatic figures in the student-led left, as well as a large number of intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Sollers and Godard, who all sought to prolong the emancipatory moment of the May 1968 uprisings. As this essay will show, it is thus as a part of this broader political climate that Cahiers’ turn must be understood.

Figure 1: From the Left: Jean-Pierre Oudart, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni, Jacques Aumont and Serge Daney

Source: Une partie de campagne: Les Cahiers face au film (Bernard Eisenschitz, 1969).


Breaking with the PCF

Tensions with the PCF and its associated cultural organs became apparent almost as soon as Cahiers embarked on its rapprochement with the official communist movement. While there was a concerted collaboration with La Nouvelle Critique, the PCF-aligned journal made sure to demarcate its own thinking from that of Cahiers, with the communist film critic Jean-Patrick Lebel penning a series of articles under the rubric of “Cinéma et idéologie” (later published in extended form as a book), which opposed the “ideologist” current of Cahiers and Cinéthique, and insisted on the filmic apparatus’s status as a neutral set of devices equally able to be deployed by filmmakers for a variety of political purposes.6 His texts reflected the broader skepticism within the PCF towards the “formalism” espoused by Cahiers and other avant-garde tendencies in art and culture. By this time the party had severed the tentative ties it had forged with Tel Quel, while the surrealist poet and erstwhile party loyalist Louis Aragon had also become marginalized after his vocal condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was in this context that Comolli penned his series of articles “Technique et idéologie,” framed initially as a theoretical response to Lebel. Beginning in May 1971, this refutation was confrontational but still broadly respectful. The same issue, however, saw the Cahiers editors make a cryptic reference to “eclectic social-democrats” in an interview given in Politique-Hebdo, which was later acknowledged to be a coded reference to the PCF.7 In September, a notice in Cahiers expressed outright exasperation at the “allusive quotation marks” in a Humanité-Dimanche article by Samuel Lachize praising Lebel and opposing those who “attack his book, from the ‘left’ (see Cahiers du cinéma) and from the right.”8 By November, Bonitzer upped the ante, labeling Lebel’s standpoint “anti-Marxist, idealist and reactionary,” and summing up the latter’s position with the watchword used by the Maoist movement to describe the pro-Soviet communist parties: “revisionist.”9 In light of the vitriolic disputes between the PCF and the Maoist groups at the time, which frequently broke out into acts of physical violence,10 the ramifications of Bonitzer’s vocabulary were unmistakable. From this point on, no functional relationship with the PCF or anyone aligned with it would be possible.

Of all the factors determining Cahiers’ turn towards the Maoist variant of Marxism-Leninism in the wake of its break with the PCF, perhaps the most pertinent was the political evolution of the avant-garde journal Tel Quel. In addition to the charisma of Sollers, its editor, the quarterly status as the center of gravity for literary theory in France in the 1960s, and regularly published the work of Kristeva, Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov and Jean Louis Schefer was a major factor in its attraction for Cahiers. After its own period of collaboration with the PCF, by 1970 Tel Quel was chafing against the theoretical inertia of the party’s intellectuals: its vocal calls for a “revolution of language” to match that in politics, and its defense of the formal experimentation of Comte de Lautréamont, Stéphane Mallarmé and James Joyce, were undoubtedly a mismatch for a party that still retained heavy traces of its Stalinist heritage. Combined with this tension was Sollers’ personal sinophilia and fascination with Mao Zedong: in the Winter 1970 issue he had already translated and published ten of Mao’s poems, while the Spring 1971 issue featured a lengthy treatise on the Chinese leader’s key philosophical text On Contradiction, in which Sollers claimed that Mao’s thinking represented a “considerable and completely original ‘leap forward’ in dialectical materialist theory.”11 Polemical disputes, the caustic tone of which was often pushed to parodic extremes (a quality accentuated by the insouciant rapidity with which Tel Quel shifted its targets), were a perennial feature of the literary journal, and in June 1971, the contradictions between Tel Quel and the party burst out into the open: under Sollers’ guidance, the “pro-Chinese” faction of the journal’s editorial board launched the “Mouvement de Juin ‘71” in support of the Italian communist journalist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi’s encomium to the cultural revolution, De la Chine.12 When the PCF prevented Macciocchi’s book from being sold at its annual Fête de l’Humanité in September, Sollers and his fellow editors launched a high-profile media campaign against what they claimed was an act of “anti-democratic repression.”13 The resulting position paper of the “Mouvement de Juin ‘71” set the tone for much of Tel Quel’s writing from mid-1971 until Mao’s death in 1976.14 Despite the fact that the literary journal’s flirtation with Maoism lasted far longer than that of most other French intellectual currents, its political interventions appeared at least partly to be tongue-in-cheek—as evinced by “dazibaos” daubed on the walls of the journal’s office declaring “Two conceptions of the world, two lines, two paths: Aragon or Mao Zedong? Comrades, you must choose!”15 Indeed, the jargon-heavy pronunciamentos appearing in Tel Quel at this time had a strange co-existence with avant-garde literary experiments such as Sollers’ multi-installment stream-of-consciousness text Paradis. It is even tempting—and not entirely unreasonable—to read them today as an elaborate literary satire of the textual production of the far-left.

The Cahiers critics, for their part, took Tel Quel at face value, and in the wake of the Macciocchi affair the journal promptly sided with Sollers’ quarterly.16 Suspicions about Sollers’ motives were nonetheless later aired by Bonitzer,17 while Jacques Aumont is today  unafraid to label the Tel Quel editor an “ambitious Rastignac” and a “total opportunist.”18 Narboni, by contrast, rejects such characterizations, stating “I have always admired in him that he was a good writer and above all an excellent critic,” while cautioning that “there were influences from Tel Quel on our comportment. But there was never any subordination to them.”19 In any case, Cahiers’ adoption of Maoism was far more earnest than that of Tel Quel, and they eventually severed ties on this basis.20 Whereas the Maoist adventure of Cahiers left deep, traumatic scars on its participants, Tel Quel’s renunciation of its pro-PRC position was carried out with casual swiftness, its Maoism easily forgotten. Shortly after Mao’s death, a brief notice in the Winter 1976 issue proclaimed “if Tel Quel indeed tried, for a while, to inform public opinion on China, above all to oppose the systematic deformations of the PCF, such is not the case today.”21

On a political level, Cahiers’ ties with Tel Quel were most apparent in the dispute with Positif in early 1971 and, later that year, the two communiqués connected with Cahiers’ presence at a festival of “free cinema” held in the Italian resort town of Porretta-Terme. The first, which served as an introductory text to the screening series programmed by Cahiers, clarified the journal’s understanding of the cinema/politics duality in light of Althusser’s theory of the “Ideological State Apparatus” (ISA).22 Following the philosopher, the Cahiers editors understood the cinema as a “link” in the ISAs, which represented both “a stake and a locus of the class struggle,” and as being capable of absorbing progressive themes without putting the dominance of bourgeois ideology into question.23 And yet formal disruption alone was, in their view, an insufficient criterion for the “work of ideological subversion and deconstruction required by the historical moment in which we live.”24 Rather, in a line of thought that responded to some of the arguments left open in “Cinéma/idéologie/critique,” the Cahiers editors sought to dialecticize the form/content distinction by asserting that the ideological work of film can find itself displaced onto its apparently formal machinery. Hence, “what finds itself determined as ‘formal’ is not the external envelope, or the ‘expression,’ of which the ideological (or political) ‘content’ would be what is ‘expressed,’ the intentional kernel. What is presented as ‘formal’ is thoroughly ideological, and thus has secondary political effects.”25 Cahiers cautions, however, that these political effects may not take hold immediately. The ideological struggle, as opposed to the political struggle, was “long-term work” requiring an approach to filmmaking—such as that to be found in the work of Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and Nagisa Oshima—that “interrogates within its own production, in its very texture, the ideological role of the chain of images/sounds, playing with them dialectically.”26

The second text, signed by Comolli, Narboni and Bonitzer and read out at Porretta-Terme on October 9, 1971, conclusively signaled the journal’s alignment with the French Maoist movement. Here, the Cahiers editors defended their participation in an “event placed under the sign of the dubious, un-worked out notion of ‘political cinema,’” by differentiating themselves from the “eclecticism” otherwise prevailing in these discussions.27 Positif, Cinéma 71 and Lebel were mercilessly attacked. Cinéthique was critiqued for its dogmatism, but, in a gesture of reconciliation, deemed to be capable of potential collaboration due to its own adherence to Marxism-Leninism. The political transformation of Cahiers was made clear in the text’s final paragraph, which spoke in faultless Maoist jargon of “the Marxist and Leninist principle, taken up and developed in practice and theory by the Chinese Communist Party (which has been applied to great effect in the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution) of placing politics in the command post.”28


Maoism in Theory

The public statement read out at Porretta-Terme thus openly avowed Cahiers’ new politics, which governed the journal’s activity up to the summer of 1973, a period of nearly two years. Beyond the aforementioned influence of Tel Quel within the sphere of French literary culture, the attraction of Maoism was determined by two political phenomena. The first, of course, was the Cultural Revolution in China, which took place between 1966 and 1976. Widely viewed today as an unmitigated human catastrophe, the GRCPC (as it came to be known on the pages of Cahiers) was in fact a complex phenomenon whose legacy remains open to dispute. At the behest of Mao and (until his suspicious death in 1971) Lin Biao, students and workers rose up to overthrow what the Chinese leader claimed was an ossified bureaucratic caste intent on the restoration of capitalism. The early stages of the cultural revolution, in particular, saw an outpouring of emancipatory energy and experimentation in social organization on a mass-scale (such as the establishment of a workers commune in Shanghai, explicitly modeled on the Paris commune of 1871). But the cultural revolution also gave rise to large-scale social disorder, and was used as a tool of repression against Mao’s political rivals and, more broadly, all those seen to represent the old order. Educational and health standards took a backwards step during this period, and, while a concrete number is difficult to establish, the toll of those imprisoned, tortured and killed during the time of the cultural revolution probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands.29

In valorizing the notion of revolutionary social upheaval, Maoism nonetheless represented an appealing alternative to the sclerosis of Soviet communism for the international left, and gave rise to mass parties in Third World countries such as Nepal, India, Peru and the Philippines, as well as smaller groupings in certain European nations such as, Italy, France and Belgium. In the case of France, at its height the Maoist movement attracted several thousand activists—mostly young, highly educated and from bourgeois backgrounds—into a large number of often ephemeral groupuscules, which coalesced around two main tendencies. The first, represented chiefly by the Parti communiste français (marxiste-léniniste) (PCFM-L), was a split-off group from the PCF, and developed a more dogmatic, Stalinized variant of Maoism. The latter wing, by contrast, grew out of the remnants of the Union des jeunesses communistes (marxistes-léninistes), a circle of Parisian students grouped around Althusser which had dissolved in 1968, and gave rise to youthful organizations such as the Prolétaire ligne rouge (PLR), Alain Badiou’s “theoreticist” Union des communistes de France (marxistes-léninistes) (UCFM-L) and two “Mao-Spontex” (spontaneist) groupings, the anarchist-leaning Vive la révolution! (VLR, which evaporated in 1971) and, most prominently, the Gauche prolétarienne (GP). When the GP was banned by the Gaullist state in May 1970, selling its newspaper La Cause du peuple became a badge of honor for left-leaning intellectuals such as Sartre, Lanzmann, Godard and Truffaut.30 The Mao-Spontex current reached a zenith of activity in the period between 1970 and 1972, but in spite of its high media profile and the efforts of militants to “implant” themselves in factories, French Maoism had virtually no presence among the country’s industrial working-class.31

Cahiers, however, was substantially alienated from both of these political contexts. As far as Mao’s China was concerned, the journal’s editors, like many other Maoist sympathizers in France, remained largely ignorant of the concrete political situation in the country, partly out of willful blindness. Comolli notes that he and his colleagues had a purely “textual knowledge” of the cultural revolution: fascinated by Mao’s writings (particularly On Contradiction), they relied on copies of Pékin-Information bought at the Maspero bookshop for information on China.32 Moreover, Cahiers’ relationship with the existing Maoist groups in France was generally lukewarm, primarily due to their regressive views on the cinema. As Narboni stated, “The number of gauchiste groupuscules which tried to have a relationship with Cahiers was large, and it was incessant. It was we who did not want to [foster links] because we found that their position on the cinema was very far from our own.”33 It was only during the FCR period (late 1972-1973), that Cahiers nourished ties with political organizations—especially Badiou’s UCFM-L. In general, however, instead of orienting towards actually existing groups, the Maoist Cahiers invariably invoked the phantom of a mass revolutionary party that was understood to exist only in absentia and needed to be constructed by the extant Marxist-Leninist forces as a viable counterweight to the “revisionism” of the PCF.34

Cahiers’ political and theoretical rupture with the PCF and its adoption of an “anti-revisionist” line was consecrated in a long text from March-April 1972 titled “Politique et lutte idéologique de classes.” This piece affirmed that the accusation of “revisionism” against Lebel extended well beyond the individual in question, and took aim at the cultural politics of the PCF as a whole, which itself was an expression of the party’s political revisionism.35 Much of “Politique et lutte idéologique de classes” was devoted to a critique of the PCF’s political line—judged to be founded on an “economistic” outlook (prioritizing campaigns for higher wages to the exclusion of other political and ideological struggles)—but the journal was also willing to issue a bracing autocritique of its prior perspectives. Due to an “overestimation of theoretical practice” flowing from the “dominance of Althusser’s positions,” Cahiers had, in this account, been led to “think that the progressive elements of the Party could win out in an internal struggle—despite our fundamental disagreement with the Party’s cultural positions (eclectic, liberal, reactionary) and despite our reservations (which never appeared in the magazine) concerning aspects of its political line.”36 Cahiers’ earlier, Althusser-influenced attitude was that the PCF was reformable, and that it was marked by an internal struggle between a “relatively autonomous” faction “favorable to the avant-garde and concerned about dialectical materialism, and a conservative, eclectic and reactionary wing.”37 Such a position was henceforth deemed to be a form of “political opportunism” whose effect had been to produce a series of tactical silences and accommodations during Cahiers’ rapprochement with the PCF.38

This statement was published alongside a correspondence with the editors of La Nouvelle Critique, the tone of which was proof of the new state of political antagonism between the journals. In the area of film theory, however, the initial moments of Cahiers’ Maoist turn (late 1971-late 1972) represented a state of continuity with the work carried out while it was in the orbit of the PCF. Installments of Comolli’s “Technique et idéologie” appeared up to the September-October 1972 issue, while Bonitzer’s series of theoretical texts beginning with “Réalité de la dénotation” also continued unabated. Pascal Kané dedicated an article to a “re-reading” of the classical Hollywood film Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935), while Pierre Baudry worked on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and published the article “Figuratif, matériel, excrémentiel.” Daney and Oudart critiqued Luchino Visconti’s La morte in Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971), and collective texts on the work of the Groupe Dziga Vertov and the television show À armes égales also appeared. Even the work of figures such as Christian Metz and Jean Louis Schefer, remote from day-to-day political concerns, was published by Cahiers during this time. In none of these texts was Maoist aesthetic theory of particular influence, apart from the occasional use of sloganistic formulae, and theorists such as Althusser (despite his ongoing membership in the “revisionist” PCF), Barthes and Jacques Lacan continued to be the journal’s presiding maîtres à penser. For a time, then, theoretically dense writings co-existed with tracts denouncing the PCF and reprints of Chinese articles on the cinema of the cultural revolution.39 Prior to late 1972, politics may have been “in the command post” of the journal’s work, but this was not to the exclusion of film theory.

Figure 2: The Opening Credits to the French Television Show À armes égales

Source: À armes égales (ORTF, 1970-1973).

At the same time, the sweeping change from a pro-PCF to a Maoist political line produced other changes for Cahiers. Most visibly, for the September-October 1972 issue the journal altered its format for the first time since 1964, selecting a far more austere layout in keeping with the far-left publications with which Cahiers was now in dialogue. As has often been remarked, the new format was notable for its rarefied use of images, usually considered to be a sign of the Maoist Cahiers’ intolerant disdain for the cinema as a whole. Even Comolli has admitted that this policy reflected the journal’s “new iconoclasm.”40 But the “banishment” of photographs and film-stills from the pages of Cahiers should not be exaggerated. In fact, only two non-consecutive issues (nos. 242-243 and 247) were entirely bereft of images, which when they did appear were utilized for functional and analytic rather than merely decorative purposes. In addition to the new format, Cahiers’ editorial composition was substantially modified. The journal had long been run on de facto collective lines, and changes made in time for the November-December 1972-January 1973 issue reflected this transitional state of affairs: Comolli and Narboni’s position as co-editors-in-chief was done away with and the supervisory comité de rédaction was abolished and replaced by a collective body including all of the active contributors to the journal. More crucial than these logistical transformations, the adoption of a Maoist outlook in 1971-1972 saw a number of changes in personnel at Cahiers, as Sylvie Pierre and Bernard Eisenschitz left the journal (the latter in particularly acrimonious circumstances41), while two activists with Maoist backgrounds, Toubiana and Pakradouni, joined as editors. The duo had come into contact through Cahiers thanks to the journal’s activities teaching film on university campuses. Toubiana, having arrived in Paris from Grenoble in the summer of 1971, wished to study cinema at Paris-III’s Censier-Daubenton campus. His contacts with Daney, Kané and Bonitzer at Censier led to Toubiana’s integration in the journal, which initially took the form of his participation in the “Groupe Lou Sin d’intervention idéologique,” a collective consisting of Cahiers editors and students at Paris-III which, in addition to serving as a nom de plume for several texts published in Cahiers, also agitated against the chair of the university’s nascent cinema studies program, who had initially refused to extend the teaching contracts of the Cahiers editors. After participating in his first editorial meeting on September 29, 1972, Toubiana’s background as a Maoist activist enabled him to quickly become a central figure in the journal. Indeed, this marked the beginning of a thirty-year association with Cahiers, a large portion of which was spent as editor-in-chief.42

In contrast to Toubiana’s enduring tenure at Cahiers, Pakradouni’s involvement with the journal was brief: a rapid rise in the journal’s ranks in 1972 was soon followed by his marginalization before the year 1973 had finished. Like Toubiana, Pakradouni (whose real name was Philippe Zarifian) brought experience as a Maoist activist with him to the journal. While Pakradouni was a key figure in the FCR project, and was involved in the drafting of lengthy political platforms such as “Quelles sont nos tâches sur le front culturel?” (“What are our tasks on the cultural front?”), his near-total lack of cinematic culture was also crushingly evident: in his time at the journal he did not publish a single line that directly concerned the critical response to a film. Retrospective blame for the dogmatic excesses of the Maoist period is often solely laid at Pakradouni’s feet by his former colleagues. In this sense, he serves as a convenient proxy for the other Cahiers critics’ denial of their own perceived misdeeds. Aumont has even gone on record as claiming that he was “an undercover agent from the CGT [who] arrived at Cahiers and almost killed it,” adding: “we were truly manipulated.”43


The Front Culturel Révolutionnaire

Despite this infusion of new blood into the editorial team, Cahiers was experiencing, in late 1972, another moment of crisis. At this stage it was still capable of producing theoretical texts of high quality, even if they were increasingly weighed down by the political langue de bois of the Maoist movement.44 But the journal was perennially beset with financial issues, and the threat of total collapse loomed. Its issues became more and more sporadic: six numbers were published in 1972, four in 1973, and five in 1974, and the idea of officially reverting to a bimonthly or quarterly publication frequency began to be discussed.45 Cahiers was also widely considered illegible by those uninitiated in the finer points of its gauchiste discourse, and was precipitously losing its readership. A low point was reached with its February 1973 issue, which sold only 3,403 copies (compared to 11,561 in April 1971), 2,069 of which were overseas subscriptions, including a large number of North American universities.46 Going by remarks in the editors’ internal “Journal de la rédaction” (“Editorial Diary”) the mood within the offices became increasingly gloomy. A September 29, 1972 entry plaintively asked: “Cahiers is not going well. Why? Tired? Not only. Personal problems? Not only. What, then?” Narboni, who along with Bonitzer was the driving force behind the Maoist turn, attempted an answer: “Non-functioning due to the egoism of each of us, due to the lack of work. Why aren’t we working? […] We no longer know what a journal called Cahiers du cinéma ought to do.”47

It was in this void that the idea for a “Front culturel révolutionnaire” (internally nicknamed “Front Q”), took hold of Cahiers, after first being aired by Pakradouni. The use of the term “cultural front” had a double meaning: it was both the sphere of social activity in which the journal was to intervene, and the organizational form such an intervention was planned to take. Cahiers had already made an attempt at reaching out to broader political and cultural forces when it held a workshop entitled “Cinéma et luttes de classe” at the Avignon festival in July 1972, which attracted around sixty participants and was considered by the journal to be “an important phase in the transformation of our practice of diffusion and of our conception of the ideological struggle on the cultural front.”48 Public debates at Avignon centered on the French militant film Soyons tout, the Chinese pedagogic film En renvoyant le dieu de la peste, and the Groupe Dziga Vertov’s Vent d’Est.49 The journal’s compte-rendu of the event provided it with an opportunity to give a critical overview of its prior public interventions, stretching back to the “Montage” debate in Aix-en-provence in February 1969. As the Cahiers editors saw things in late 1972, the period during which a “Marxist-Leninist” orientation had been reclaimed can be divided into three phases, which coincided with successive appearances at Avignon. The first phase (1969), dismissed as “bourgeois-progressist” and thus not yet truly Marxist, was dominated by an Althusser-influenced structuralism that actually left the journal’s critical practice relatively unchanged: the same directors were defended as in Cahiers’ “idealist era,” and the fundamental class antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was largely removed from the journal’s concerns. The second phase (1970-1971), promoting “materialist cinema,” witnessed an emphasis on the formal work of avant-garde filmmakers (Straub, Oshima, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani), and re-readings of Hollywood cinema (Young Mr. Lincoln and Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon [1942] were discussed at Avignon in 1970), but was judged to be erroneous due to understanding “the ideological struggle in non-pertinent terms of opposition: latent/manifest, visible/non-visible, full/empty,” and a misplaced confidence that bourgeois ideology would crumble like a vampire once exposed to the light of critical theory. The third phase (1972), dominated by “anti-revisionism,” was viewed more favorably for recognizing that “politics also commands all cultural production and work.” Still, even this phase was said to have suffered from an “eclecticism” in the selection of films screened at Avignon, and an empirical, untheorized approach to the debates surrounding these films.50

Although they recognized that Avignon was used as a tool by the PCF to co-opt its “contestatory ‘outside,’” Cahiers viewed the proposal from festival head Jacques Robert to organize an eight-day workshop within the festival, with paid attendance, as a valuable opportunity to “work more seriously and systematically […] and above all to have a closer and more militant contact with the participants.”51 Gathering a collection of students, Marxist-Leninist activists and a handful of PCF members, the concrete results of the workshop were fragmentary, but the overall experience was deemed a positive one, and paved the way for the planned establishment of the FCR at the following Avignon festival in August 1973. The platform paper “Quelles sont nos tâches sur le front culturel?” was drawn up by Narboni and Pakradouni on November 22, 1972 and published in issue no. 242-243. A severe critique of Cahiers’ work up to that point,52 the text argued for “a radical transformation of our conception of the relationship between theory and practice,” which would consist of “placing the journal in the service of all those comrades who intervene, in a direct relationship with the masses, on the cultural front.”53 Cultivating “the art of film criticism” had to be “definitively liquidat[ed],” and work such as the re-readings of Sylvia Scarlett and Intolerance was to be ceased immediately.54 Instead, the journal had to be transformed into an “instrument of the class struggle in the cultural domain,” and would consequently operate in the service of the Marxist-Leninist movement.

The sweeping demolition of Cahiers’ past activity was undertaken with a rare rhetorical violence, and yet—officially at least—the entire editorial board swung behind the FCR project. Five working groups were set up to build ties with “relay-elements” (that is, militants active in the cultural sphere), while the editorial team conceived of itself as a “collective organizer” in the Leninist mold.55 The issues leading up to the 1973 Avignon festival were filled with position papers and reports on this work, to the almost complete exclusion of any discussion of cinema. These efforts were not entirely worthless, with the journal entering into discussions with Maoist groups such as the UCFM-L and the PLR,56 as well as activists such as Serge Le Péron and Alain Bergala, both of whom would later become critics for Cahiers. Discussions were even held with Cinéthique on a prospective merger of the two publications, and Cahiers joined its erstwhile rival in denouncing the Tel Quel-aligned Mouvement de Juin ‘71.57 Behind the scenes, however, the journal’s editors were divided by the FCR even before its “founding congress” took place: Pakradouni, Narboni, Toubiana and Bonitzer were the main driving force behind the project, but even here the latter two editors harbored private reservations.58 Aumont, Kané, Oudart and Daney assented to the initiative, but mainly played a secondary role in its implementation, and, unlike some of their colleagues, were uneasy in the world of political activism. Baudry and Comolli were even more alienated from Cahiers during the FCR period, and were politically closer to the earlier perspective of reforming the PCF from within. Baudry formally resigned in February 1973, arguing for a critique of “the revisionism of the Party” rather than “the revisionist Party,” and concerned about the journal’s apparent abandonment of theoretical work.59 Comolli’s position was more ambiguous: consumed with preparatory work on his film La Cecilia from 1971 onwards, he had become a somewhat aloof figure in the journal by this time. While today Comolli assumes unmitigated responsibility for Cahiers’ Maoist period, he never attacked “revisionism” with the vigor that his fellow editors did, and his colleagues are today convinced that he remained attached to the earlier political line of reforming the PCF.60

Figure 3: A Scene from Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia

Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia, concerning a nineteenth century commune of Italian anarchists in Brazil, has often been interpreted as an allegory for his own experiences in Cahiers.

Source: La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1976).

Preceded by nine months of frenetic cultural animation by the Cahiers editors, the five-day conference held at the 1973 Avignon festival was intended to inaugurate the FCR as an ongoing organizational body coalescing the totality of Marxist-Leninist aligned cultural militants in France. Despite drawing 150 attendees (a creditable number), the Avignon conference was nonetheless perceived as a failure by the majority of the Cahiers team. Even the official, necessarily upbeat report on the event admitted that its meetings were “too frequent, too long and poorly prepared,” and gave rise to “authoritarian and bureaucratic tendencies.”61 Indeed, apart from productive discussions on the culture of national minorities and immigrant workers, the conference suffered from a tendency to descend into internecine sectarian disputes between the different Maoist factions in attendance, and even the Cahiers editors found themselves subject to barbed insults from political activists. In hindsight, Narboni—who still argues that the concept of a cultural front was an “idea that was not absurd per se”—admits that actually bringing it into existence was “beyond our means,” and views its failure as primarily being one of timing, namely, the fact that “it took place at a moment that was the end of gauchisme.”62 Indeed, by 1973 the Maoist movement, and the far-left more generally, had reached a point of terminal decline. Five years of feverish activism after May 1968 had taken a steep personal toll on the movement’s militants, one that was exacerbated by the repressive measures taken by the Gaullist state.63 In the early 1970s, the political impetus in France swung back to the conservative right, while the reality of the Chinese cultural revolution became more and more apparent. When the young Maoist Pierre Overney was killed in March 1972, the resulting obsequies brought 200,000 people onto the streets in one of the period’s largest assemblies of the French far-left, but the funereal atmosphere of the march was palpable, and Althusser would later claim that it was the French far left itself that was being buried that day.64

This symbolic end-point of the wave of gauchiste insurgency could be momentarily disregarded by the Cahiers editors, but the concrete experience of Avignon directly confronted them with the exhaustion of the far-left, as well as, closer to home, the breakdown of their own project. Comolli relates the aftermath of Avignon in the following terms: “We emerged from the failure of the Revolutionary Cultural Front bruised and bloodied. Afterwards, we met in a bar one evening, we looked at each other, and without needing to say much at all, we all profoundly understood that our will to continue this project had been broken.”65 Feeling “morally and politically responsible for the situation,” Comolli and Narboni resigned from the journal, which after Avignon was on the brink of collapse.


Film Criticism During the Front Culturel Révolutionnaire

The period of the FCR is often presented as one in which reflection on the cinema was almost entirely abandoned, in favor of political agitation within an amorphously defined cultural sphere. Certainly, the task of film criticism during this time was explicitly subordinated to political exigencies, and the issues of Cahiers published in late 1972-1973 reveal a journal that appeared to be barely concerned with the cinema. The “Journal de la rédaction” had, as early as February 1971, noted “We don’t go to the cinema anymore, which is radically true,”66 and Bérénice Reynaud declares with some justification that the activity of Cahiers, at this point, “can be read as two parallel lines: what it did, and what it missed. And the part of the ‘reality’ it missed was enormous. It stopped paying attention to the films released in the cinemas.”67 But it would be remiss to exaggerate the wholesale nature of this renunciation of film criticism; in fact, even if they formed a small part of the journal’s activity, critical texts continued to be written and published throughout this time. In some key ways, however, the critical method adopted in the three issues in which the FCR policy prevailed (nos. 244, 245-246 and 247) departed markedly from the approach that was dominant both before and after this period. If we can discern the existence of a Cahiers “line” that runs from the journal’s origins under Bazin, right through its Marxist period and up to the departure of Daney as editor in 1981, then the critical texts of its dogmatic Maoist moment do indeed represent an aberration in the history of the journal. Most palpably, films were now to be judged along strictly instrumentalist political lines—that is, their ability to mobilize the proletariat in its revolutionary struggle against the twin enemies of bourgeois reaction and PCF revisionism. This was undoubtedly an effect of Mao’s own theories on art, as expressed in greatest detail in lectures given at Yenan in the late 1930s.68 Ironically, given Cahiers’ own prior alignment with the avant-garde, Mao himself was far closer to a socialist-realist orientation, with an emphasis on the artistic depiction of positive role models for working-class readers, in addition to a critique of bourgeois society. Mao also spoke of the importance of “raising the artistic level” of art works, and for a time this formulation was deployed by Cahiers to defend their own advocacy of formal experimentation in the cinema, although this rhetorical maneuver was never entirely convincing. By 1973 at any rate, in an abrupt turnaround from the journal’s prior practice of emphasizing a film’s form (its écriture) when subjecting it to critical evaluation, cinematic works instead came to be assessed primarily on the basis of their thematic content. Concomitantly, the legendary illegibility of Cahiers’ own writing style was subject to an autocritique: “Quelles sont nos tâches sur le front culturel?” explicitly decried a “‘fatalistic’ conception of the journal’s relationship with its addressees,” asking “What is the benefit, for example, of a correct critique of a television program, if 99.99% of workers who see it are not reached by this critique?”69 A later article would similarly rail against the adoption of “an ornate style which, under the pretext of signifying drift or the care for ‘writing,’ generally only served to blur the comprehension of texts.”70 Cahiers hence endeavored to write in a more straightforward, accessible fashion—although these efforts were hampered by the Maoist langue de bois which now impregnated all of the writings appearing in the journal, and which was just as alienating for outsiders as its earlier “theoreticist” style had been. Hand in hand with this stance was the abandonment of the theoretical influences that had determined Cahiers’ work since the late 1960s. A balance-sheet from a working-group set up on this question determined that its earlier interest in the contemporary theory of Lacan, Althusser and Barthes reflected a “complaisant, egocentric attitude” of “cultivating theory for the sake of theory.”71 Apart from a politically narrow utilization of Althusser’s notion of the Ideological State Apparatus, these thinkers were temporarily abandoned as reference points, to be rehabilitated later in the 1970s. The film criticism written under the FCR policy was thus, on several levels, atypical of the Cahiers writers, and few of the resulting reviews have stood the test of time.72

These texts nonetheless warrant analysis—even if only as testimonies to the political pressures to which the journal had subjected itself, and the surprising nature of the critical evaluations that ensued. The first two reviews under the new perspective were also notable for deriving from discussions with radical students from the cinema department at the Université de Paris-III (where several Cahiers editors lectured), thus attesting to a collectivist approach to film criticism that represents an important point of continuity with Cahiers’ earlier practice, as well as forming an intersection between the worlds of cinephilia and academia that would only grow more preponderant in the years to come.73 A text signed by Aumont censured Bernard Paul’s depiction of trade union struggle in Beau Masque for conveying the revisionist line of the PCF in the lead-up to the March 1973 legislative elections (where the union de la gauche, an alliance with the Parti socialiste, had a genuine prospect of attaining a parliamentary majority), and saw the film as an intended “antidote” for communist militants to the recent gauchiste films on the same topic (Coup pour coup by Marin Karmitz [1972] and Tout va bien by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [1972], in particular). Daney and Oudart, meanwhile, penned a review of Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971), which viewed the film from an Althusserian standpoint as the articulation of two ISAs (the family and the psychiatric institution) that was nonetheless bereft of any understanding of their “global function,” and treating them from the “petty-bourgeois” viewpoint of the struggle between the individual and society, rather than the struggle between classes.74

The concept of the ISA was also the theoretical framework for Daney’s review in issue no. 245-246 of Marco Bellochio’s Nel nome del padre (In the Name of the Father, 1972) and Sbatti il mostro in prima pagina (Slap the Monster on Page One, 1972), which were judged to support the Italian Communist Party’s thesis that “the gauchistes are the objective harbingers of fascism.”75 For Daney, the “radicality of Bellochio’s ‘despair’” is further denoted by the absence of a “positive hero” in the film. As it happens, the concept of the positive hero, drawn directly from Mao’s theories on art, had already been developed in an article written by Daney in the previous issue, based on one of the “working groups” Cahiers had set up. Rejecting Cahiers’ earlier advocacy of critically deconstructing “the very idea of representation,” Daney argued that the condensation of the contradiction between the avant-garde and the masses through the presence of a “positive hero” represented the “line of demarcation between bourgeois cinema and revolutionary cinema.”76 Despite the quasi-Zhdanovian socialist-realism of its line of argumentation, the notion of a “positive hero” would persist in Daney’s criticism well after the demise of the journal’s Maoist orientation, and it would notably function as a conceptual counter-point to the cynicism of the “retro mode” in mid-1970s French cinema.

Figure 4: État de siège

Source: État de siège (Costa-Gavras, 1972).

Still more surprising was the guardedly positive reception given by Bonitzer and Toubiana to Costa-Gavras’s État de siège (State of Siege, 1972), which repudiated the “unilateral” critique of Z made by Cahiers in 1969 for ignoring the “positive fact that constituted the diffusion among the working-class and popular masses of a film whose content […] had the merit of being anti-fascist and anti-militarist.”77 The goal of État de siège—to make a film denouncing American imperialism—was thus given Cahiers’ approval, although demurral was registered to the film’s “sentimental moralism” and its pacifist opposition to the Tupamaros’ policy of revolutionary violence. In any case, the political value of État de siège was evaluated purely in terms of the film’s content—astonishingly, its form was now a non-issue for Cahiers. If the film journal now came more directly under the sway of Mao’s own ideas on aesthetics, the period of the FCR represented a moment of sharp divergence from Cahiers’ own critical tradition.

Issue no. 247 already saw a subtle departure from this critical line, even though the journal was still under the sway of the FCR project. It is true that Bonitzer’s triple review of the 1973 releases Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci), La Grande Bouffe (Marco Ferreri) and La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache) expressed dubiety about the hedonistic egoism of all three films, seeing them as “crepuscular reflections of the bourgeois conception of the world.” Although he conceded that Eustache’s film was more avant-gardist and “infinitely more talented” than the other two works, it was considered to be “more or less enclosed in the scandal” that they had provoked.78 Assimilating the three releases in this manner was later hotly contested by Eustache, himself a former Cahiers critic, who found Bonitzer’s review to be “in bad faith” and contended that he “did not feel at all in solidarity” with Bertolucci’s and Ferreri’s work.79 The lukewarm attitude to Eustache did not last long: by the end of the decade Cahiers considered La Maman et la Putain to be one of the totemic films of the 1970s.80 But it is worth noting that the article in question represented a fissure of openness from within the political dogmatism enveloping Cahiers, as references to Bonitzer’s long-standing theoretical figures de proue (Lacan, Barthes and Georges Bataille) saw the return of their names to the pages of Cahiers after a purgatorial interlude, and it can retrospectively be seen as a precursor to the rejection of a dogmatic Maoist line that would come after the failure of the 1973 Avignon conference.


After Avignon: Cahiers’ “Post-Gauchiste” Turn

The Avignon debacle represented the opportunity for the editors discontented with the situation to overturn the “Pakradouni line.” Bonitzer, Toubiana, Kané, Daney and Oudart vacationed together at Avignon after the festival, where conspiratorial discussions took place about a change of direction for the journal, which continued in Toubiana’s apartment upon their return to Paris.81 On October 21, the editorial team convened at the journal’s headquarters. Pakradouni remained optimistic about the prospects for the FCR, and advocated the subordination of cultural work to political struggle—essentially, the voluntary abandonment of Cahiers as a film journal. But he was alone in this perspective. For Bonitzer, the time had come to “shake off the Maoist ideological game that had been the line at Cahiers for motivations that had absolutely nothing to do with the cinema.”82 Countering Pakradouni, he and Toubiana proposed that Cahiers return to its “specificity” as a film journal, but a clear decision on the matter was deferred. The second half of 1973 saw Cahiers in limbo: only a single, undated issue was published, and the disparate nature of its contents betrayed the absence of any clear line governing the journal’s work at this time: report-backs on Avignon which continued to speak in Maoist jargon were accompanied by texts that represented a less rigid approach to the cinema. The first of Daney’s “Fonction critique” series began a fresh interrogation of the contemporary role of film criticism,83 while Kané furnished a practical example of a film review freed from dogmatic Marxism-Leninism in his take on Billy Wilder’s comedy Avanti (1972). Noting that the palpable “anti-Americanism” of Wilder’s film profits from remaining within the “limits fixed by the Hollywood system,” Kané returned to the Young Mr. Lincoln mode of addressing classical studio cinema by presenting Wilder’s film as one whose “critical stake” is “the elucidation, in a narrative system that is still very coherent, of a profound contradiction between the emergence of increasingly insistent and present ideological themes and the manner in which filmic discourse […] appropriates them.”84

After months of tension, the dissension within Cahiers was settled at an editorial meeting on February 7, 1974, where Pakradouni was decisively sidelined. Toubiana, in particular, was merciless in pillorying his fellow critic: “What right do you have to pass from one front to the other, from cinema to politics? […] In the end, your problem, your pleasure, is political economy. So hasn’t it been a total mistake for you to join Cahiers?”85 Pakradouni, for his part, declared “I have understood that the cinema was not the principal front in the revolutionary struggle,” and ceased any further activity with the journal. Months later, to the mirthful bemusement of his former comrades, Pakradouni sent a letter to Cahiers (in the name of himself and other, probably fictional, “members of the ex-Animation Commission of Cahiers”), which claimed that the journal had succumbed to “petty-bourgeois liberalism” and advocated the “constitution of the authentic Communist Party and the elaboration of a communist program posing the question of proletarian revolution in France.”86

This change of course prompted the issue of new leadership for Cahiers. Comolli and Narboni both felt they could no longer continue as editors, with Narboni speaking of the period as one of “almost depressive disenchantment,”87 and both soon turned to filmmaking projects. Aumont’s responsibility for the journal’s administrative tasks made him the heir apparent to Comolli and Narboni, but he too was increasingly involved in another sphere of film culture: teaching at the cinema studies department at Paris-III.88 The three most experienced editors had, in quick succession, distanced themselves from Cahiers, and a power vacuum resulted. It was to be filled by the new editorial pairing of Daney and Toubiana. In Daney’s words, “I had to answer ‘present’ when, in late 1973, the journal was given away to whoever was willing to pick it up.”89 Toubiana recalls: “Nobody had asked Serge to play this part. […] He happened to be available. The only thing I could offer him was that I was there.”90 The two had a generally agreed upon division of labor: while Daney would provide the critical and theoretical guidance for the journal, drawing Cahiers out of the impasse into which its Maoist orientation had led it, Toubiana would play a more administrative role, gradually re-establishing Cahiers as a commercially viable entity after it had reached the edges of financial abyss, ensuring that issues would again be published on a monthly basis and reconnecting the journal with the readership it had lost.91

The journal’s new orientation was already signaled by Daney in the first installment of “Fonction critique,” in which he outlined two potential responses to the question of “How to ‘intervene’ in films?” Firstly, a film’s aesthetic criteria could be equated with its political criteria, and secondly, politics could be put in the command post.92 The two positions, evidently, were those successively defended by Cahiers in 1969-1971 and 1972-1973 respectively. Both perspectives, according to Daney, were “tarnished with a certain dogmatism,” and his article sought to establish a new position for film criticism, one that would take account of the fact that the aesthetic criterion does not “flow automatically” from the political criterion.93 Merely stressing, for instance, that a film is a means for the bourgeoisie to impose its vision of the world is correct from a Marxist standpoint, but it is a knowledge that remains “dead, dogmatic, stereotyped and—as our experience shows—unworkable to the extent that one is incapable of grasping, for each film, how it imposes itself.”94 Similarly, relying on an analysis of the “base apparatus” merely conformed to “ultra-left mysticism,” and prevented the journal from making concrete interventions on films. Instead, Daney argued that the “line of demarcation between a reactionary, progressive and revolutionary filmmaker” tends to be “mobile, uncertain, blurry.” As such, it is the position of the filmmaker with respect to the inevitable “double reading” of the film (that of its content and that of its form, its énoncés and enunciation) which allows the critic to distinguish between reactionary, progressive and revolutionary works.95

Daney’s outlook was further developed in “Les Cahiers aujourd’hui,” a May 1974 editorial co-signed with Toubiana that offered a detailed overview of the mistakes of the FCR period.96 Here, Daney and Toubiana were openly critical of Cahiers’ adverse combination of theoreticism (the overall project was presented in overly abstract terms) and empiricism (their practical interventions were piecemeal and lacked any connection with a global strategy). Resulting from the editorial team’s blend of “political virginity” and “unbridled politicism,” these shortcomings “nourished an entire system of contradictions” that “erupted” at the Avignon conference, the failure of which was exacerbated by the sectarian intransigence of the Marxist-Leninist groups participating in the event.97 Locating a “dogmatic current” within Cahiers, in clear reference to Pakradouni, the new editors insisted on emphasizing the “question of the specificity of the journal,” and rejected a vision of Cahiers as the “journal of a party” (whether existent or imaginary). Instead, remaining for the moment within a broadly militant framework, they conceived of their publication as “an apparatus in the service of the struggles of the revolutionary movement, particularly in the area of film.”98 But Cahiers could also be a “critical and theoretical journal,” one that would aim to “respond, with its own weapons, to the issues raised by the ideological conjuncture and the struggles flowing out of it.”99 Rather than Mao, the main reference points in this project would now be Bertolt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci, as well as the Italian dramatist Dario Fo, whose theater company’s recent tour of Paris had greatly influenced Cahiers during this period, both in its refreshingly non-sectarian approach to politics and in its revitalization of questions of cultural production.100

While critiquing “dogmatism,” Daney and Toubiana were not yet ready to abandon the Marxist-Leninist framework with which Cahiers had identified for the last five years, and the journal remained positioned within the milieu of the French far-left well into the late 1970s, even while adopting a “post-gauchiste” perspective critical of the excesses of the period of heightened political activity between 1969 and 1973. But the increasing shift towards the mainstream—in both the political and cinematic senses—was seemingly inevitable, and the change in editorial line again reflected a broader social cleavage that took place in the mid-1970s. As Daney later noted: “It is not difficult to date, between 1973 and 1975, the caesura of the decade: the oil crisis, the beginning of unemployment, the end of the ORTF, the return of consensus.”101 Most notably, perhaps, the union de la gauche’s failed campaign for François Mitterand as presidential candidate in 1974 saw the rise to power of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose proto-neoliberal turn away from the authoritarian tendencies of Charles de Gaulle and his successor Georges Pompidou left French radical militants disoriented and on the back foot.



It is noteworthy that, although they quickly moved on from the dogmatic Marxism that prevailed in the years 1971-1973, all of the Cahiers editors involved in the FCR project have remained avowedly on the left, even after the exhaustion of post-1968 militancy. Daney has perhaps been the most scathing about the journal’s tumultuous engagement with politics, to the point of confessing: “I even hoped that it would create nothing. Can you imagine if our general line had succeeded. It was horrifying!”102 But even he would come to be unrepentant about this period: “I no longer have any desire to apologize because once, fifteen years ago, we were lacking in the good manners of bourgeois arrivisme. For the first time, I would actually prefer to plead for the defense.”103 Mindful perhaps of Karl Marx’s apothegm that history happens “first as tragedy, then as farce,” the critic also recalled having nurtured the project of writing a comedy about the political extravagances of Cahiers’ Maoist period. Daney ended up renouncing the project: “in any case,” he surmised, “who would have laughed about these excesses?”104 Whether tragedy or farce, it is undeniable that Cahiers du cinéma’s Maoist turn represented a fundamental impasse for its critics, and that its failure has left a long-lasting mark on their subsequent activities. To a large degree, this failure was determined by the décalage between broader political events and the twists and turns of Cahiers’ critical stances: both its attempted rapprochement with the PCF and its orientation towards Maoism took place after these movements had entered a period of decline. If indeed Cahiers was a barometer of the political mood of the time, it tended to be one that functioned with a time-delay. Meanwhile, for those of us in the present-day who, fifty years later, once more seek to articulate radical politics with the study of film, Cahiers’ flirtation with successive forms of Marxism-Leninism nonetheless offers a valuable historical case study from which lessons—both positive and negative—can be drawn. It is in this spirit that the present account of this period in the journal’s history is written. While the sectarianism and dogmatic thinking that beset the Cahiers critics are right to be jettisoned, their confidence in the possibility of using the analysis and interpretation of cinema as a tool in aid of radical social transformation serves as a lasting vision of politically engaged film criticism.



  1. The term gauchiste (leftist) referred to the left-wing, largely student-based political milieu to the left of mainstream communism, which included Trotskyists, Maoists and anarchists. While initially used as a slur by the Communist Party (equivalent to “ultra-left” in English), it later gained wider currency as an umbrella term to refer to these movements.
  2. La Rédaction, “Politique et lutte idéologique de classes, Intervention 1,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 234-235 (December 1971-January-February 1972), pp. 5-12.
  3. See Antoine de Baecque, Les Cahiers du cinéma: histoire d’une revue vol. II: Cinéma, tours détours 1959-1981 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1991), pp. 246-263, and Emilie Bickerton, A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 71-84.
  4. Serge Daney, La Rampe (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1983), p. 49.
  5. Interview with Pascal Bonitzer, April 30, 2014; Jean Narboni, “Du côté des noms,” in François Dosse and Jean-Michel Frodon, Gilles Deleuze et les images (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2008), pp. 21-30, here p. 24.
  6. See Jean-Patrick Lebel “Cinéma et idéologie,” La Nouvelle Critique no. 34 (May 1970), pp. 67-72; no. 35 (June 1970), pp. 60-67; no. 37 (October 1970), pp. 60-64; and no. 41 (February 1971), pp. 60-69. These texts were reprinted in expanded form as Jean-Patrick Lebel, Cinéma et idéologie (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1971).
  7. “Réponses à Politique-Hebdo,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 229 (May 1971), pp. 61-64, here p. 61.
  8. “Lu dans la presse,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 231 (September 1971), p. 53.
  9. Bonitzer, “Fétichisme de la technique: la notion de plan,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 233 (November 1971), pp. 4-10. “Revisionist” was initially used in Leninist parlance to refer to the right-wing of the German Social Democratic Party’s attempts to shift the party to a reformist political strategy, thereby betraying the revolutionary perspective of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was later repurposed by Mao Zedong with respect to the Soviet Communist Party under Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, and thus adopted by Maoists in France as an all-purpose epithet for the PCF.
  10. A note in Cahiers, for instance, reported on a meeting organized by Tel Quel in the Saint-Michel bookshop on December 10, 1971, which was subject to “violent aggression” organized by the Union des Étudiants Communistes. See Jacques Henric, “Une déclaration de J. Henric,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 236-237 (March-April 1972), p. 98.
  11. Philippe Sollers, “De la contradiction,” Tel Quel no. 45 (Spring 1971), pp. 3-23, here p. 3.
  12. Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, De la Chine, translated into French by Louis Bonalumi (Paris: Seuil, 1971).
  13. See “Déclaration sur l’hégémonie idéologique bourgeoisie/révisionnisme,” Tel Quel no. 47 (Autumn 1971), pp. 133-141.
  14. Mouvement de Juin ‘71 “Le dogmatisme à la rescousse du révisionnisme,” Tel Quel no. 48-49 (Spring 1972), pp. 175-190, here p. 190.
  15. See Philippe Forest, Histoire de Tel Quel (Paris: Seuil, 1995), p. 385.
  16. De Baecque notes an initial reluctance to do so on the part of Jacques Aumont and Jean-Louis Comolli, who were more inclined to persist with the PCF rapprochement. See de Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 244-247.
  17. In 1981 Bonitzer remarked that, “It appears today that all the positions it took […] were parodic. With hindsight, indeed, it is striking.” Bonitzer, “Tel Quel,” in “Dictionnaire sans foi ni loi,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 325 (June 1981), p. 120.
  18. Interview with Aumont, March 11, 2014.
  19. Interview with Narboni, March 18, 2014.
  20. See “Critique des positions du ‘Mouvement de Juin 71,’” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-246 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 68-87.
  21. “À propos du ‘Maoïsme,’” Tel Quel no. 68 (Winter 1976), p. 104. In a further sign of its 180-degree ideological turn, the journal’s following issue was titled “Éloge de l’Amérique” (“In Praise of America”).
  22. See Louis Althusser, “Idéologie et les Appareils idéologiques d’état (Notes pour une recherche),” La Pensée no. 151 (June 1970), pp. 3-38. Translated as “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation,” in Idem., Lenin and Philosophy and Other Texts, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 85-132.
  23. C.d.C., “Cinéma, idéologie, politique (pour Porretta-Terme),” Cahiers du cineema no. 232 (October 1971), pp. 54-55, here p. 54. Translated as “Cinema, Ideology, Politics (for Porretta Terme),” trans. Alan Williams, in Nick Browne (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol III: 1969-1972 The Politics of Representation (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 287-290, here p. 288.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., p. 55 [p. 289].
  26. Ibid. [p. 289-290].
  27. Bonitzer, Comolli and Narboni, “Cinéma/idéologie/politique: Porretta Terme, 2,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 233 (November 1971), pp. 46-47, here p. 46.
  28. Ibid., p. 47.
  29. The first account in the West of the human cost of the cultural revolution was Simon Leys, Les Habits neuf du président: Chronique de la “révolution culturelle” (Paris: Édtions Champ Libre, 1971). Translated as The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, trans. Carol Appleyard and Patrick Goode (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977). The veracity of Leys’ account was vigorously denied by western Maoists at the time. Ironically, the subsequent economic development of China under Deng Xiaoping and his successors has seemingly verified Mao’s claim that the party apparatus had been infiltrated by “capitalist roaders.”
  30. A broader history of the Maoist movement in France and its relationship with French intellectuals can be found in Christophe Bourseiller, Les Maoïstes: La folle histoire des gardes rouges français (Paris: Plon, 1996). See also Richard Wolin, Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); and François Hourmant, Les Années Mao en France: Avant, pendant et après Mai 68 (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2018).
  31. For the most famous first-hand account of this strategy of implantation, see Robert Linhart, L’Établi (Paris: Minuit, 1978). Translated as The Assembly Line, trans. Margaret Crosland (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).
  32. Comolli, interviewed by Daniel Fairfax, “‘Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am…’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (Part 1),” Senses of Cinema no. 62 (April 2012),
  33. Interview with Narboni, March 18, 2014. He elaborated on this comment by saying: “The leftists were cinematically backwards. Either they had a myopic vision which said: ‘No, why are you speaking about Straub and Godard? We have to film the struggles.’ […] Or they were politically active during the day, and in the evening they went to see a Sergio Leone film.”
  34. It was at this time, too, that Cahiers followed the French Maoist practice of writing the party’s abbreviation with quotation marks around the “C” (i.e. “P.‘C.’F.”) in order to convey the ostensible falsity of the PCF’s claim to being communist.
  35. La Rédaction, “Politique et lutte idéologique des classes, Intervention 1,” op. cit., p. 6 [p. 334].
  36. Ibid. [p. 335].
  37. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
  38. Cahiers mentions its adherence to the party’s theses in the article on La vie est à nous, and the “prudent” absence of any mention of the PCF’s reception of Tristana (Luis Buñuel, 1970) in the press dossier on the film published in issue no. 223 (August 1970, pp. 24-27), despite the divergence in views on the film. See Ibid., p. 6.
  39. See, in particular, “Le ballet chinois suit un brillant développement,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 236-237 (March-April 1972), pp. 76-81, reprinted from Littérature chinoise no. 1 (1971). Virtually the only PRC film known and appreciated by Cahiers at this time was The Red Detachment of Women (Pan Wenzhan/Fu Jie, 1971), which had been praised by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and graced the cover of issue no. 236-237, but the editors were reticent about issuing their own analysis of this film.
  40. Comolli, Cinéma contre spectacle (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2008), p. 7. Translated As Cinema Against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited, trans. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), p. 49.
  41. An editorial meeting in January 1972 expelled Eisenschitz from Cahiers on the basis of his continued allegiance to the PCF (he was the only one of its critics to formally join the party), a position now seen as irreconcilable with continued activity with the journal.
  42. Serge Toubiana was initially co-editor-in-chief with Daney from 1974 to 1981, but then held the position alone until 1992. From 1992 to 2000 he was the head of Cahiers’ publishing arm, leaving when the journal was bought out by Le Monde. For Toubiana’s recollections of this period, see Les Fantômes du souvenir (Paris: Grasset, 2016), especially pp. 29-64.
  43. Aumont, interviewed by Patrice Blouin and Jean-Marc Lalanne, “Le gai savoir,” Les Inrockuptibles, April 27, 2005, pp. 36-38, here p. 37. Asked about this claim, Aumont stands by it, although he admits he has no proof to back up this accusation. His main piece of evidence is that Zarifian later re-surfaced as a functionary for the Confédération générale de travail (the communist-dominated trade union federation), a move that was virtually impossible for a former Maoist. Interview with Aumont, March 11, 2014. The hypothesis is dismissed by Comolli, Narboni and Eisenschitz.
  44. As early as July 1971, however, the “Journal de la rédaction” lamented that “[Jean-Pierre] Oudart is currently the only one of us capable of producing applied theoretical texts, quickly, and without perturbing the rest of his work for the journal.” Cited in de Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 230.
  45. See Comolli, in Fairfax, “Yes, we were utopians (Part 1),” op. cit.
  46. This information is provided by de Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 225.
  47. Cited in de Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 257.
  48. “Intervention à Avignon: ‘Cinéma et luttes de classes’: Premier bilan critique,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 241 (September-October 1972), pp. 7-18, here p. 7.
  49. Debates on the first two films were published in the following issue, along with an interview with Serge Le Péron, a Maoist activist and member of the Vincennes-based collective responsible for Soyons tout, who would later become a regular critic for Cahiers. The Vent d’Est discussion, potentially the most interesting of the three, was never published due to an error with the tape recording. See “Cinema et luttes de classes, Intervention à Avignon, 2,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 242-243 (November-December 1972-January 1973), pp. 70-94.
  50. “Intervention à Avignon, 1” op. cit., pp. 9-11.
  51. Ibid., p. 12.
  52. A footnote savaged the articles appearing in the previous issue: part 6 of “Technique et idéologie” was judged “a purely theoretical reflection” that had lost its “force of intervention,” Pascal Kané’s review of two Italian films was attacked for remaining within “the framework of ‘film criticism,’” and Pierre Baudry’s analysis of Intolerance was derided for being “academic,” “structuralo-Freudian” and “not susceptible to any productive effect today.” See “Quelles sont nos tâches sur le front culturel?,” op. cit., p. 6. Needless to say, these strictures do an injustice to the texts in question.
  53. Ibid., p. 6.
  54. Ibid., pp. 6, 12.
  55. The use of the term makes reference to the V.I. Lenin quote that “A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer.” Lenin, “Where to begin?,” in The Collected Works of V.I. Lenin vol. V (Moscow: Progress, 1961), pp. 13-24, here p. 22.
  56. According to the Cahiers editors, the contact with the UCFM-L was the most theoretically fruitful, but the only text that evinced this collaboration was a later article by member Bernard Sichère, “La bête et le militant,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 251-252 (July-August 1974), pp. 19-30. The PLR was responsible for the manifesto “Vive le cinéma, arme de propagande communiste,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-246 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 31-42. This text ended with the bombastic peroration, “Down with bourgeois cinema! Down with the myth of counter-information! Long live the cinema, arm of political education! Long live the cinema, arm of communist propaganda!” (p. 42) and spoke of “China and Albania, red bases of world revolution” (p. 32). The empty sloganeering of this manifesto is often treated by historians as the nadir of Cahiers’ Marxist-Leninist turn, but it should be noted that in the editors’ introductory remarks, the text was already criticized on this basis. See Ibid., p. 31.
  57. See “Critique des positions du ‘Mouvement de Juin ‘71,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-246 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 68-87.
  58. Bonitzer now maintains that “Simply put, I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe that Cahiers could have any kind of political action or influence. I think I wanted to believe, like many others at the time, but deep down I absolutely didn’t believe in it.” Interview with Bonitzer, April 30, 2014.
  59. Baudry, “À propos de la démission de Pierre Baudry,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-246 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 88-89.
  60. Aumont, Pierre and Bonitzer all insist that Comolli was never involved in the journal’s Maoist turn, and remained broadly aligned with the PCF. While he remained officially on the editorial board, his participation in meetings became more sporadic in 1972 and 1973, and outside of the “Technique et idéologie” series, he rarely wrote for the journal during this period.
  61. “Pour un front culturel révolutionnaire (Avignon 73),” Cahiers du cinéma no. 248 (ca. late 1973), pp. 5-12, here p. 10.
  62. Interview with Narboni, March 18, 2014.
  63. The promulgation of the “anti-casseurs law” in April 1970 led to the imprisonment of more than 1000 left-wing activists for “crimes” such as selling newspapers or attending demonstrations. See Bérenice Reynaud, “Introduction,” in David Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. IV: 1973-1978 History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1-44, here p. 6.
  64. Althusser, L’avenir dure longtemps (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1992), pp. 224-225.
  65. Comolli, in Fairfax, “Yes we were utopians (Part 1),” op. cit.
  66. Quoted in De Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol II, op. cit., p. 228.
  67. Reynaud, “Introduction,” op. cit., pp. 10-11.
  68. These were published as Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956).
  69. “Quelles sont nos tâches sur le front culturel?,” op. cit., p. 10. The text in question was evidently the Groupe Lou Sin’s analysis of À armes égales. See Groupe Lou Sin d’intervention idéologique, “À armes égales: Analyse d’une émission télévisée,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 236–237 (March–April 1972), pp. 4-29.
  70. Aumont, “Groupe 3: Les acquis théoriques: Premier bilan du groupe,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 244 (February-March 1973), pp. 40-43, here p. 41.
  71. Ibid.
  72. Kané even admits that he essentially “parroted” the “stereotyped phraseology” of Marxist-Leninist discourse in his writings during this time. Interview with Kané, March 12, 2014.
  73. See Aumont, “Groupe 3: Les acquis théoriques,” op. cit., p. 43.
  74. Daney and Oudart, “Sur Family Life (de Kenneth Loach),” Cahiers du cinéma no. 244 (February-March 1973), pp. 44-48.
  75. Daney, “Au nom du Père, Viol en première page,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-146 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 43-49, here p. 49.
  76. Daney, “Groupe 4: Le héros positif,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 244 (February-March 1973), pp. 54-58, here p. 54.
  77. Bonitzer and Toubiana, “État de siège,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 245-246 (April-May-June 1973), pp. 49-54, here p. 49.
  78. Bonitzer, “L’expérience en intérieur (Dernier Tango à Paris, La Grande Bouffe, La Maman et la Putain),” Cahiers du cinéma no. 247 (July-August 1973), pp. 33-36, here p. 33.
  79. Toubiana, “Entretien avec Jean Eustache,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 284 (January 1978), pp. 16-27, here p. 25.
  80. Bonitzer himself published a touching obituary to Eustache after the latter’s suicide in 1981. See “Jean Eustache a franchi la porte,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 330 (December 1981), pp. 16-17.
  81. See De Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 262; and Toubiana, Les Fantômes du souvenir (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 2016), p. 61. This account has been corroborated in interviews with Toubiana (April 29, 2014) and Bonitzer (April 30, 2014).
  82. Interview with Bonitzer, April 30, 2014.
  83. Daney, “Fonction critique,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 248 (ca. late 1973), pp. 39-40. Translated as “The Critical Function,” trans. Annwyl Williams, in Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. IV, op. cit., p. 56-72.
  84. Kané, “Sur Avanti,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 248 (ca. late 1973), pp. 45-48, here p. 48. Translated as “On Avanti,” in Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. IV, op. cit., pp. 273-276, here p. 275.
  85. Cited in de Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., pp. 262-263.
  86. Philippe Pakradouni, “Réponse au no. 250,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 253 (October-November 1974), pp. 53-58, here p. 57.
  87. Interview with Narboni, March 18, 2014.
  88. De Baecque, Histoire d’une revue vol. II, op. cit., p. 263.
  89. Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur (Paris: P.O.L., 1993), p. 302.
  90. Toubiana, “Parce que l’amitié!,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 458 (July-August 1992), pp. 6-8, here p. 7.
  91. When interviewed, Toubiana placed particular emphasis on the importance of winning back readership during this period, pointing to high sales of issue no. 251-252 (which featured an interview with Foucault), and the special issues edited by Godard and Marguérite Duras. Interview with Toubiana, April 29, 2014.
  92. Daney, “Fonction critique,” op. cit., p. 39.[p. 56].
  93. Ibid.
  94. Ibid. [p. 57].
  95. Ibid., p. 40.
  96. Toubiana recalls that his contribution to the text was minimal: “Serge [Daney] had written it in one burst, during the night, asking me the next day to read it and correct. Not a word needed changing.” Toubiama, Les Fantômes du souvenir, op. cit., p. 66.
  97. Daney and Toubiana, “Les Cahiers aujourd’hui,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 250 (May 1974), pp. 5-10, here p. 6. Translated as “Editorial: Cahiers Today,” trans. Liz Heron, in Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. IV, op. cit., pp. 47-55, here p. 47.
  98. Ibid., p. 8 [p. 51].
  99. Ibid., p. 9 [p. 53]. Emphasis in original.
  100. See “Dario Fo à Vincennes,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 250 (May 1974), pp. 16-25. While attracted to the pro-Chinese movement and highly critical of the PCI, Fo’s political orientation was far more mercurial than that of the Maoist activists Cahiers had previously gravitated towards, and inclined more towards anarchism or autonomism.
  101. Daney, L’exercice a été profitable, Monsieur, op. cit., p. 303.
  102. Daney, Persévérance (Paris: P.O.L., 1993), p. 143. Translated as Postcards from the Cinema, trans. Paul Douglas Grant (Oxford: Berg, 2007), p. 119.
  103. Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, monsieur, op. cit., p. 300.
  104. Ibid., p. 298.