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home > undercurrent > issue 7 > Cineastes and Cinephiles  

about the writer

Larysa Smirnova teaches at Tufts University. She has written about film for Undercurrent and CinémAction and is currently working (with Dmitry Martov) on a Russian translation of the second volume of Raoul Ruiz's Poétique du cinéma.

Dmitry Martov is a freelance writer based in Boston. He writes on film primarily for KINOTE and has recently interviewed Olaf Möller for MUBI.


[1] In "Qu'est-ce qu'un cinéaste?"

[2]Les Films Diagonale was the production company founded in 1976 by Paul Vecchiali to produce his own films as well as films by his close associates: Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Marie-Claude Treilhou, Noël Simsolo, Gérard Frot-Coutaz and Jacques Davila. Diagonale also co-produced two Straub-Huillet films: En rachâchant (1982) and Cézanne (1990).

Cineastes and Cinephiles:
An Interview with Pierre Léon about Jean-Claude Biette
By Larysa Smirnova and Dmitry Martov

Pierre Leon
Howard Vernon
Jean-Claude Biette
(left, top) Pierre Léon and Jean-Christophe Bouvet in Jean-Claude Biette's Le complexe de Toulon; (left, bottom) Howard Vernon in Biette's Le champignon des Carpathes; (right) Biette in Léon's Oncle Vania

For more than 20 years, from 1964 to the 1980s, Jean-Claude Biette (1942-2003) was a film critic at Cahiers du cinéma. Later, in 1991, he founded Trafic with Serge Daney. Nearly eight years after his death, he still remains a largely unknown figure in the English-speaking world, even among hardcore cinephiles. It is quite symptomatic that four volumes of collected articles from Cahiers du cinéma, translated to English and published by Harvard University Press and Routledge, contain a total of zero critical pieces written by Biette (with the exception of his participation in a group interview with Eric Rohmer in 1965). There have been, on the other hand, a few commendable but sporadic attempts to introduce Biette's words and ideas to the English-speaking cinephilic community: Adrian Martin officially adopting Biette's "poétique des auteurs," as opposed to the classic "politique des auteurs," as his working method; Bill Krohn trying to promulgate Biette's classification of film directors (réalisateur — metteur en scène — author — cinéaste) [1] to enliven the debates around the auteur theory on a now-almost-defunct internet discussion group; and Andy Rector recently publishing in his blog Kino Slang an English translation of Biette's review of Straub and Huillet's Trop tôt, trop tard (1982).

Biette's obscurity as a critic in the English-speaking part of the world, though lamentable, can be explained at least in part by the general paucity of good English translations of important film books and texts. His obscurity as a filmmaker is more puzzling. The number of times any of his seven feature films were screened in the United States and the United Kingdom can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none of his films have ever been released with English subtitles on VHS and DVD. (As far as we know, no official DVDs of Biette's films are available in France either). His face, however, may be recognized by some, since he also had a career as an actor and performed in films by Rohmer, Eustache, and Straub/Huillet, among others.

Hopefully, Pierre Léon's recently completed documentary, Biette, will change this situation and be the first step towards lifting the veil of anonymity from the body of work of this important figure. Like Biette, Léon enjoys a triple duty of filmmaker, actor, and critic: his most recent feature film prior to Biette, L'Idiot (2008), with Jeanne Balibar and Sylvie Testud, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival; he performed in films by Serge Bozon, Jean-Paul Civeyrac, Jean-Charles Fitoussi, and Louis Skorecki and (most recently) in the forthcoming film by Bertrand Bonello; and he has a regular column in Trafic ("À contre-jour"). Biette was Léon's long-time friend and teacher, and they both acted in each other's films, Léon in Biette's Chasse gardée (1992) and Le complexe de Toulon (1996), Biette in Léon's Adolescent (2001) and Oncle Vania (1987) — his performance in the latter film Biette considered to be his favorite. For Biette, Pierre Léon interviewed an impressive selection of people who knew Biette closely and/or worked with him: critics Bernard Eisenschitz, Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre, and Louis Skorecki, directors Manoel de Oliveira, Adolfo Arrietta, Paul Vecchiali, and Serge Bozon, and actors Jean-Christoph Bouvet, Luís Miguel Cintra, Mathieu Amalric, and Jeanne Balibar, to name just a few. The film mainly focuses on Biette's work in cinema, structured around his filmography, starting with his work as an assistant director for Pasolini during the shooting of Edipo re (1967) and including his unrealized projects (such as Robinson Crusoe, with Denis Lavant). However, his critical texts, such as "Les Fantômes du Permanent," and the genesis of Trafic also get discussed. At the end of the film, Léon steps away from the conventions of biographical documentary and performs (with Francoise Lebrun and Pascal Cervo) a scene from Biette's play Bluebeard, which was staged in 1996 by Christine Laurent at the Teatro da Cornucópia in Lisbon but was originally intended as a screenplay (published in Trafic).

An almost finished version of Biette had its unofficial premiere on November 12, 2010, as part of "Beaubourg, La dernière Major!" ("Beaubourg, the last major!"), a 10-day program organized by Serge Bozon and Pascale Bodet at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This program was dedicated to the century of French cinema (1910-2010) and included film screenings, lectures, round tables, and musical and theatrical performances. Biette was chosen by Bozon to represent the decade of the 1980s. It reflects Léon's ambition of trying not only to reinstate the solitary figure of his friend and maître to his well-deserved place in collective cinephilic consciousness but also to fill in a larger blank page in the history of French cinema, giving voice to the generation of filmmakers "lost between the New Wave and the 1990s," as Léon says in the following interview.

LS/DM: Pierre, could you tell us about your first encounter with Jean-Claude Biette?

PL: It was in December 1980, at a small festival in Marsigny. There was a rather strange double program: on the one hand — Paul Vecchiali's films and the ones he produced for Diagonale; [2] on the other hand, a panorama of contemporary German cinema. Since there were a lot of events centered around Diagonale, their whole group came down to this remote, snowy province: Vecchiali, of course, [Jean-Claude] Guiguet, Biette, [Gérard] Frot-Coutaz, actors, various assistants, etc. We all had our meals at the same restaurant, and conversation went on easily between them and the young cinephiles that we were. I, however, felt more comfortable talking to Guiguet, who was less reserved than Biette. By the way, at this time, I liked Guiguet's films a lot, while Biette's films (he had just finished Loin de Manhattan [released 1982]) frightened me a little. Afterwards, we met regularly, but our true friendship began around music, during the time when I was working at Libération as a CD reviewer, between 1985 and 1988. As for Biette, he was doing radio programs at France Musique, and that's how, by the way, he made his living.

LS/DM: Why did you find Biette's films frightening at that time?

PL: They were very enigmatic. I was used to seeing complex, difficult, cerebral movies but I had never seen such puzzling films: very thought-through and yet very simple. I could not understand half of what they were conveying. I sensed that there were hidden beauties in them, keys for understanding, keys I did not possess yet. I was more receptive to the abrupt lyricism of Guiguet than the extravagant, lopsided realism of Biette.

LS/DM: Biette was an important critic and filmmaker whose works (both writing and films) are almost entirely unknown outside France. And even among French cinephiles, he is far from enjoying the popularity of Serge Daney, for example. How do you explain this situation? And, in this respect, what is the aspiration of your film: is it homage to a friend and a "maître," or an attempt to restore Biette's place in the cinematographic Pantheon?

PL: Biette worked at Cahiers during two different periods. First, starting in 1964; I think he was writing about the films that nobody wanted to deal with. Then, in September 1965, he deserted the French Army and ran away to Italy, where he stayed until the end of 1969. There, he made friends with Pasolini, who had an immense influence on him, but also with Bertolucci, Laura Betti, Elsa Morante, etc. It was in Italy that he made his first movies (four shorts). At this time, two filmmakers were very important to him: Straub and Oliveira (he discovered the films of the latter in Locarno: his article in Cahiers was only the second article devoted to this auteur after… Bazin). When he returned in France, Cahiers was in the midst of its Maoist period, and Jean-Claude cautiously stayed away from these turbulences. He did not write again until after a certain "normalization" took place, and it's then, I think, that he made real progress in critical writing, comparable to that of Daney and Scorecki. In addition to the discovery of certain auteurs (e.g., Douglas Sirk), all three of them felt that cinephilic experience was about to change radically and that it was important for film criticism not to be left in the lurch. In the case of Skorecki this understanding resulted in the radicalization of the discourse of "Against the New Cinephilia." With Biette, we witness a total overhaul of the critical arsenal — on the one hand, television is here, undeniably; on the other hand, films arrive at the movie theatre more and more disfigured by publicity, promotion, rumors, both positive and negative. Biette then puts everything on an equal footing: all films, old as well as new, and all spaces of viewing, the theater screen or the TV screen. Making already the distinction between the present and the current, between what will remain and what will fade.

But to return to your question, I think we need to distinguish two things. As a film critic, Biette does have a certain audience, and I believe that his ideas about cinema are more or less known to French readers and critics. As a filmmaker, however, it's different. Biette published two collections of critical texts (Poétique des auteurs and Qu'est-ce qu'un cinéaste?) and a diary (Cinémanuel), which means that it's not difficult to familiarize oneself with his ideas, unless you are very lazy, which is the case of the quasi-majority of the French critics. As for the films, they are rarely shown. Sometimes at the Cinémathèque. Of course, he is less known than Daney, but we should not forget that Daney, for many years, was in charge of the film section of one of the most important French daily papers, where you are, by definition, more exposed than in the editorial office of Trafic.

As for my film, Biette, it's difficult for me to evaluate what it is exactly. Jean-Claude was my friend, but I was not trying to reveal the secrets of our friendship. He was not a maître either; I am not even sure I like the idea of homage. On the other hand, I was secretly guided by the idea that Biette — by his discreet force, his critical humor, and the immense talent of a filmmaker refusing the posture of an artist — could represent this lost generation, caught between the Nouvelle Vague and the 1990s, whose experiments, both formal and political, show an audacity that renders null and ridiculous quite a number of postmodern pseudo-extravagances. It is necessary then for Biette's films, as well as those of Vecchiali, [Adolfo] Arrietta, [Marie-Claude] Treilhou, [Jacques] Davila, etc., to come out of the shadows and out of silence. I would add here the video phase of Godard, Rivette's Out 1 and Les Filles de feu, and Chabrol's films from 1966 to 1979, so little known.

LS/DM: How would you define Biette's writing style?

PL: Enigmatic, precise, humorous, paradoxical.

LS/DM: In cinephilic discourse, the name of Biette is often associated with his classification of film directors: réalisateur — metteur en scène — auteur — cinéaste. [1] What do you think about this taxonomy as a cinéphile and… cinéaste?

PL: It was in "Qu'est-ce qu'un cinéaste?", a text that came out in the spring of 1996 (Trafic Number 18), that Biette attempted this theoretical division, and I know that it impressed a lot of people, including Godard. What strikes me in this text is its extreme rigor, even harshness, probably due to Biette's natural mistrust of "articles du fond" ["in-depth" articles or "think pieces"]. I could never fully embrace these ideas, and I am saying this openly because I often had a chance to discuss it with Jean-Claude. What bothered me is that I felt instinctively that these four categories were unequal and that there was a "master" category, that of cinéaste (one who has a vision of the world). I also think that despite its reputation, this text is also a balance sheet for the politique des auteurs, the last attempt to define what an auteur is today, before throwing in the towel and attending to what is truly interesting: films. It was only the first stage.

LS/DM: In that case, which critical articles by Biette did leave a mark on you?

PL: "Le gouvernement des films," a text he published two years later, and which is a logical follow-up to "Qu'est-ce qu'un cinéaste?", went almost unnoticed, although I found it more exciting, more open, less abstract. Biette suggests distinguishing in a film three fundamental agencies, namely the formal project (projet formel), the narrative (récit), and dramaturgy (dramaturgie). By making possible multiple combinations and changes inside the same film, he breathed life into the idea of cinema, which was then becoming what it should always be: intelligence in movement.

LS/DM: Do you know how he arrived at this theory?

PL: I'll tell you how this idea came to him, and you'll see that the discovery of certain laws, such as that of the dialectic relationship between narrative and dramaturgy, came to him after viewing a film, from concrete observation. In a letter he wrote to me in August 1997, Biette tells me that he has just discovered Some Came Running [Vincente Minnelli, 1958], from which he had previously seen only excerpts: "I liked it a lot — only, a small disappointment, I think that Arthur Kennedy is a bad choice — he has to over-act — but all the others are incredible — this film made me discover two or three ideas in regard to cinema: first, Minnelli does not direct actors, he choreographs movements, gestures, intonations, which resolves harmoniously all the ferocious demands of psychology and dramaturgy (in this regard, Kennedy's wife is terrific, and, in passing, the character of the secretary is magnificent). But the idea, which goes beyond the case of Minnelli, that I discovered thanks to his film, is that there are three categories of films, roughly, films that are based on narrative, films that are based on dramaturgy, and films that are based on the cinematographic form. I'll give examples: Walsh gives priority to narrative, while Minnelli gives it to dramaturgy; in effect, in Walsh, it's the story that is told that engages our reverie, even though dramaturgy certainly plays an important part here (but it never overwhelms the narrative), whereas in Minnelli, we are never really called upon by the narrative, while we are strongly engaged by the dramaturgy. I would put Renoir in this category, and also Rossellini, the atheist, and even Ford, with whom it's the blocks of drama that count (I haven't decided yet where Hawks belongs). As for the films of cinematographic form, I think, it's easy to put on this side Eisenstein, Godard, Oliveira, Straub, in whose works neither narrative nor dramaturgy have priority. And what is good about this triple distinction is that it does not imply any hierarchization It's also interesting because it complicates things as it clarifies them: for example, in Tourneur, it's the opaque mystery of the world that nourishes the narrative."

LS/DM: Since Jacques Tourneur has come up, could you tell us more about the importance he had for Biette?

PL: I think it was a relatively late discovery for him. After he returned from Italy. "An opaque mystery of the world" — that's what Biette says about Tourneur, and it is a perfect description of his own cinema. Biette admired not only the intelligence, the economy, the taste for mise-en-scène in Tourneur, but also his refusal of the status of auteur. Tourneur considered himself a studio functionary, whose responsibility was nothing more or less than the execution of assignments (except for Stars in My Crown [1950], for which he gave up his salary) — Biette loved that. I think that it's to Biette (and to Skorecki) that we owe the true reevaluation of Tourneur as a great filmmaker and not only a master of the B movie.

LS/DM: "Beaubourg: la dernière major," where you presented your Biette, is a history of cinema according to Serge Bozon and Co. But Biette, in a sense, was someone who developed his own personal film history. Could you tell us about the way Biette thought about the survival in the present of the cinema of the past (especially on television), about the relations that the cinema of the past has with the cinema of the present (perhaps as a model, or as a system of values)?

PL: You are absolutely right. Very early, Biette realized that official film history was not only unsatisfactory, but that all hierarchies were more or less dubious, for they responded to current imperatives: economical, political, ideological. And even though he felt naturally close to Cahiers du cinéma, he did not necessarily share their collective tastes and always stayed away from the big critical machines. Biette was looking for a direct rapport with films, independent of their social existence, if I can put it that way, and television, as an instrument of diffusion, was a blessing for him, for he loved staying home, locked up among his thousands of records, books, and cassettes. He could then establish connections between absolutely dissimilar films, and I think he was one of the rare filmmakers and critics to free himself from the question of modernity. The media collectivity (for such it is, from henceforth) builds a culture of vision, formulates a response to aesthetic problems that everybody can accept, proposes reassuring schemes, whereas Biette tried to regain the essential solitude of the cinephile, a member of an uncertain, floating, and fragile community.

LS/DM: You praise Biette for distancing himself from the question of modernity. But you, yourself, often participated in debates about cinema and modernity. Once you mentioned two tendencies that determined the development of "auteur cinema" in the 1980s: you discussed a conflict between two directions that marked the cinema of that time — that of Antonioni, Godard, and Straub vs. the direction of Pasolini and Fassbinder — and suggested that the followers of the former trend had won this battle. Could you please expand on this idea?

PL: I think that there was, at least in France, between 1980 and 1986, a desire to restore what the cinema had been before the Nouvelle Vague, a desire to go back to story, characters, plot, in short, all these things that were compromised, especially by Godard, but also by Rivette, and Rohmer, who stripped his characters down to the bone, leaving them no flesh except that of their profession. This tendency in cinema was called the nouvelle qualité française [New Tradition of Quality] (it's curious that it was forgotten), and it was represented by film directors, often left-wing, like Tavernier or Claude Miller, whose undeclared project was to make French films à la Sydney Pollack. This tendency, together with official policy which considered that cinema was also an industry, obviously left all marginal manifestations sidelined. Faced with this offensive — almost unnatural considering it paired the left and money — filmmakers who refused to follow this road (like those who today refuse to embrace the doctrine of the "cinéma du milieu") had no other way out than to seek radical solutions. Since the way of narrative, as I would call it, was compromised by the qualité française, filmmakers naturally turned to contemplation, wandering, fragmentation, which explains the success of filmed diaries, auto-fictions, etc. It's logical that these film directors (see the evolution of Alain Cavalier, for example) found inspiration in the violent and devitalizing experiments of Antonioni, in the radical attempts of liquidation and confrontation of Godard, in political and formal rigor of the Straubs. Pasolini, and later Fassbinder, were so involved with the mythical and historical narratives of their countries, filled out their history so much with vast interrogations of society and identity, going well beyond their private life, that it became impossible to take them as models in our bloodless and atomized societies. There is another reason, less esthetico-psychological, at the issue of this battle: the so-called Asian New Wave drew heavily from the Antonioni-Truffaut-Godard reservoir, with much success as we all know. And that's what is called competition!

LS/DM: Where would you place Biette in regard to this opposition?

PL: What I have just said relates to contemporary cinema. Biette began his career in different aesthetic and economic conditions. Even though he was affected by what was happening in the years 1985-1995. I think that the tendency I describe, very roughly by the way, concerns in the first place the generation of filmmakers who appeared in the beginning of the 1990s and who had to settle this question of heritage. Let's not forget that Serge Daney, together with Wenders and Godard, declared the death of cinema, which provoked a certain uneasiness. The cinema that I call "narrative" cinema was cluttered up with things that we hated, like Tavernier's films, and it was natural to turn to a more purified, less narrative, cinema, if only in reaction. But Biette did not have to ask himself this question. He grew up with Cahiers, with Rohmer, then Straub, Oliveira, Duras, Vecchiali, and he was not in the process of searching for a style. He had no reason to panic.

LS/DM: How do you see the future of your film and the future of your project of bringing the name of Jean-Claude Biette back to the history of cinema?

PL: I am planning a Biette retrospective in Beaubourg in 2012. The program will run for two months (April and May) and will include, in addition to Biette's films (seven feature films and seven shorts), the films produced by Diagonale (Vecchiali, Guiguet, Treilhou, Davila) as well as films by such directors as Pasolini, Straub, Rohmer, Oliveira, Monteiro, Bill Douglas, Peter Emmanuel Goldman, Tourneur, Lang, Walsh, and others. I am still searching for other partners and institutions interested in running this program after Beaubourg. So far, the Cinémathèque of Lisbon has expressed strong interest. In the meantime, we have proposed this retrospective to the festivals in Locarno and Vienna, and are looking forward to hearing from them, hopefully, soon.

As for my film, I would like to offer it to some festivals. Then, I would wait for the retrospective in Beaubourg, in 2012, and maybe present my film as an accompaniment to the Biette program at one of the movie theaters in Paris (with the help of Jean-Marc Zekri and his distribution company Baba Yaga Films).

Larysa Smirnova and Dmitry Martov

Jean-Claude Biette
Jean-Claude Biette in Pierre Léon's Oncle Vania




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