The goats of Le Poil

Cahiers du cinéma no. 197; Christmas 1967/January 1968.

Georges Sadoul

Please note that I filmed Shipwrecked on Route D17 (2001) in Le Poil.

Critics today start writing at eighteen or twenty years of age and retire at thirty. Sadoul, on the other hand, came to criticism at thirty. He’d taken interest in cinema earlier than that and from up close. But he’d been a Surrealist, a communist, a jurist or economist – I don’t really know – and a host of other things before becoming a full-time critic and historian of cinema. His knowledge runs deep into the most diverse of domains. At times – he has been criticized for it – he seeks out the best encyclopaedia to complete his information. But we sense that he regrets not being able to know more, that he’d have really liked to furnish information that’s first-hand. For most part, they were. Even regarding particular issues. Coming out from my documentary Black Earth, Sadoul reproached me for not revealing the real reason why the village of Le Poil, whose ruins we see for a few seconds in the film, was deserted by its inhabitants. Le Poil, in contrast to its surrounding villages, owned only goats, animals which devour roots and prevent vegetation. It was obvious I didn’t speak about it: it was Sadoul who told me that!

He is the first to have systematically explained cinema from the point of view of an economist and a political historian. Everyone who followed copied him, becoming dime-store Sadouls. Faced with the wave of vulgar determinism that was leftist criticism, one tended to forget that it originally had an interesting stance – that of one single man – that had to be taken not as the basis of all judgment but as an opening which was rich in significations and didn’t exclude others. The mistake of this criticism was to turn the doing of one particular individuality into an iron-clad law. Sadoul is known especially for his single-volume history of cinema, published in large numbers in, I think, thirty countries. Reading it in 1949 is when I discovered the existence of cinema as art. The book helps us find a lot of basic information easily and quickly. But it’s mostly a condensed, popular volume with summary, truncated judgments.

In fact, the real Sadoul is that of The General History of Cinema (till 1920) in four volumes, a fascinating (true-to-life) novel of close to two thousand pages where the narrator takes us through the suspenseful struggle between trusts and filmmakers. The length allows him to bring nuance to his judgments. Even when questionable or narrow, they are always justified.

The real Sadoul is the reviewer of Lettres françaises. By his clarity, which I tried to rediscover in vain and which many, even here, must be jealous of, by his honesty – he is the only critic who doesn’t hesitate invoking his personal experience to explain a judgment, while the others disguise their subjectivity under hypocritical abstractions, he constitutes the base of critical reference. Especially since 1959.

I liked reading Sadoul from 1949 to 1952 because he was the first and only cinematic reference. Once my training was done, I made him a target from 1952 to 1959, only to start liking him again. Not that he changed, or that I did. But, before 1959, the best in cinema was American, a cinema found on expression and not on subject matter. In 1959, the best in cinema was French and founded on subject matter. Sadoul’s system had once again become the best.

Along with Cournot, Sadoul is one of the rarest whose criticism is still alive and relevant. In fact, next to him, young ones like Ajame, Benayoun or Chapier are stiff fogeys. Last year, he fought with the force of a Truffaut and with a humour that was his own against the dangers of cinematographic standardization and sanctification of the internegative. Moreover, he has a technical knowledge of filmmaking, something quite rare among his peers.

Of course, Sadoul often – less and less often to be fair – said bad things about good films and good things about bad ones. But in doing so, he spoke well. I mean he had arguments, though easily refutable given they were borrowed from his system. I mean that his judgment was based on something. On the other hand, at Cahiers, we said good things about good films and bad things about bad ones, but we often spoke badly. And speaking badly when you are saying good things about a good film is infinitely more serious than speaking well when you are saying bad things about it. This contrast shows that there is no critical text that can be entirely satisfying. Critical opinions must be added up to get a reflection of reality. We aren’t there yet: with Sadoul dead, Cournot making films, Cervoni remaining confidential and Delahaye episodic, there is no criticism anymore in France, and even less elsewhere.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]