Lecture at a round-table on the theme “For a new critical consciousness of film language”.

Mostra de Pesaro, 4 June 1966

This lecture shocked Metz, Barthes and Pasolini (who was nonetheless a fan of my first film). But it delighted Godard.

The delay and the difficulty with which we have come to understand the components of film language (film languages, for there exist, alongside the Hollywoodo-European language, Japanese, Hindu and Egyptian languages) have made us take this understanding for a great success. I think that we were right to be proud, because it wasn’t easy to discover. But where we were wrong is in believing that our magnificent effort made us understand something magnificent. We were wrong in mistaking our effort for its result. Because the result, the knowledge of film languages, reveals but one thing, and this thing is the congenital artistic mediocrity of past, present and future film languages.

Christian Metz says that we cannot attack film language, since it codifies pure forms. I disagree: right from the moment when a human being invented these forms that others will transform into codes, these forms are impure, tarnished—and fortunately tarnished—by his/her personality. Metz says that the alternation of images implies simultaneity of facts. In this case, it’s a personal codification initiated by the creator of the first parallel montage, which could also signify, among various possibilities, the alternation of facts and the hero’s thoughts (The War Is Over), comparison between time periods (Not Reconciled), alternation of the creator’s and the hero’s thoughts (Marienbad). Even though these three implications are contrary to the original meaning, they are no less comprehensible: it isn’t necessary that the devices be codified in order to be understood. Indeed, the first film employing parallel montage was successfully understood, even when the code hadn’t yet come into existence.

Metz also says that we should not pass an artistic judgement on language, which is necessary and neutral. Now, a communicative instance is always also the first time an aesthetic instance. It’s the second time that it becomes solely communicative. The first time we perceive this instance, we indeed experience an emotion of an artistic order based particularly on surprise. Similarly, an aesthetic instance is always likely to be a communicative instance, at times even exclusively. So it is with the dramatic value of colours. Defining art solely as a means to harness a medium common to everyone seems to me to be a bourgeois conception of art: eighty percent fixed stock, twenty percent sauce of your choice. It’s a conception that can be defended only if one attributes a secondary role to film art, an entertaining function, a purely decorative interest. And, in that case, I think our presence, this colloquium and the Mostra would be useless. Art’s interest lies especially in being able to, in having to destroy and reconstruct its own foundations and venture into its own depths. To be sure, I understand that art can attach itself to language if the creator superposes another aesthetico-communicative—or rather, I prefer, communico-aesthetic, for it’s prettier—instance over it that’s also liable to be transformed into language. It’s very common in cinema. But whether this instance attaches itself to language or not has no bearing on its value, and thus is of no importance.

There is a complete opposition between film language and film art, for film language spills over into art, invades, and suffocates it. It is a relationship of opposition, not one of indifference: language and art are the bottom and the top of the same thing; language is failed art.

Literary language, less absorbent, is indifferent to art: it remains a simple and modest medium of art as of information. Film language, on the other hand, conditions art. One could say that good cinema starts where language ends and dies where language resurfaces. And if all bad films are not necessarily representatives of film language, for there are bad avant-garde films, it’s nonetheless sure that film language can only produce bad things, with one rare exception. If not all rubbish is language, language is always rubbish: the proof for this is that, in all books on film language, the best examples are drawn from rubbish and the list of cited films are made of many duds and leaves out many masterpieces.

Why this state of affairs? It’s simple: the viewer receives a work made by the artist. It’s the first stage, that of communication. Alas, there can be a second stage: the viewer, having become director, redoes what the artist has done. It’s a reply along the same lines, an inter-communication. That’s what’s called language, redoing what another has done, redoing that which doesn’t belong to us. Language is theft. Art is individual, communication of a single instant, it’s that which can exist only once. Language is that which can only exist from the second time onwards, when an associate has transformed art into signs. There is no more creation, only mechanical reproduction. Art can never be reused. Language can only be reused, for it’s in being reused that it proves itself to be language. It is the vain attempt at eternalization of artistic success the human being always dreams of. It is the negation even of artistic originality. We perceive film art thanks to a personal effort of reflection or intuition. We perceive cinema of language with no effort—and it is, besides, for this reason that we have such difficulty in being aware of this language: it is made for our laziness. In film language, the thing expressed is no more than a common symbol, a sign that filmmaker-robots employ and which viewer-robots understand.

The biggest danger of film language on the artistic level is that the one who employs it thus destroys his own personality. The French who imitate American cinema are but appropriating the means conceived by Griffith and DeMille to express in the best possible way their personal universe, marked by Southern spirit and a puritanism that has nothing to do with the universe of the French directors. When Lelouch borrows Godard’s language by recopying Godard’s stylistic ideas, he necessarily fails because Godard’s stylistic expression depends on the fact that Godard is Swiss and Protestant and that he is Godard. Now, Lelouch is nothing of that sort, he expresses personal themes different from Godard’s, or most often, he doesn’t express themes. Language is thus alienation.

Moreover, the successive and separate landings of film language—Griffith-language, Godard-language for example—are necessarily contrary to art, which proceeds without ever being able to stop at any landing. If it does, it ceases to be art.

We thus see how great the harmfulness of film language is: the viewer has to make no effort to understand the film. The signs of language make him understand everything without effort. He becomes passive, lets himself be put to sleep by the fiction of the film. Cinema loses its role as a school of life, before which man retains the same passivity. During the years 1945-1955, language had crushed cinema with such power that viewers, who generally didn’t have past filmic experience, believed that cinema coincided with film language, and that all that wasn’t cinema of language was without interest and bad. It took ten years for the public to start understanding that the language-cinema it was used to was but one episode in the history of cinema, which could very well develop without it. One could say that the refinement of film language considerably delayed the development of film art and the civilization of the masses.

Film language nonetheless possesses four strengths: firstly, the clarity with which it appears now, thanks to the efforts of researchers, has allowed the enumeration of all its devices. That is to say, everything that should not be done. It’s quite convenient. Certain films even mount a critique of film language, which they turn upside-down to obtain surprise effects. It’s the case of some scenes in Godard, Hitchcock, who are therefore dependent on the mediocrity of film language.

Secondly—and this is the exception I mentioned earlier—filmmakers can hypocritically respect language in order to take the viewer into confidence and slide in a revolutionary thought more easily, or to indict social or psychological conformism of which the very principle of film language is but a reflection, with the film presenting itself as burnt offering. It’s the path of more or less anarchist filmmakers, Buñuel, Chabrol, Franju. It’s the destruction of language from within.

Thirdly, directors can respect the rules of the language and create an original work despite language, for reasons external to language, which neither brings nor takes anything away from them. I think almost all good films retain the echoes of film language. If we attribute a value to them, it’s because they carry fewer echoes than others, it’s because these have little importance, because we forget them and especially because there is something else in the film. Our appreciation is thus on relative terms and not absolute ones: we like them because there’s nothing better. This third alternative has a great financial advantage, as does partly the previous alternative: it guarantees the commercial career of the films.

For, fourthly, film language above all has a monetary advantage: since it’s easily accessible to everyone, it’s the prime mover of the film industry, which partly conditions the art of film. It’s the reason why the politicians and the grocers of cinema, the grocer-politicians and the politician-grocers of cinema love it. It will therefore be impossible to make film language disappear and even undesirable to do so: the value of films being found in relation to other films, it is impossible that, out of a hundred films, there are fewer than seventy-five bad ones. Better that these seventy-five duds respect film language, which brings in money, than orient themselves towards bad avant-garde, which brings no money. It avoids unemployment. Just that what happened in the world ten years ago—and what’s still happening in Germany today, namely ninety-five out of hundred films being language-cinema—must not happen again. For, in that case, the public is led to refuse all art and thus all new forms of language-cinema. Prohibiting such a renewal spells doom for art and also for the industry, which needs, from time to time, this small dose of innovation brought about by every new landing of language-cinema that art unveils.

Each one of us in this room, critic or filmmaker, should therefore undertake a struggle against film language, which should assume, in order to be more effective, a new offensive appearance, but which is in fact defensive, since art should be and always will be a minority with respect to language.

Filmmakers, to the extent that they are not constrained by material necessities, must refuse to make language-cinema; they must even refuse the double-game I mentioned, creation within or outside of language, for in respecting the rules of language without following its spirit, they will always be defeated by those who respect its spirit, that is to say the merchants who will crush them. Critics must study the history of cinema, learn by themselves and make others learn that film language is like religion, that the well-known film language isn’t the only one to exist or to have ever existed, that it belongs to a determined time and place, that one particular film language should not be favoured nor a film language be expected during the projection of each film, that film language is but the fruit of laziness and lack of imagination. Each of us must be able to shout out loud: “Down with film language, so that long lives cinema!”


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