In Memory of Jean Douchet (1929-2019)

[The following is my translation of the interview with Jean Douchet that introduces his collection of DVD reviews, La Dvdéothèque de Jean Douchet (Cahiers du cinéma, 2006)]

Your first collection of articles, L’Art d’aimer1, was published in 1987. It’s almost been twenty years since. What was the context for this book, which has since become a reference work?

I moved away from Cahiers following a famous episode—the magazine’s opening up to modernity and to great thinkers of the sixties (Levi-Strauss, Barthes, etc.): to put it briefly, it seemed that the kind of criticism I encouraged and practiced wasn’t intellectual enough. This separation lasted a while, until Cahiers’ Maoist period of the seventies, when the magazine almost went into a turmoil. It was an interesting phase too, but that’s not the point: I remember being very worked up about the collective article on Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (No. 223).

I came back to Cahiers little by little, notably with the interview “Douchet dissects De Palma” (No. 326), on a filmmaker that the magazine didn’t like at that point in time, not enough to my taste at least. After this, certain critics, including Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, started to think that what I proposed was powerful. That’s where I had the idea to publish my important articles for Cahiers, as well as a few rare ones from the Arts weekly, for which I wrote five to six lines as well as authentic reviews.

L’Art d’aimer allowed me to go back to the world of criticism—even if it would be an exaggeration to say that I’d been totally absent in the intervening years. Immediately afterwards, Serge Toubiana entrusted me with a column that I wrote for two or three years. But my real return to Cahiers was in 2000 when, during the launch of the website under your editorship, you both invited me to write a weekly DVD column. The column I write today in the magazine is a continuation of that. These articles for the site were numerous, “lost” for the most part since the site doesn’t exist in its original form anymore: that’s part of the interest of republishing them today.


What was the idea behind this column?

Right from the outset, I refused to have a policy set in stone. I wanted to show how a certain filmmaker, a certain body of work could endure; to continue L’Art d’aimer (the art of loving): to make people want to discover, rediscover, understand… No predetermined selection, only impulses, urges to write. I chose DVDs based sometimes on what I liked, sometimes on what I received. This “chance” went hand in hand with my chief trait: epicureanism, pleasure above all. Now, pleasure is a question of receptiveness. Even when it’s a gift, this gift intensifies reception. I receive, I give, pleasure amplifies the pleasure of having received. A perpetual exchange.

Guided by this non-logic, I covered and will continue to cover the entire history of cinema, from Griffith to today, without having to go through the imperatives that the notion of history implies. There is no presiding order, and that’s why I wanted these columns to be republished in the order of their original appearance. They are independent, or rather it’s up to the reader to discover in what way they aren’t, in what way they outline, who knows, a system.


What’s your working method?

Still the same, DVDs have changed nothing: my approach involves sensation, then an attempt at a lucid analysis of this sensation. It seems to me that, to speak well about a film, you should have just seen it. You must start from the sensations (re)created by this screening. You must, of course, also start from two or three things you know. But it’s imperative to see it again as close as possible to the writing of the article. While it’s hot, not eight days before. Let’s take The Rules of the Game: though I’ve seen it two or three hundred times, if I had to randomly write an article or present a lecture, I’ll see it again. There are always new or forgotten things that surface.

We see a DVD alone: an advantage and a disadvantage. In a theatre, I always sit in the first row and a little to the right, in order to be isolated from and in front of the general public. I hear, I feel their reaction. I am the public, no more no less; I receive, and in receiving, I try to do something with what was given to me.

Seeing films in theatre is second to none. At home, we are alone, we have the possibility of stopping, we become more precise. But since I work off sensations, I hate extrapolations. I’d even say that great criticism is something everyone could do, it’s the same for everyone since there’s just one object. It’s visible to everyone, you just have to see it.

It’s well-known that I never take notes. Never. At the worst, I stop the film to go back to a line of dialogue to better understand it. And if I stop on an image—a highly exceptional case—it’s not in order to consider the fixity in itself, but on the contrary, to clarify the general movement of the film. To stop to take notes is to risk going from sensation to intellect, to risk snuffing out the essential. Now, an artist speaks to emotions. His language deals with that; better: it’s his language. All arts produce effects. These are not involuntary, even if they are unconscious—and it’s been a long time since I stopped wondering what, in creation, is conscious or unconscious. The effects are conceived in order to produce sensations, and there’s no reason why these sensations can’t be received by everyone, even though each one clearly has his own way of apprehending the perceptible world. Some filmmakers, let’s say Mizoguchi or Renoir, pretend to erase their effects, to make them imperceptible, but with a little attention, we notice the sleight of hand: an effect of non-effect. All that remains is to gauge, to judge the quality of these effects. A film is an object. One can’t produce an object without a system, even if it’s only mechanical.


We know you as much through your lectures as through your articles. Is public speaking a pleasure that came to you very early?

 As an adolescent, I remember having attended several film club screenings in Arras, cannibalized by the eternal figure of the film club host. For a good three-quarter hour, we’d speak about the film’s supposedly central theme, which was often, in fact, the most superficial and uninteresting aspect, even though it seemed to pose a problem of the greatest importance. The host would clear his throat or scratch his beard: would someone like to say a word on the form? Of course, the photography is beautiful… superb… Anything else? It was a highly comic situation. The idea of writing was simply not taken into consideration here.

I started speaking at screenings only after leaving Cahiers, from 1964 onwards. I didn’t know what I had to offer at all. Little by little, I realized that people liked me. I started taking pleasure in it. I learnt to hold the public’s attention, to take them where I wanted. It’s all a game, not simple in the beginning. To my mind, it’s the same work as that of a critic; quite often, I’d take up a viewer’s question in a subsequent article.


For the past twenty years, cinema pedagogy has been of an increasing importance to you. Is it because your public has changed, made now of students and not cinephiles? Similarly, is your work now based on a logic of transmission rather than of continued cinephilia?

In the olden days, cinephilia wasn’t handed down, it was conquered. It was born just like that, for me as much as for others, around the age of 14-15. That’s still the case, but it’s rarer. Cinema has become a subject to be taught. I’m not really sure one can learn to love a film. The important thing is that a student perceives the complexity of it. One must know to see and read a film.

I have this luck; I attract young people. But could something that happened to me, with a film, have an effect on others? I’m not sure of anything. You have to do it, that’s all. You have to hand it down. If you loved cinema, if you continue to love it, it’s to be handed down. Renoir told it in his own way: my films are for the 6,000 viewers of the Gaumont Palace, but if there’s even one viewer who understands what I wanted to do, it’d be extraordinary. You have to hand it down. Time will tell.

The disciplinarization of cinema is afoot today. What will happen? Cinema will be placed on the same level as literature. Was it at school that we loved literature? Or was it rather as a reaction to school? Perhaps as a reaction, but the reaction was possible only thanks to the school. Cocteau said it well: there should be bad pupils, there should be dunces. So there should be disciplines. It was also the opinion of Langlois or Truffaut in The 400 Blows: real school lies outside of it.


Have the questions, the sensations of viewers changed in the past twenty years?

Of course. There’s such a bombardment of audiovisual objects… Viewers today are perhaps more sensitive to form, while on the other hand, they have more difficulties with structure. In any case, this young public—for example, those who attend my Monday classes at the Cinématheque—has increased in number in the past twenty years, contrary to popular belief.


To write on DVDs is to write for a public that you’ll probably never meet, readers who don’t have theatres in their towns anymore and whose relation to cinema hinges on this medium.

Indeed, and it’s the reason I like working on bonus material. It’s a very precious form of criticism that allows for a precise work: point out things that the viewer has sensed but not seen… Home-criticism, if you will. By the way, the ideal, as was the case with Sunrise2, is to “write about writing”, to make “a film on”, an exercise that I practiced even during the time of VHS, for The Rules of the Game, M… A small note: even when I work on the treatment of space in Murnau, it’s unusual for me to pause a film. But it happens sometimes that I don’t agree with myself, particularly when I have access to slow motions that are not present in the film. Purists might cry foul. They should rest assured. Inwardly, I cry foul myself.


Is there where your fondness for DVDs comes from?

I hated VHS. For twenty years, I didn’t own more than thirty or thirty-five. I hated Laser Discs even more, I didn’t buy a single one. I sensed that they weren’t good. But when DVDs appeared, I knew that they were for me. That will perhaps come to pass. One day—soon? —there’ll be an even superior technology. But for the moment, DVDs are the ideal.

I have no fetish for film, even if I love inhaling and manipulating it. A medium is just a medium. Even though I’m convinced that a film must be first seen in its format in theatres, I consider the DVD to be a magnificent instrument. For great filmmakers, it must be the equivalent of the Pleiades Library: entire body of work published and analysed. For financial reasons, such a demand is still lacking, but it’ll perhaps eventually come from universities.

Besides, DVDs made it possible for me to discover filmmakers I wouldn’t have seen in theatres. Kenji Misumi, whom I was unaware of and to whom I then dedicated two columns. I was wrong to not know him. I knew Michael Mann a bit, but it’s thanks to DVDs that I understood how great a filmmaker he is, something that everyone agrees about today. That said, one must be wary of the bulimia that can attribute the status of a great filmmaker to a small filmmaker of modest interest. Such overestimation is frequent. Second-class filmmakers, Lucio Fulci for instance, have their entire filmography on DVD. Such filmmakers were earlier limited to specialists of B or Z movies. It was a very cloistered affair, while DVDs encourage a breaking down of barriers.

There are nevertheless serious blind spots. Sternberg or Lubitsch are still underrepresented on DVDs. Same with Mizoguchi. It’s a little better with Ozu. Almost nothing with Naruse. We’re getting there with Renoir. Enormous lack of Godard, much of Minnelli. Ditto with Vidor: to my knowledge, only two of his films were issued, The Champ and Solomon and Sheba. Very little of Borzage. Fuller makes a timid entry, Rossellini’s arriving.

But then, I don’t accept everything about DVDs: restorations leave me confused, even sceptical. They are not always warranted. There’s a kind of restoration that annoys me, even if I’m going against the history of cinema: the tinting of silent films. I know well that Nosferatu was tinted by Murnau himself: having shot in real settings, he had to find a fantastic colour tone, which tinting could provide. And for the producer, tinting had the added advantage of offering viewers an idea of colour films: five or six tints, a little bit of bistre, a little green, blue, orange… Today, it seems very damaging to me: it affects the luminosity of the old film stock. It doesn’t bother me a bit that the night time of the story was shot in broad daylight… The ideal, of course, would be to have both versions on the disc.


Do you still maintain contact with filmmakers?

Yes, of course. But if I may, I’ll give a somewhat general answer to this question. My whole system, involving going through sensations in order to be synchronous with the sensations of the artist who made the film, I don’t have a choice in that: I must enter the imaginary of the other to better understand the film he’s offering to our own imaginary. In fact, the imaginary—and not imagination—is the key to my whole system, even if it isn’t simple to explain. I see thought as an imaginary space: this space belongs to reason, and at the same time, it’s enveloped by an unconscious thought. At the most, I envisage the imaginary as a galaxy, and that’s what fascinates me. To work on a filmmaker’s imaginary is to try to penetrate it and go into its movement. It’s always the movement, never forget that. I believe that the universe itself is an imaginary. All life, in order to live, should in fact run up against the existing state of affairs, which poses an obstacle, and this obstacle, this impediment sustains an imaginary that allows survival. Why are there so many forms, so many animal and plant species? They didn’t come just like that… Why this bird? Why that one? I think—and it’s one of the bases of my critical work—that there’s an immediate and constant, necessary and absolute conflict between existence and life, and that the imaginary is its driving force.


How do you see the current evolution of criticism and of cinema itself?

The nature of criticism has changed. Criticism before the Nouvelle Vague dealt with the subject, and thus had a political resonance. It seemed to us, on the contrary, that those who defended good films weren’t aware of their deepest reasons. Whence a different policy, that of auteurs: a work lives in itself and for itself, it has no need to be associated with the society. After this, another criticism appeared, which sought to reintroduce discourse, to analyse the relation of a film to the society, without however forgetting the writing that was proper to cinema, the mise en scène.

Today, apart from Cahiers, I don’t really know what the state of criticism is. I think that it has given in to a certain pretension about itself. We know it. That’s what’s worse. I’m against knowhow (savoir) and for knowledge (connaissance), even if knowhow is needed to access knowledge. But knowhow must melt into knowledge.

There’s also everyday criticism, the criticism of moods. It’s interesting only on the condition that it goes all the way to the end of the word “moods”. Then there’s wet criticism, in which the relation to pleasure is perfectly taken into account, which frees oneself of all justification. The critic then goes into a trance. For instance, Louis Skorecki. But by dint of saying that he doesn’t love cinema anymore, by dint of evading all reference to the object, he devotes himself to redundancy, or to a void. He is nonetheless, by far, the most interesting among his kind. Even if he’s irritating; which, I’m afraid, doesn’t bother him at all, it’s why we read him and we like him.

For my part, I’m not at all going to repeat the opinion that cinema today is poorer than cinema of forty years ago. It’s the world that has changed. For forty years between 1920 and 1960, cinema corresponded and responded to the expectations of a public that belonged to a society governed by stable values. Even after the war, cinema maintained the illusion of a stable world with well-known values. The majority of filmmakers from this era are classical in this sense. From the sixties onwards—Hitchcock understood it in 1954 with Rear Window—consumer society evolved, and the values disappeared. Forty years later, Kubrick makes Eyes Wide Shut, where it’s clearly said that there’s only one value that remains: money.

How to continue, then, to make the same films as before? It’s not possible. In The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir—his father’s son!—tells Christine: your father was a great conductor, but in a world where everyone lies, you can’t be a great artist in the old way. Great films today are films of destruction, not films of construction. It’s not possible anymore to have only works that are independent of one another, compartmentalized from one another. That’s why there are so many differences in style in world cinema today: these differences were never as enormous, both in the narrative as well as in the editing. It wasn’t the case till the sixties: in its kind, Soviet cinema wasn’t so removed from the American, French film echoed with American tastes. Neorealism, Rossellini in particular, had certainly tried to bring in innovation. But twenty years had to pass before the innovation took root.

If you go to high schools like I do, you’ll easily notice it: Westerns don’t click anymore with the young public because the values of the genre don’t hold anymore. Eastwood understood it perfectly with Unforgiven.

In short, the cinema of today is a cinema of rupture. While continuity may still persist within an artist’s work, ruptures are much more common than in the past. That’s why the politique des auteurs was easier in the classical era. To continue it today would be absurd, since the social conditions aren’t the same anymore. As of now, there’s no more classicism, no more cinema of continuity, it’s not possible anymore. Where are the classical artists? Kitano? Kiarostami? Hou Hsiao-hsien? All filmmakers destroy, by anger and in the hope of bringing or inciting something else. There are no more happy films, for the simple reason that the society itself is going through a destructive phase.


Conducted by Emmanuel Burdeau and Thierry Lounas, February 2006


1 Cahiers du cinéma—Éditions de l’Étoire. This work is available since then in a pocket version as part of the “Petite bibliotèque des Cahiers du cinéma”.

2 Distributed by Carlotta