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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 242-244

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Book Review

Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema

Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema, by Naomi Greene; 234 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, $55.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.

In 1989, while participating in a seminar on the bicentennial of the French Revolution at the University of Nantes, our group visited the Vendée. Towards the end of the tour, we stopped at a small rural chapel in a quiet clearing. We had spent several class hours considering the Vendean uprisings, under the tutelage of historian Jean-Clément Martin; none of us, however, was prepared for what awaited us within. We were greeted with an overpowering floral scent, from literally hundreds of bouquets and wreaths, so densely packed that not a square inch of the altar, nor the aisle in front of it was visible. Local residents had thus commemorated those lost in massacres almost two centuries earlier, in a ritual, according to Martin, repeated in many other communities across the Vendée as an ancestral duty not to forget that stretched back to the events themselves.

In such a compelling context and setting, one understood at once how the cult of memory--a memory inseparable from oppositional discourse--has the power to raise the deathless ghosts of France's long history of social division, a tortured past that raises crucial questions: which events are remembered, and how? Which are consecrated as "lieux de mémoires," which disavowed by the official histories? When does nostalgia for that which may never have been at all "create" remembrance? The tangled web of remembering and forgetting, of collective history and personal histories, of official myths and a determined demythification forms the dialectic that Naomi Greene has chosen to scrutinize via the fertile medium of cinematic representation. Her probing inquiry into French self-image in the cinema covers a variety of events all the more complex for not being susceptible to resolution.

The broad subjects that inform Greene's tightly organized chapters provide a litany of upheavals in whose shadows lie tragedy and grief: anti-Semitism from the Dreyfus Affair through the Stavisky scandal to Vichy, the Vél d'Hiv, Drancy and the deportations; the myth of a resistant France and the grim consequences of French collaboration; the end of the colonial empire, with its successive debacles in Indochina and in Algeria. In the many films she analyzes (almost 30, by my count), Greene situates these events and their heritage in the context of the prevalent mythologies of an official history that allowed France [End Page 242] to retain its image as the incarnation of an "exalted destiny." That "certain idea of France" as DeGaulle so memorably expressed it (without ever really naming it), dictated that anti-Semitism had been the affair of a very few, that most of the French resisted, that a Papon or a Touvier had been caught in a trap of conflicting duties. The French state was never actually represented by Vichy, of which Mitterand and his friend René Bousquet were but ordinary public servants. The colonies were not lost, nor were the former colonists betrayed; they were simply marginalized by events. The result of the encounter of history, memory and mythology, when seen in the cinema, provides the map for what Greene has called the landscape of loss.

Greene adopts French historian Raoul Girardet's implicit claims for a kinship between history's "legendary narratives" and the cinema by casting a wide net for the political myths that are "perpetuated--or, more rarely, challenged--by cinematic images (pp. 6-7)." The cinema of the immediate post-war period did little to explode the myths that grew up in the wake of DeGaulle's victorious return to power, and during the Fourth Republic. But slow rumblings already were occurring in the fifties, in the projects of several directors who occupy a privileged place in the landscape of loss. Greene aptly devotes her first chapters to the work of Alain...


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