- Lines of Flight:Jean-Daniel Pollet, Méditerranée, and the Tel Quel Group
I realize now, images, memories accompanied what was written: an impression.— Jean-Louis Baudry1
It may be that Richard Roud's designation of what he termed "Left Bank cinema" was intended as much to provoke reflection on the consequences of classification as to name a particular group of three post-war French filmmakers (Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker) with obvious intellectual and aesthetic affinities. Why else would Roud begin his 1962 essay on the Left Bank with the claim that classification "proves nothing and is only valuable if it tells us more about what is being classified" (24)? Perhaps the time has come to ask whether the distinction between a Left Bank group and the Nouvelle Vague still "tells us more" about the films and filmmakers under discussion. What other questions are deferred by the goal of categorization? Which films and filmmakers fall out of film histories because they cannot fit neatly into either category? Bracketing the question of classification allows films of the period to be inserted into broader thematics and debates that touch on multiple aspects of post-war French film culture.
For a case of critical neglect, it would be difficult to find a better example than Jean-Daniel Pollet's Méditerranée (1963), an experimental short subject hardly known outside France, but which played a crucial role in the development of film theory from the 1960s to the early 1970s. For French film critics, the importance of Méditerranée stems from its adaptation of experimental writing practices associated with the nouveau roman to the medium of film. Due in part to Pollet's collaboration with avant-garde novelist and literary theorist Philippe Sollers, who wrote the voice-over commentary, the film became a primary example of revolutionary film practice during the period preceding and immediately following the events of May 1968, when literary theorists linked to the avant-garde journal Tel Quel made their first, highly influential forays into the field of film theory. Core members of the Tel Quel group—including Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, and Jean-Louis Baudry—all published articles and interviews discussing Méditerranée, collectively provoking a [End Page 79] sea change in French film theory, previously dominated by the cinema-semiotics of Christian Metz.2 Influencing a number of film theorists both within and outside France, the Tel Quel group helped propel film theory away from Metz's ambition for an exhaustive taxonomy of cinematic signification (la grande syntagmatique) and toward a theoretical analysis of the process of signification itself: what Kristeva termed sémanalyse, or the study of "signifying practices" ("System" 32). Weaving together threads of Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Derridean deconstruction, the Tel Quel group contrived an imposing critique of the ideology immanent to the cinematic apparatus, a film theory consistent with the journal's continually evolving theory of literature.3 Méditerranée provided the occasion for the Tel Quel group's entrée into film theory, as Sollers, Kristeva, and company sought to translate the film's enigmatic content into the language of contemporary literary criticism.
In what follows I retrace Méditerranée's critical reception in France, focusing on reviews published after the film's 1963 premiere at the Knokke-le-Zoute experimental film festival in Belgium and its second public screening in Paris in 1967. Initially evaluated within the framework of auteur criticism, Pollet's film was later promoted by the Tel Quel group as an exemplar of cinematic écriture. Borrowing and transforming the concept of écriture from the writings of Jacques Derrida, the Tel Quel group argued that as cinematic écriture, Méditerranée was a deconstruction of cinematic representation, opposing the ideology of the cinematographic impression of reality with its non-narrative, anti-expressive, and radically serial form. After the events of May 1968, the Tel Quel critics aligned their notion of écriture with a political project of social transformation, and Méditerranée by virtue of its formal experimentation became a model of politically progressive cinema.
Film scholars Sylvia Harvey and D.N. Rodowick have...