- Nationalism and the Cinema in France: Political Mythologies and Film Events, 1945–1995 by Hugo Frey
French national cinema tends above all to be perceived and defined through the nation’s complex relationship with the United States, often with the result that its internal specificities are underdeveloped or even occluded. Hugo Frey’s welcome and impressively documented analysis goes a long way towards rectifying this, particularly through its foregrounding of two key concepts: political myth (a hardy perennial ever since Barthes’s Mythologies) and what he dubs, after Marc Ferro, the ‘film event’ (p. 14), which places films in their historical and institutional contexts. He reviews successively the search for national unity through history, the ways in which French films from the mid-1960s have projected a view of France as a modern and modernizing nation, and the complex cinematic avatars of anti-Americanism. More unpalatable perhaps, but precisely for that reason most illuminating, is his analysis of the reactionary underbelly epitomized by neo-colonialism, including the brouhaha over Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Bataille d’Alger (1966); anti-Semitism, featuring the senescent Autant-Lara of the late 1980s as Exhibit A but also Marcel L’Herbier and the anarchiste de droite screenwriter Michel Audiard; and the film events involving supporters of the far right such as Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, and (hitherto unknown to me) the screenwriter Michel Marmin and the actor-turned-director Gérard Blain, concluding with a discussion of the sometimes violent protests against Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Frey’s examination of what he terms ‘the cinema–nationalism–history nexus’ (p. 68) is a thorough and timely corrective to more immanent and formalistic modes of analysis, but is not without its shortcomings. The distinction between nationalism and patriotism is sometimes insufficiently clear, as when he asserts that François Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (1973) is ‘as patriotic as it is cosmopolitan’ (p. 18) — doubly unfortunate considering the latter epithet’s earlier history as an alibi for anti-Semitism — and it is tendentious to assert a ‘left–right ideological confluence’ (p. 184), rather than a coincidence of rightist anti-Semitism and leftist anti-Zionism, in the various acts of violence directed against films glorifying the Israeli army and special services. The book would have benefited immeasurably from careful stylistic revision — the expression is often cumbersome and/or careless, perhaps the result of straining to meet a deadline — and from the inclusion of a filmography. Despite these criticisms Frey, not least in going where many might be too squeamish to venture, has made a valuable and important contribution to recent French cultural history.