Cahiers Du Cinéma’s review published on Letterboxd:
Jean-Louis Comolli: 'Film/Politics (2): L'Aveu: 15 Propositions'
(`Film/politique (2): L'Aveu: 15 propositions', Cahiers du Cinema 224, October 1970)
We feel that further study of the relation film/politics is indispensable,' not only because this relation provokes such an infinite variety of resistances,' but also because it seems to us a crucial if not prior obligation to drive into the open those confusions which so often muddle the criticism of the political determinations, roles and discourses of films. Let us therefore offer a first proposition: it is precisely here, in the relation film/politics, that we can distinguish not only the place of films in the dominant relations of production and in the ideology which dominates in their name, but also the place of the films' spectators (among them, and most particularly, the 'critics'). Since, owing to its lack of density, L'Aveu never functions as a text resistant to ideological readings, but on the contrary as a programme designed in advance to promote these readings, being itself programmed and formulated by the ideological themes and modes which support them, the film carries implications for everything — questions and answers — which is problematical in the film/politics field. Let us thus advance a second proposition, corollary to the first: given the present state of theoretical reflection on the problematic of film/politics — that is, the present state of the possibilities of effecting a truly political reading of films which develop a political practice and/or discourse (and taking into account, among other things, the real state of the forces present in the specific field of cinema and in the fields which encompass it, as well as the degree of progress in the political struggle) — it is not possible, in the name of theoretical purity or rigour, simply to dismiss as totally worthless the mass of films for which L'Aveu and Z might (and do) serve as models. These films are certainly not the site of any cinematographic work, any signifying practice capable of subverting the aesthetic-cultural norms of the dominant ideology; but for that very reason they stand at the centre of the ideological stage and participate massively in the general ideological confusion, playing the part of a great many spectators and virtually all the critics of authentically political films. To clear the film/politics field of these exercises in confusion and camouflage, which screen out even the possibility of questioning its problematic in political terms — i.e. ultimately of constituting it as a genuine problematic at all — we must not behave 'as if' these films did not exist; quite the contrary, we must begin by taking account of them. To consider seriously L'Aveu (for example) is to consider not only as not negligible but as symptomatic the reactions, readings and criticism 3 to which it has given rise. For our third proposition is as follows: the less the reading of a film can be attributed to its ecriture, and connected to its signifying system in a relation of production, the more the reading 'passes through' the film, thereby demonstrating its lack of density, and the more the film's 'reality', its maximum weight of condensation, lies in the weight and reality of its readings, so that what we need to read is no longer the 'film' but rather that which constitutes it: its readings.
If we take Othon, Sotto it segno dello Scorpione, Eros + Massacre, Ice (for example) to be unequivocally political films, it is because they (we) are not satisfied with the pure and simple delivery of a 'political message'. Beginning at the beginning (which is also one of the conditions of political analysis), these films carry out on their very materiality — that of the signifiers they put into play, as well as that of the conditions and means of production of these signifiers — a scriptural work which, as such, constitutes political work. This fourth proposition comes from Walter Benjamin: 'The tendency of a work can be politically just only if it is literally just. That is to say that the politically just tendency includes a literary tendency. . . . Instead of asking oneself what is the position of a work with respect to the relations of production of the period — is it in agreement with them, is it reactionary; or does it aspire to their transformation, is it revolutionary? — instead of this question, or at least prior to it, I would like to propose another. Before asking myself what is the position of a literary work with respect to the relations of production of the period, I would like to ask what is its place in these same relations? This question is aimed directly at the function devolving upon the work at the centre of a period's literary relations of production. In other words, it is aimed directly at literary technique. . . . An author who teaches nothing to writers teaches nothing to anyone.'' Now, unlike those films which force viewers and critics to consider their political importance by demanding that they work at reading them — i.e., that they engage in a violent ideological struggle — L'Aveu is totally reducible to the transmission-reception of its 'political mess-5 age'. So much so that, in accordance with proposition number 4, its political discourse is itself reductive, and its political substance is what is called in question by its cinematographic lack of substance. A certain number of progressive critics — critics sure, that is, of being equal to appreciating the relation of a film to politics, certainly of spotting the presence of political discourse in a film — feel called upon to ask (us) the following question about Othon, for instance; 'If Straub really meant Othon as a political film, why make it an unintelligible, "inaudible" film, so that the difficulty of hearing and thus of reading encumbers and considerably obstructs the reception of any political message?' Let us now reverse the question. L'Aveu contains no productive work at the level of its signifiers and thus — since it is one and the same work — never calls into question the conditions of production/ ecriture/diffusion/reading of the film (i.e., 'its place in the relations of production'), with the result that the film's 'political message' is blatant, overwhelming, 'accessible to everyone'. Our question: does not this accessibility indicate precisely the limits of the message, does it not reveal the film's true place at the centre of the political fogginess and obfuscation produced by the dominant ideology? The very blatancy of the film's political discourse, in whose name ('seriousness of the subject', 'urgency of the problem', etc.) one is quite ready to count the aesthetic proceedings as 'minor', serves above all as a political guarantee, and the 'political discourse' itself serves as an ideological enonce —that is, as ideological static — from the moment when the film's authors fail to do the preliminary work politically necessary to all political discourse: a questioning of its conditions of existence and of its means. As their 'solution', the authors of L'Aveu choose to repress this questioning and suppress this work by a pure and simple acceptance of the conditions and means already there, in place, by the renewal of the dominant economic/cultural system, the reproduction of the means, techniques and forms of dominant production in cinema. Sixth proposition: what else could be produced by a cumbersome reproduction of the methods and forms under and through which the dominant ideology circulates and prevails in cinema (and not only there)? Any 'political discourse' can only be deformed (reduced/reduc-tive) by adopting those forms and means of expression and diffusion whose given function is to reproduce the modes and through them the themes of the dominant ideology.6 Both the dominant system of production-diffusion in cinema and the aesthetic-cultural codes whose domination it assures appear to have but one goal — to permit and organize the creation and circulation of cultural objects and/or profits. But in fact they both have a primary task, a preliminary function: to secure by their reproduction those very conditions which permit them to operate, those conditions necessary to their functioning, their hegemony, their survival, the maintenance and progress of their domination, upon whose perpetuation closely depends the possibility of realizing their economic and/or cultural goal. Indeed their domination is itself a function of the perpetuation — the reproduction — of the dominant ideology, one of whose instruments it is. Even if masked, undeclared, this top priority task (reproduction of the system, reproduction of the ideological conditions necessary to the reproduction of the dominant relations of production') overlays and thus dictates the takeover by the film of all political discourse. We are dealing here with a sort of double link between the film and the dominant ideology: principal link (masked, automatic) = reproduction of the conditions of domination of the ideology, that is, of the economic and aesthetic-cultural norms and codes by means of which it is installed and inculcated; secondary link (declared, contingent) = transmission (approving or critical) of a certain number of ideological themes. It is immediately obvious that the work of the film 10 must focus on the principal link, making of it a principal contradiction. Otherwise, this contradiction remains secondary and does not sufficiently challenge the process of reproduction of the dominant ideology's modes of inculcation, or indeed the ideological themes which are their effects. And this is so whether or not the film's political discourse contradicts the themes of the dominant ideology. Thus, since L'Aveu never posed the preliminary question of its own field, of the means and methods of its production/ecriture-diffusion/reading, what we must question is this lack, this omission — which leads us to question (since it is one and the same thing) the validity, the resist-ance of the film's political discourse, indeed even the degree to which its political discourse exists. The very question asked of Othon. The difference being that those who ask it of Othon would not ask it of L'Aveu, since for them the existence of a political discourse in Othon is problematic, while this is not so in L'Aveu. Seemingly absent in Othon, political discourse seems present in L'Aveu. Is not what is at issue in this contradiction precisely the illusion of a political discourse? Do we not see the same ideological 'conception' of political cinema — and thus of politics — at work in each of these two cases?
Precisely because this question was not asked of L'Aveu, the debate 'on' the film could only take place alongside it, could only enter into the deceptive game (itself masking, from then on, the deceptive character) of the film's 'political discourse'. The debate could only accept, respond to and, by virtue of this acceptance-response, hide the fact that what poses as 'political discourse' is in reality an operation of ideological reduction and blurring of historical data and political experiences. It all happened as if, blinded by the heaviness of the 'political message', the critics had not, properly speaking, seen the film. As though they had passed through its signifying tissue (no matter how thin, it does exist) to fasten upon (to take shelter from) the film's system of referents: history, the experienced, ideologies at war, disparity of political arguments, etc. It may seem in contradiction to proposition 3 that we should read as a signifying system the 'point of maximum condensation' of a film, which in this case is the network of its readings. But in order to read these readings and not simply to remark upon them, we must start by examining what allowed them to be constituted into a signifying system in place of the film; which is (something to which these readings all turn a blind eye) the 'point of maximum condensation' of the film, the thinness and paucity of its own signifying system. To read these readings in place of the film is to focus in the first place on the why of this replacement and the how of the film's constitution as the contrary of a text, as a programme for/by its readings. By confining themselves to the overwhelmingly present sphere of political referents and signifieds in L'Aveu, any attempt at critical reading (like that of Claude Morgan in Le Monde) could only circle round the essential lack and contradiction of the film, could ,see only its effects and not what produces them, which is not only a lack at the level of the 'political message' (the confusion between Stalinism and communism, the concealment of the causes of Stalinism), but even more basically at the level of the film's signifying system. Everything holds together: it is because L'Aveu never questions the representational system which dominates the cinema, founded on the ideology of the visible, the auto-satisfaction of the shown, that it cannot call upon anything other than the 'shown', the 'given to be seen', an illustrative series of effects whose sole possibility of organization is infinite repetition, accumulation, self-justification by their own reproduction, a system symbolized by trials and prefabricated confessions which the film is supposed to discredit, but whose forms and practices it can only go along with, since it proceeds like the system itself from a concealment of all causes, logic, pertinence, from a proliferation of 'proofs' which are such only because avowed, manifested, required —shown as such. Determined without even its own knowledge, ruled by the aesthetic and technical codes of a conception and practice of cinema as representation of the lived, reproduction of the tangible, illustration of the visible, the signifying system of L'Aveu is reduced to the intensive, desperate exploitation of signs of presence. Everything must be 'received' by the spectator as though happening before his eyes, in his presence, in a 'present' which tries to pass itself off as that of the 'real' (and not of a film). Signs of presence — that is, indissociably, signs of illusion. The spectator's look is programmed, taken over by the insistent play of looks, of the looked-at/looking. To see Montand-London in the secrecy of his cell, suffering from being watched, spied upon by his guards, amounts for the spectator to seeing him as they do and to suffering from it as he does, simultaneously, in the same act of looking. Here, as always, the process of identification between spectator and central character is only possible through the effects of the real and the lived in a participation and a mutual presence which are necessarily illusory, fantasized. At this primary level, the level of its very vision, the film functions as a trap and a swindle. The spectator does not occupy the place of a reader, but that (those) of an accomplice — the place of the witness, of the One, of the double — places marked out in advance, reserved in the simulacrum as that which completes it, vali-dates it, renders it operative; that is, ratifies, aids and permits, confirms its function as a snare. Without this complicity on the part of the spectator (provided for and programmed) the performance fails. It is only from that instant when the spectator is caught in the illusion of being the one for whom the film is made, the one who is present, at the centre of things (the 'same' place as the hero) as subject, that the representation becomes the spectator's representation — i.e., that ideological inculcation can be effected. L'Aveu's frantic pursuit (cloaked so reassuringly, so prudently, in the 'sobriety', the 'dignity' of the style, the pernicious mask put on most often, and not only in the cinema, by the symbolic violence of the dominant ideology) of the spectator's highly emotional participation in the spectacle of the succession of tortures, aims — by making these tortures odious — solely at making the spectator an accomplice to their spectacle and to the very principle of the spectacle. The tortures are filmed in so insistent a way — to the point where the entire film functions like torture, mobilizing our feelings of horror and impotence ('Confess, but confess to what?') — solely in order to provoke the repulsion-gratification of their very visibility. Moved by what he sees, because he sees it, the spectator becomes a voyeur. A blocked conflict ensues, impossible to transcend: in order to have the spectator condemn the Stalinist 'horror', it is shown in all its hysteria, it is set up as a spectacle, without any inkling that to see is to take pleasure in, that to increase the visibility of this horror, its effect of presence, is inevitably to reduce the knowledge of it, the possibility of criticizing it. But is this not, perhaps, precisely what was in play in L'Aveu (and it is not a question here of the authors"intentions', their unimpeachable integrity, but rather of what it is that speaks in a film, the codes, the signifying system, the ideology — which have no 'intentions' and call, not for moral judgments, but for political ones): namely, that the emotion, the feeling of horror, in short the humanist reflex action, is fully in play, and in play alone, to block any political reading both of the film and of Stalinism? (One should have thought twice before dismissing the signifying system of L'Aveu, as the critics did unanimously, since the fact that it is nothing more than a constant repetition of effects of presence may account for its extreme poverty, but also explains why it carries extremely serious consequences. To repeat: in the relation film/politics, the lack in the field of 'film' is a lack — and the same lack — in the field of 'politics'.)
Nevertheless, it would seem from an examination of the press that L'Aveu gave rise to a great number of readings. It is therefore these which one must read (proposition 3), examining their substance, knowing now that all of them (to my knowledge) remained blind to the nature and the (serious) consequences of the signifying system of the film, to the ideology of the visible which it displays, and to the representational closure which it effects. Not having taken the trouble to question the signifying materiality of the film, these readings can only bring together under the crude heading of 'material' the film's many referents, chief among them London's book, the ultimate guarantee — because it belongs to lived experience — of the film's political discourse. Let us set aside the sacrosanct 'problems of adaptation' (although they served quite well, in this instance, further to obscure the issue) and compare the two political discourses. London's political purpose was to narrate the tragic part of his lived experience of Stalinism, and secondarily to try to furnish a certain number of political explanations (fragmentary, insufficient — but then London is not a Marxist theoretician): precisely those explanations he himself needed in order to understand what he had lived through and to be able to continue being a communist after, and despite, Stalin. Now, contrary to everything that has been said (even by London himself) about the 'faithfulness' of the film to the book, the purpose of L'Aveu (the film) is absolutely different. It is (cf. the section on 'Vision') to make the spectator (who may or may not be the book's reader) violently experience the horror London lived through, and described, but which by virtue of such a narration, by putting it into a book, he made into an object of reading, now one of the constituent elements not just of his lived experience, but also of his thinking about it and of the book which is its product. Quite clearly, the book offers a mass of details, characters, historical moments which it was not possible for the film to include (here the critics are prepared to take into account the specific constraints of the signifying materiality of cinema, in order to 'excuse' this inevitable deficiency in the film). But the book also offers, amid the very confusion of these facts, accounts, actions, etc., a certain number of explanations, fragments of political analysis, which by the very fact of their being scattered throughout the book, and by what they leave out, bear witness in their own way to the complexity of a scientific reading of history. Of these attempts at analysis, the film — in order not to omit them altogether — offers a parody, a gross caricature (scenes, at Monte Carlo, of the communist-bourgeois dialogue). There are several reasons for this. The authors of the film themselves 'confess' that these sequences function as intervals (safety valves, pauses) in the unbearable spectacle of the torturing of Montand-London. Which is to say the 'political explanations' they carry have the same value as ice cream and commercial intermissions: they distract, giving us the chance to get some strength back before returning to watch the ordeal. And indeed the audience does breathe a little fresh air during these brief ascents from Hell. But this also implies that they are offered, quite literally, as being off the subject. Because the film sacrifices everything to the production of emotion, of the showable, what seems to have occurred is that the level of explanation and reflection — in short, of reading — becomes at one and the same time negligible, secondary (since it does not lend itself to being 'shown', 'visualized' like an interrogation or a torture scene) and an embarrassment (since it would most certainly threaten, were it to be further developed, to break the oppressive chain of events bind-ing the spectator). Such a sudden intrusion of political reading would be an embarrassment also because it would call into question, beyond its tangible effects, the logic of the film's signifying system. Because that logic is the logic of identity (identification with the 'hero', the one to whom the film is happening; experience of the film as identical at every point with a programme), the logic of substitution (spectator for protagonist, real effects for filmic, vision for reflection), it sets in motion, in the name of idealism, a mechanical causality, a tautological circularity of explanations (questions-answers-questions). The confusion of causes-effects is then operative (in the very image of the Stalinist equation: confession = proof, which the film's discourse purely and simply reproduces and renews, far from making a deconstructive criticism of it). And all causes, since they inevitably reflect and lead back to each other, in a sterile mirroring, can only lead, in the last resort, to the Cause: Why the Stalinist horror? Because of Stalinism. Why Stalinism? Because of Stalin, who takes the place — in an 'anti-Stalinist' film, as in the theology of the Stalin era and the personality cult — of God the Father. (Here again, his appearances, the stock shots which show him and do nothing but show him, take the place of all discourse about him. The proof of Stalin is that one sees him!) What is obstinately at work in this logic of the repetition of the same is the impossibility of understanding, the constituting of History as Mystery (the reverse side of the miracles of the Church). The spectator submits, as the character 'submits', as London submitted in his prisons, to the circle of questions-confessions, to the mechanics of the programme. And like the character and his model, assaulted, exhausted, imprisoned in the violence of the performance (as was London in the violence of what was also a performance and repetition of the staging of the Moscow trials, whose evocation in the film also plays the role of an explanation referring back to a mystery which is itself not explained), the spectator, bound up in his every fibre with Montand, blinded by precisely what he is seeing, having at his disposition as an aid to reflection on the historical referent only the assertive, tautological system — 'It's like this because that's how it was' — is never in a position to think through the filmic situations of which he is the victim; and the impossibility of thinking, on his part, is the exact copy of that which tortures the character in the film and which constitutes thereby one of the weapons in the inquisitorial arsenal of the Stalinist trials. In and on L'Aveu, for the spectator as for the protagonist, it is a question of repressing all possibility of analysis, of obstructing any science of history, of brandishing the thematics of equivalence (Prague '45 = Prague '68). The film calls itself anti-Stalinist, but because it has not thought out its own problematic in terms other than those of the representation and reproduction of the image of Stalinism, it 'investigates' the process of Stalinism in the same way as the 'referents's investigated the citizens of Moscow, Budapest and Prague. Its signify-ing system, its idealist presuppositions, its conformity to the economic and cultural norms of the dominant ideology rewrite this anti-Stalinism in a purely formal way. Thus the 'political discourse' of L'Aveu is reduced to a simple marshalling of political fantasies. Preformed by the dominant ideology, the film serves as a vehicle for its discourse, one of whose privileged themes is the Stalinist use of Stalinism as anti-communism. It was indeed necessary to ask the question: is L'Aveu anti-communist? But to find the answer one could not enter into the film's deceptive game, could not rely on the elements the film marshals — history, the book, etc. — without permitting them to act otherwise than as authorities. One had to see that what is anti-communist here (as elsewhere) is not to speak of Stalinism (quite the contrary) but rather to maintain this conception of cinema and of politics.
A film which has not examined its place in the relations of production, the economic-cultural status of the conditions and means of its specific practice — a film, that is, which has not thought through its writing and its reading, at the same time as its production and its diffusion, in a relation of contradiction with the economic-cultural norms of the dominant social system and its ideology — can do nothing other than reproduce both the economic norms and the cultural norms of production, and thus, in the moment of its fabrication, can only reduplicate the modes of formulation/inculcation of the dominant ideology. So much so that even if at the level of its declared 'political message' the film believes it is not restating the themes of this ideology, it reintroduces them in masked form, the form of their greatest violence, by reintroducing the ideology's modes of formulation and inculcation. The 'political' readings which have been made of L'Aveu — as divergent as they were — have in common an incapacity (which suggests a certain political weakness on their part) to perceive that in the film there were at issue neither 'truths' ('which must triumph', 'which must be told', etc.), nor 'lies', nor 'facts', nor 'analyses', in short no political discourse at all. Rather, in proportion to the weight of ideological determinations on the form and forms of the film, there is nothing more than an ideological disordering (still another) of political and historical givens and experiences. More than that, by opening a debate under these conditions on the 'political message' of the film and on that alone, these 'political' readings entered into the film's ideological game, responded to its programme, by themselves functioning as a confirmation and reproduction of their own arguments. At this ideological level, the film can in fact serve them all, gathering them all in as would a mirror: that which sees is seen and sees itself. Thus these political readings obeyed in their field and in their own way the rule of recognition/miscognition which governs the film in the name of the dominant ideology. As we have said, the lack at the level of 'film' is a lack at the level of 'politics', but what rushes into the breach (and what conditions it) is the dominant ideology. This last, as we know, not being an abstraction but being truly dominant over film criticism (for example), it is not unimportant, though painful, to note that in the present case it manifests itself not only where one would expect to find it (the ORTF and the bourgeois press) but also, and not without entailing some contradiction, in the communist and leftist press. We can see, then, that what has for some time now cluttered and confused the theoretical debate on (and the practice of) political cinema is the unwarranted but undeniable presence in the field of films like Z and L'Aveu, which continue to pass in almost all quarters for points of reference in this field. There is a certain amount of political and theoretical work to be done before another conception of political cinema (one which would exclude these films, among others) can dawn on those very people — progressives, political militants, spectators, critics or film-makers (among them the authors of L'Aveu, Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprun) — who call for a political cinema. The urgency of this work appears all the greater because (like all theoretical practice) it conditions the possibility of re-thinking, in France today, the conditions of existence and the conception of a practice of political cinema extricated (as far as possible) from the economic and cultural models which reproduce the dominant ideology. And that will be my last proposition.
Notes 1 Refer to and reread the text by Pascal Bonitzer ('Film/politics: Camarades/Ice', Cahiers 222), which situates a great number of the propositions considered here.