La politique des auteurs (part one)
World view as aesthetics

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 19-22
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

[This is the first of a two part article which will analyze the early writings of the auteur critics. This part discusses the foundations of la politique des auteurs as it was developed in Cahiers du Cinéma between 19bl and 1953. The second part of the article will analyze Truffaut’s manifesto, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” which appeared in January, 1954. Two important aspects of auteur criticism—its attitude toward the U.S. cinema and Truffaut’s program for the revitalization of the French cinema—will not be discussed here because they were developed after Truffaut’s Manifesto.—the editors]


La politique des auteurs, a mode of film criticism,” as developed in France by Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Francois Truffaut in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma and Arts between 1951 and 1958. It is common knowledge today that their main insight and assertion was that great film directors were great artists or auteurs (a word which, for them, was synonymous with artist) in the same way that great novelists, poets, painters, and composers were artists. While it is true that they thought this, the narrow minded acceptance of this idea as the most important and unqualified tenet of French auteur criticism (see Andrew Sarris, THE AMERICAN CINEMA, New York, 1968) has led to incredible distortions and abject silliness on the part of many contemporary U.S. critics. La politique des auteurs was, in fact, a justification, couched in aesthetic terms, of a culturally conservative, politically reactionary attempt to remove film from the realm of social and political concern, in which the progressive forces of the Resistance had placed all the arts in the years immediately after the war (see Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Le Temps Modernes in PATHS TO THE PRESENT, ed. Eugen Weber, New York, 1967).

Once we break out of the confines of exclusively aesthetic concerns, we quickly see that the main determinant of who was an auteur was the director’s world view which he expressed through the material he was working with.

The auteur critics were united by the conviction that movies should tell a single tale. This tale begins with a man or a woman, the social animal, trapped in a state of solitude morale because he or she is neither in touch with his or her lowest human depths, nor with other people, nor with the spiritual dimension of life. In other words, the tale begins with a character in total isolation, a condition which is usually expressed visually in the films. Examples are legion. Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) begins with shots of the hero on his horse alone in the mountains. Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) opens with shots of the hero’s feet and lower legs. We do not see the character’s face for some time; the legs leave a cab, cross a busy city sidewalk, and enter a train station. No one walks with him or follows him. Rossellini’s EUROPE 51 (1952) begins with shots of Ingrid Bergman alone in an empty street. All the films praised by the auteur critics begin with the extreme physical, psychological, and spiritual isolation of the main character or characters.

As the tale develops, we find that under extreme, even violent circumstances, the hero is forced to discover his most base and humiliating aspects; he has reached the point at which his relationship to other people and ultimately to God becomes clear to him and to the audience as well. Johnny Guitar is brought face to face with his near-pathological penchant for violence, a condition which has always isolated him from the rest of society and alienated him from himself. Once this discovery is made, he can begin to develop; by the end of the film, he has extended himself to another person and the film ends with an idyllic scene in which he and Vienna (the heroine) kiss while standing in a running stream.

In EUROPE 51 the heroine is forced to see the meaninglessness of her life when her son, to whom she is “too busy” to pay attention, kills himself. She seeks a new way of life, first in political activity (very short and undeveloped) and then in social work. The more she extends herself to the poor people of the city, the more meaningful her life becomes. Finally, because her behavior embarrasses them, her family has her committed to an institution. But by this time, her worldly pride and blindness to God—the reasons for her earlier isolation—have disappeared and she serenely accepts her fate in the knowledge that she is in a state of grace. Eric Rohmer described the central action of the film: This film has for its subject the solitude of a soul in conflict with the narrow-minded incomprehension of some and the condescending solicitude of others. Through the traps of false duties, false doctrines, false religions, and false science, this soul opens up a way to charity, an, at the end of its human failure, it accedes to sainthood. (1) This narrative movement from solitude morale, to self-revelation, and, finally, to salvation either in a of contact with others (JOHNNY GUITAR) or in terms of contact with the divine (EUROPE 51) takes place in all the films praised by the auteur critics.

In order to understand why the auteur critics demanded that directors, to be considered artists, tell this tale and no other, we must examine their social, cultural, and aesthetic antecedents. Their taste in narrative, or, more properly speaking, their view of art’s function in the world, developed from their experiences during the chaotic 1940’s, previous French film criticism, and the philosophical/religious movement called Personalism (developed by Emmanuel Mounier and passed on to the auteur critics by Roger Leenhardt, Amedee Ayfre, and Andre Bazin). As a result of their cultural and social milieu, the auteur critics came to value the spiritual dimension of life more than participation in society. Their major aesthetic principles derived from this attitude toward life. These principles are:

1. that films should be as realistic as possible because the more closely the images on the screen correspond to the real world, the more clearly the images will reveal the human being’s relation to the infinite;

2. that the mise en scene (the composition of the visual image) (2) be constructed in such a way as to include those parts of the real world which most directly reveal “soul through appearance” ;

3. that the actors must, through identification with the roles and through the gestures they develop to express both themselves and the character they represent, reveal their spiritual dimension.

In the following analysis I will examine the cultural and political context out of which auteur criticism developed, the genesis and application of the above-mentioned aesthetic principles, and the auteur critics’ conception of how one overcame isolation by self revelation and achieved salvation.


When France was liberated in 1944, the French people experienced an overwhelming euphoria: there was great hope for a “New France” in which equality, justice, and prosperity for all would reign. But, as the 1940’s wore on, the old centers of power—business, the Church, and the military, in short, the bourgeoisie—reasserted themselves. By 1950 not only had all the collaborators been forgiven, if not rewarded, but the Resistance heroes were maligned and prosecuted as Communists or for their deeds during the Resistance. Under heavy pressure from the United States, France initiated its own brand of McCarthyism and was forced to participate in the Cold War. French politics moved steadily to the right from 1945 to 1950 until all the representatives of the working class were finally removed from participation in the government. Considering the many hardships, the external pressures, the Cold War, the fear of the Bomb, which was very intense in France, and the demise of any hope for a “New France,” it is no wonder that alienation, pessimism, and the search for some more rewarding inner dimension to life were strong among the young artists and intellectuals of this decade.

Throughout this period, the severe economic hardships, the constant instability of succeeding French governments, and the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria kept France in a state of turmoil. Thus at the beginning of the 1950’s, many French intellectuals, desirous of withdrawing from this chaotic situation, rejected the idea that art should be socially committed. In part, this rejection took the form of venomous attacks on Jean-Paul Sartre. It also took the form of a radical advocacy of art for art’s sake, a forceful return to the standard bourgeois conception of art as autonomous and out of time. For example, Eric Rohmer praised films such as Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Renoir’s THE RIVER (1951), and Rossellini’s STROMBOLI (1949) because they were “out of their time enough to date less than others, but thereby better able to express the malaise and hopes of their time” (26, p. 18). Truffaut saw Wilder’s STALAG 17 (1953) as an “apology for individualism’s and asked his readers to praise all films which show that “the solutions are in us and in us alone” (28, p. 54). These four films’ told the story these critics valued—that of the individual’s personal salvation which consisted of a rejection of social values and concerns in favor of spiritual insight. Obviously these critics identified with these heroes and heroines who, in effect, rejected the world—they too, as disfranchised intellectuals, were painfully aware of their own solitude morale.

Auteur criticism was part of a series of developments in French film criticism produced by Roger Leenhardt, Andre Bazin, Alexandre Astruc, and Jean George Auriol. Leenhardt and Bazin made what Eric Rohmer called the Copernican Revolution in film criticism. Leenhardt, writing in the 1930’s, praised U.S. cinema and stressed the importance of its realistic photographic style which, he said, had as its goal the “complete transcription of reality with the minimum of interpretation.” (3) Previous criticism had posited that the artistic dimension of film lay in the artist’s ability to mould reality through montage and other techniques. Bazin furthered Leenhardt’s concern for the unity of reality, of time and space, and rejected montage in favor of the long take and deep focus. Rather than seeing the nature of film art in the malleability of the visual image, they chose to see it in “the crudely mechanical quality of reproduction of which the originality, the genius even, of photography consists.” (4) This conception of film art determined the auteur critics’ attitude toward realism in the cinema and their idea of mise en scene. The change of values which lay at the heart of the quest for spiritual salvation could not, according to these critics, be expressed through manipulation of the image and editing. The problem they concerned themselves with was man-in-the-world. To present man in his environment in such a way as to suggest the spiritual dimension of existence, the most accurate possible recording of the world in front of the camera was necessary.

Personalism was a loose amalgam of Existentialism and Christianity founded by Emmanuel Mounier in the 1930’s. Many well-known Catholic intellectuals wrote in Esprit, the journal Mounier founded in 1932, and espoused the Personalist world view. Deeply disturbed by the drift of modern civilization and disgusted by the role the Catholic Church was playing in this crisis, Mounier called for a spiritual revolution. Like Existentialists, he rejected all philosophical theories and systems, denied the possibility of complete and rational analysis of man and the world, and affirmed the need for choice and activity. Man, he believed, should take responsibility for his life. This choice and activity was to be directed toward the fullest development of the personal life; the goal was the integrated, rounded human being who lived in community with other “persons” and sought salvation for his soul.

Mounier called for the establishment of a new civilization through the spiritual rebirth of man, but he also demanded the dissociation of the spiritual and the political. In his opinion, the most important task was the “spiritual expansion of man.” (5) Mounier, while often using Marxian terminology and rejecting capitalism as an economic system, turned Marx’s analysis of social relationships on its head; instead of the economic basis determining the superstructure (philosophy, religion, law, art, etc.), the spiritual became the prime force in society. He admitted that modern society seemed to be determined by economic structures, but, he asserted, this was only because the spiritual state of man was at a low ebb. This fallen state of man and civilization was possible because man in the modern world (since the Renaissance) had lost his soul through perverted individualism.

It is not hard to see from the description above that the tale the auteur critics insisted on finding in the movies corresponds very closely to Mounier’s conception of man. Man is in a fallen state in a corrupt world. Hopeless as things seem, man still has the potential to break out of this state by first seeing his true condition and then extending himself to other people or to God. That this set of attitudes (hardly a systematic philosophy) influenced the auteur critics becomes even more clear when we realize that the free men who most influenced them—Roger Leenhardt, Andre Bazin, and Amedee Ayfre—were all Personalists. Leenhardt was the main film critic for Esprit in the 1930’s. Bazin helped reconstitute Esprit during the Occupation and wrote some of his earliest criticism in its pages. Amedee Ayfre, who is practically unknown in the United States, was a Jesuit priest and a close friend of Bazin. He became interested in the movies when he attended screenings at the Cinématheque française, where Bazin and the auteur critics spent most of their time. The aesthetic categories devised by the auteur critics can, as we shall see, only be explained in terms of this world view.


The auteur critics’ attitude toward cinematic realism is difficult to ascertain because they rarely discussed it as such. As a general statement, it can be said that their view was a qualified acceptance of Bazin’s basic concept of realism, the emphasis of which they subtly changed. Thus we must first look at Bazin’s concept of cinematic realism and then at the auteur critics’ slight modification of it. Bazin preferred deep focus photography and the long take to montage because they preserved the natural continuity of reality rather than cutting it up and analyzing it. This was important to Bazin because, as a Personalist, he believed in an ordered but unknowable universe into which one peered long and hard in order to discover its essence—a God of love. Thus any a priori analysis of reality by the film maker tended to reduce this possibility of insight by introducing abstractions.

Orson Welles started a revolution by systematically employing a depth of focus that had so far not been used. Whereas the camera lens, classically, had focused successively on different parts of the scene, the camera of Orson Welles takes in with equal sharpness the whole field of vision contained simultaneously within the dramatic field. It is no longer the editing that selects what we see, thus giving it an a priori significance, it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern ... the dramatic spectrum proper to the scene. (6)

The prior analysis of the scene and the abstractions this introduces are eliminated by deep focus photography. This kind of photography puts the viewer into the same relationship to the film as is his relationship to reality itself.

The neo-realists in Italy used a different means to achieve the same sense of reality that we find in Welles’ films. Bazin found in the films of Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, and Lattuada an air of documentary realism which was achieved by using actual settings, natural lighting, non-actors, and real-life stories of postwar Italy.

The unit of cinematic narrative in PAISA is not the “shot” , an abstract view of reality which is being analyzed, but the “fact,” a fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity, whose meaning emerges only after the fact, thanks to other imposed facts between which the mind establishes certain relationships. (II, p. 37)

Therefore Bazin praised, in the films of Welles and Rossellini, the similar conception of reality as an unanalyzable, unknowable, ambiguous whole. Although the film maker chooses what the viewer will see and even stages dramatic imitations of the world, he must efface himself before the reality in front of the camera and not appear to make an a priori analysis of the events. The artist, according to Bazin, was a passive recorder of reality; reality can and will only reveal itself when carefully observed and not manipulated. The films of F. W. Murnau were clear examples of what Bazin was looking for in the movies.

The composition of his image is in no sense pictorial. It adds nothing to the reality, it does not deform it, it forces it to reveal its structural depth, to bring out the pre-existing relations which become constitutive of the drama. (I, p. 27)

The auteur critics were basically in agreement with Bazin as Rohmer indicated when he stated:

It is perhaps because the cinema, of all the arts of imitation, is the most rudimentary, the closest to mechanical reproduction, that it is most likely to capture the metaphysical essence of man or the world (25, p. 45).

But Rohmer’s “man or the world” introduced a significant shift or attitude. Rohmer has detached man from the world, a dissociation with which Bazin would not have agreed. Godard supported this view, as he found the cinema “the most religious of arts, since it values man above the essence of things and reveals the soul within the body.” (7) As Tom Milne pointed out in his “Commentary” to GODARD ON GODARD, the article in which this statement appears “is an attack on—or rather, a corrective to—Andre Bazin’s anti-montage theories” (p. 248).

The individual, not the universe or even the individual in society, became the auteur critics’ central concern. Bazin, they thought, was too concerned with things and not enough with people. Thus, while Bazin was more interested in the mutual interdependence of all things and the revelation of the divine order in the world, the auteur critics were concerned with the transcendence and salvation n of the individual. This shift (really only a slight change in emphasis) follows logically from two causes. First, the auteur critics wanted primarily to make films and express their own personal vision of the world. They were, therefore, much more interested in the art of direction (an individual art) than was Bazin. They wanted to study the works of the directors they considered the best in order to learn how to make their own films. Also, as aspiring film makers, they could not accept Bazin’s technical and stylistic proscriptions; they wanted to be free to use whatever technique and style suited the films they would make.

Second, while the Personalists of the 1930’s and 1940’s retained a strong interest in society and its functioning and refused to detach man from it altogether, the auteur critics abandoned society seeing it only as a negative influence on people. Their sole interest was the individual’s personal destiny and salvation. Thus they centered their attention on the realistic portrayal of solitude morale and efforts to transcend this solitude through contact with others and with God.

While Bazin referred specifically to deep focus, long take, and the relative merits of “facts” and “shots, “ the auteur critics referred more generally to mise en scene, the most used and the least explained term to appear in their writings. Like the word “auteur,” the term was not new to French film criticism. “Mise en scene” comes from the theatre and means “to stage, price, or put into production.” “Metteur en scene” is now, and always was, the standard word for the stage and the film director. To the auteur critics “mise en scene” meant the arrangement of all the physical objects the choreography of all movement, and the manipulation of all the technical apparatus (sets, lighting, camera)—in short, the composition of the visual images.

Jean-Luc Godard, in his review of Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, stated,

It is not in terms of liberty and destiny that cinematographic mise en scene is measured, but in the ability of genius o genius on objects with constant invention, to take nature as a model, to be infallibly driven to embellish things which are insufficient—for instance, to give a late afternoon that Sunday air of lassitude and well-being. Its goal is not to express but to represent. In order that the great effort at representation engulfed in the Baroque should continue, it was necessary to achieve, an inseparability of camera, director and cameraman in relation to the scene represented; and so the problem was not—contrary to Andre Malraux—in the way one shot succeeded another, but in the movement of the actor within the frame.” (p. 24)

Godard’s definition of mise en scene, admittedly a loose one, suggests three areas of inquiry. First, there is the demand that film represent and not express. Second, Godard emphasizes the genius of the director and posits an “inseparability” of director and camera. Third, and most important, Godard centers on the “movement of the actor within the frame.” Thus mise en scene, for Godard, consisted of the way of presenting the material, the relation of the artist to the material, and the functioning of the actor. Godard has suggested the necessary areas of inquiry, but we will have to go beyond Godard in order to explain the auteur critics conception of mise en scene.

When Godard said film should represent, not express, he was clearly referring to and supporting Bazin’s demand for realism in the cinema. The “Baroque” refers to German Expressionism in the cinema, Eisensteinian montage, and all dependence on pictorialism or purely decorative shots and techniques which do not add to the narrative progression of the film. Thus the auteur critics found the austerity of most low budget films, especially Hollywood B-movies, pleasing. In SUDDEN FEAR (David Maler, 1952), Truffaut found “not one shot which was not necessary to the dramatic progression” (21, p. 61). This austerity and directness praised by Godard and Truffaut was raised to the status of an aesthetic law by Rohmer. He believed,

It is reserved to the greatest film makers to use the most direct means of expression to which our nerves are most sensitive, whereas resorting to allusion and ellipse, dear to certain film makers, is only too often the mark of barrenness and indigence (26, p. 25).

Thus, as Godard said, representation meant to “batten on objects with constant invention, “ rather than manipulating objects.” To understand this idea, we must once again return to Bazin. Referring to depth of field in Renoir’s films, Bazin stated:

It confirms the unity of actor and decor, the total interdependence of everything real, from the human to the mineral. In the representation of space, it is a necessary modality of this realism which postulates a constant sensitivity to the world but which opens to a universe of analogies, of metaphors, or, to use Baudelaire’s word in another, no less poetic sense, of correspondences.

The most visual and most sensual of film makers is also the one who introduces us the most intimately to his characters because he is faithfully enamored of their appearance, and through their appearance, of their soul. In Renoir’s films acquaintances are made through love, and love passes through the epidermis of the world. The suppleness, the mobility, the vital richness of form in his direction, result from the care and the joy he takes in draping his films in the simple cloak of reality. (8)

It is only by careful observation of the appearances of things that their essence can be discerned. The auteur critics tended to be less metaphysical, less affected by the Personalism and phenomenology of the 1930’s; therefore they again shifted the emphasis from some kind of Baudelairean correspondences between nature and human emotions to human emotions alone—the movement of “the actor within the frame.” But the process is the same—the director must examine the appearance in order to penetrate to the essence, the inner life. Rohmer pointed this out in his discussion of EUROPE 51. Rossellini proves the existence of the woman’s soul “alone by the force of that which he offers to the eyes, the facial expressions, the attitude, the physical being of the woman and of those who surround her ...” (25, p. 45).

Thus the auteur critics posited a direct connection between the human body and la vie interieur (inner moral and spiritual life). What one sees on the movie screen is the external manifestations, the presentation, of the interior life. Godard expressed this idea directly when he wrote the following about the cinema: “An art of representation, all it knows of interior life are the precise and natural movements of well-trained actors” (p. 21). According to Godard, “the face is not only part of the body, it is the prolongation of an idea which one must capture and reveal” (p. 28). In the movies, then, the face (and the body) make manifest the inner life because

there are, in effect, no spiritual storms, no troubles of the heart which remain unmarked by physical causes, a rush of blood to the brain, a nervous weakness, whose intensity would not be lessened by frequent comings and goings (p. 28).

The inner life is either affected by physical activity or effects changes in it. Either way, as Godard said about the movies, it is only by careful attention to the physical gestures and movements of the actors that the film maker can reveal the inner life, the mark of all directors who were considered auteurs. In order to narrate the tale of transcendence of solitude and the achievement of personal salvation, a way to present the inner life had to be found. The realistic presentation of “significant” actions and moments was that way. Rohmer states:

Is not the secret of Renoir’s mise en scene less in the technical perfection of direction than in the choice of situations to which the camera best accommodates itself? (8, p. 64).

Valuing the presentation of “significant” actions and moments and valuing the telling of one tale represents a shift from Bazin’s conception of the film maker as passive, self-effacing observer to the auteur critics’ concept of the director as auteur. As previously stated, Godard emphasized the genius of the director and the “inseparability” of the camera and the director. Thus the director becomes the camera which records his perceptions: mise en scene is the director’s own individual way of looking at things. It is through the mise en scene that the director expresses himself.

Auteur criticism was, in fact, a very complicated way of saying something very simple. These critics wanted to see their own perception of the world on the screen: the individual is trapped in solitude morale and can escape from it—transcend it—if he or she come to see their condition and then extend themselves to others and to God. Whenever the auteur critics saw this tale on the screen, they called its creator an auteur.

At first it might seem odd to consider acting part of mise en scene; one tends to see acting as one more of the many aspects of-film making with directing, writing, camera work, and so forth. But the auteur critics considered acting and particularly the direction of acting one of the most important aspects of the director’s job. In fact they even made up the title directeur d'acteurs to indicate a director, such as Elia Kazan, who was especially noteworthy for his work with actors. In conventional film acting, borrowed primarily from the theatre, the auteur critics saw just one more aspect of the conventional cinema which they deplored. They sought a new method of acting which would express the story they wanted to see on the movie screen, a form of acting which would express the existential isolation of the individual. This they found in the acting Renoir elicited from his actors and in Stanislavski’s “method” which was brought into film acting by Elia Kazan in the 1940’s. Like the auteur critics, Stanislavski believed that “there is an unbreakable bond between the action on the stage and the thing which precipitated it. In other words, there is a complete union between the physical and the spiritual being of a role.” (9)

This conception of acting necessitated a very close identity between the actor or actress and the role being played. In fact the vie interieur of the actor or actress became as important as the supposed inner life of the character. Thus Truffaut praised Gloria Grahame for her acting in SUDDEN FEAR (1952):

It seems that of all the American stars Gloria Grahame is the only one who is also a person in her own right. She maintains from one film to another physical mannerisms which show a creative acting for which one vainly waits from French actresses (21, p. 62).

Truffaut praised Grahame for her own personality and her ability to present it on the screen—not for the ability she may or may not have had, to act a role in any conventional sense. Actresses and actors must free themselves or be freed by the director from the written dialogue—the most concrete presentation of the prescribed role. Truffaut complained, for example, that the acting of Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward in Henry King’s THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO (1952) “limits itself too much to underlining the competent dialogue of Casey Robinson” (23, p. 59).

Why, we might want to ask, did the auteur critics want the players to act their own lives and express their own personalities and feelings? For one thing, by doing this, as Stanislavski wrote, the actor will create a more believable, true characterization, one which will create great empathy in the audience.

You can understand a part, sympathize with the person portrayed, and put yourself in his place, so that you will act as he would. That will arouse feelings iii the actor that are analogous to those required for the part. Those feelings will belong, not to the person created by the author of the play, but to the actor himself. (10)

“Don't act!” has always been the command of the film makers. As the Kuleshov experiments with the neutral close up of an actress’ face showed, the less acting the better. Bat the auteur critics went beyond this: movies were, in their minds, about the actors and actresses, rather than about fictional characters. It was the personality of a James Dean, a Gloria Grahame, an Anna Magnani, or an Ingrid Bergman which was the subject of a film. They conceived of the actor-character as being trapped in a state of solitude morale. The director had to break through this solitude ash the actor or actress to his or her limit until new insights were achieved, insights which would lead to salvation.


We have examined the political and cultural context of la politique des auteurs; I have also discussed realism, mise en scene, and acting—the auteur critics’ chief aesthetic concerns. All of this we related to the simple tale—the narrative movement from solitude morale, to self-revelation, to salvation—which these critics insisted upon seeing in the movies. Finally, we will look at the details of this tale. In fact, we could say that these critics’ aesthetic concerns—realism, mise en scene, and acting—had to do with how a director presents la vie interieur itself.

Jean Renoir’s THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (1946) was the only film, Eric Rohmer claimed,

which uncovers for us so clearly, without the help of any commentary or other artifice, those sorts of sentiments which one loves to hide most deeply within oneself—not only repressed humiliation, but the disgust or the lassitude which one feels for oneself—that the audacity of such a subject can appear only after some reflection” (8, p. 39).

It seems from this that the auteur critics had a very definite idea of what the inner life contained and of what aspects of its contents were most important. Jacques Rivette saw mise en scene not as a language but as a weapon which probed the heart and soul of the characters “in order to drive out their most ignored truths” (26, p. 51). These critics were not interested in the conventional psychological inner workings so typical of the usual stage play or novel; they were in search of a special moment.

The auteur critics sought the illumination on the screen of a privileged moment when all barriers to the expression of long forgotten or repressed feelings came down. They looked for that instant when a person’s strongest, deepest, most secret emotions burst through, freeing that person from an uncomfortable solitude which had intensified up to the moment of paroxysm. In the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Rivette found a preoccupation with “l'aventure intellectuelle” in which man’s reason and intelligence were constantly assaulted by the inhuman, the subhuman, the irrational. Rivette went on to say that “worse than infantilism, beastialization, and degeneration is the fascination which they exercise on the intelligence” (23, p. 17). The human soul, the inner life, is pushed to an extreme intensity of feeling, to the edge of the emotional abyss. Especially in the close-up shot,

the spirit is solicited by a constant giddiness of effrontery; and what is giddiness if not fear, condemnation, and fascination all at once (23, p. 18).

Over and over again we find these critics concentrating on the moment of vertige (giddiness) and paroxisme, on the ability of the director or the actor to go jusqu'au bout (all the way), the moment when one stares into the abyss; the moment, in short, when one stares into one’s own vie interieur and sees oneself revealed as human, all too human. The presentation of this moment of illumination or lucidity was, for the auteur critics, the key to greatness in cinematic art. And the ability to transfer this moment to the audience, to make it the audience’s moment of paroxysm too was the final important step. Rivette, for example, found that Hitchcock wanted to hold the viewer in a state of instability and insecurity at the “extreme frontier where the last redoubts of the person struggle, but where the only significant victory is possible” (26, p. 50). For it is only in this extreme situation when the human spirit is tested as never before that true human worth can be revealed, that the human being can see and understand the nature of his or her solitude and give it up for love or for God.

This vertiginous moment was important for two reasons. On the one hand, it most accurately portrayed the condition of modern people who must exist alone and without gods in the inhuman, postwar industrial society. On the other hand, it is the precondition for human transcendence through love and/or God. In short, it is the true moment of illumination which must precede any salvation. This image of the human condition corresponds to the Personalist conception. We are alone and abandoned in an essentially meaningless universe (or at least in a meaningless society), but we can, nonetheless, experience salvation through contact with the other and with the divine. The lonely struggle to achieve some clarity, some hold on rational life, some inner sense of security dominates us. In Nicholas Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN (1952), Jacques Rivette claimed that

the true struggle takes place in a lone individual against the interior demon of violence or of a more secret sin, which seems to be bound to man and to his solitude ... (26, p. 50).

Eric Rohmer wrote that Rossellini’s EUROPE 51 and Renoir’s THE GOLDEN COACH (1952) were both “an admirable song on the theme of solitude morale” (25, p.44). In several other films of the same period, Rohmer found the presentation of the solitude “of the exceptional person” (26, p. 20). Thus the subject of the great films was seen as the lonely struggle of the exceptional individual and, as we have seen this struggle had distinctly religious connotations. Rivette compared Hitchcock’s I CONFESS (1952) with the Catholic confessional

in which the guilty person, by the remission of sins, intends to be totally discharged of them and obliges, if necessary, his confessor to take them on to himself and to expiate them in his place (26, p. 50).

Foremost, then, is the need of the individual (and each viewer as well) to plunge into his or her vie interieur and to reveal the deepest secrets and sins buried there in order to be free of them.

These lonely moral and spiritual struggles are at the center of the films considered important by the auteur critics. An auteur, therefore, is the director who most convincingly and most directly presents the fullness of this struggle by the most visual means possible: the human gestures and movements on the screen, the composition of the visual images—in short, the mise en scene. He or she must efficaciously and with technical competence present to and involve the audience in this existential struggle for reason, for human contact, and for salvation. This view of people is the essence of auteur criticism; the aesthetic construct erected above this basic world view is an elaborate justification and rationalization of this very limited view of what film can and should do. An examination of auteur criticism in England and the United States would reveal the same reactionary stance toward the world and the same limited view of art.


1.Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 25 (July, 1953), p. 45. All further citations from the Cahiers articles will be indicated in the text by issue number and page. All translations by Judith Hess and myself. Quotes from Godard and Bazin will be noted separately.

2. “Petite Ecole du spectateur,” Esprit, 4, no. 42 (March, 1936), p. 978.

3. 1 elaborate the meaning of mise en scene below, particularly how the term was used by the auteur critics. It should be noted that although borrowed from the French, the same term in English, and particularly in the U.S., has come to mean only set and lighting. Throughout this article I use the term in its original and much broader sense

4. Rohmer, Arts, no. 706 (Jan., 1959).

5. Revolution personatiste et communautaire, Paris, 1935, pp. IM_ 7

6. What is Cinema?, tr. Hugh Gray, Berkeley, 1971, Vol. 2, p .8. All further citations from Bazin will be indicated in the text by volume and page numbers in the English edition.

7. Godard on Godard, New York, 1972, p. 26. All further quotes fm Godard will be indicated by page number.

8. Jean Renoir, New York, 1973, p. 90.

9. An Actor’s Handbook, New York, 1963, p. 9.

10. Ibid, p. 16.