Interview: Roger Leenhardt with Jacques Rivette
Louis Marcorelles

During the current year the French cinema has been going through a crisis. Economically life has been difficult, with few of the opportunities for young directors that existed only three or four years ago; in terms of ideas, critics are concerned to revalue the achievements of the New Wave. Roger Leenhardt and Jacques Rivette are both critics and film-makers, men of different generations (Leenhardt is 60, Rivette 35), who represent respectively the pre-war critical tradition, founded on literature, and the post-war innovations of Cahiers du Cinema. The gap, however, is not all that considerable. Cahiers, in its special issue of last December, described Leenhardt as "the spiritual father of the New Wave" and the critic who formulated the principles of the new cinema.

Born is Montpellier, Leenhardt has been both critic and film-maker since the early Thirties. He has written for Esprit, Lettres Francaises, L'Ecran Francais, Cahiers du Cinema. "Once every ten years," to quote Cahiers again, "a dazzling article reminds us that he was the first of the film critics." He has made upwards of thirty short films, the earliest of them dating from 1934, but only features: Les Dernieres Vacances (1947), a nostalgic study of the end of childhood, and Le Rendezvous de Minuit (1961), with Lilli Palmer in a dual role. He is at present making a film for television.

Jacques Rivette comes from Rouen, and was one of the team of young critics writing for Cahiers ten years or so ago, Bazin's "young Turks" of the French cinema. As a critic he has written for various magazines, including Arts; as a junior assistant director he worked with both Renoir and Becker. He made three shorts on 16mm before directing the short story films Le Coup du Berger (1956). Paris Nous Appartient, winner of last year's B.F.I. award, the Sutherland trophy, occupied him between 1958-1960. Earlier this year he directed Anna Karina on the stage, in the play La Religieuse.

The following interview, which was tape-recorded, has been transcribed by Michel Delahaye.

Hollywood and France

MARCORELLES: M. Leenhardt, how did you start out as a critic in the Thirties, and why did you become known as such a champion of the American Cinema?

LEENHARDT: It wasn't though criticism that I came to the cinema, but the other way round. In the early Thirties -- in 1933, to be exact -- I was training as an editor, and used to work on the Eclair newsreels. At the same time I was also involved in a whole movement of ideas which had grown up round the magazine Esprit, but which spread much wider, and represented an attempt by French intellectuals to come to political, metaphysical and aesthetic grips with their consciences. Since I was a film technician, I found myself writing about the cinema; and I tried to base my criticism on an overall moral and intellectual view of life at the time, in line with Esprit's philosophy.

As for the American cinema, I must bring up something which probably seems ridiculously old-fashioned today: the sound film. After a long period of evolution, the cinema had grown into an art, a plastic art, which many people thought had reached perfection. Then, around 1929-30, came the whole sound revolution, which really split the European cinema. The best critics and film-makers all felt that sound was a total disaster, that it would mean the end of cinema as an art and the beginning of a canned theatre which might satisfy popular audiences but would effectively stifle any creative effort. But in America, thanks to that famous Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, there never was any real problem. Look at their thrillers, for example, or the Westerns: there's no real break in the continuity between the later silent and the early sound films. It was American film-making which showed us how to overcome the apparent incompatibility between sound and image and so started us off on the road towards the modern cinema.

MARCORELLES: M. Rivette, you began as a critic some fifteen years later, after the war. Why were you so strongly pro-American?

RIVETTE: In 1950 we approached it from a rather different angle, but in the end the results were much the same. At that time, in Europe at least, the American cinema was not so much under-estimated as actually despised. It was a kind of critical duty to attack it, and everyone ran down Hollywood commercialism, Hollywood banality, Hollywood imbecility. It seemed to us -- to Truffaut, Godard, myself -- that this American cinema was in fact a good deal more intellectual, than the European cinema which was always being held up as an example to it. We felt that all kinds of directors, not only the recognized 'Hollywood Intellectuals' like Mankiewicz, but the so-called commercial movie-makers like Hawks and Hitchcock, were producing films much more intelligent than those made in Europe by our Autant-Laras, Delannoys and De Sicas. It may have been a subtler kink of intelligence, because it expressed itself through style and behavior rather than through the usual outward signs.

LEENHARDT: It's remarkable that this anti-Hollywood feeling in France has been so strong and so persistent. Back in 1933, there was very few of us who had a good word for Hollywood. And even ten years or so ago, when Cahiers du Cinema asked twenty French directors for their opinions on the American cinema, the almost unanimous answer was that it was rubbish. I think that only three people -- Renoir, Astruc and myself -- insisted that it was all-important.

MARCORELLES: Neither of you has mentioned the ideas of mise en scene, although Rivette has cited a few 'auteurs'. Was this something you were really conscious of in the Thirties, or did you tend much more to group films under general headings -- gangster movies, crazy comedies, and so on -- without bothering too much about the director's personal contribution?

LEENHARDT: Obviously, the conception of the 'auteur' was less precise in 1935 than in 1950. In general we saw Hollywood films as belonging to a genre -- Westerns, comedies, and so on. But this very fact, I think, made the better critics aware of the need for creative individuality.

The difficulty arises when you talk of 'mise en scene'. I remember writing an article just after the war which I titled "Down with Ford, long live Wyler!' A lot of people were surprised then at that critical approach, which was an attempt to contrast two different conceptions of mise en scene. So I think I can claim to have been aware of the problem from quite an early stage. All the same, there is one point which ought never to be forgotten, and that is the importance of the script.

You must remember that after the coming of sound the scriptwriters took over a major role, which in some respects determined the evolution of cinema. It Happened One Night was a key film for us, and you can't imagine now what a bombshell it seemed at the time. Out of nothing a genre had been created, and we had something new and wonderful, something the cinema had found for itself: the American comedy. But we also wondered just who responsible for the miracle. Was it Capra, the director, or Robert Riskin, the scriptwriter? Some years later I saw another Riskin film, which he had directed himself, and I realized that he wasn't a creator: all the elements of his mythology were there again in the film, but the essential thing, the creative spark, was missing.

I believe, therefore, that individuality in the American cinema springs from this delicate balance which links script to mise en scene, mise en scene to script, and the current which runs constantly from one to the other. There's a creative tension here which is probably the essence of cinema, and seems bound to be a determining factor in its future development.

Something One Sees on the Screen

MARCORELLES: I suppose it was as a reaction against the critics' tendency to talk exclusively in terms of themes and subjects that people pounced so wildly on the whole idea of mise en scene.

RIVETTE: That's just it: a reaction. If we made such a point of mise en scene then years ago, this was done deliberately to stimulate controversy and to rehabilitate the idea that cinema is also something which one sees on the screen. But over the last few years the conception has been so widely abused that one is finally driven to explain exactly what one meant. It is not simply a matter of talking about the fascination of the image one sees on the screen, but of understanding how mise en scene is an expression of the intelligence of the director. The term covers, that is to say, not only the position of the camera, but the construction of the script, the dialogue, and the handling of the actors. mise en scene, in fact, is simply a way of expressing what in other arts would be called the artist's vision; and a novelist's vision obviously does not depend solely on where he place an adjective, or how he builds a sentence, but also the story he is telling. When we made claims for Preminger, or Hawks, or Hitchcock, it should have been evident that it was their personal vision of the world we wanted to bring home to audiences.

But the whole conception has been abused to the point of imbecility, and it is now used to suggest that so long that the camera movement can be called sublime, it makes no difference if the story is fatuous, the dialogue idiotic and the acting atrocious. This, it seems to me, is the exact opposite of everything we fought for under the banner of mise en scene, when we insisted on the importance of establishing a film's authorship.

LEENHARDT: All the same, it's a curious fact that, at any rate in the sort of American films we have been talking about, the 'author' was to all intents and purposes the producer. He set up a production to satisfy his own tastes, chose the script and up the stars, and picked some first-class technician as director. And the interesting point is that many of the producers had themselves started out as writers, so that in effect the scriptwriter's influence extended indirectly over the whole production.

MARCORELLES: I fell, though, that this idea of a personal vision in the cinema was clearly formulated only after the war. In the Thirties there was a hardly the kind of passionate championship of certain directors that one finds today.

LEENHARDT: There's one important factor which certainly quite a bit to do with it. How much criticism was there in France before the war? In 1938, to all intents and purposes, there was hardly a critic worthy of the name. As soon as critics were born and began to breed, the idea was sized on, explained, developed.

MARCORELLES: Even after the war, apart from Andre Bazin and yourself, there wasn't much more than a single magazine, L'Ecran Francais.

RIVETTE: But L'Ecran Francais did exist, over and above the fact that Bazin, Astruc and Leenhardt wrote for it from time to time. The very fact that here was a periodical, appearing each week, which at least tried to bring critical judgment to bear on all the films shown, helped to create a climate of opinion. You could say the same of Cahiers du Cinema. The magazine is open to criticism, God knows. But by the very fact that it has appeared every month for the last ten years it has created a whole generation of filmgoers in love with the cinema (drunk with it, one might say). This would never have happened if Cahiers du Cinema hadn't existed.

Now things have gone a stage further. There is a much larger audience with critical awareness, and this has resulted in the formation of little chapels of opinion which hat each other and then love each other again, which survive just a few months before splintering off and reforming in a new alignments. One may find it a bit juvenile, but a least it's evidence of a passionate concern with the cinema which would have been inconceivable ten years ago. In 1950, Truffaut, Godard and I, and a few others, met at the Cinematheque. We became friends simply because there was no one else; we were the only people who went there every evening.

Critics and Creators

MARCORELLES: M. Leenhardt, you were partly responsible, through Bazin, for the creation of a new school of critics. What do you feel about the state of criticism today, particularly as it has developed out of the influence of Cahiers?

LEENHARDT: When someone like Clause Roy claims (writing about literature) that creative artists make the best criteria, I have my reservations. When an artist in full creative flower suddenly turns a critical eye on his art if can be a valuable and exciting experience; but I believe the function of criticism to be analysis, and quite different from the function of creation, which is synthesis. This is difficult ground for me, as I am myself both critic and director... But I don't believe that it is the critic's job to formulate new creative methods, and Andre Bazin's great quality was precisely this fundamental aloofness which allowed himself to observe as a critic. The critical vision of today affects me only in so far as I find in an article or a review a reflection of the writer's own ambitious (in the best sense of the word). This is one of the factors which makes this sort of criticism alive and extremely interesting on a personal level, but which at the same time makes the objectivity and long-term value of its judgments very dubious.

MARCORELLES: Bazin's criticism was exceptional because he was exceptional. But don't you think there might be circumstances in which it was absolutely essential for a critic to be at least a potential film-maker in order to be able full to understand a film? Isn't this one of the factors which might explain the present crisis in criticism?

LEENHARDT: Was Sainte-Beuve a great literary critic? He was wrong in about one out of three of his judgments on his contemporaries, perhaps even two out of three. The fact is, it seems to me, that there are two elements in criticism. On the one hand there is its value as a piece of writing, elegantly phrased and constructed; on the other, its value as a judgment; and here some critics are more often right than others, more perceptive in discovering new paths. My quarrel with present-day critics is that they fill neither bill. They simply do not posses the necessary objectivity, the ability to look at a thing calmly and classically, which means that in ten years time people will be saying how right they were. Nor does their writing have that intrinsic quality which would make it absorbing to read, no matter how arguable their opinions. I don't think, when one comes down to it, that they are quite serious enough or quite amusing enough.

RIVETTE: To take up this point about the two different kinds of criticism: I believe less and less that it's the critics job to deliver verdicts. Distinctions between major and minor works of art are made not so much by contemporary critics as by the artists of the next generation, who say "Of our predecessors, we recognize such and such as our masters, even if we travel a different road from theirs. The rest can be relegated to history." I believe this is a law which has been proved again by the history of art, and proved again by the history of the cinema. Take a classic case. It was the early twentieth century painters and not Cezanne's contemporary critics, who claimed that he was the greatest painter of the late nineteenth century; the critics then followed this lead, and gave their sanction. In the same way a positive critical contribution was made, if not by directors at any rate by apprentice directors, who said that Murnau was more important than Pabst, or the other film-makers whom the historians had previously rated his equal. And the historians have already come round to confirming this judgment, or in the process of doing so. In the histories of ten or fifteen years ago, Murnau is given much the same space as Robert Wiene. In future, Muranu will have to have ten pages against a paragraph for Caligari (which is an important film, all the same), plus a footnote for the rest of Wiene's work. Mizoguchi, too, was in France singled out by a few directors who recognized him as their master; critics and historians will have to follow suit.

LEENHARDT: You are confusing criticism with creativity. It's natural for a young director to try to discover himself through his work and his ambitions, and try to find his place in the world in relation to his seniors. But this has nothing to do with the critical assessment or art, which must try to find an absolute standard by which it can measure the works that are going to last against the ones that won't.

RIVETTE: Yes, but what I meant was that this function, which is traditionally attributed to the critic, doesn't really belong to him at all. In any case, I believe that it is almost impossible to pronounce a verdict on a contemporary work.

LEENHARDT: Criticism needs a sort of privileged ground -- parallel, as it were, to the creative terrain -- from which judgments can be made. If there has been some renewal in criticism since the Thirties, it was because Malraux wrote his Psychology of Art and wrote it from the terrain (unusual at the time) of philosophy. And this privileged ground, this parallel terrain, cannot belong to the creative artist.

MARCORELLES: Do we possess all the criteria necessary to draw up a scale of values? Do you feel, for instance, that a history of the cinema is practicable at present?

RIVETTE: Yes, if one excludes the last ten years. To write the history of these ten years would obviously be a fascinating task, but it is equally obvious that he closer one comes to the present day, the more one gets tangled up in polemic and personal preferences. I'm judging from my own experience of reseeing at the Cinematheque the films which I first saw in 1950 or so. Murnau, Stroheim, Griffith are still great; the unimportant film still look unimportant. But when one comes to films made over the last decade, I find that some which I didn't properly understand at the time now look remarkable, while others which I admired seem worthless. It isn't easy to make an objective assessment of something that is close to you.

For example, I saw Resnais' Muriel a few days ago. I'm glad I wasn't asked for an opinion on it right away, because I have since seen it a second time; and I realize that my opinion after a first viewing would have been a mixture of polemic, bile and prejudice about the sort of film I expected from Resnais. It's difficult to absorb a new film straight away, because one begins by superimposing the film one expected, which one wanted to see, and even which one wanted to make oneself.

All these barriers must be set aside before one can see the film which is actually there on the screen, and only then can one decide whether or not the director has succeeded on his terms rather than yours. A certain distance is absolutely essential. Spontaneous reactions are all very fine, but they tell you more about the critic than about the film.

LEENHARDT: At the same time, however, I think a critic must stake himself body and soul on his discoveries, at the risk of looking a fool ten years later if realizes thathe has backed the wrong horse. The marvelous thing about Apollinaire, or Cocteau, was that they managed to place a finger squarely on the thing that really was important. Or Malraux, writing a preface to Faulkner, saying this is important, and being absolutely right.

An Art of Youth

MARCORELLES: Do you feel there is a cause and effect relationship between the splintering of criticism around 1955 (with resultant deification of mise en scene by some faction, and the deification of the actor by others) and the confusion now reigning in the French cinema?

LEENHARDT: My own answer to that amounts to a confession. I made three serious errors of judgment concerning the cinema and its development. The first, which may appear unimportant although I don't myself think so, concerns the age of creation. Every field of human activity, it is said, has its own optimum creative age. Mathematicians and poets reach the height of their powers while very young. Painters, on the other hand, like most novelists, tend to create their major works in middle age.

Now the cinema, historically speaking, was an art of youth. As it evolved, however, I thought it was becoming an art of middle age -- which didn't worry me, as it seemed to bring it closer to the novel. This was particularly apparent in the American cinema, where one saw the middle-aged film-makers gaining in maturity and depth what they perhaps sacrificed in gaining in maturity and depth what they perhaps sacrificed in youthful brilliance. So I was rather disconcerted by the phenomenon of few years ago, when youth took over the cinema. This was a really key development, and it force me to reconsider some of my more general assumptions. If the cinema is an expression of the world of youth, of the thoughts and feelings of young men in their twenties, then it's no longer quite the cinema I envisaged. The parallels I drew were with the novel, but the comparison, perhaps, outght rather to be with poetry.

The second error concerns the respective roles of the director and the scriptwriter. It may be difficult for people now to realize the impact made on French cinema in the Thirties by the arrival of a brilliant new group of writers. One must remember that before this directors had usually written their own scripts. Suddenly writers appeared on the scene, like the novelist Pierre Bost, the poet Jacques Prevert, the dramatist Georges Neveux. It was they, rather than Carne or Duviver, who-were responsible for our pre-war cinema. They really created it.

So, I told myself, after the war all the young writers would probably turn into wonderful scriptwriters. But it didn't happen like that. The intelligent young men -- Astruc, for example -- had only one idea in their hands, and that was to climb on to a crane and get the camera moving. There followed a complete confusion in which old hacks had to be dredged up to write scripts, since either writers with talent were either not interested in the cinemas at all, or else felt that they were as well qualified as anybody else to be behind the camera. And instead of worrying about the creative problems which telling a story entails, they were busy thinking about what sort of focal aperture to use.

We are not out of the woods yet. Where are the scriptwriters today? Now and again one thinks, well yes, look!, there's one, he's called Marcel Moussy. And what is Moussy doing now? He wants to be a director. There simply aren't any scriptwriters any more.

My third error can be summed in a sentence which once had a certain truth in it: the cinema is not a spectacle, is not a public phenomenon, but a personal form of expression rather similar to novel writing. I thought the cinema was moving towards something more free, more interior, in which the ideal film would be one which one could watch alone at home, stopping at the end of a sequence just as one might pause at the end of a chapter in order to better to understand or savor it. We saw what looked like the disappearance of the cinema as spectacle in favor of television, which was intimate and personal certainly, but in a rather different way from the art I had envisaged. Then, in self-defense against television -- which is neither one thing nor the other -- the cinema was forced back into spectacle, force in fact to become more spectacular than ever, while the purely personal work of art I had in mind became increasingly a misfit, an economic impossibility.

RIVETTE: The whole question of the scriptwriter is closely linked to the idiot mythology which has grown up recently round the idea of the director as complete creator, a youthful genius who can do anything and everything, and which has resulted in an influx of directors of startling incompetence.

Obviously we the Cahiers team, with Truffaut as chief spokesman -- were responsible for this myth, but we were writing at a time when polemic, shock statements like "anybody can make a film," were a necessary reaction against the rigid stratification which was then strangling the cinema. It was a completely closed shop, in which the director spent fifteen years moving from third assistant to second assistant, and finally to assistant director, before getting anywhere; and the writer worked through the same process. The reaction was inevitably violent and uncompromising: all kinds of extreme positions were taken up. And, since 1959 and the birth of the New Wave, all these attitudes have been taken much too literally.

MARCORELLES: It seems to me that the innovations of the New Wave are summed up in Godard's work, and that he stands for the most vigorous new ideas in the cinema. Do you agree?

RIVETTE: It's difficult in a general discussion suddenly to turn to individual cases...but of all the new directors, Godard seems to me by far the most talented. In spite of all the paradoxes and apparent contradictions in his work, he is a coherent and deeply reflective artist; and it would be extremely dangerous for anyone less intelligent and less sure-footed to try to follow in his footsteps. Resnais, on the other hand, works more through conscious calculation than intuition, and for that reason he is probably a safer model for the embryo director to follow. Resnais makes film-making look difficult, the result of any amount of patience and effort -- which of course it is. Godard makes it all seem so easy. It's a pity that A Bout de Souffle helped to create this particular myth, which the rest of Godard's work really doesn't support, but which again influences critics and would be directors.

LEENHARDT: For me, Godard is without a doubt the best of the new directors. The astonishing thing about this generation is that they suddenly just began to create cinema as though born to it. The previous generation -- artists like Kast, Resnais, Astruc -- came to the cinema after having received their training in literature. For them film-making was difficult. There was a sort of tension, and they felt uneasy when faced by assistant directors who might be much less literate than they were themselves, but who had grown up in the atmosphere of the studio and were completely at home there. But the new generation seemed to have cinema right at their fingertips. They had an ease which probably came from the fact that they were brought up on film, just as much as on literature.

MARCORELLES: What about the older directors whom they admire so much? Hitchcock, for example. M. Leenhardt, you once said that many committed films would be forgotten thirty years from now, but that Hitchcock would remain just as fresh. Do you still feel the same?

LEENHARDT: Yes. Just now I was lamenting the fact that mise en scene was assuming too much importance in relation to the script, because content counts for as much as form. Although Sainte-Beuve once wrote that "a work of art is as good as its style," it is rare for a work of literature to be valuable for its style and nothing else. Hitchcock is a stylist, one of the few pure stylists in the cinema, and the elegance and economy of his camera movements are pure pleasure. I sometimes read books for the sheer delight of their language (Racine, for instance, whose psychology -- Francois Mauriac notwithstanding -- is puerile), and this is exactly how I view Hitchcock. I am not particularly interested in the plastic values of cinema, but each shot of a Hitchcock film holds me in a thrall admiring its delicate musical balance. I'm an ardent admirer of a script-writer's cinema, but I have to admit that mise en scene like this is overwhelming.

RIVETTE: One could have to be totally blind to cinema not to recognize Hitchcock's total mastery. At the same time though, his direction is often misleadingly praised at the expense of script and story construction, as though it were something existing independently. One gets the impression that when Hitchcock is preparing a film he works out his camera movements at the same time as his story detail, resolving his problems of clarity and economy in both fields simultaneously. His films are never pure visual brilliance: they go a lot deeper than that.

MARCORELLES: May we turn, finally, to the present crisis in the French cinema?

LEENHARDT: Firstly, there is the fact that television has arrived, just as it did in America and elsewhere several years ago. Secondly, there is the fact that the cinema was for years a privileged industry, in which everyone was making money and it was difficult to go very far wrong. The commercial structure of the industry has scarcely changed since the Twenties, and there can hardly be another industry in this position. Today the industry is no longer privileged, it has to fight, and it isn't accustomed to fighting. Hence, the crisis.

One can no longer automatically produce films which will automatically receive distribution and automatically cover their costs. Some other way will have to be found, towards new methods of distribution or perhaps new forms of cinema; and a great deal of imaginative thinking has got to go into solving the problem. But the crisis in itself is a normal and healthy reaction against a long period of privilege, when the cinema live in a troublefree world of its own.

MARCORELLES: M. Rivette, what do you feel about the opportunities for film-making at present?

RIVETTE: At the best of times it is all a matter of luck. There is no law of society which says that it is one's right to make a film, or that one may make a film. If one manages to make a film, fine; if not, then one really has nothing to complain about. It is normal not to make films.

LEENHARDT: Yes, one must be realistic about this. People often complain about the stupidity of producers and distributors who prevent them from making films which the public is eagerly waiting for. It just isn't true. After all, the middle men do have some knowledge of their medium...

One possible solution is state subsidy, which exists already and doesn't work too badly. Another is television, which eliminates all the worst problems of distribution and gives you a ready made audience. If a difficult film is shown in an ordinary cinema, the public probably stays away, whereas on television everybody sees it and it stands more chance of being accepted. If only the television companies would agree that it's their right, as well as their duty, to show a number of "difficult" films each year, within the context of their normal programs, they would find (so long as they didn't show too many) that they would go down very well. This is one way out at least.

MARCORELLES: Didn't the cinema once reach a sort of state of grace, which it has lost today?

RIVETTE: Yes... but since it is lost, it isn't worth talking about.

Originally appeared in Sight and Sound Vol. 32 No. 4 (Autumn 1963): p. 168-73.