The Age of metteurs en scene
Jacques Rivette
translated by Liz Heron

How does one become a Persian? Even more, how does one accept CinemaScope? Such is my feeling on the subject that I do not entertain the slightest reservation, let alone the possibility of rejecting it. At the very least the anamorphic lens will have this initial advantage: it will finally have drawn a clearly defined boundary between two schools and even two ideas of the cinema, two fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable ways of loving and understanding it. I see only one difference, but it is an important one: it is no longer to do with geography, but with history. Many a plea to hold back change will be swept away to join the nostalgic longings for the days of the silents, the lamentations for black and white -- and those who make such pleas too, if they are not careful.

Let's be frank. The advent of CinemaScope is a matter of quite a different order from the start of the talkies, on the level of aesthetics, that is: for the talkies only confirmed an established fact, remedied a defect, proved the truth of Griffith, Murnau and Stroheim against, you might say, Chaplin or Eisenstein. It's a deaf man indeed who is not pursued by the memory of Lillian Gish's clear, sparkling voice, or the nuances of the authoritative tones in which Lil Dagover parried Tartuffe, or the strangled cries of Fay Wray; and the only thing Lubitsch's brilliant conversationalists lacked in Lady Windermere's Fan was speech -- no, not even that, just voices.

Much more then than the coup d'etat of sound, it seems to me that the history of the cinema has its turning point in the irresistible infiltration of color. CinemaScope is, more than anything else, the crowning moment and the consecration of this long process; from now on they go hand in hand, both pursuing the same objective. I make no claim to express it in just a few words; but it is no longer from the shadow of things that the film-maker will draw substance, but from their most alive and striking forms. He now has to create with what is most concrete, most weighty in them, and if he wishes to carry them, always unique, towards the abstract, it will not be at the expense of the individual and the singular. It looks as if any hint of syntactical or literary algebra has had its day and, however, much it may displease the pedants, the cinema is not a language.

And without wishing to upset too many people I must say that when I am in front of the CinemaScope screen I experience no regret for the old screen, nor do I give it the slightest thought. Yet I already yearn for CinemaScope whenever I am faced with an ordinary screen. Watching The Naked Spur again the other day in the front row of a cinema which in fact has a reasonably big screen, throughout the film I never shook off the oppressive sensation of narrowness, of an intolerable appropriation of the edges where there is room for air to circulate, of the most artificial limits that can be imposed on the eye or the mind. What justifies CinemaScope in the first place is our desire for it, which goes beyond the simple role of the spectator.

There's no doubt, however, that the bitterness of the critics is justified: they like to see what they already know; they allow of no beauty as yet unclassified. For them beauty is classical, and they spend the greater part of their time lamenting what is gone; what agonies to be forever denied the satisfaction of those tedious close-ups, that framing so compliantly subject to the laws of the golden number, everything that habit has endowed with the illusion of the irreplaceable. But how can it fail to fire the imagination -- the idea of what is yet to come, but is promised to us, the knowledge of all that can now happen; in these new expanses what harm can come to that close-up, whose every artifice we know so well, whose every inflexion is so predictable? Art lives not necessarily in what is new, but in what is discovered; that is what unbends the most stubborn and emboldens the most timid.

I don't want to base an argument on my own personal taste. For, example, that these new proportions inspire in me the idea of elegance above all, and that they satisfy intellectually as much as visually; nor will I linger over a description of the new viewpoint offered to the spectator, and the talk scarcely seems to be about what is the essential -- that is, the fact that visual range is not extended at the expense of closeness; the anamorphic lens is the real triumph of the wide-angle, the mark of true film-makers. But since it is generally felt that CinemaScope is primarily a problem of mise en scene, let's talk about that.

Admittedly, The Robe is no masterpiece (though it's still better than Alan Crosland's 1927 film). If certain documentary images are superior, it is because it is in the logic of things that the genius of the machine bursts out in advance of the creators' genius. Lumiere will always have more charm than Melies, as will the raw use of the invention rather than later, somewhat over-ingenious applications made by its manipulators. I'm thinking specifically of some of Negulesco's shots in the film we saw at the Rex -- they seemed to accumulate rhetorical precautions to justify a process whose very evidence is the trump card: precautions that give rise either to suspicion or to a feeling of redundancy. Yes, I think that in practice I still prefer the total absence of research and ideas of a Koster, who seems hardly bothered by CinemaScope and who proves thereby, no doubt quite involuntarily, that in effect everything is possible. Here we have an example of how a mise en scene which is conventional to the point of parody, and stupid in places, acquires an added dimension simply through the anamorphic lens -- breadth and nothing more -- and manages to sum up a certain style, one that is still ambiguous and confused, but indisputable. What will it be like with the added ingredient of talent? I can't see how anything should have to be sacrificed to the new lens in any way imaginable. I see rather what each aspect of mise en scene will gain in effectiveness, in beauty, and in breadth -- truly and spiritually as well as visibly.

For this is the bone of contention: our critics acknowledge the process, but they want to limit the damage, or else to restrict it to the level of a curiosity or an attraction that does not trespass on art (with art defined by divine right as silent, narrow, and black and white); to channel it into certain genres and, I dare say, keep it confined to location filming (yet how can you see Rope again without immediately recognizing the most inspired insight into the cinema of tomorrow?). These arguments are not new by any means, but two years after they were first heard there were no more silent films and color was only a matter of months away. For it's the directors who decide, who alone know how to distinguish between what increases their powers and what limits them -- and the critics follow. They even soon discover and acclaim what had heralded the new technique. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc has many parallels in our time. It won't be long before they are claiming that our best recent films -- and no doubt all the great films in the history of the cinema -- contain within them either an appeal to CinemaScope or nostalgia for it, that so many pans, lateral tracking shots, careful arrangements of characters over the surface of the screen (Le Carrosse d'or) had perhaps a meaning -- even if it were simply that of breadth.

No, I'm not going to attempt to describe this cinema -- not what it will be an hour from now, far less tomorrow. I am making a statement: CinemaScope, Abel Gance's triple screen, Cinerama -- whatever; they are always that same desire to break out of the antiquated frame and, more than that, the desire for the kind of sudden opening-out of the screen that is like the blossoming of a Japanese paper flower plunged in running water. The search for depth is out of date; that is what condemns 3-D more surely than all the technical imperfections. What new problems could it hope to offer directors today? After so many years of depth, what novelty, what challenge is there? Money puts color and sound on offer, but who imposes them, if not the film-maker, in his desire to take up the challenge that they present to his imagination, letting himself become involved, then discovering, sometimes in spite of himself, the new dimensions of his art? Is challenge too slim a criterion? But what was Michelangelo's fresco technique or Bach's fugue technique if not the compulsion to invent an answer to some vexing question (and I'll say nothing of the infinite challenges of technique and construction -- often subtle to the point of seeming trivial -- which all artists secretly impose on themselves, and which will never be known to the public). Yes, there is the essential element of art; 'the study of beauty is a duel. . .'

It seems that the history of mise en scene is inseparable from the frenzied exploration of that narrow corridor of space that would always close in on the eye of the film-maker as soon as he looked through the lens (what was the widest wide angle compared with the impatience of that look which could take in all the breadth and space of a scene in a lightning glance?), but inseparable also from the obsession, running secretly through the work of the greatest directors, with the spreading out of that mise en scene on the screen, the desire for a perfect perpendicular in relation to the spectator's look. From Birth of a Nation to Le Carrosse d'or, from the Murnau of Tabu to the Lang of Rancho Notorious, this extreme use of the breadth of the screen, the physical separation of the characters, empty spaces distended by fear or desire, like lateral movements, all seem to me to be -- much more than depth -- the language of true film-makers, and the sign of maturity and mastery. Look at how Renoir has moved on from Madame Bovary or La Regie du jeu to Diary of a Chambermaid and The River. If, as Bresson has said, the cinema is the art of connections, then the first are those of confrontations, looks, distances, and their variations, which in depth are indiscernible with any precision, or even more confused. The use of depth, where the distorted perspective imposes on the protagonists an often arbitrary variation in scale, dominated by disproportions, incongruities, ridicule, is surely allied to a sense of the absurd; while the use of breadth surely goes with intelligence, equilibrium, lucidity, and -- by the very openness of its relationships -- with morality. Isn't that an aspect of the eternal conflict between the baroque and the classical? And wouldn't; great mise en scene, like great painting, be flat, hinting at depth through slits rather than gaps?

The future opens up these questions, and others more to do with the everyday practice of the film-maker. Must we expect the theatre to teach us the lessons of a drama as vast as the universe? Of course, but at the same time the cinema would only lose itself if it gave up the search for an exact and clearly articulated mode of writing of its own, the obsession with an abstract figure, of which the work of the theatre is ignorant, subject as it is to the logic of drama, the explaining of situations, the showing of the scene. What can we hope will come from great painting except simply a bold example, equally governed by mural display and the theatre? Freed from framing (and slavery to plasticity), now abolished in favor of the lens; freed from editing, now sacrificed to a simple succession of takes or fragments of cinema, and to the play of breaks -- this at last is our cinema, now forced to look for its real problems.

I am exaggerating a little. The Robe clearly shows how CinemaScope gives weight to everything, even if left to itself. Henry Koster changes shots, regulates the camera movements according to plan, without any significant miscalculation, and still encounters happy accidents, unexpected successes. A thousand details, a thousand tricks that will soon wear thin, are none the less proof that things will not stop there. In the end it will be necessary to embark on the search for a new breadth of expression and attitude; above all, a contemporary breadth of expression which will stand out on this flat backdrop. The director will learn how he can sometimes claim the whole surface of the screen, mobilize it with his own enthusiasm, play a game that is both closed and infinite -- or how he can shift the poles of the story to their opposites, create zones of silence, areas of immobility, the provoking hiatus, the skilful break. Quickly wearying of chandeliers and vases brought into the edges of the image for the 'balance' of the close-ups, he will discover the beauty of the void, of free, open spaces swept by the wind; he will know how to lay bare the image, how to be no longer afraid of gaps or disequilibrium, and how to multiply his transgressions against plasticity in order to obey the truths of the cinema.

He will not waste time: genius is first distinguished from talent by its haste to make use of the new, to discover with it, go beyond its time, and to create from its material. For us the history of Technicolor is synonymous with films of Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang. We should not complain -- we already know one early inspired use of CinemaScope: that short by Hawks on one of Marilyn's songs three minutes of total cinema.

For forty years the masters have shown the way. We can't reject their example, we must fulfill it. Yes, ours will be the generation of CinemaScope, the generation of metteurs en scene, at last worthy of the name, as they move the creatures of our mind on the infinite stage of the universe.

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 31 (January 1954); p. 45-8. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Liz Heron.