The demise of film critical thinking


By Serge Daney

Originally published (without title) in ‘L’exercice a été profitable’ (Paris: POL). Written in 1991.


Why do people like me, film critics – tardy heirs of a world of light and shadow – find themselves so quickly in a state of unemployment, early retirement or in the position of the last of the Mohicans? It’s a question. Why did I stop playing film critic, although I largely wrote what I wanted in a magazine which was spontaneously “cinephile”? It’s my question. I remember that when I left Cahiers du Cinéma for Libération in 1981, for the first time I had the feeling that the discourse on the “crisis of cinema” – which had always left me indifferent – would end up being true and that the countdown undoubtedly had already begun. It was at the time of Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)*, a film which inaugurated the eighties rather well, being at the same time vacuous and insular and in the end without any grandeur.

As there were a lot of things I was not able to do at Cahiers, those years at Libération were at first euphoric: I made up for my own lateness, I recycled all the prolongated experiences – rather radical, rather rough – of the seventies. I was being served well by the exigencies of the daily, the talent of the newspaper and the maneuvering space it permitted me at the time. But all the same I became, bit by bit, a sort of moral consciousness of the film criticism that once was – melancholic, dignified and finally grouchy. Indeed, it’s difficult to maintain the idea of a common thread, of a “follow-up”, of a memory, in the voluntarily amnesic world of media.

I started – it was my luxury – asking myself if the place accorded to cinema in the media (especially in France) wasn’t more extensive than the real need for cinema in people’s lives, a need that has become rather weak. It was the era when we started talking about “the death of cinema”, like we nowadays talk about the “end of history”. What became clear is that since some time films no longer generate debate, they don’t leave a lot of traces, and the cinephiles themselves infuse them with a disenchanted loyalty rather than a tormented passion. In short, in the expression “coup de coeur”*, so typical for the cynicism of those years, it’s the word “coup” (punch) that counts, because in regards to “coeur” (heart), it’s rather a leukaemic state of affairs.

Once passed the euphoria, I continued to talk about cinema, but in an attempt to relate it to something else that extends it or perhaps even denies it – I didn’t know very well: television, publicity, communication, the idea of information etc. I had to get away from the rancid self-satisfaction of the “big family of cinema” and the bad habits of the cathodic communication’s parvenus. This permitted me to write little amusing day-to-day chronicles, to become a professional “zappeur” for a while, critic of films “on television”, observer of televised info etc. It was a rather special shuttle in which I ended up finding myself a bit too lonesome. When one doesn’t belong to the César family or the 7 d’or family*, the people who actually do belong to those families take pleasure in going through your pockets without mentioning your name or setting up a pedestal for you in the back in the garden, where nobody goes. It’s normal, since we are in a period in which families – all families – take revenge for the past twenty years in which they have been put to challenge.

Still there is a very simple thing I have finally understood: criticism can not justify itself unless it responds to a desire, most likely that of the author. Where there is a rather strong desire (and desire is always violent), the critic has to answer present. It’s like in tennis: we don’t hit back all the balls under the pretext of them “being symptomatic”, but we are forced to react to the serves. Yet, the phenomenon typical for our societies is that the border between desire, caprice, whim, hobby and parlor game is being recomposed. A lot of the current films no longer stem from a desire to make a film but rather from the desire of being a filmmaker at least once in a lifetime. Why not? Me, I don’t mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint making Monsieur* but I don’t see how or why I will criticize this film, because it doesn’t entail a “follow-up” for anyone.

Criticism was necessary when, in society, there was a place where violence, sense, the need to say or make, made some kind of bond, some kind of abscess. But it looses this necessity from the moment when “the right to create”, as the communists used to say, is open and acknowledged to everyone. Criticism provided news from certain high-risk travelers: Tarkovski, Godard, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, people like that were all travelers. Criticism is of no use now that all that has been replaced by the touristic auto-programmation of the individual. A film like L’ours (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1998)* doesn’t appeal to film criticism, it only appeals to some big competition giving as first price the right to assist to the shooting of the film, because the shooting itself is undoubtedly the only adventurous thing about the project. The critic is a “passeur” between two poles: between those who make and those who see what has been made. What has to clear is the order of priorities. For me, the critic first sends an open letter to the author and this letter is then read by the possible audience of the film. The critic represents the interests of those who “make” on the side of those who don’t. Like some kind of lawyer. This seems to me at the same time normal and moral. But for others, it’s the contrary: they represent the interests of the audience on the side of the creator. They rather act like judges. Some function rather well following the model of criticism which sorts out “what passes“ and doesn’t. It’s the consumer guide, even enlightened, even insolent, or pretending to be.

This quickly leads to pure and simple conformism because, by definition, every audience, even enlightened, even adult, wants consensus. But it’s perhaps more profitable today to only see in a film the “societal phenomenon” aspect and fly to the assistance of “what works” – just a matter of adding one’s supposedly “personal” opinion.

What I’m saying is of course very debatable. It all goes back to never taking the side of the group against the individual. But I think that the beauty of the cinema of the 20th century was it being a gigantic asocial machine that has, paradoxically, taught millions of people to live with one another, thus as a society, while never forgetting that there is more than the society in the world. But when there is only the horizon of the social, when the world has disappeared, we find ourselves cemented to the mediocrity of the global village and even if this village is ultra-communicative, it remains a village. And a village doesn’t need criticism, it needs griots, supporters, rural sheriffs; in short it needs television.


When I was a child, in the 1950’s, at the beginning of “The Glorious Thirty”*, cinema was the luxury of the poor. It told us that we were poor while, at the same time, showing the rich. It was a strange art, perhaps not even an art but certainly an unique moment in history: the right blend between shadow and light, the individual and the collective, an art that was popular and elitist, the beginning and the end of the 20th century, with on one hand the “science for all” aspect, and on the other bodies stemming from the circus.

Cinema has great difficulties accompanying the current age, which it has partly aspired and nourished. Perhaps it’s normal. The modern individual lives in a society with an “abundance of choice” and cinema is only one of the possible choices, prestigious certainly, but a bit too heavy. The modern societies have become unstable organisms, transparent for themselves, and the “social” is, thanks to the artificial respiration of surveys, what we consume, market share by market share. As for approaching the “truth” of beings and things, art has stopped replacing religion. So, on one hand, art becomes ornamental again, and on the other, religion reclaims its old debt in post-modern guises (“new age”, tele-evangelists , fundamentalism and other doldrums). Cinema was a collective way of camping between faith and believe, without being scorched by faith or vegetating too much on believes.

Naturally, it is television which, in its resistible ascension, has been impelled to destroy all of that. The attentive traveler: that was yesterday. The blasé tourist: that is today. It suffices to watch Paris-Dakar. We are shown some roaring racing cars in the desert and we are told: see, the proof that this race exists lies in the fact that you get to see some fragments of it on television, believe us on our word but don’t ask about the story of the African kid who was run over, that of father and son Sabine*, or that of the small-time amateur who saves up for one year in order to be able to participate: these experiences are not to be communicated anymore.

So, when by contrast I see an old Hawks film from the 1930’s about car racing, The Crowd Roars with Cagney, I see very clearly that there was still a simple contract with the public of that time: Hawks, who was a pilot, tried to share – by way of cinema – a bit of his experience. That is what “access to the world” was all about: this idea that experiences, even distant ones, could all the same be communicated. Today, the only experience that television communicates to us is that of the American tourist behind the windows of his motorcar, with tinted glass and air conditioning. It’s nice but is a bit meager and it ends up with CNN.


I’m told that the media are the first propagandists of cinema. Not really. The media function by way of “Misters”. They need to have a “Mister books”, a “Mister weather forecast”, a “Mister tomato juice”, a “Mister cinema”. As soon as they’ve found their personage and warmed him up, that’s it, that’s enough. I remember that Godard blamed Claude-Jean Philippe* for always smiling when he presented Ciné-club, as if cinema was so derisory, minor and futile that it felt as if we had to squirm on our seats under the mocking gaze of (Bernard) Pivot, who was so convinced of his superiority that he quickly got rid of this cumbersome object: “the love for literature”*. For my part, I was ashamed of us, former rats of the cinemathèque who were definitely not presentable for normal people (and who is more normal than Pivot?).

Why this shame? Because there is something taboo on television and this something is the familiarity that someone can have with what one loves and what one knows. It’s this idea that when we love and know something very well, we have a chance that we can talk about it well. It’s particularly painful for cinema because – especially in France – cinema would have never constituted a culture if it hadn’t been endowed with a veritable oral tradition, one of the only ones still alive. Like a dream, like poetry, like everything that shrouds time, film is difficult to summarize, hence difficult to mediatize. This tradition went as far as inventing, hallucinating shots, entire scenes, but it preferred to dream them collectively rather than to re-vision them solitary on videotape.

Things won’t work out well. Nowadays, Philippe would have been a transitory and useful figure, but considering the way television evolves, I think it will soon do without this kind of “passeurs” and that it will likely use its “house” staff – thus ignorant – to cover it all. And the more they are ignorant, the better it will be because their ignorance will be the same that we suppose from the public. I say “that we suppose” because in the end celebrity presenters are like pimps who earn royalties from the supposed pleasure of the client, pleasure of which they know nothing (they don’t know anything but “satisfaction rates”). It’s the girl who knows but she doesn’t tell, otherwise she would get killed. The girl – who experienced so much and aged so well – is cinema and today she only serves to dredge clients towards the display window of the audiovisual shop. And when the client goes in, he’s hardly informed anymore, he is just being sold something else, cinema is not being talked about at all.


Perhaps we are at the end of a process, a sort of wrestling fight between art and culture which started in the 1960’s. In 1968, a lot of people of my age experienced this in a reactive and ambiguous way. We considered art as a second religion, superior to the old religion because it was much more emancipatory, and we considered culture as a venture which recuperated all this emancipation by way of Capital. And at the same time – funny contradiction – we were fighting for access to cultural goods for all.

Culture has finally won out and the likes of Barthes, Bourdieu and all those semiologists, sociologists, cultural animators, young wolves, advertisers and communication experts have marked out the economical field of culture. This has developed from what I mentioned earlier: the explosive extension of the “market of cultural goods”, “added value” as it is horribly called, and the apparition of the new hero of our times: the consumer. Not the one to whom an experience has to be transmitted, but the one who is solely asked to buy and who, in the best case, can be guided through the abundance of consumable choices. What is forbidden is to question the real “freedom of choice” of the consumer, to suspect that behind the fiction of five million unique and singular consumers, a real though soft conformism continues to exist (provoking boredom and gloom all around).


Let me come back to this idea of “experience”, which I found rather rancid when I was younger but now seems to have become useful again. The question to be asked in regards to modes of audiovisual expression is “what can we share with the characters”? Me, I have never carried a gun in my life but in the course of viewing police flicks, I have developed a right intuition for the moments when “it has to be like that” and moments when it’s obviously stylized show-off. Cinema has given me a second experience, not completely concrete nor completely dreamed, which permits me to separate the true lies from the false lies. Cinema is on the side of the true lies, television on the side of the false lies. Knowing when we are being lied to is perhaps our minimal definition of spectator. It’s not enough but it’s under this condition that we remain human.

One of the exigencies of an individualist society based on the market is that experiences remain personal property, the individual’s possessions which shouldn’t be brought up in public space. On one hand, I don’t have the right anymore, as a critic, to complain about the decorative embellishment of public space. On the other, I don’t have the right anymore to interfere in the private space of “personal experiences”.

And yet, when I see Le Grand Bleu (Luc Besson, 1988), I don’t see the sea, I see an advertising concept of the sea that has once and for all replaced the sea*. At the same time, when Besson sells me – by way of advertising – the idea that he has dived in person and that it’s an extraordinary experience, I am supposed to believe him on his word. At a pinch, the real criticism of the film consists of the list of diving clubs. We could say: here are the addresses, you will have a ball, we won’t tell you anything. Moreover the typical catch phrase of youngsters nowadays is “I won’t tell you”. At a glance it means “I could talk about it for hours” but in reality it means what it says: no more narration, no more sharing by way of narration, by way of talking cinema. So, the illustrious “crisis of the scenario” we are pestered with is there: in the privatization of experience and the aphasia it produces, especially among the youngsters.


Here’s a funny paradox. On one hand, the history of the 20th century merges with the history of cinema. On the other, the history of cinema can hardly be told anymore. In spite of enormous gaps and dead-ends, someone like me could still – but almost in extremis – have the feeling that this history has started with his grandparents when they were still alive. My grandmother has always told me about a silent film series that petrified her as a child and that I later identified as Feuillade’s. When we went to Chaillot, at Langlois’, we were likely going to dream an ideal history but at the same time we also dreamed about those of two generations before us. Today this history is as hard to bear as the century that is drawing to an end – a bit in the spirit of “save while you can”, considering its millions of deaths. We can see that television, fifty years old by now, plays no role at all in the construction of whatever collective memory. Students of cinema almost have to be begged to go to the cinema once in a while, only by swearing that that they wouldn’t regret it. Something has broken in the idea of transmission itself, and not only in cinema. The proof is that the great French tradition of art criticism, that has begun in the XVIII century and that has never ceased since, seems to be wasting away. It’s a tradition of the artist-critic, that of Baudelaire, Berlioz, Delacroix, Proust, Malraux, Breton, and in cinema, it went as far as the Nouvelle Vague: Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, etc. They must have been the last, because although we have tried to continue with dignity, we didn’t add anything decisive to what they have said, and today it’s still Godard who tries, alone, to propose a shattering “History of cinema and television”, which doesn’t interest a great deal of people. Is this weight too heavy? Since some time, we see reemerging in France the profile of the filmmaker who says nothing, doesn’t theorize anything, doesn’t write and is all proud of it. For me, this elegy of lobotomy in the country of critical talent is anything but reassuring.


The French cinema is not the American cinema. It’s a cinema in which reflection always prevails somewhat over practice. It’s like that. It’s even for this reason that in France, the “author cinema” has been able to resist longer in the international marketplace. Today I have the feeling – see the Gulf War – that the world of the image has completely tilted towards the side of power. And the desire of submission to power. Today, all power (economical, military, sportive, religious) has “its visual” and what else is the visual than an image purged of all risk of meeting with the experience of the other, whatever it is*. Evidently, there are magnificent resistances, small films (Recordações da Casa Amarela, João César Monteiro, 1989) and even big films (The Godfather: Part III, FF Coppola, 1990) of which we don’t speak anymore. Or it’s done in a bad way, like our bluestocking colleagues of Teléramucha (sic) or Le Monde, with their Madame Verdurins-like* flutters defending the courageous author cinema in the same way we deplore the Kurds on television. But it’s normal that in a period of occupation there is no talk of those who resist. And media is occupation. A very soft and livable occupation, that consist of occupying the screens and the people, leading them towards a dead end. Still there is also the memory of the only occupation that France has never forgotten, that of ’40-’45, which is now coming back from all sides: in its third age form with Uranus (Claude Berri, 1990), in its modern art form with Merci La Vie (Bertrand Blier, 1991), with its post-modern look in Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1991). We can hardly say that this encourages us to put out our flags.

I wrote the Libération article on Uranus* a bit for my own amusement, to remind this journal that it was still possible to perform an independent task of film criticism. I was naive. I was not surprised by the weakness of the film but it brought back a lot of questions with which some people of my generation have never really reconciled, even if it concerns the biography of their parents. Histories of mourning, more or less. Histories of transmission, once again, transmission by way of cinema. Because cinema is not an art like the others. It is the only art in which, when a filmmaker admires another, he can ask him to feature in his film, in flesh and blood. When Godard, who made all the decisive gestures before anyone else, invited Fritz Lang for Le Mepris, this was an unique moment (1963!). But when Bertolucci wanted Sterling Hayden for Novecento (1972) it was because he wanted living proof of Johnny Guitar and McCarthyism. But when Wim Wenders accompanied Nicholas Ray towards his death in 1980 (Lightning Over Water), he closed the loop. All this means that cinema has a completely original connection to filiation and when this connection ceases to exist, like today, cinema risks to cease as well, finding itself replaced overnight by images of another country, by a genetically produced visual.

Loving cinema is loving this idea that we always make do with bodies that have already served, that have existed for others. Maybe there is an insuperable contradiction between the exigencies of the market (which wants to turn us into proprietors of our own life) and those of cinema, which forbids us to have the monopoly on what we film and what we see.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

translator’s notes
* Diva inaugurated what Daney famously dubbed “le cinéma du look” — a lovingly art-directed, style-overscript aesthetic of which Beineix and Luc Besson were the prime movers. Daney wrote that “Diva‘s success stems from Beineix attempt to moralise the publicity legacy by proposing a new way of combining the unsellable (soul, creation) and the presold (objects, clichés)”.
* The expression ‘coup de coeur’ is quite often used in consumer guides, indicating “favorite” products.
* The Césars and the 7 d’ors are the prices awarded for respectively the best French films and television products.
* Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian writer. He made a film version of his novel Monsieur (1986) in 1990.
* According to Daney, films such as L’Ours marked the beginning of the era in which “the dominant form of cinema (the kind that ‘works’) reached a post-advertising stage. Cinema now inherits prefabricated shots, ready-to-use ‘cliches’, in short – immobile images.”
* Les Trente Glorieuses (“The Glorious Thirty”) refers to the thirty years from 1945-1975 following the end of the Second World War in France.
* Thierry Sabine was a racer and founder of Paris Dakar. He was killed when his helicopter crashed into a dune in Mali during a sudden sand-storm on 14 January 1986. After the accident his father Gilbert took over the helm.
* Claude-Jean Philippe has presented “Ciné-Club” on France 2 from 1971 till 1996. In 1976 he also created the weekly radio programme ‘Le Cinéma des cinéastes’, which was succeeded, in 1984, by Daney’s ‘Microfilms’.
* Bernard Pivot is a journalist, interviewer and host of French cultural television programmes, notably ‘Apostrophes’, an hourlong show devoted to literature which ran until 1990, on Antenne 2.
* In regards to Le Grand Bleu Daney wrote that a new hero had emerged within the sea of images. In the film Besson invented a “self-legitimating automaton”, who dives into the big blue with nothing to assist the viewer in the task of seeing. All that has happened is the elaboration of a “promoter’s film”.
* See also Daney’s article ‘Montage Obligatory‘: “Where there is also the other, that’s the cinema image. And where there is only One (neither small nor large but swiftly ‘gross’, swollen, full of itself), that’s the ‘visual’ of television. And if the visual is taking over today, that is because the more or less well-negotiated return of identity phantasms has happened everywhere. So not only is the image becoming rare; it is also becoming a form of stubborn resistance, or a touching memory, within a universe of pure ‘signalisation’.”
* Madame Verdurin is a character from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. In the novel she owns a bourgeois salon, where she assembles a clan of “loyals” around her, on whom she wants to impose her own artistic taste.
* In Uranus Daney saw the return of the ‘retro-style’ which was already present in films such as Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) which presented French history in such a way that it countered the posing of the right questions in regards to the occupation and all forms of struggle in general. Daney wrote that even a statement that is politically true can be “taken over, carried, by its worst enemy on a terrain where it can have no impact at all”. The foundations of his distaste for this so-called “vichyssois” aroma were laid by Michel Foucault’s response to Lacombe Lucien and Cavanis II Portiere di notte, which appeared in 1974 in Cahiers du cinema during Daney’s tenure as editor. This disdain is in part founded on the analogy, in an extension of the Foucauldian commentary, whereby: “France is occupied and the studio represents the Occupation in the field of cinema”.