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New social realism in French and Belgian cinema


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Kulaš Borovina, Vanja. (2017). New social realism in French and Belgian cinema. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Comparative Literature.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture) [mentor Gilić, Nikica].

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This dissertation considers three poetics of cinema, distinguished in the context of contemporary French and Belgian francophone cinema for their artistic value, consistent treatment of social issues, as well as their reception. The focus of the dissertation lies in the auteur voices who by their quality stood out from the genre of social realism in French (Bruno Dumont and Robert Guédiguian) and Belgian francophone cinema (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). The choice of the francophone auteurs, whose work is analysed in more detail by using the method of comparative analysis, was led by the criterion of recognition outside the French and Belgian borders. In francophone cinema, where the notion of the social has not been overly popular in the past, the auteurs and the works chosen here exemplify the continual and systematic production of committed cinema. In order to contextualise the three selected oeuvres, the dissertation opens with a historical overview of social problem films, followed by a review of the current state in France. In terms of genre, the research is set within the framework of social problem film and the currents of committed, political and militant film related to it. The overview is followed by an exposition of European realist tendencies with a review of their defining features, along with a short overview of the most significant European and North American documentary currents that to an extent influenced the conception of realism and, consequently, some of the auteurs discussed here. The second part offers an analysis and interpretation of films of the three auteurs in order to delve, in its final part, into a comparative analysis of the three oeuvres, keeping in mind their most significant poetic determinants. The aforementioned method establishes the affiliation of the three authentic, heterogeneous film poetics to the corpus of new social realism in francophone cinema, French and Belgian in particular, thus meeting the objective of the dissertation. The films of Bruno Dumont are discussed in the dissertation in the context of two recent French cinematic currents, the new realism of Northern France, and new corporeal cinema, the work of the Dardenne brothers in the context of Belgian cinema, and the opus of Robert Guédiguian within banlieue cinema, a subgenre depicting life in French multi-ethnic, working-class suburbs. The new realist films of Northern France are characterized by a raw and naturalist aesthetics that reflects a bleak socio-political context. Other distinguishing features include regional ambient, alienated characters, general pessimism and a lack of plot. Representatives of new corporeal cinema, another inherently French cinematic style, focus on tabooed topics (social disfunctionality, violence, marginal sexual practices), and use the genre conventions of exploitation horror and of pornographic film. Although Belgian auteur films are among the most creative and most individualist in Europe, their language – Flemish-francophone – duality and regional animosity between Wallonia and Flanders, rob it of a clearly-enough formed identity that would impose them as recognizable in the context of European and world cinema. In the context of the works of Robert Guédiguian, who sets his films in the Marseille periphery, the dissertation recapitulates the features of banlieue cinema, which depict the suburbs as the stigmatized epicentre of the social crisis. Apart from narrower contextualisation, all the auteurs are considered in relation to their poetic origins, to be found in European realist schools. Consequently, the first part of the dissertation takes on French poetic realism, Italian neorealism, British social realism, Berlin School, Dogme 95 and the Romanian New Wave. A chronological overview and an inspection of the developmental dynamics of the social problem genre in French and Belgian cinema determines that the problematic of manual labour and social issues in general appear very early on film, but the interest of auteurs for that topic lacks continuity. In 1913, Albert Capellani filmed an adaptation of Zola’s Germinal. With the exception of the portraiture of the proletariat in the film At Work (Au Travail, 1920) by Henri Pouctal, Capellani’s achievement remains peerless until 1930s, when members of the working class are represented by filmmaking stars who come from working-class origins, exemplified by Jean Gabin. In the 1950s workers practically disappeared from the big screen, in order to reappear in post-‘68 films. However, as that particular trend subsided, so did, once again, their on-screen visibility. The situation took on a turn in their favour in the 1990s, with the tendencies of the so-called new realism in the French cinema of the 1990s. Nevertheless, in the history of social problem film there are noticeable isolated poetics that systematically engage in social issues, such as that of Robert Guédiguian, who reintroduces the workers to the screen in 1980s, continuing the tradition of poetic realism i.e. of social, humanist film, as set in the 1930s by Jean Renoir’s film Toni. Social problem cinema as fiction film of a social-critical undertaking needs to be distinguished from socially engaged, committed cinema, political cinema and a subgenre of political cinema – militant film. While the enumerated categories are not necessarily equivalent, their common goal is to problematize the social margins, and more generally, the dysfunctionality of society. Socially committed art is articulated as a response to a specific social context or situation. Consequently, such films function as activist platforms that open the space for political discussion and serve as a stimulant for rebellion. Political cinema explicitly thematises executive power, speaks out about its irregularities, and points to social inequality. Political cinema expresses a critique of the capitalist system and market mentality, and records current events. Its strategies originate from documentary schools such as free cinema, truthful cinema (cinéma vérité) and direct cinema, while the immediate origin of political cinema, as well as of other mentioned documentary schools, was the work of Dziga Vertov and his Cine-Eye. Finally, militant film, which usually appears in intense historical and social conditions, often takes over the form of a documentary or of reporting, but it also appears in the fiction form. Militant film is prone to conflict, even when it abstains from open engagement. Simultaneously, despite an existing tradition of political cinema in France, contemporary national cinema is witnessing a noticeable depoliticisation of film, as a considerable number of more recent works only nominally belong to the social problem film genre. The consideration of European realist tendencies in the dissertation begins with poetic realism. The poetic dimension refers to recording in studio, removed from real issues, while simultaneously its characters are left to their hopeless social predicament, thus marking poetic realism as a sort of romanticism of despair. In comparison, the unwritten rules of neorealism were the following: recording on authentic locations, outside the studio and with minimal resources, natural lighting, domination of long and medium shots, insistence on the unity of time, place and action, stress on current life themes, social critique, narration devoid of a firm structure, fragmentation, natural open-ended fabula which strives to achieve the real-life duration of action, working-class protagonists embodied by non-professional actors. Speaking of British cinema, apart from black humour, one of its most crucial features is social engagement. The Berlin school gathers auteurs of a younger generation with no political programme and dogmatic set of rules, but whose films are characterised by thematic and aesthetic kinship. Topics that unite them are communication blockades, loss of identity, loneliness, complex and dysfunctional human relationships. In Paris in 1995 several Danish directors gathered under the name Dogme 95 presented their manifesto followed by “Vows of Chastity,” made of ten ethical principles of filmmaking. The manifest prescribes utter asceticism, the rejection of many technological benefits, and a minimal manipulation of film material. Bruno Dumont is considered a successor of Bresson’s poetics, the Dardenne brothers are compared to Marriage and Pialat, and Guédiguian is brought in connection to Renoir and, more broadly, to the tradition of French poetic realism. The films of Robert Guédiguian explicitly portrait the opposing capitalist and working-class patterns, in Dardenne brothers’ films only the consequences of such social conflicts are visible, while Bruno Dumont’s characters often function as apolitical categories, seemingly untouched by real-life events. Guédiguian idealises the working class, the Dardenne brothers present it in an objectively distanced manner or, at least, without assuming a clearly affirmative position, and Bruno Dumont eschews political positioning, whereby in his works the considerations of human nature and human relationships remain in the sphere of the metaphysical. The concluding part of the dissertation summarises the results of the doctoral research from which it follows that we are right to distinguish new social-realist tendencies in French and Belgian cinema. While heterogeneous in their procedures and primary areas of interest, all three of the considered poetics fit under the common denominator of social realism, with regard to a set of unifying features which are generally attributed to the realist and the social on film, by which we understand the representation of everyday life of socially deprived individuals and marginalised social groups.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: French and francophone cinema, Belgian francophone cinema, contemporary cinema, social realism, social problem cinema, political and militant cinema, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Bruno Dumont, Robert Guédiguian
Subjects: Comparative literature
Romance languages and literatures > French language and literature
Departments: Department of Comparative Literature
Supervisor: Gilić, Nikica
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture
Date Deposited: 02 Feb 2018 09:35
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2018 09:35

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