Jean-Louis Comolli

A Praxis of Political Cinema

At first it seems like a contradiction, a historical irony: Jean-Louis Comolli – the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma during its period of Althusserian Marxism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the author of some of the most important texts to critique the ideological nature of the “impression of reality” in the cinema (‘Cinéma/idéologie/critique,’ a manifesto-editorial co-signed with Jean Narboni, and the series of articles ‘Technique et idéologie’) – has gone onto become a prolific, highly regarded documentary filmmaker, with a filmography that stretches from the 1970s to the present day and includes more than fifty titles, made for both cinema and television. Is this transition from film theory to film practice a stunning volte-face, a theoretical apostasy from the revolutionary ethos of the post-1968 era, so common among other soixante-huitards? Nothing of the sort. Comolli’s political radicalism remains undimmed, and amply exhibited in his films, which frequently take politics as their subject matter. Moreover, after a hiatus from writing on cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he has made a prodigious return to film theory, with shorter critical texts contained in the anthologies Voir et pouvoir (2004) and Corps et cadre (2012), as well as the monographs Cinéma contre spectacle (2009), Cinéma mode d’emploi (2015) and, most recently, Daech, le cinéma et la mort (2016). All of these works contain reflections on Comolli’s own filmmaking, resulting in an imbrication of theory and practice (that is to say, a film praxis) that immeasurably enriches his output, and cements Comolli’s status as one of the great practitioner-theorists of the cinema, alongside figures such as Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Epstein, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard and Alexander Kluge. In this article, I will look at Comolli’s initial efforts at fiction cinema, in La Cecilia (1976) and L’ombre rouge (1982), before focusing on his magisterial series on politics in the city of Marseilles, Marseille contre Marseille, exploring questions of politics and ethics in contemporary documentary filmmaking.

(1) La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1975)

1. From Film Criticism to Filmmaking: La Cecilia

La Cecilia was Comolli’s first post-Cahiers work, and many of the political and technical issues that will course throughout Comolli’s later oeuvre are already introduced in this film. Comolli actually had a reasonable level of experience in film directing: he was responsible for television programs on Pierre Perrault and Miklós Jancsó, the documentary Les deux Marseillaises (co-directed with André S. Labarthe) and two unreleased short fiction films.1 Nonetheless, La Cecilia, based on the historical experience of the Cecilia colony in Brazil, conceived and piloted by the prominent 19th-century Italian anarchist Giovanni Rossi, was to become Comolli’s first fiction feature and represented a breakthrough for the budding filmmaker.

With its focus on a socialist commune headed by a revolutionary intellectual, La Cecilia interrogated questions of class, utopianism and political leadership, and resonated deeply with Comolli’s own experience at Cahiers. Indeed, looking at the work retrospectively, Comolli acknowledges that “in truth, the subject, or the theme, of the film was concealed, since it was really a film which spoke about what had happened in the Cahiers group,”2 and it is evident that the Rossi character is a cipher for Comolli’s position within Cahiers, having voluntarily dissolved his privileged status as editor-in-chief into a broader collective grouping at the time of the journal’s radicalization.

More broadly, the dynamic of the film is generated by the intersection between external historical forces and contradictions internal to the commune. In La Cecilia, history functions not as an “absolute outside, a master reference,” but as a “causal outside, an outside within the inside, which acts on it, determines it and transforms it in the very process of being repressed by it.”3 Thus, the film is punctuated by incursions of outside politics into the enclosed world of the Cecilia commune, frequently depicted through the use of framing and scenographic composition. For example, when Rossi and a fellow communard, Rocco, venture to a general store to buy supplies, they are met with hostility and aloofness from the store-owner and local customers, who see Italian migrants as an unwelcome threat to their standard of living. This economic contradiction is depicted in the spatial construction of the scene. As a caption in Cahiers notes: “The two universes are hermetically sealed from one another, there is no communication apart from the exchange or purchase of domestic products; hence, there are no common visual codes. Nobody is worthy of a look, nobody is seen by anybody else.”4

(2) La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1975)

The most overt use of screen space to depict the pressures to which the group is subject, however, comes at the end of La Cecilia. In high spirits, the group stages a reading of Dantons Tod by Georg Büchner.5 Significantly, Rossi whispers lines from the text for all the characters – a function that is symbolic of his relationship to the commune. At one point, we can hear the revolutionary catchcry “in the name of the law, there is no law.”6 While his comrades applaud the uncompromising sentiment of the phrase, Rossi himself stops and looks off-screen. A slow lateral pan reveals – by means of what Cahiers called an “irruption from the hors-champ7 – an officer from the republican army standing in the doorway. He informs the inhabitants of La Cecilia that they have been conscripted to quash a nearby rebellion and will be promptly escorted to military headquarters. The group is crestfallen, as their dream of an anarchist utopia has been snuffed out by the repressive arm of the state apparatus.

That the conclusion of La Cecilia should feature a theatrical scene was a deliberate move by Comolli, and it formally rhymes with the film’s opening moments, in which Rossi meets Dom Pedro during a performance of Nabucco in Milan. The film is thus bookended by allusions to the theater, which, Comolli claims, can be viewed as the “toppling over of fiction, as the superposition, dislocation [décalage] or unhinging of two representations (the filmic scene and the theatrical scene), one on top of the other, one against the other.”8 A similar bifurcation of the scene is produced within the shot itself through Comolli’s frequent use of multi-layered, deep-focus images. Building on the theoretical discussion already adumbrated in ‘Technique et idéologie’ in 1971, Comolli rejects the Bazinian notion that the deep-focus technique reinforces the “realism” of the cinematic image.9 Instead, it “theatricalizes the shot,” thereby betraying the cinematic image as an artificial construction, most notably through the production of a “lateral-vertical decentering of the ‘subjects.’”10 More than a mere “montage within the shot,” such an image offers a “re-inscription of theatrical space and duration, [...] where the performance of the actors involves an interplay with the other actors and the elements of the decor, and where the bodies are always captured within a given space and time.”11 Certainly, La Cecilia is replete with striking depth-of-field compositions, and these are frequently combined with roaming, Jancsóesque long-takes,12 including one majestic shot early in the film that lasts nearly seven minutes. Whether such camerawork represented a significant challenge to the formal conventions of mainstream filmmaking – as had been advocated by Comolli during his time at Cahiers – was nonetheless a disputed question in the reception of the film. Writing for rival film journal Image et son, André Cornand states that “To say that La Cecilia [...] departs from the habitual codes of cinematic representation, amounts to either being ignorant of the cinema or to displaying a certain contempt for everything that has been made in the last few years.”13 From an English perspective, Alison Smith tentatively agrees with this claim, writing that Comolli’s chosen aesthetic strategy is “rather a disappointment, or at least a strange compromise, and unadventurous in comparison with the ideals [...] Comolli praised in his theoretical work.”14

The film garnered a more positive response on the pages of Cahiers, with Pascal Kané, for instance, stressing the importance of play in Comolli’s film.15 When looking back at the film, this is also the aspect of the film that the director himself emphasizes: although he used professional actors, the nature of the shoot led to a jubilant spirit of freedom and improvisation reigning on the set, such that, in Comolli’s view, “the little troupe of actors and technicians unwittingly became a homologue to the pioneers of this anarchist commune.”16 In the process, Comolli’s own position as director was transformed. He came to see all the participants as equal collaborators on the project, a transformation which was partly an unforeseen consequence of his own inexperience on set: “I was the young rookie [...] in a film where I did not comprehend what was going on, with actors who I could not understand (in reality, they directed me, rather than vice versa).”17

(3) La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1975)

2. Fiction and Nonfiction: From L’ombre rouge to Tous pour un!

La Cecilia was a moderate critical and commercial success, but Comolli’s entry into the world of auteur filmmaking would be far from straightforward: his next feature film was not completed until 1982. As with La Cecilia, L’ombre rouge was a historical film, a story of political espionage set in the Spanish Civil War, with two Marseilles-based weapons traffickers for the USSR, Anton and Leo, as the protagonists. Comolli had written on this genre in guest articles for Cahiers in the late 1970s. In ‘Un corps en trop,’ for instance, he had specifically treated the problem of actors playing historical characters in period fictions: turning to Renoir’s La Marseillaise, he remarks on the existence of a ‘bodily rivalry’ between Pierre Renoir playing Louis XVI and the real-life monarch.18 The affinities between Comolli’s first two features, however, go deeper than their period settings. Both focused on the complications of commitment, with its concomitant defeats and compromises, interrogating what it means to live with a political ideal – an issue which, for Serge Daney, is “Comolli’s eternal question.”19 Furthermore, as Comolli outlines, both films relate “the same type of story: the difficult, dialectical relations between subjects and the group to which they belong.”20 As with La Cecilia, the conclusion of L’ombre rouge is a pessimistic one. Despite his dedication to the Comintern, Anton faces being recalled to Moscow, where he will inevitably face a show trial, and instead commits suicide. Leo, in despair and fleeing his Soviet pursuers, utters what Daney has called a “famous line of dialogue” lamenting the futility of his revolutionary activities: “A whole life for nothing!”21 It was on this apparent fatalism that reviewers of the film were most divided: writing for Révolution, PCF critic Émile Breton denounced the film as a “spit in the face” to the communist movement and upbraided his colleagues for their more laudatory response to the film.22 The conventional, even glossy style of L’ombre rouge also raised eyebrows in certain quarters. Comolli himself noted his attraction to “a certain image of classical cinema,” and felt there were similarities between L’ombre rouge and the serial films of Feuillade.23 He even came out in favor of ‘transparent’ filmmaking, claiming, “I am still a partisan of a certain transparency, which means that the active part of writing must not be detected immediately, but act on a pre-conscious level.”24

In spite of the thematic similarity with La Cecilia, the production of L’ombre rouge was of a very different nature to that of the earlier film: with a budget of 6 million francs, a script co-written with historian Gérard Guicheteau, and the involvement of star actors (Claude Brasseur, Jacques Dutronc and Nathalie Baye), Comolli’s second feature-length fiction much more closely conformed to the norms of French commercial cinema. For the director, however, this episode in his filmmaking career was a mixed one: while he found working within an industrial structure of filmmaking to have a “pedagogical, didactic” value, the more rigidly organized nature of the shoot was “not a joyful experience” and did not sit easily with Comolli’s preference for improvisation and spontaneity. His following film, Balles perdues (a comedy thriller from 1983) returned to this looser filmmaking spirit, but its box-office failure seemed to block the way for Comolli to make any further progress in fiction filmmaking. From this point on, his energies would be focused on documentary filmmaking.

Two projects made in the years 1987-1988 were decisive in Comolli’s transition to the documentary mode. Both were made for public television, and in the period since the 1980s this would be the filmmaker’s preferred distribution platform. As Comolli explains, his decision to work in television rather than cinema was a consciously political choice to “maintain the principle of a political and artistic public sphere.” Not only was he able “to show on the small screen (as much as possible) formal systems which diverge from the dominant ones,” but, through the sheer mass of television spectators, his work could also “reach viewers who have not already been strictly classified within the cultural segments of the market.”25 Although he continues to see television as a “majoritarian ideological apparatus, a system controlling behavior and thought, a shop-window for a commodified society,” he insists that it is possible to “fight against the adversary within the boundaries of its own activity.”26 In the case of Comolli’s electoral films, their television broadcast was of particular importance: it enabled these works to be present in the very space in which election campaigns in the contemporary era are played out, and provides the possibility for “a different political experience from that of the ‘spectacle’ to which television tries to habituate us.”27

With Tabarka 42-87 (1987), an account of the emotional return of pieds-noirs28 to the eponymous Tunisian town to commemorate their anti-fascist resistance in a World War II battle, Comolli developed a filmmaking dispositif that has since governed his documentary work. This approach consists essentially of three “rules of the game,” which have the goal of “trying to receive the aleatory soul of polymorphous events”: firstly, to “organize as little as possible, and in moments of grace to not organize at all,” secondly, “to efface (or blur) the boundary between life and the scene,” and, finally, “to reduce the distance between the camera and the people it films.”29 These principles were also followed during the filming of Tous pour un! (1988), which focused on the two rounds of the 1988 French presidential election, and which is the main pivoting point of Comolli’s work as a filmmaker. With its focus on grassroots activity during an election campaign, Tous pour un! returned to the subject matter of Les deux Marseillaises, which had, twenty years earlier, treated the legislative elections in the same northwestern district of the Parisian region (Asnières). The 1968 election saw the right convincingly retain power on the national stage in a wave of conservative reaction to the events of May.30 In the 1980s, it was president François Mitterand whose power was confirmed at the ballot box, shattering the hopes of the right that rival candidate Jacques Chirac would be able to topplehim. The main shock, however, of the 1988 election – both to the French political system and the cross-party ecumenism Comolli had cultivated – was the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front national. Absent in the previous presidential election, the far-right candidate won nearly 15% of the vote in the first round, effectively scuppering Chirac’s chances of unifying the right to defeat Mitterand. The spectacular entry of an extremist fringe into the French political mainstream represented a profound metamorphosis of the electoral landscape, whose effects are still being felt today. With his adamant opposition to the far right, it also tested Comolli’s politically ecumenical approach to documenting the political process. A question now haunted his filmmaking: in light of the fascist menace that they represented, should FN members be filmed in the same manner as their counterparts from other political parties? This dilemma would preoccupy the filmmaker for much of the following decade.

(4) L’ombre rouge (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1981)

3. Marseille contre Marseille: Filming Politics

This ethical problem was central to Comolli’s most significant documentary work, the ten-part series retrospectively titled Marseille contre Marseille, which has extended from the late 1980s to the present. Eight episodes in the series were filmed in quick succession in the period 1989-2001, while two ‘epilogues’ dating from 2008 and 2014 have subsequently been completed. In total, the released films come to approximately 13½ hours of material. The succession of glimpses into political life in Marseilles combines to produce a grand fresco of the city during a period of significant social transition in France. Initially conceived for television broadcast, the episodes of Marseille contre Marseille have more recently been projected in cinémathèques, cultural centers and museums across France, and have been released on DVD.31 While Comolli admits to affinities between his series and other documentaries on electoral campaigns (such as Primary by D.A. Pennebaker and 50.81% by Raymond Depardon), the vast temporal scope of the series sets it apart from these works and brings it closer to the ethnographic studies of Jean Rouch.32 Comolli, indeed, has made it explicit that “our approach is closer to anthropology than it is to journalism.”33 While the city itself, and its political machinery, is explored at length in the series, individual participants in Marseilles politics have also become recurring characters, aging, growing in stature, or disappearing in disgrace or ignominy, while new figures enter the stage. Bouthier has thus observed that, over the course of the series, “the trajectories of the characters are even visible in the ‘politicization’ of their bodies, in their political maturation.”34

The genesis of the Marseille contre Marseille series owed much to circumstance. Comolli’s original project was a documentary on the diverse religious communities of Marseilles, but in the middle of filming this project, politics in Marseilles exploded: the death of Gaston Defferre, the politically impregnable socialist mayor of the city who had been in power since 1953, unleashed a fratricidal conflict for his succession.35 Comolli was inexorably drawn to this topic, and he sees it as “one of the strengths of documentary filmmaking” that he was quickly able to “change course and begin a new film.”36 He saw the internal struggle within the Parti Socialiste as a “tragic combat, which, with its intrigues, conspiracies and family feuds, was practically Shakespearian,” and the mythological nature of the dispute forms a key part of the tapestry woven in the two-part overture to the series completed in 1989, Marseille de père en fils.37

In charting this internecine battle, Comolli gained a premonitory glimpse into a process of political degeneration wherein, by 1999, he could attest that “the PS in Marseilles ha[s] almost entirely self-destructed (if not as a ‘system,’ then at least as a political force and direction) and only recompos[ed] itself from within as a simulacrum.”38 This process presaged the decomposition of the PS on a national level and also echoed the political shockwave represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. By the time of Marseille en mars, filmed in 1993, the dramatic changes in the political world order had been consciously registered by all sides of politics, with Comolli revealing the anxiety these upheavals had wrought among the traditional forces of the left and the right. Shortly before a candidate for the center-right Union pour la démocratie française admits that “without political references or values, we are doomed,” Comolli’s montage shows a local voter exclaiming, “Le Pen’s the only one who’s making things happen.”

In order for the series to adequately take stock of politics in the southern city, however, an extra element was felt to be necessary for the project. As Comolli explains:

“I immediately realized that, in order to make this new film on the political battle being waged in Marseilles, I needed the support of someone who was intimately familiar with the city’s politics. I had read Michel Samson’s articles in Libération, and I found him a very interesting journalist, so I went to Paris and asked to meet him. When we met, I knew I would work with him right away. I said that I was interested in working with a journalist, because he has the requisite knowledge and contacts, an entire network that I don’t have access to, but only on the condition that he truly become a character in the film, because I had no desire to simply have an expert lurking in the shadows.”39

Samson has centrally participated in all the Marseilles films, and is credited as co-author of the series. His on-screen presence as an investigator into the backcorridors of political power, probing and pursuing his interlocutors with mild-mannered persistence, instills the films with an unmistakably cinematic quality, giving them resonances above all with the detective genre. Comolli, meanwhile, stresses the importance of Samson’s physical body to the aesthetic needs of his approach to documentary: “I explained to him that I needed his body to be filmed. The body of the journalist had to become the body of a character, it had to be exposed, and its fragility, its weakness had to be shown.”40 He has also extensively theorized the human body in the cinema as a repository of ‘filmed speech,’ arguing that the format of the documentary has been able to “push the inscription of the body to its furthest extent.”41 For the filmmaker, Marseille contre Marseille highlighted “the subtle, ill-defined link between erotics and politics,” and the goal of his series is to “film bodies, to film political men and women in Marseilles as bodies, speaking, mobile bodies, in space and time, playing between light and shadow, off-screen and on-screen.”42 Noting that Samson is often filmed partially blocking the spectator’s view of his interlocutors, Comolli argues that his body “reframes the frame somewhat, inscribes itself in the frame as a screen or a mask [cache]: a surface on which words and looks rebound.”43

The question of on-screen corporeal presence in the Marseilles films is closely linked to Comolli’s use of duration, which is present in the series in two major ways. Firstly, the extension of the series over the course of a quarter of a century introduces an element of duration to the project, one linked to the Braudelian notion of the longue durée.44 Subtler, long-term processes at work beyond the more immediately recognizable electoral peripeteia that monopolize media coverage of the political scene can be registered with this method. As Comolli has recognized, the fact that the series preserves moments of political life that would otherwise be washed away by cultural amnesia has significantly altered the interaction between the filmmakers and their interviewees: the politicians shown in Marseille contre Marseille now know “that we are constructing an archive of the future, and that part of their public action will pass to posterity in this filmed form. They tell themselves that here, perhaps, there is a date with something like history.”45

Secondly, the aesthetic technique adopted for the series relies heavily on lengthy, uninterrupted takes focusing on the “speaking bodies” of local political figures. A predilection for the long take has been a perennial feature of Comolli’s filmmaking since La Cecilia, and has come to feature heavily in the Marseilles films. Comolli has expressly drawn on the theory of Bazin to link this procedure to an understanding of the cinema’s ability to produce a “true inscription” of pro-filmic events – understood here as the “specificity of the cinema to bring together, in the same space-time (the scene) one or more bodies (actors or not) and a mechanical dispositif, camera, sound, lights, technicians.”46 For Comolli, however, the ‘ontological realism’ of the cinema lies “less on the side of the photograph as imprint of the visible world, and more on the side of time, of a common time, of an elapsing of time common to the action and its recording, of a synchronism.”47 Experimenting with this form of duration in the Marseille contre Marseille series, meanwhile, intensifies the political nature of the long-take technique. Instead of reducing discourse to a brief, stage-managed soundbite, choosing to film an interview with a politician that endures for up to two hours allows for freedom and improvisation and fosters a certain loss of control on both sides of the camera. Comolli argues that this process opens up “a certain charging of time: suddenly, speech is no longer organized in the same way. When you speak for a duration of two hours, for example, even if we only use two minutes of it in the film, these two minutes taken from two hours will be different from two minutes taken from twenty minutes, or two minutes taken from two minutes. The form of speech changes.”48  Retaining these conversations in uninterrupted long takes has thus become a formal hallmark of the series. Indeed, the fact that the editing rhythm of the films departs so markedly from the frenetic pace of most televisual image production is a large part of its subversive effect and brings them closer to the work of contemporary ‘slow cinema’ filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Pedro Costa, whose work has been defended by Comolli in his recent writings on cinema.

(5) Marseille contre Marseille (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1996)

4. Ethics and the Political Documentary: How to Film the Enemy?

This aesthetic approach became more politically trenchant in later episodes of Marseille contre Marseille, which were dominated by the entry onto the political stage of the Front National. Throughout the 1990s, growing support for the FN amongst the non-immigrant working class in Marseilles was bolstered by its dominance in surrounding rural areas. In filming the 1992 regional elections for La campagne de provence, Comolli’s focus rested on the relationship between the FN’s electoral success and the victories it had achieved on the level of political semiotics. The language the lepenistes used, speaking of an ‘invasion’ of France by immigrants, and of threats to the nation’s ‘identity,’ had seeped into the political mainstream, even when the FN was unable to win electoral power. Indeed, this ‘ideological victory’ was consciously understood by Bruno Mégret – unwittingly adopting a quasi-Gramscian strategy – as preparing the ground for the “political victory” to come.49

Filming the Front National reframed the question of Comolli’s own political engagement. He and Samson could remain detached observers to the infighting within the PS, and they were also able to retain a “republican” respect for figures of the mainstream right such as Jean-Claude Gaudin, who, “even if we do not share his political ideas, moves us in his contradictions.”50 When it came to Le Pen’s movement, by contrast, Comolli was moved to affirm that “our position is that of the engaged and thus actively anti-fascist filmmaker. I fight the Front National, including when I film them.”51 How exactly to do this in the most effective manner possible was a constant concern and has given rise to several articles by Comolli on the question of ‘filming the enemy.’ In Tous pour un!, the act of FN militants entailed an initial, more stand-offish approach of “filming in order to know them better, but not yet filming in order to combat them better.”52 But as Le Pen rose in political prominence in the 1990s, the two films that focus most on the FN, La campagne de Provence (1992) and La question des alliances (1997), offer markedly different strategies for filming one’s political adversary. As Comolli explains:

“For La campagne de Provence, which shows how the themes of the Front national became the themes of the campaign, we chose to film all individuals and parties in the same manner, in a sort of equilibrated distance, so as to avoid any privileged relationship. The same distance for everybody, no private interviews, but rather, always in public circumstances. La question des alliances led us to change our dispositif. The Front national had become a major political force, distance could not work a second time, and we decided to conduct very long, very precise, very well-prepared interviews on the strategies that the parties – above all those on the right – had towards the FN.”53

Here, duration once again comes to the fore. For Comolli, Le Pen’s political success is at least partly derived from “the manner in which politics is dealt with on television.” Le Pen is “a champion of the soundbite, he is a champion of the slogan,” and the FN has contributed towards shifting politics to a level of discourse that resembles advertising or PR.54  The long takes of the film thus have a deeply political purpose, allowing Front national figures like Le Pen and Bruno Mégret to reveal their own mendacity: “By filming Bruno Mégret for an hour or more, his cunning and ambitiousness appear. His strategy becomes visible on a psychological level.”55 As such, Comolli became critical of his earlier attempts, in La campagne de Provence, to accentuate the “monstrousness” of the FN’s ideological discourse by mannerist filmic touches – distorted frames, green-tinged lighting, an ironically discordant jazz score by Louis Sclavis – describing it as a “rather desperate effort” to “push the spectator towards a logical sentiment of horror and revolt when faced with the ordinary monstrosities of the FN.”56 Later films in the series treating the FN are thus filmed in a soberer, less politically slanted manner, but this ‘defeat of propaganda’ is now understood as a more effective means of waging political struggle. FN politicians are now presented in such a way as to “give body and presence to the enemy, so that it appears in its strength, such as it is today on the political scene – a threat to be taken seriously. Here, horror is not a caricature. It lies within logical thinking, reasoning, calculation, negotiation.”57

Two moments in the series stand out for their incisive illustration of the underlying political dynamic of the FN, and, tellingly, neither required the kind of mannerist embellishments of which Comolli was self-critical. Instead, they resembled Brecht’s notion of the Gestus – a technique that seeks to capture the reality of broader social relations through performance and staging – but for the fact that, here, they are achieved by the aleatory means of the documentary, rather than the calculated techniques of the theater. Three decades earlier, Comolli had already detected such an effect when writing on the cinéma-vérité short La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (1968) in his two-part article ‘Le détour du direct.’ Here, the capturing by a film crew of the “absolutely raw event” of a female worker resisting entreaties to return to her job after the end of a strike is seen as a “crystallization and symbolization of the entire situation of worker-boss-union relations in the months of May and June.”58 “As if by miracle,” as Comolli’s account of the scene puts it, each character:

“plays the role that is their own, says the words that are the key phrases of this strike, to such a degree that an irresistible impression of unease is installed. It could not be clearer that nothing has been “tampered” with; and yet everything is so exemplary, “truer than the truth,” that we can only make reference to the most Brechtian of scenarios, the document seemingly produced by the most masterful of fictions.”59

Towards the end of Marseille en mars, we see Le Pen walking through a street market in the small Mediterranean town of Gardannes. Encircled by a throng of admirers and reporters, he seems in high-spirits as he makes his way through the market. An inaudible off-screen heckle draws an ironic remark from the self-assured FN leader, but at this moment a staffer innocuously brushes his body in an attempt to protect the politician from the surrounding crush of humanity. Le Pen seizes up, his face wrenched in momentary horror, and, with unexpected violence, unleashes a volley of abuse at the culprit: “Don’t touch me like that, damn it! I told you not to touch me! I don’t like it when you touch me like that.” Although Le Pen immediately recomposes himself, acting as if nothing has happened, it is in this punctual moment – captured, “as if by miracle,” on camera – that the entire façade of the FN’s drive towards political legitimacy falls away, and the fear and psychosis that subtends its anti-immigrant politics is revealed. For Comolli, the moment is a veritable “return of the real”:

“Filmed, this phobic gesture and speech suddenly open onto another scene that lurks behind the smiles and bonhomie. Something of the relationship between the political idea and the political body is inscribed here, a relationship that only the cinema can aver and unfold. As soon as it is incarnated and represented, power becomes its own caricature. There is no need to force the point, it is forced all by itself.”60

A second, related moment of political Gestus appears later, but this one has remained undiscussed by the filmmaker. In La question des alliances, Comolli includes, for the first time in the series, an interview with a grassroots FN member. Uniquely, it is Comolli himself, off-screen, who interviews the activist. And yet Marie-Odile Rayé is anything but the stereotypical image of the FN supporter-as-oafish bullyboy. Middle-class, well-dressed and softly-spoken, she comes across as reasonable and articulate, even as she fulminates against a political order that has erected a cordon sanitaire around her party, stating ominously: “They insult us, but we will win alone, without the media. We have time.” If any moment in the series presages Marine Le Pen’s more recent project to “de-demonize” the FN in order for it to achieve a viable electoral majority, it is this. But the framing of this sequence further accentuates the internal contradictions of the FN’s drive towards political respectability. To Marie-Odile’s left, a laser-printed poster tacked to the wall urges party members to “respect the person who is speaking by not interrupting. In politics, we must know how to listen.” Not only is this an unexpected exhortation to find in a far-right campaign office, it is also, ironically, an apt description of Comolli’s own filmmaking method in the Marseilles series. Behind Marie-Odile, however, plunged in shadow and half-obscured by a door frame, there is another poster whose slogan precisely spells out the xenophobic racism that remains at the core of the FN’s political project: “Immigrants enter, jobs leave: protect our borders!” This composition, pregnant with meaning, was undeniably a chance event, and Comolli may not even have been aware of it while filming. But the prolonged, static nature of the shot emphasizes its status as a Brechtian Gestus, elucidating, through the juxtaposition of scenic elements, the ideological contradictions seething within the filmmaker’s declared enemy.

  • 1Of these works, Comolli now only mentions Les deux Marseillaises in his filmography. The two television programs, part of Labarthe’s Cinéastes de notre temps series, can be viewed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The two short films, Un coup pour rien and Comme je te veux (both 1970), which were made under amateur conditions and never released commercially, are not presently available for viewing. A screenplay for the former film, however, is housed in the archives of the Cinémathèque française (reference code BERAUD2-B1), and reveals a Gidean narrative concerning two would-be left-wing terrorists who plan to assassinate a provincial industrialist.
  • 2Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 3Jean-Louis Comolli, “La Cecilia: Présentation,” Cahiers du cinema, 262-263 (1976): 69-78. [all translations by Daniel Fairfax unless otherwise stated]
  • 4The caption appears in Cahiers du cinema, 264 (1977): 47.
  • 5There is some irony to the use of the play in La Cecilia: Dantons Tod is far from being an unambiguous celebration of the revolutionary zeal of the Jacobin wing of the revolutionary movement, which is the spirit in which the Cecilia group performs the text.
  • 6Comolli notes that this sentence possesses an ‘extraordinary violence,’ and that the chosen conclusion to the film gestured towards “turning the end of the Colonia Cecilia into a larger version of all stories of failed utopias.” Jean-Louis Comolli cited in Rosa Lleó, “How to Film History: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli about La Cecilia,” Afterall (2009).
  • 7The quote comes from another caption in Cahiers du Cinéma, 264 (1977): 49.
  • 8Jean-Louis Comolli, La Cecilia: une commune anarchiste au Brésil en 1892 (Paris: Daniel et Cie, 1976), 104.
  • 9With the publication of his celebrated article ‘Ontologie de l’image photographique’ (1945), André Bazin first rose to prominence as one of the most passionate French defenders of cinematographic realism. To his mind, genres such as photography and cinema allow for a mechanical reproduction of reality which defies comparison with the mimetic possibilities of previous art forms. Photography differs from other visual arts in that it doesn’t seek to offer mere similes of objects, but rather, wages a representation of the object on itself, torn from its “spatiotemporal conditions.” This realism, Bazin claimed, came about as the consequence of a determinate set of techniques and decisions (for example, the decision to film on site rather than in a staged setting), confirming, for both viewer and author, the existence of a world beyond the screen. Additionally, a preference for deep focus and minimal montage was required to assure such realism, to maximalize the verisimilitude between the spectator’s experience and reality itself. The French director Eric Rohmer once described the core of Bazin’s cinematic thinking as follows: “Without a doubt, the whole body of Bazin’s oeuvre is founded on one central idea: the affirmation of the objectivity of cinema.” According to Bazin, films can indeed successfully disclose the essence of a specific object: “I have never been to a bullfight, and I would find it rather ridiculous to suppose that a film might succeed in evoking the same emotional response a bullfight would; yet, I do claim that cinema can endow such a fight with an essential quality, a metaphysical kernel: death.” For Bazin, such an instance of ‘brute’ representation could facilitate a cinematic neutrality or objectivity which, above all, would remain moral and averse to dogma. Only this kind of ontological realism, Bazin claimed, would be able to confer on the object and its environment the density of its true being. [note of the editors]
  • 10Comolli, “La Cecilia: Présentation,” 78.
  • 11Ibid.
  • 12The Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó is known mainly for his Szegénylegények [The Round-Up] (1966), Csillagosok, katonák [The Red and the White] (1967) en Még kér a nép [Red Psalm] [ (1971). His films are renowned for their stylized, minutely rehearsed long shots. [note of the editors]
  • 13Cornand, who had never been particularly sympathetic to Cahiers, even avers that Rossi’s failure is an unintended metaphor for Comolli’s own ‘failed’ passage from film theory to direction. See André Cornand, “La Cecilia,” Revue du cinéma/Image et son, 304 (1976), 76.
  • 14Alison Smith, “Jean-Louis Comolli and La Cecilia: theory into practice,” French Cultural Studies, 4 (1991), 26. Comolli’s film was also reviewed in Jump Cut, with Reynold Humphries and Geneviève Sizzoni offering their own Marxist analysis of the shortcomings of Rossi’s commune in “Anarchism vs. reality,” Jump Cut, 12-13 (1976), 30-32.
  • 15Pascal Kané, “Le détour par l’enfance,” Cahiers du cinema, 265 (1976), 21-24.
  • 16Jean-Louis Comolli, “La Cecilia ou l’enfance,” in Jean-Louis Comolli, Corps et cadre. Cinéma, éthique, politique (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2012), 353.
  • 17Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 18In Comolli’s account, Renoir solves this problem by representing the difficulty of performing the role within the very performance of his brother. See Jean-Louis Comolli, “Un corps en trop,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 278 (1977), 5-16.
  • 19Serge Daney, “Deux paumés du Komintern,” Libération, July 18-19, 1981, reprinted in Serge Daney, La maison cinéma et le monde vol. II (Paris: P.O.L., 2002), 349-352.
  • 20Jean-Louis Comolli, in Alain Bergala and Alain Philippon, “Entretien avec Jean-Louis Comolli,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 333 (1982), 23.
  • 21Serge Daney, “Jean-Louis Comolli, L’ombre rouge,” Libération, October 28, 1981, reprinted in Serge Daney, La maison cinéma et le monde vol. II (Paris: P.O.L., 2002), 60.
  • 22Émile Breton, “L’ombre rouge,” Révolution, 91 (1981).
  • 23French filmmaker, renowned for his so-called ‘serial film’ or séries, such as Les vampires (1915-16), Fantômas (1913-14), Judex (1916), etc. [note of the editors]
  • 24Comolli, in Bergala/Philippon, “Entretien avec Jean-Louis Comolli,” 26.
  • 25Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinéma contre spectacle (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2009), 78-79.
  • 26Jean-Louis Comolli, Voir et pouvoir. L’innoncence perdue: cinéma, télévision, fiction, documentaire (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2004), 663.
  • 27Ibid., 593.
  • 28In French, the term ‘pied-noir’ (literal translation; ‘black-foot’) refers to Christian and Jewish colonists who migrated from the Mediterranean to French Algeria, the French protectorate in Morocco, or the French protectorate in Tunisia. After the French-Algerian War, they were banned from their native country (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia). Today, ‘pied-noir’, is mainly used as a designation of citizens of European descent who returned to France after the advent of Algerian independence. [note of the editors]
  • 29Ibid., 33-34.
  • 30The election was called for during a radio broadcast by de Gaulle, in which he refused to resign the presidency and called for the defence of parliament democracy against ‘totalitarian’ forces. This address can be heard on the soundtrack in the opening sequence of Les deux Marseillaises.
  • 31At the same time, the possibility of broadcasting the episodes on television has significantly dwindled: whereas Marseille de père en fils was shown on both France 3 and Arte, Rêves de France à Marseille could not find a television partner, and instead was released in theatres in 2003. The two epilogues, meanwhile, were produced for a much smaller budget by the INA (Institut national de l’audiovisuel), and are primarily available for viewing on its website.
  • 32Jean Rouch was a French filmmaker and anthropologist. He is often considered the founder of the cinema-vérité and is known as one of the most important theorists and fathers of visual anthropology. His main locus of study was Nigeria. He is also often considered as one of the pioneers of the Nouvelle Vague. [note of the editors]
  • 33Jean-Louis Comolli, in Catherine Humblot, “La chronique marseillaise de Jean-Louis Comolli,” Le Monde, February 15-16, 5. For the debt to Pennebaker and Depardon, see Comolli, Voir et pouvoir, 287-288. Comolli’s admiration for Rouch can be seen in numerous texts, including “Ici et maintenant, d’un cinéma sans maître,” in Jean-Louis Comolli, Gérard Leblanc and Jean Narboni, Les années pop: Cinéma et politique: 1956-1970 (Paris: BPI/Centre Pompidou, 2001), 33-58.
  • 34Marie-Pierre Bouthier, “Jean-Louis Comolli ou l’intelligence du réel,” Trafic, 93 (2015), 36. Marie-Pierre Bouthier is a film theorist at the Sorbonne. Her research focuses on the relationship between documentary film and historiography. [note of the editors]
  • 35Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 36Ibid.
  • 37Ibid.
  • 38Jean-Louis Comolli, “La ville de l’impossible oubli,” L’Image,le monde, 1, reprinted in Comolli, Voir et pouvoir, 481.
  • 39Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 40Ibid.
  • 41Comolli, in Humblot, “La chronique marseillaise de Jean-Louis Comolli,” 5.
  • 42Jean-Louis Comolli, “Marseille avec et sans retours,” Trafic, 93 (2015), 46.
  • 43Jean-Louis Comolli, “Destin cinématographique du journaliste,” in Print the legend – Cinéma et journalisme (Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 2004). Reprinted in Comolli, Corps et cadre, 60.
  • 44The concept of the ‘longue durée’ refers to the influence of physical environments on the course of human history. The term was first introduced in 1949 by Fernand Braudel in La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II. [note of the editors]
  • 45Comolli, Voir et pouvoir, 377.
  • 46Jean-Louis Comolli, “Du réalisme comme utopie,” in Gérald Collas (ed.), Cinéma européen, le défi de la réalité (Coordination européenne des Festivals, 1997), reprinted in Voir et pouvoir, 382.
  • 47Ibid.
  • 48Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 49Mègret himself left the FN in 1999, and ran for president in 2002 as a candidate for the Mouvement national républicain.
  • 50Comolli, in Humblot, “La chronique Marseillaise,” 5.
  • 51Ibid.
  • 52Jean-Louis Comolli, “Comment filmer l’ennemi?,” Trafic, 24 (1997), reprinted in Voir et pouvoir, 390.
  • 53Comolli, in Humblot, “La chronique Marseillaise,” 5.
  • 54Jean-Louis Comolli, “Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (part 2),” interview by Daniel Fairfax, Senses of Cinema, 64 (2012).
  • 55Comolli, in Humblot, “La chronique Marseillaise,” 5.
  • 56Comolli, “Comment filmer l’ennemi?,” 396.
  • 57Ibid., 400.
  • 58Jean-Louis Comolli, “Le détour par le direct (1),” Cahiers du Cinéma, 209 (1969), 49.
  • 59Ibid.
  • 60Comolli, “Comment filmer l’ennemi,” 391.

Comolli’s documentary work of the 1990s-2010s has extended far beyond the Marseilles series. Jeux de rôles à Carpentras (1998) and Le monde dans l’arène (2008) looked at the intersections between politics and the media, and both films also featured Michel Samson as their “guide.” Rêve d’un jour (1995) and Jours de grève à Paris Nord (2003) centered on the 1995 general strikes, which revived trade union militancy in France and briefly summoned the specter of May ’68. Outside of France, Comolli has looked at the trial of former Maoist activist Adriano Sofri in Italy (L’affaire Sofri, 2001), the biography of 1930s Catalan anarchist Buenaventura Durruti (Buenaventura Durruti, anarchiste, 1999) and New Caledonia’s independence movement, the last violent struggle against French colonialism (Belep danse autour de la terre, 1990 and Les esprits de Koniambo (en terre kanak), 2004). Beyond the realm of politics, his documentaries have also looked at the mundanity of white-collar office work in the public sector (La vraie vie (dans les bureaux), 1993), as well as architecture (Naissance d’un hôpital, 1991), music (Le Concerto de Mozart, 1996) and poetry (Le peintre, le poète et l’historien, 2005). And in 2011, together with Narboni, Comolli interrogated his own past at Cahiers in À voir absolument (si possible). 1963-1973: Dix annéees aux Cahiers du Cinéma. But the ten films that comprise the Marseille contre Marseille series will inevitably be regarded as his true magnum opus. Comolli’s exploration of a city and its politics for nearly three decades is a unique endeavor in the history of film, and it is one that is further enriched by its multiple intersections with the filmmaker’s copious theoretical reflections on the cinema in general and politically engaged documentary filmmaking in particular.


Images (1), (2) and (3) from La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1975)

Image (4) from L’ombre rouge (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1981)

Image (5) from Marseille contre Marseille (Jean-Louis Comolli, 1996)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.