French flicks first

The film critic Emilie Bickerton on the glory days of Cahiers du cinéma and politically engaged film

The first ten years of Cahiers du cinéma, the French film magazine that was founded in cramped offices overlooking the Champs-Elysées in 1951, ended in triumph. "We have won," Jean-Luc Godard said, "by getting the principle accepted that a film by Hitchcock is as important as a book by Aragon. The auteurs of films, thanks to us, have entered definitively into the history of art."

Cahiers's earliest efforts had been like a bomb exploding in the world of cinema. It was, in the critic Peter Wollen's words, "the last great modernist project". The first editorial team, headed by André Bazin and including Godard, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette
and Eric Rohmer, argued that cinema was not only mass entertainment, made by "metteurs en scène" - executioners of a given script and set of stage instructions - it could also be an art in its own right, with special insights into reality through the mechanical recording of the camera. Cahiers was foremost an aesthetic project, and consciously apolitical. Its editorial line was defined by the "politique des auteurs", and a reaction against the ideological reading of films becoming popular as the cold war era set in - as practised by Cahiers's left-leaning rival Positif.

Cahiers is still published today, but its spirit has gone. Up to the Eighties, however, the magazine published some of the most original ideas on film and developed theoretical tools for understanding the art. Its trajectory from 1951 to date is a mini-history of the films that have marked cinema through the 20th century, one that also reveals the genesis and evolution of the role of the film critic.

The Cahiers story is juicy, to say the least, full of putsches, expulsions, mock-trials, mass exoduses, new blood. The Sixties were as tumultuous as the Fifties. In 1963, Rivette led the charge against the then chief editor, Rohmer, deemed too classical in his tastes as the newer generation discovered the modernist works of Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Buñuel, Glauber Rocha. Motivations turned more militant, too, as editors took inspiration from Godard's rallying cry in 1967: "We have to draw up a list of places where [cinema] does not yet exist and tell ourselves - that is where we have to go. If it isn't in the factories, we have to take it there. If it isn't in the universities, we have to go into the universities. If it isn't in the brothels, we have to go to the brothels. Cinema has to leave the places where it does exist and go into places where it does not."

Modern masterpieces such as Antonioni's Red Desert or Robert Bresson's Au hasard Baltha­sar were exhilarating but terrifying. The ideas and techniques so dear to Cahiers in the past - mise-en-scène, the auteur - were all "clapped out". Under Rivette, and then Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, who shared the editorship from 1966, the journal came out of the dark and magical comfort of Henri Langlois's Cinéma­thèque française, as critics believed cinema had lost its innocence and their task was to pick out the ideologies lurking behind the pictures and interrogate the role of the spectator. Rivette opened Cahiers up to many non-cinema influences: psychoanalytical theory, anthropology, structuralism, semiotics, all being taught at the time by Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes; modern art in the canvases of Mark Rothko; revolutions in musical composition from Pierre Boulez.

In the run-up to May 1968, Cahiers's own editorial line hardened along specifically political rather than aesthetic lines. Cinema had had its own May '68 the previous February, battling against the then culture minister, André Malraux, after his ministry ousted the adored Langlois from the Cinémathèque. Critics mobilised, led by the Cahiers team, and successfully had the old "dragon" reinstated. It was a taste of the subsequent "red years" of 1969-73. They were not Cahiers's finest hour. Very little cinema entered the journal, photos were banned, the monthly cycle became erratic and readership plummeted. The Maoism taking root among many left-leaning groups in France at the time became Cahiers's party line, as editors were briefly influenced by Tel Quel and Louis Althusser, and talked exclusively about the cultural struggle. But their militancy was shot down at the 1973 Avignon Festival when the Cahiers representatives fell silent, finally admitting that this battle - which had nothing to do with cinema - was not their own.

Serge Daney, at Cahiers since 1963, became joint editor-in-chief in 1974 with Serge Toub­iana, who had arrived as a Maoist in 1971. Daney in particular revitalised Cahiers's approach to cinema, reworking the critical questions of the day to look specifically at the impact of television, and asking how the criticism could retain a political edge without interfering in aesthetic engagement with a film. Eventually, however, the journal weighed too heavily on him: it had become an institution, and free thinking in its pages was difficult.

Daney left for Libération in 1981. Not only was the Cahiers set-up frustrating for this exceptionally original and curious vagabond, but he also recoiled from the alternative vision, fostered by his co-editor, of relocating the magazine at the centre of cinema. Toubiana was a capable replacement, but as a business manager. He was not an inspirational thinker in the way Bazin had been in the Fifties, or Rohmer and then Rivette had been in the Sixties and Daney in the Seventies. We see the birth, under Toubiana's control, of what Cahiers has grown up to become today. The Maoist-turned-manager steered Cahiers away from its historically polemical and fearless position to one anchored firmly in the mainstream, without registering how decisively that mainstream had changed. Batman was splashed across the cover and eulogies printed for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining ("a work of great culture"), Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull ("Dostoevskyan sensibility") and for ET, deemed "intelligent, inventive, moving, mischievous . . . This film should win Spielberg a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize."

There was nothing inevitable about this demise, which continued after Toubiana's departure in 2000 when Le Monde bought the magazine, followed by the British publisher Phaidon's takeover in 2009. Cahiers's move to the mainstream was a choice, and also characteristic of broader shifts in French intellectual culture, which has seen leading figures on the left abandoning their boldest ideals and embracing the free-market, neoliberal thinking blowing in from across the Atlantic.

Today some publications do still cast a sharp, discerning eye on cinema, as well as addressing its past, notably Trafic, the journal Daney set up in 1991 shortly before he died. In Paris at least, the culture around cinema is also very lively. Screens are not filled exclusively with Avatar or Alice in Wonderland; old classics run alongside new independent releases. Festivals, debates and cine-clubs are all thriving.

To be sure, discussions are carried out by small pockets of people speaking to each other, and the likes of the early Cahiers do not exist. Indeed, one has to say adieu to the magazine as the "last great modernist project", but its history and archive are glorious, a treasure trove that still has much to teach about cinema's old masters, and about how to understand, in specifically cinematic terms, what the pictures we see are telling us. The little yellow magazine staked out a path; it is up to film critics today to follow it. And to go further.

Emilie Bickerton's "Short History of Cahiers du cinéma" is published by Verso (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger