The golden age of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma retains its fascination. This is due in part to the legendary cohort of critics who defined its character, even as they were conceiving the movies that would form the nouvelle vague: Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette. For most admirers of the magazine, however, the articles published during Cahiers’ ‘red years’ of 1968–73 are firmly excluded, as an aberration in the history of the journal. Antoine de Baecque, for example, author of the two-volume ‘biography’ of Les Cahiers du cinéma: histoire d'une revue (1991), treats the whole period with considerable hostility; theoretical hermeticism and political dogmatism are among the charges. The animus towards the theory of this era one finds in de Baecque had likewise become the order of the day in Anglophone film studies by the 1990s, as ‘post-theorists’ such as David Bordwell and Noël Carroll went much further in their attempt to dispense with the conceptual tools that had allowed cinema to be studied as a significant social phenomenon; in the process, they consigned to the dustbin of history a large body of complex meditations on ideology, film form and psychoanalysis. The post-theorists’ approach was, of course, the polar opposite of Cahiers’, which aimed to generate a synthetic theoretical system that could provide a holistic critique not only of cinema, but of cultural production more broadly. It is in this context that Daniel Fairfax’s Red Years of Cahiers du cinéma presents an eloquent defence of its most radical period—as well as an audacious argument for its continued relevance.

Fairfax, a former editor of the online magazine Senses of Cinema, now teaching at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, established himself as a custodian and disseminator of 1960s and 70s French film theory in 2015, when he published an annotated collection of writings by the Cahiers critic Jean-Louis Comolli; in 2017 he co-edited a book of translated interviews with the film semiotician Christian Metz. The Red Years is an extension of these projects, yet it is also a qualitative leap: as well as focusing on individual theorists, the book treats the Cahiers output in this period as the work of a collective—almost as a single text. It is not only the critics who play the leading roles here: the journal itself is figured as a protagonist, one of the key sites of cultural debate in the post-68 period, and a microcosm of the French political conjuncture.

In the beginning, Cahiers was not red but yellow, appearing every month with the same austere cover design: yellow edges framing a black-and-white still. Founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, it emerged from the burgeoning film culture of post-war France. Bazin argued that cinema fulfilled an anthropological need—that of the double, which he traced back to Egyptian mummies and royal portraits—and confronted viewers with a reality that would normally escape their grasp. While Bazin’s tastes tended towards ‘realist’ auteurs like Rossellini and Renoir, the younger critics whose careers he cultivated—Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette—had an almost religious reverence for the masters of Hollywood (Ray, Hawks, Fuller, Hitchcock) and helped raise American cinema, and even seemingly disposable B-movies, to the profile of a serious art form in France.

Ideologically, the early Cahiers was eclectic; on the political spectrum of post-war French film criticism, it sat to the right of the marxisant journal, Positif. In the 1950s and early 60s, Cahiers preferred mise-en-scène to politics, the auteur to the collective; its Americanophilia was seen as politically dubious. Against this background, its left turn is sometimes portrayed as a knee-jerk reaction to May 68. Yet as The Red Years shows, the radicalization of Cahiers was a more gradual process. The editorship of Eric Rohmer (1957–63) marked its most conservative period—a drift to the right which eventually led to his ouster in favour of Jacques Rivette, who was interested in the new theoretical paradigms being developed outside the world of film, above all structuralism, and arranged interviews with Barthes, Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Boulez.

This modernizing trend continued under Jean-Louis Comolli, who took the helm in 1965 and was joined by Jean Narboni in 1968. At this point, Cahiers began to intervene in French left arguments about culture and ideology, drawing heavily on Althusser as well as the theorists writing in Tel Quel. The first section of Red Years, ‘Theories of Ideology’, begins with an account of what is still perhaps the most widely read Cahiers essay of the era: Comolli and Narboni’s ‘Cinéma/idéologie/critique’. The piece set out to analyse which films served merely to transmit the dominant capitalist ideology and which succeeded in questioning or subverting it and divided cinema into seven categories. The first and largest category comprised films that simply reproduced the consensus, in form and content. A second, much smaller, category—it included Glauber Rocha’s Terra em transe (1967)—directly challenged the ideological system on both levels. Third, films like Bergman’s Persona (1966) might challenge it on the formal level, but not the ideological. Superficially radical films that were actually ideological (Costa-Gavras) made up category four, while five comprised apparently ideological films that were actually critical (Dreyer and Ford). The sixth category was made up of formally reflective documentary or movement films; the seventh, of their bad, pseudo-realist versions.

Fairfax sets the essay in the intellectual context of the methodological and theoretical debates that swirled around the social explosion of 1968, not least those with fellow Althusserians at the short-lived journal, Cinéthique. He goes on to reconstruct the lives of the authors—both were born in French Algeria and were members of the 8,000-strong Algiers ciné-club, before moving to Paris as students in 1961—and chart their intellectual development. The pair gravitated immediately to Cahiers; encouraged by Rohmer’s deputy, Jean Douchet, Comolli published his first piece there, on Hawks’ Sergeant York, as early as 1962. The intensively collective intellectual life that developed under his editorship is illustrated in the composition of the landmark essay, ‘Young Mr Lincoln de John Ford’, with Comolli sitting at the typewriter, keying in phrases the others suggested and debated.

It is only after discussing the major texts of this period that Fairfax turns to the political history of the time, describing the journal’s rapprochement with the pcf intellectual left around Althusser in 1969–71 and its subsequent engagement with Maoism. Fairfax assembles an impressive amount of material on the relationship between Cahiers and other players in the cultural-political debates of the period, most importantly Tel Quel, which Fairfax describes as the centre of gravity for avant-garde literary theory at the time, publishing Kristeva, Barthes, Derrida and Todorov. Here Fairfax’s extensive interviews with former Cahiers staff prove most fruitful. Though their recollections are sometimes hazy, they clearly recall the atmosphere of the era, marked by perpetual conflict and increasing detachment from reality as well as intellectual exhilaration and camaraderie. Fairfax notes that all the Cahiers critics of the period remained on the left; none made the right-wing swerves of ex-Maoists like Alain Finkielkraut or André Glucksmann. Moreover, the Maoist turn brought the journal back into contact with Godard; there was a sustained engagement with his work in this period, from Pravda and Vent d’Est to Tout va bien.