Whatever happened to Cahiers du cinéma? For decades the journal, modelled on the pages of a notebook, had published some of the most polemical and influential criticism ever to animate the world of film; it played a crucial role in establishing cinema as the ‘seventh art’. Founded in 1951 under the editorship of André Bazin, Cahiers quickly recruited a stellar group of young critics—Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol—who assured the review iconic status and international fame when, acting on their words, they took the camera onto the streets of Paris and created the New Wave. Subsequent generations of editors, including Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and an initial joint team of Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, brought distinctive developments in outlook and agenda—philosophy or the barricades; aestheticism or the tv channel-hopper—yet always retained the sense of a cinematic vanguard, as passionate as they were interventionist.

Cahiers still appears each month, now in a glossy magazine format indistinguishable from the ruck of mainstream cinema guides. Festival films, commercial offerings, educational angles, archives: the well-intentioned coverage is wider than ever, the style mannered, if curiously affectless; the overall effect—so much to choose from, so little at stake—has the mind-numbing quality of an upmarket consumer report. For thirty years, the journal’s interventions had helped shape the way cinema has been understood and experienced, popularly and theoretically. Cahiers both engaged and provoked film-makers into action, making it for a long time, to paraphrase Alexandre Astruc, the real stylo-caméra. Today it would seem little more stimulating than the inflight magazine on the plane to the next film festival. How did it come to this?

In its original conception, Cahiers du cinéma was a product of the brilliant flourishing of radical intellectual culture in the Paris of the post-war era. The Left was enormously strengthened by its Resistance role, the dead-wood conservative elites correspondingly disparaged. Liberation was cultural and intellectual as much as political; literature and philosophy, politics and social theory, cinema, jazz, experimental theatre, high art and popular culture, combined and reacted upon each other to spectacular effect. Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Malraux, Duras, Lévi-Strauss, were producing their most powerful work. Journals of ideas—Les Temps Modernes, Esprit, Critique and many more—jostled in a crowded field, animated by sustained and hard-fought debates. The sudden widening of horizons, after the claustrophobia of Nazi Occupation, opened up on pre-McCarthyite America and on the Italy of the neo-realists. At the same time, French cinema was producing the works of Renoir, Ophuls, Cocteau, Melville, Resnais, Bresson.

Film culture in France, after the Lumière brothers declared the medium had no future, had long proved fertile ground for a mix of styles; equally so for the interchange between criticism and practice. The first cine-club had opened in 1921, and a flurry of film magazines were published in the inter-war period. Driven into semi-clandestinity under the Occupation, this culture effloresced after 1945. A network of left-wing cine-clubs was set up in Paris. Henri Langlois re-established his Cinémathèque Française and screened (unsubtitled) Hawks, Hitchcock and film noir in the rue de Messine.footnote1 Among a spate of new film journals, L’Écran français had Sartre, Camus, Malraux, Becker and Langlois on its editorial board. It published such foundational texts as Astruc’s on the caméra-stylo, which invoked a notion of the film director as an individual artist comparable to a painter or an author, wielding his production unit as a novelist his fountain pen; and Roger Leenhardt’s call to choose betweenFord or Wyler—early formulations of the politique des auteurs.footnote2 Maurice Schérer (soon to take the pseudonym Eric Rohmer, from Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu) was editing Gazette du cinéma, the bulletin of the Quartier Latin cine-club. In 1946, the bon-viveur cinephile Jean Georges Auriol refounded his pre-war Revue du cinéma, with a mission to challenge the golden ageism à propos the silent era and combat the nationalist praise heaped on the cinéma de qualité of Marcel Carné and René Clair. Convinced that criticism of cinema required a particular language of its own, Auriol looked to the avant-garde, to Italy, and to the work of Welles, Sturges and Wyler in the us. He published young critics such as Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (working at Cinémonde), Astruc, Pierre Kast, Bazin and Rohmer; Auriol’s own essays on cinema and painting remain seminal texts.

By 1950, the post-Liberation ebullience had begun to ebb as Cold War pressures set in; the pcf extended a more rigid control over L’Écran français and some of the cine-clubs. Divisions widened. The Party film historian Georges Sadoul represented the old-guard consensus: the silent era was to be treated with reverence, Hollywood with disdain and national products uncritically championed. By contrast, the group gathering around what was soon to become the Cahiers project was united not only by its passionate cinephilia—a new film would be reviewed by the critic who was most enthusiastic about it—but by its insistence on the need for a rupture with established cinematographic practice and theory. For them, as Peter Wollen has put it, ‘the complete overthrow of the existing regime of taste was a precondition for the triumph of new film-makers with new films, demanding to be judged on a different scale of values’. This paradigm shift could be seen as ‘the last of a series of twentieth-century critical revolutions in the name of “modernism”’ against an ancien régime of artistic convention.footnote3 In this struggle, the New World was seen as a cultural ally, a potent image-maker of modernity and the dynamic popular energies within it. The name cahiers—giving their writings the suggested status of notes scribbled in school exercise-books—indicates the preliminary, if deeply serious, nature of the enterprise.

At the same time, the Cahiers constellation was exceptionally heterogenous in its range of tastes and approaches. Bazin was influenced by Sartre and the anti-colonial Catholicism of Emmanuel Mounier at Esprit; Rohmer was a high formalist; Lo Duca, more a generalist, author of Histoire du cinéma in the Que sais-je? series; Doniol-Valcroze an admirer of Buñuel. Kast was the only committed leftist of the group. Shortly to be added was the final ingredient: the polemical dynamism of a still younger group, Truffaut (Bazin’s protégé), Godard, Rivette, Chabrol. These young Turks congregated at cine-club screenings, or wrote for Schérer/Rohmer’s Gazette. They emerged as a concerted force at the Objectif 49 screenings in Biarritz in 1949, organized by Cocteau, Bresson, Queneau and others, where the 20-year-olds clashed with Sadoul over cinéma dequalité andHollywood.

A catalyst was the sudden death of Auriol in a car crash in 1950; the Revue was over. In April 1951 a slim yellow-covered journal, Cahiers du cinéma, Revue mensuelle du cinéma et du télécinéma, was published from a cramped room at 146, avenue des Champs Elysées. Its opening manifesto denounced ‘the malevolent neutralism that would tolerate a mediocre cinema, a prudential criticism and a stupefied public’. Cited as examples of the cinema the new journal would champion were Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Dmytryk’s Give Us This Day, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and de Sica’s Miracle in Milan—all then on recent release in Paris.