Volume 8, Issue 1, October 2017

A Word from the Editor

Welcome to the eighth year of Fiction and Film for French Historians. We hope that you will find something to stimulate your curiosity, to enhance your knowledge of France, and even to use in class.

In this first issue, Greg Monahan offers his analysis of Alberto Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, a film I saw at the Toronto Film Festival and so disliked I hesitated to have it reviewed. Greg has convinced me that I was wrong and that, despite Jean-Pierre Léaud’s fright wig, the film’s rendition of the last days of the Sun King captures what memoirists and historians have written about this dramatic moment.

In Maybe Missed, Jessica Hammerman situates Yossi Sucary’s recently translated Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen within the history of Libyan Jewry. Sucary, basing himself on family history, recounts the round-up of the Jewish community in 1941-42, focusing on those with British passports who were first taken to an Italian mountain prison before being transported to Auschwitz in May 1944. Those Jews who were kept in Libya suffered heavy casualties from horrific conditions in local labor camps.

Mike Vann reviews Pépé le Moko, Julien Duvuvier’s 1937 classic Orientalist tale of a lovable French crook hiding out in Algiers’ Casbah, which he, of course, comes to dominate. This male fantasy spawned Hollywood remakes and the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew. It also turned Jean Gabin into an international star. But the real subject, Vann argues, is the European construction of Algiers as exotic, unknowable, and dangerous.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Alberto Serra’s [La mort de Louis XIV], by W. Gregory Monahan

Maybe Missed

Libya and the Holocaust: Yossi Sucary’s [Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen], by Jessica R. Hammerman

Classics in the Classroom

“Blame it on the Casbah”: The White Male Imperialist Fantasies of Duvivier’s [Pépé le Moko], by Michael G. Vann

Volume 7, Issue 6, July 2017

A Word from the Editor

This summer issue is one long essay. I realized that I needed to add a review of my own to one of our issues and had been wondering in which direction to take it. Should I describe how I use Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan in my Freshman Seminar? Would I write something about the new brand of fictionalized fait divers? It was the latter that won out, especially since I had read Ivan Jablonka’s prize-winning Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes and could not fathom what made it a novel. I had several works in mind. I had very much enjoyed Philippe Jaeneda’s La petite femelle (Juillard, 2015) about Pauline Dubuisson’s murder of her lover in November 1953. I wrote a whole section on it, but the more I read about the fait divers and literature, the more conventional it came to seem. Emmanuel Carrère would be featured as a matter of course. In the end, I also included Laurent Binet’s HHhH, even though it isn’t French history, because so much of it involves the author’s duty to respect the facts. Historical fiction should be true to what is demonstrable and not be “based on real events.” Meanwhile, authors were inserting themselves into the story of the fait divers directly: present at the trial, speaking with those involved in the case. Were they reliable narrators? Emmanuel Carrère had a personal quest; Ivan Jablonka tells us he wished to approach the fait divers through an historical and sociological lens, yet his book is also an emotional homage to the eighteen-year-old victim of an horrendous murder. As an historian, I felt I needed to take a closer look at this hybrid genre, and figure out where I stand on it.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents: please note that all three reviews are located within the single link:

Truth or fiction and why it matters. A look at Ivan Jablonka, Emmanuel Carrère, and Laurent Binet, by Liana Vardi 

The Buzz

Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes, by Ivan Jablonka

Maybe Missed

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

Classics in the Classroom

L’Adversaire, by Emmanuel Carrère

Volume 7, Issue 5, April 2017

A Word from the Editor

A common thread in the films reviewed this month is friendship: visceral friendships that call on loyalties, sometimes with dramatic consequences.

In the Buzz, Marco Deyasi reviews Cézanne et moi, a film that explores the relationship between Emile Zola and Paul Cézanne. They met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence and moved to Paris to seek fame and fortune. While Zola made it, Cézanne struggled for years to come up with a style that satisfied him. Their friendship disintegrated with the publication of Zola’s The Masterpiece whose portrait of the mad, failed artist borrowed from Cézanne’s life. While the dynamic is well rendered, Deyasi regrets the film’s lack of investment in the creative process itself.

Divines, this month’s Maybe Missed, takes us to today’s banlieue where two black teenagers desperately try to escape poverty. They latch onto the readily available option of selling drugs and get in way over their heads. The angrier of the two young women is offered a chance to escape by following a new boyfriend’s dance troupe on tour. This hope is shattered when she chooses to save her best friend from a vengeful female dope-dealer. Thibault Schilt reminds us that director Houda Benyamina’s reversal of the “standard” gender roles of banlieue cinema is part of a new movement. Her women are tough and violent, and the male gaze is replaced here with an erotically charged female gaze.

While Divines ends with the riots of 2005, the1993 demonstrations against police brutality take place off-stage in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. The film begins in their immediate aftermath and follows three friends over the next 24 hours: one white (and Jewish), one black, and one brown (North African). The film has become iconic for its sympathetic approach to the dead-end lives of its multi-racial characters, for its demonstration of the prejudice they encounter, especially in Paris, and for its analysis of the spiral of violence that engulfs them. Michael Gott describes how Kassovitz’s macho version reinforces clichés about the banlieue even as it seeks to challenge them.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

The tormented artist and his friend: Danièle Thompson’s [Cézanne et moi], by Marco Deyasi

Maybe Missed

Reversed Gazes and Blended Genres: [Divines] (2016), by Thibault Schilt

Classics in the Classroom

Banlieue Cinema: [La Haine] (1995), by Michael Gott

Volume 7, Issue 4, March 2017

A Word from the Editor

Sex and violence might be the theme for this month’s bulletin.

In the Buzz, Charlotte Wells returns to the world of schlock with a review of the popular BBC series Versailles. Devilish plots and rivalries rend Louis XIV’s court while real historical events nourish a made-up narrative. There is so much sex that the series has received the dubious honour of being called the most pornographic among recent historical capers. In keeping with this theme, Jennifer Davis reviews an actual pornographic classic: Thérèse philosophe. In this libertine eighteenth-century novel, ascribed to Jean-Baptiste Boyer d’Agens, the female narrator connects sex with health in defiance of contemporary religious and medical beliefs. As Davis observes, besides a discussion of what is natural and therefore healthy, the novel addresses how texts and images work on the senses, and how the imagination can overcome reason. In the Maybe Missed rubric Roxanne Panchasi reviews the film Les Anarchistes (2015). Director Wajeman, she tells us, was less interested in historical events than in investigating love and betrayal. Thus, although the anarchist group in the film eventually acquires a bomb, ideology and violence do not drive the plot. Rather it focuses on the allegiances of the policeman who infiltrates the group. His loyalties are further torn once he becomes infatuated with the group’s leader’s girlfriend, who comes to share his sentiments. Given the beauty and impeccable dress of the actors, Panchasi wonders if this is radical chic and part of a recent, more superficial approach to the past.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Versailles] On a Dark and Stormy Night, by Charlotte C. Wells

Maybe Missed

“[Avec l’amour au poing]”*: Elie Wajeman’s [Les Anarchistes], by Roxanne Panchasi

Classics in the Classroom

The Laws of Eighteenth-Century Sex: [Thérèse philosophe], by Jennifer J. Davis

Volume 7, Issue 3, February 2017

A Word From the Editor

This issue addresses race and colonialism from three perspectives. In the Buzz, Charles Rearick examines Roschdy Zem’s 2016 biopic of the Belle Époque clown Chocolat. Rafael Padillo was a Black Cuban immigrant who took Paris by storm by playing the dumb sidekick to his partner George Footit. Things grew more complicated, however, once he tried to escape such stereotyping.

In Maybe Missed, Kelly Duke Bryant reviews Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop’s 2006 novel Kaveena, about an imaginary post-colonial African state. The story of a ruthless dictator and his French “handler” who really calls the shots, she argues, reinforces too many clichés about Africa. However, the events recollected by the former head of security and the fragments from the leader’s autobiography also offer insightful commentaries on power, greed, and violence.

The Classic, Didier Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour mémoire, dates from 1983. Using the detective genre, the author challenges the French to remember the 17 October 1961 massacre of Algerian immigrants which, his investigation reveals, is tied to the internment of Jews at Drancy during the Holocaust. The French authorities had swept these events under the rug, but the “outing” of Papon in 1981 made that untenable.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Chocolat]: A Black Entertainer in the Belle Époque, by Charles Rearick

Maybe Missed

[Kaveena], A Novel of Françafrique, by Kelly Duke Bryant

Classics in the Classroom

Forgetting is Easy, Remembering is Murder: Didier Daeninckx, [Meurtres pour mémoire] (1983), by Alan Morris

Volume 7, Issue 2, January 2017

A Word from the Editor

We are back after a break! This issue offers reviews of familiar topics, the Occupation, the Holocaust, and Napoleon. These continue to attract novelists, filmmakers, and audiences. Our reviewers explain why.

In the Buzz, Michael Sibalis assesses Thomas Keneally’s new novel, Napoleon’s Last Island. The last island is, of course, Saint Helena and the subject Napoleon’s friendship with Betsy Balcombe, the spunky teen-aged daughter of the provisioner to the exiled court. The story is based on the real Betsy’s memoirs and the review delves into their composition and how far Keneally remains faithful to or strays from the historical evidence.

The other two reviews address works recent enough to count as buzzes but I have squeezed them into the “Maybe Missed” and “Classics in the Classroom” categories for publication purposes. In “Maybe Missed,” Shannon Fogg discusses the runaway bestseller The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (soon to be a film directed by Michelle MacLaren). The story follows two sisters who join the Resistance during the German Occupation, the one immediately and the second after a series of plot turns. Historical accuracy not being Hannah’s forte, Fogg explains what she meant to convey by her overview of conditions in France during the war, most particularly for women and those too-often unsung wartime heroines.

In the issue’s third review, Alyssa Sepinwall describes new approaches to the Holocaust in recent French films. Rather than focusing on the round-ups and camps as most films have tended to do, two films in particular, The Origins of Violence and Once in a Lifetime, set the stories in the present. In a way reminiscent of Sarah’s Key, The Origins of Violence shows how the present is affected by past secrets and denials. In Once in a Lifetime, based on a true story, students at a Créteil high school research what happened to French Jews during the war. The third movie, Victor “Young” Perez, brings the empire in through the biopic of a Jewish Tunisian boxer caught in the maelstrom, an inclusion that changes how we think about French victims of the Holocaust.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Betsy and the Emperor: A Well-Worn Tale Retold, by Michael Sibalis

Maybe Missed

Sisters in the Resistance: [The Nightingale], by Shannon L. Fogg

Classics in the Classroom

New Directions in French Holocaust Film: [The Origin of Violence], [Once in a Lifetime], and [Victor “Young” Perez], by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Volume 7, Issue 1, October 2016

A Word from the Editor

Welcome to a new year. As we embark on a new series of reviews, some themes will be familiar and others, we hope, will surprise you. With the increasing difficulty in getting students to read, thinking about assigning novels might seem utopian. Yet I continue to think that they enrich our approach to our own work and offer a different perspective on events to students eager to immerse themselves in the period. I vary my own offerings and this year I’ve added Monsieur le Commandant by Romain Slocombe to my Vichy France syllabus. Each novel in my courses is attached to a series of historical analyses. I’ve reduced the number of movies I show, however, and have students present them instead as part of an oral assignment. Of course, films have always been easier to incorporate in teaching, usually at the risk of losing precious lecture time. Students are immediately engrossed, even if a few find it convenient naptime. As we all know, Media Studies and Film Progams are booming, and many a history department hosts extra-curricular historical movie-nights. More people, as well, even though not trained in film theory, offer courses like my own research seminar on Film in History, as students seek to marry different types of materials. FFFH reviewers themselves seem happier reviewing films than novels. Literature is not so much more daunting than more time-consuming and who has spare time these days? Still, there are stalwarts and it is thanks to them that this bulletin keeps providing reviews of both.

In this first issue we return to the First World War with a review by Béatrix Pau of Pierre Lemaitre’s Au Revoir Là-haut, winner of the 2013 Prix Goncourt. An English translation by Frank Wynne, The Great Swindle, appeared in September 2015. The novel, which focuses on the immediate post-war, begins with a war crime perpetrated on the eve of the Armistice by an ambitious French officer whose further misdeeds are the subject of the book. The war over, that same lieutenant bids successfully for a government contract to remove bodies from battlefield cemeteries for burial in their hometowns and villages. He profits outrageously by providing lower-quality coffins and misidentifying corpses to speed up the process. The scandal bursts and engulfs him by the end of the novel. We also follow the fate of two soldiers who witnessed the first crime and suffered for it. They come out of the war damaged and jobless, the one so disfigured that he refuses to go home to his wealthy family. But he can draw and comes up with a scam to sell war memorials to the thousands of towns that are seeking to honour their dead. From their hovel, he and his friend peddle a brochure with architectural plans from which communities may choose and send an advance. The monuments themselves would never see the light of day but they grow rich. As Béatrix Pau explains, this second scam is a product of the author’s imagination, but the first was very real. Pierre Lemaitre based it on Pau’s prize-winning study of the merchants of death, Le ballet des morts: Etat, armée, familles: s’occuper des corps des la Grande guerre (reissued in 2016). Béatrix Pau offers us her insider’s knowledge, praising the author’s retelling of these sordid undertakings and of the grim aftermath of the war. Exceptionally we publish her review in French.

The tone is much lighter in Ken Alder’s review of 1001 Grams, a Norwegian riff on universal measures that bring representatives to France to test their national prototypes of the kilogram. A delightful rom-com develops around predictability and human whim that he heartily recommends, even if he thinks it’s too low-key to be of use in the classroom.

In our classics section, Michael Lucey revisits André Gide’s 1902 The Immoralist. Using Bourdieu as a guide, he makes the case for a thorough historicization of the novel. This is a difficult work that raises hackles and requires careful handling. The temptation is to project on the era sentiments that were not its own, and he makes sure that we grasp the range of gender identities at the turn of the twentieth century. As such a careful reading of The Immoralist remains fruitful.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[The Great Swindle] ou [Au Revoir, Là-haut] de Pierre Lemaitre, by Béatrix Pau

Maybe Missed

Universal measures: [1001 Grams], by Ken Alder

Classics in the Classroom

On André Gide’s [The Immoralist] (1902), by Michael Lucey

Volume 6, Issue 6, April 2016

A Word from the Editor

In this issue we cover two topics that never grow old: war and sex.

In the Buzz, Patricia Lorcin reviews Laurent Mauvignier’s outstanding novel, The Wound (Des hommes), a harsh and moving look at the traumatic effects of the Algerian War on a couple of French soldiers from the same town.

In a second Buzz, Alan Morris reviews Didier Daeninckx’s Caché dans la maison des fous, the second novel in a series that mingles History (with a capital H) and poetry, commissioned by Bruno Doucey. Daeninckx tells the tale of Paul Eluard, who hid with his wife in the asylum at Saint-Alban during the Occupation. There he composed a series of engaged poems and the novel becomes a reflection on writing itself, the relation between art and madness, and the construction of memory. The first edition sold out within weeks.

In Maybe Missed, Alysssa Sepinwall turns to what she is defining as a new genre in French filmmaking : the Jewish-Muslim relationship film. Her example is Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s comedy He’s My Girl where a gay Jewish Parisian must sort out his difficulties with commitment: to his Muslim cross-dressing boyfriend, to his ex-wife and son (from a Hasidic New York background), to his Jewish mother, a Holocaust-survivor.

Charlotte Wells returns to Classics in the Classroom, this time discussing adaptations of The Three Musketeers, from silent film to the BBC series currently entering its third season. Swashbuckling heroes mingle with innocent maidens and evil femmes fatales; the violence of the early modern era is transformed into jolly sparring; the rise of the absolutist state into the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu against a weak monarch. While faithfulness to Dumas, never mind to history, is rarely a consideration, the new BBC series takes a new tack, treating the seventeenth century as a Western with leather-clad heroes and strong-willed women.

Happy reading and great summer break. We return in October.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Men at War: Laurent Mauvignier’s [The Wound], by Patricia M.E. Lorcin
In Praise of Folly: Didier Daeninckx, [Caché dans la maison des fous], by Alan Morris

Maybe Missed

Jewish-Muslim Romance with a French Twist: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s [He’s My Girl], by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Classics in the Classroom

“Keep Those Swords Away from the Computer, Boys!” The Three Musketeers in the Classroom, by Charlotte C. Wells

Volume 6, Issue 5, March 2016

A Word from the Editor

In this issue’s Buzz, we revisit Albert Camus’s Algeria through the adaptation of his short story “L’hôte.” In this spare tale, a French Algerian escorts an Arab to jail across a mountainous wilderness. David Oelhoffen has created a very different film, exploring the two main characters’ background in ways that did not interest Camus. Through a series of encounters, he also shows the various groups engaged in the struggle for and against Algerian independence, making the film eminently teachable. But, as Joshua Cole explains, Oelhoffen’s more nuanced and humanistic approach can backfire when it moves too far away from Camus’s original intentions.

In Maybe Missed, Adam Watt tackles Nina Companeez’s four-hour TV adaptation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.In something of a tour-de-force, he compares this to other movie adaptations and demonstrates how, albeit in highly compressed fashion, she manages to render Proust’s major themes and characters, including societal shifts between the fin-de-siècle and early1920s. Some of these choices are explained in the “making-of” inserted in the review in lieu of preview (there being none). As for the rest, it is best to dip into the great work itself.

In the Classics section, Brian Sandberg introduces the first two books of Robert Merle’s saga, Fortune de France, whose 13 volumes are being translated into English at the rate of one a year. Set during the wars of religion, the books focus on a Périgord noble family thrown into the maelstrom of this great conflict, with some family members becoming Huguenots and others remaining Catholic.While Merle offers swashbuckling adventures to rival Dumas, he has also carefully recreated the social panorama of the era through the insertion of “notarial records and livres de raison” inspired by Annales School research in vogue when he began in 1977.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Albert Camus’s “L’hôte” becomes [Loin des hommes] (Far From Men), by Joshua Cole

Maybe Missed

Nina Companeez tackles [À la recherche du temps perdu], by Adam Watt

Classics in the Classroom

Robert Merle’s Wars of Religion: [The Brethren] and [City of Wisdom and Blood], by Brian Sandberg

Volume 6, Issue 4, February 2016

Word from the Editor

Love, loyalty and families, murder and suicide, oppression and self-realization all feature in this month’s reviews.

In the Buzz, Philip Nord shares his enthusiasm for Christophe Boltanski’s La Cache. The central characters are the author’s grandparents and their apartment on the rue de Grenelle. This is a family with secrets, not all of which are unraveled. At its heart, Myriam, the formidable grandmother, is determined to insulate her brood from the outside world, despite meagre resources. She manages to hide her husband Etienne from the French police during the Occupation. While uncles Jean-Elie and Christian, aunt Anne and his father Luc are part of the narrative, it is Christophe’s fond and bemused recollections that allow us to penetrate this fortress and gain some insight into a family forever poised between two worlds.

In Maybe Missed, Natalya Vince guides us through The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud’s response to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. The novel treats the original as “real,” and reveals Meursault’s victim’s identity (Musa) who, in Camus’s account, was just a nameless Arab. Seated at a bar in Oran, the murdered Musa’s now elderly brother Harun describes to a young journalist what life was like under colonial rule, during the fight for independence, and in its aftermath. He has little to be proud of in his own life, but his mother and long-ago girlfriend had the guts he lacks. As Natalya Vince demonstrates, this is a multi-layered tale in which the present confronts the past.

In the Classics section, Jim Allen looks at the latest adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. While no movie can do justice to the novel, Allen gives us reasons to appreciate Sophie Barthes’s 2014 version. She brings to the film a strong visual aesthetic, turning Flaubert’s words into striking imagery. Likewise, Mia Wasikowska’s combination of poise and intensity is able to convey, with a look, Emma Bovary’s longings, petulance, and ultimate despair. The film is an excellent illustration of the desires created by the new consumer society, with Emma remodeling her house and ordering increasingly lavish (and unforgettable) dresses in her determination to rise above her station.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Christophe Boltanski’s Memories of War and Peace, by Philip Nord

Maybe Missed

Literature as post-colonial reality? Kamel Daoud’s [The Meursault Investigation], by Natalya Vince

Classics in the Classroom

Sophie Barthes’s [Madame Bovary], by James Smith Allen

Volume 6, Issue 3 December 2015

A Word from the Editor

In the Buzz, Eliza Ferguson reviews Benoît Jacquot’s Journal d’une femme de chambre, the latest adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel. Léa Seydoux is scintillating in the title role and persuasively embittered, but the film sidesteps the full panoply of decadence that Mirbeau depicted. Jacquot is faithful, however, to Mirbeau’s condemnation of bourgeois hypocrisy, anti-Semitism, and right-wing nationalism. Either the novel or the film, Ferguson tells us, would make a fine addition to a course on modern France, giving students an intimate look at gender and late-nineteenth-century social conflicts. The film, available on French DVD, will be released this spring in the United States.

Coincidentally, the remainder of the issue focuses on Victor Hugo. Charles Rearick reviews a new prize-winning novel, Judith Perrignon’s Victor Hugo vient de mourir. In this novelistic “docudrama,” Perrignon recreates the debates and fears surrounding Victor Hugo’s death in May 1885. While the authorities worry that the funeral would occasion a working-class rising, anarchists and socialists fret about the co-optation of “their” Victor Hugo by the State. We are reminded that the Commune had occurred only fourteen years earlier and its legacy was still vivid. Marisa Linton begins her review of Ninety-Three (1874) by stating that the tragic events of the Commune were very much on Victor Hugo’s mind. The novel deals with revolutionary violence through the confrontation of the Revolutionary army and the Vendée’s anti-Republican rebels. Hugo describes the motivations on both sides even-handedly, although conceding that the Revolution was on the side of progress. Still, he wonders whether the hard-boiled revolutionaries of 1793 might not have shown some mercy. Linton concludes that some chapters in particular are worth assigning to students for their forceful recreation of the era.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Benoît Jacquot’s [Journal d’une femme de chambre], by Eliza Earle Ferguson

Maybe Missed

Victor Hugo’s Funeral as Historical Fiction, by Charles Rearick

Classics in the Classroom

Victor Hugo, [Ninety-Three] ([Quatrevingt-treize]), by Marisa Linton

Volume 6, Issue 2 November 2015

A Word from the Editor

This issue’s Buzz is the film version of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française. Unlike those film critics who have reproached the director for his unfaithfulness to the novel, Simon Kitson explains why this concern is unjustified. What is more, he believes the author would have approved the inclusion of the rounding-up of Jews, even if anachronistic, because she had intended to chronicle the German occupation to France’s liberation. Although no masterpiece, the movie presents eminently teachable moments.

In his review of Entre les murs/The Class, Martin O’Shaughnessy, author of a new book on Laurent Cantet (Manchester University Press, 2015), describes how the director structures his movies. He focuses on Cantet’s use of space to express isolation or interaction, discussing several examples from the movie. Moreover, he demonstrates how Cantet expertly exposes the myths that surround Republican schooling. It is not Cantet’s style, however, to resolve issues for us; he means us to consider them more deeply.

In the Classics section, another expert, Alan Morris, revisits Patrick Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy. Although not a real trilogy, the set includes Modiano’s first three novels, Place de l’Étoile, Night Watch and Ring Roads, gathered together for the first time in English. In his spare, allusive style, Modiano addresses the Occupation and his father’s louche activities, an obsession from which he would gradually free himself. With each novel, Modiano gets closer to the criminal Gestapo collaborationists operating out of 93 rue Lauriston with whom his father worked, despite being a Jew. As Morris explains, historians have been interested in Modiano because of his fascination with the unreliable nature of memory and for openly discussing collaboration at a time when the myth of resistance still prevailed.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Suite Française], by Simon Kitson

Maybe Missed

Are you sure you think what you think? Laurent Cantet’s [Entre les murs] and mythologies of Republican education, by Martin O'Shaughnessy

Classics in the Classroom

Into the Heart of Darkness: Patrick Modiano, [The Occupation Trilogy] (2015), by Alan Morris

Volume 6, Issue 1 October 2015

A WORD FROM THE EDITOR

We begin this year with a series of film reviews. My preview of new French films with “historical content” at the Toronto Film Festival yielded no gems and some disappointments. I found La peur, set in the trenches of World War I, excruciatingly boring and its supposed “realism” much exaggerated. Although Aleksandr Sukarov’s Francofonia was gorgeous to look at, the director’s meditations on the fate of western culture were heavy-handed and sometimes puzzling. Despite its [French] title, the film dealt little with the Louvre during the Occupation, focusing instead on the intersection of creative and destructive urges. In the end, one film grabbed me: Diastème’s Un Français, about a neo-Nazi skinhead in the 1980s whom we follow over three decades as he sheds his racism and his rage. His personal redemption is contrasted to the Front national’s cosmetic efforts to do the same.

In the Maybe Missed section, Kathleen Wellman reviews A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman’s fantasy about Louis XIV, Le Nôtre, and the building of the gardens at Versailles. The spunky heroine, an independent gardener who seduces both Le Nôtre and the King with her talent, is winningly played by Kate Winslet. The film’s recasting of the monarch as fond paterfamilias and botanical experimenter is more Farmer George than historical Louis, but this is, after all, a fantasy.

Lastly, in our Classics rubric, Elena Russo guides us through Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive, winner of 15 international awards. A class in one of the cités is rehearsing Marivaux’s Games of Love and Chance, while their daily life mirrors some of its plot. Most important, Elena Russo tells us, is that they absorb from Marivaux a different way of expressing emotions and the ambiguous states they cause. The film is not meant to update Marivaux to the banlieue but rather to show how classics can expand one’s conceptual apparatus.

With this issue, Eric Reed, historian of the Tour de France, leaves us as web editor to take on high administrative duties at his univesrity. He has been a terrific colleague and the team will greatly miss him.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

The Politics of Violence: [Un Français], by Liana Vardi

Maybe Missed

[A Little Chaos] in Louis XIV’s Court, by Kathleen Wellman

Classics in the Classroom

Revisiting Kechiche’s [L’Esquive] (Games of Love and Chance), by Elena Russo

Volume 5, Issue 6, April 2015

A Word from the Editor

This September will mark the 500th anniversary of the French victory at Marignano, but I am not aware of any planned festivities. On the other hand this spring has seen and will continue to see commemorations of the Hundred Days, including a mammoth re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo of 18 June 1815 at the site itself. Conferences are being held, exhibitions have been mounted, even the play Le souper had its revival, and so it seems fitting to end this year with reviews of works set during the Hundred Days.

Waterloo being the biggest buzz, it is under this rubric that Charles Esdaile offers his comments on the 1970 film directed by Sergey Bondarchuck, starring “the best Napoleon ever” Rod Steiger. Esdaile takes us into the heart of the battle and, with unmatched expertise, explains what the director did right and got wrong, and laments the fact that no “director’s cut” exists of the original four-hour version.

In Maybe Missed, Philip Dwyer addresses Le Souper, Jean-Claude Brisville’s 1989 play, brought to the screen in 1992 by Edouard Molinaro. The tête à tête between Fouché and Talleyrand on 6 July 1815 to settle the fate of the Bourbons makes for lively theatre but plays havoc with the facts. You can judge for yourselves on You tube. And you will want to see the film after reading this review.

It was a great thrill when Alan Forrest agreed to review Louis Aragon’s La Semaine Sainte, a meandering 850-page novel that recreates the confusion caused by Napoleon’s arrival in Paris on 19 March 1815 and the Bourbon Court’s flight to Ghent. Loyalties are not only tested but their very meaning questioned. Warning to the casual reader: the novel only made sense to me after I read Emmanuel de Waresquiel’s brilliant Cent jours, la tentation de l’impossible.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Waterloo] (1970): A Critical Review, by Charles Esdaile

Maybe Missed

“When Vice Meets Crime”: Jean-Claude Brisville’s [Le Souper], by Philip Dwyer

Classics in the Classroom

Aragon, [La Semaine Sainte], by Alan Forrest

 

 

Volume 5, Issue 5, March 2015

A Word from the Editor

In the Buzz feature, Mary Lynn Stewart compares the two films of the life and times of Yves Saint-Laurent, the great haute couture designer and flawed human being, which came out in France last year. Both Jalil Lespert’s and Bernard Bonello’s versions cover much of the same ground, although Lespert’s film is a more conventional biopic, while Bonello’s is more risqué. Not enough is shown about the actual production of the collections as both movies focus on Saint Laurent’s troubled private life, but there is still much there still to stimulate discussion of a time when Paris was the undisputed fashion leader.

In Maybe Missed, Eric Reed reviews a scintillating graphic novel, Legends of the Tour, which captures the highs and lows of the Tour de France in the first century of its existence. The drawings vary from delicate to ferocious to convey the humble beginnings, the rise and then sad downfall of the sport in the era of doping. The fans who line the roads and follow the Tour are depicted with as much fondness as the great heroes of the Tour.

In the Classics section, I review an “iconic painting” of the members of the Committee of Public Safety, The Eleven, which is the invention of Pierre Michon, a quirky, pithy, and evocative writer. We are brought by this ingenious means to reflect about the Terror and the nature of the Old Regime’s douceur de vivre that hid the misery of the people upon whose labor it depended, and about the representation of history itself. Though brief, the work is filled with vignettes that offer highly “teachable moments.”

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Too Much and Not Enough: [Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent], by Mary Lynn Stewart

Maybe Missed

[Legends of the Tour], Jan Cleijne’s Graphic-Novel History of France’s National Bicycle Race, by Eric Reed

Classics in the Classroom

The Tiepolo of the Terror: Pierre Michon’s [The Eleven], by Liana Vardi

Volume 5, Issue 4, February 2015

A Word from the Editor

It has become increasingly difficult to get reviews of literary classics, perhaps because fewer are used in History courses, but film as a conduit to classics continues to be a vibrant alternative. In this issue, Emma Gilby reviews Alceste à bicyclette, starring Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson, in great form, rehearsing the role of Alceste in Molière’s The Misanthrope. Their rivalry embodies the play’s themes but selectively, as Gilby explains.

Film, once we don’t take it as documentary, can get the contexts right, as demonstrated by the French TV drama, The Jewish Cardinal (Le métis de Dieu).  This engaging biopic, John Connelly reports, gets at the essence of Jean-Marie Lustiger’s struggles over his identity, his manic personality, his relationship to Pope John Paul II, and his efforts to improve interfaith relations. One event, involving the Catholic convent at Auschwitz, ought to be handled with care, as Connelly reminds us of the actual dispute and its chronology.

Alyssa Sepinwall’s enthusiastic endorsement of Evelyne Trouillot’s novel, The Infamous Rosalie, to which she grants instant classic status, has allowed me to finesse the “classics in the classroom” label once again. Since we lack any direct female testimony of slavery in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue (or elsewhere), Sepinwall argues that Evelyne Trouillot has provided us with a moving alternative, especially in raising the question of whether life as a slave is worth living.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[The Jewish Cardinal:] Jean-Marie Lustiger and the Struggle for Interfaith Reconciliation, by John Connelly

Maybe Missed

Molière on the Ile de Ré or [Alceste à bicyclette], by Emma Gilby

Classics in the Classroom

If This is a Woman: Evelyne Trouillot’s [The Infamous Rosalie] and the Lost Stories of New-World Slavery, by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Volume 5, Issue 3, December 2014

A Word from the Editor

As a “holiday special,” we offer more reviews than usual. Three focus on the Occupation, and two on the Napoleonic period writ large. Howard Brown argues that Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert successfully straddles the Empire and the Restoration, but that the movie adaptation does this even better. Michael Sibalis revisits Napoleon’s image through the 1953 popular classic Désirée and its 1954 Hollywood adaptation. In both, Désirée Clary stands for revolutionary ideals, undermined at every turn by Napoleon, to whom she was briefly betrothed, and eventually betrayed even by her Republican husband Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, once he becomes King of Sweden.

The Occupation remains a popular subject in literature and film. The 2014 screen version of the successful play Diplomatie is the most conventional of the three works examined here. Matthew Cobb wonders about the longevity of the myth that Hitler ordered the destruction of Paris and that only the intervention of the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling stopped the German commander, Dietrich von Choltitz, from carrying it out. Sandra Ott reviews Romain Slocombe’s riveting Monsieur le commandant, recently translated into English, a short epistolary novel that addresses Franco-German relations during the war and the sad consequences of a French academician’s rabid anti-semitism. The third work, Le terroriste noir by Guinean novelist Tierno Monénembo takes as its subject a real person, Addi Bâ, a Guinean who moved to France in his twenties, joined the Tirailleurs sénégalais at the start of the war, and, after escaping the Germans, was one of the founders of the Vosges maquis. His story, Tyler Stovall points out, is a much-needed reminder of the transnational dimension of the Resistance and of the complicated engagement of Black Africans with the metropole.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Kaboom! [Diplomatie] (2014) and the destruction of Paris, by Matthew Cobb
A Transnational Struggle for National Salvation: Tierno Monénembo’s [Le terroriste noir] and the history of the French Resistance, by Tyler Stovall

Maybe Missed

Romain Slocombe, [Monsieur le Commandant: A Wartime Confession], by Sandra Ott

Classics in the Classroom

Chabert vs Chabert, by Howard G. Brown
Napoleon’s Fiancée: The Fabulous Destiny of Désirée Clary, by Michael Sibalis

Volume 5, Issue 2, November 2014

A Word from the Editor

In this issue, Sandrine Sanos tackles one of this season’s biopics, Violette, which follows the career of Violette Leduc from the Occupation to 1964 when she nearly won the Prix Goncourt. Martin Provost, the film’s director, constructed his narrative around the “making of a writer,” through Leduc’s encounters with Maurice Sachs, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Genet. Somewhat mystified by what she views as a reductive interpretation of Leduc, Sandrine Sanos provides us with a broader context within which to appreciate this path-breaking novelist.

In his review of Olivier Assayas’s Après mai, renamed Something in the Air for English-speaking audiences, Daniel Gordon explains the legacy of May 68 to teenagers in 1971 as they develop their own form of militancy. Gordon sorts out for us the groupuscules to which they adhered, and the cultural changes that a mere three years had brought. Assayas’s autobiographical film, he argues, provides more insights into radical youthful engagement than recent films on May 68 that have privileged sexual liberation.

In our Classics in the Classroom section, Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley takes a look at the 1989 film and mini-series La Révolution française, now available on YouTube in a subtitled version. This makes the sprawling saga available for potential use in the classroom. Rather than fastening on the series’ weaknesses, Fairfax-Cholmeley explains what segments might offer interesting discussions, especially alongside other sources. These are not necessarily revolutionary incidents in-and-of themselves but include the film’s meticulous recreation of iconic revolutionary images or the depiction of printers’ workshops. I would go farther than our reviewer in suggesting that however clumsy (or inaccurate) by moments, almost any of the vignettes can serve that purpose. The question remains, as Fairfax-Cholmeley points out, whether such visual reconstitutions offer sufficient fodder for thought.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

“A World of Noise and Fury:” Martin Provost’s [Violette] (2013), by Sandrine Sanos

Maybe Missed

Olivier Assayas’ [Après mai], by Daniel A. Gordon

Classics in the Classroom

A Cinematic Revolution? Sources, Imagery and Interpretation in [La Révolution française] (1989), by Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley

Volume 5, Issue 1, October 2014

A Word from the Editor

From time to time a hybrid genre falls into my lap, something in-between fiction and non-fiction. This is not standard academic scholarship but rather amateur history that revisits the past with a dose of journalistic flair. The inclusion of dialogue and minimal footnotes, the aim to entertain while also seeking to inform, pushes it, for the purposes of review, into the realm of fiction. We have seen the genre flourish recently through a retelling of historical “true crimes,” the sort that attracted vast public in their day. In this vein, Steven Levingston’s Little Demon in the City of Light revisists a sensationalist murder trial at the time of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair with plenty of lurid detail, but also including debates on hypnosis and personal culpability raised during the trial. Levingston draws his evidence from memoirs and the contemporary press, but also owes much to famed magistrate and specialist in causes célèbres Pierre Bouchardon’s 1933 La malle mystérieuse. I asked Professor Barbara Pope, herself the author of a trilogy of mysteries set in that period (see Charles Sowerwine’s review of her trilogy in Vol 3:5), to share her thoughts on the book. She generously emphasizes the book’s strengths while also questioning its rendering of scientific debates.

In her review of George Clooney’s Monuments Men, Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt shows us why we should be wary of films’ seductive reordering of fact. Although based on Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s popular history by the same name, Clooney’s version takes liberties that distort the group’s mandate and in particular the role of the French. Karlsgodt establishes the proper context for the Monument Men’s activities and the ways that “saving artworks” figured in the Allies’ as well as occupied countries’ plans, questioning Clooney’s a priori assumption that saving art meant saving civilization. The potential destruction of world-famous artworks such as the Ghent altarpiece, meant to encapsulate Nazi evil, ends up backfiring, despite the film’s conventional good intentions. The “horse-sense” that is being invoked with regard to art is the same used by the viewer to reject the premise that the civilization at risk during WWII consisted of a few masterpieces.

Julia Clancy-Smith regularly includes movies when she teaches North African society and she explains how she has incorporated the films Summer at la Goulette and the more recent What the Day Owes the Night in courses on colonialism, gender and empire. These films, she argues, bring nuance to students’ understanding of colonial and post-colonial Algeria and Tunisia, especially through their depiction of ethnic intermingling. This provokes students to revise some of their assumptions about imperialism as it was experienced locally and post-independence societies, and to develop new questions and areas of research.

This begins another year of Fiction and Film for French Historians. Over the coming months, you will find some familiar themes: the Occupation, the French Revolution, May 68, as these topics continue to engender new novels and films. April 2015 will revisit the Hundred Days to mark the end of the Napoleonic commemorations, but there are also surprises along the way. Scholars have begun to approach me with suggestions for reviews, rather than just the other way round, and I am always ready to consider them. Happy reading!

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

A Surfeit of Creative License in George Clooney’s [The Monuments Men], by Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt

Maybe Missed

Stranger than Fiction: Steven Levingston on Murder, Mesmerism, and Forensics in Fin-de-siècle Paris, by Barbara C. Pope

Classics in the Classroom

Night, Day, and Mediterranean Summers: French Colonial Films for the Classroom, by Julia Clancy-Smith

Volume 4, Issue 6, April 2014

A Word from the Editor

In this issue, our three reviewers tackle a series of myths set in Renaissance and early modern France. As announced in the March issue, Allan Greer reviews The Orenda, a best-selling Canadian novel that attempts to recapture the multiplicity of native and French voices in the period of contact, although not altogether successfully. In the Maybe Missed section, Charlotte Wells wonders at the appeal of the fantasy television series Reign, a very loose adaptation of the life of Mary Queen of Scots at the French court in the 1560s. The best way to approach it, she suggests, is as a reimagining of the myth of the hero (or in this case heroine) growing to maturity through a series of trials. Lastly, Greg Monahan compares René Allio’s Les Camisards, finally available on DVD, to the recently released Michael Kohlhaas based on the life of the mythic sixteenth-century rebel immortalized by Kleist. The Cévennes form a glorious background for the film, but Monahan concludes that the transfer of the story to France is too incongruous, particularly as the plot requires the anachronistic presence of Protestants in the region in the first half of the sixteenth century.

As ever, I am grateful to all the contributors to this year’s bulletins for the careful attention they paid to historical accuracy and for the context they supplied to help us understand how history and fiction intersect.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Hurons and Jesuits Revisited: Joseph Boyden’s [The Orenda], by Allan Greer

Maybe Missed

Myth, History and Teen-age Romance: A Sixteenth-Century Historian Watches [Reign], by Charlotte C. Wells

Classics in the Classroom

The Magic of the Cévennes: [Les Camisards] (1972) and [Michael Kohlhaas] (2013), by W. Gregory Monahan

Volume 4, Issue 5, March 2014

A Word From the Editor

In this issue, Lisa Graham examines Diderot’s posthumous novel La Religieuse and its movie adaptations, first by Jacques Rivette in 1966, in a version that heralded the 1968 student protests against a stultifying society, and last year by Guillaume Nicloux, who meticulously recreates the eighteenth-century setting, if not its social conventions. Ultimately, Graham argues, it is the choice of ending that counts most. For Diderot it was open-ended; Rivette took a pessimistic view of Suzanne’s prospects, while Nicloux introduces a happy ending. Graham explains why this subverts Diderot’s message about the condition of women and the nature of freedom. She also asks us to reflect on what we mean by faithfulness to an original fiction when we are confronted with updated film versions.

With Edward Rutherfurd and Maurice Druon we move to the realm of popular fiction. Rutherfurd appears at first glance as a modern-day James Michener, situating his novels in different cities over the longue durée. Michener’s characters were often subsumed within the larger story of their homelands. As Charles Rearick explains, Rutherfurd is more interested in his characters –and most especially in the ways particular family traits reappear over time–than in history itself. This determinist Naturalist scheme conflicts with the changing social conditions that form Paris: the Novel’s backdrop. Nevertheless Rearick concludes that Rutherfurd offers some interesting vignettes that might be profitably discussed in class.

Sarah Hanley reviews Maurice Druon’s 7-novel series The Accursed Kings, reissued this past year with George R. R. Martin’s endorsement as a major inspiration for his Game of Thrones. I am personally delighted. Les rois maudits was my first encounter with the French Middle Ages and shaped my understanding of that time for years. I recommend to undergraduates working on Philip IV and the Templars that they read the first novel, keeping in mind that it is fiction. The novels were adapted twice for French television (in 1972 and 2005, available subtitled on YouTube). Sarah Hanley recognizes the appeal of the novels but, above and beyond factual mistakes, she is concerned about the depiction of women and of the causes of the Hundred Years War. Like Graham, she raises questions about historical accuracy in works of fiction, especially when the inaccurate version is so engaging, and the author claims to have consulted archives and scholarly publications.

SNEAK PREVIEW

Given the debates in Canada on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda which, unlike Brian Moore’s The Robe, gives the Hurons their own voices, we are offering a preview of Allan Greer’s review in this month’s issue, at this link. It will appear with the usual bells and whistles in the April bulletin.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[A la recherche du père perdu]: Guillaume Nicloux’s [La Religieuse] (2013), by Lisa Jane Graham

Maybe Missed

Edward Rutherfurd’s [Paris, the Novel], by Charles Rearick

Classics in the Classroom

Imagining the Last Capetians: Maurice Druon, [The Accursed Kings], by Sarah Hanley

Volume 4, Issue 4, February 2014

A Word From the Editor

Six works to consider at the start of the commemorations of World War I:  two classics, two more recent films that brought new perspectives on the war, and two works fresh off the presses.

Henri Barbusse’s Le feu bears witness to the carnage at the front for the infantryman caught in the maelstrom, performing his tasks with resigned stoicism, hoping for better days. Barbusse’s socialism erupts with a fervent call (in 1916 already) for this be the last conflict, for the people to stand up to their governments, to the war profiteers, denouncing nationalistic propaganda and the myths about the heroic nature of warfare, urging them to recover the spirit of the Revolution and to work toward equality among all men. It won Barbusse the Prix Goncourt in 1918. As Susan Grayzel explains, the book’s publication in the middle of the war set the tone for famous memoirs to come, breaking the wall of silence about “what was really going on.”

The impotence of the soldier stuck in muddy trenches thus emerged as the dominant image of the Great War. As Robin Walz explains, Jacques Tardi’s graphic novels strive to restore the immediacy of the horrors and the pointlessness of the conflict to generations inured to it by over-exposure. Walz forcefully argues that this medium engages students on the war far better than either novels or films.

Jean Echenoz also presupposes knowledge of events in his terse retelling of the war’s effect on five young men, starting with their mobilization in August 1914. He revisits the tropes of loss of innocence, the miseries of war, profiteeting, social discrepancies, and disabled veterans. Two aspects, however, seem to Martha Hanna implausible. The sexual freedom of the one female character who flouts the “laws of decency” without repercussions, and the execution for cowardice, favored by script-writers, but in reality little used, espcially at that point in the war.

The passivity of the WWI soldier is challenged in one of cinema’s great classics, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion. The prisoners-of-war played by Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, and Pierre Fresnay, despite their different backgrounds, have only one thing in mind: to escape. Jay Winter situates the work within the war-movie genre, pointing out the brilliance of Renoir’s choices in what he tells and what he merely alludes to. He manages by this very indirectness to bring the experience of war closer to us than ever before.

Passivity is also eschewed by Roger Vercel whose Capitaine Conan won the Prix Goncourt in 1934. It was filmed to great acclaim by Bertrand Tavernier in 1996. Vercel’s highly flawed hero heads a special commando on the Eastern Front, which very effectively disregards all rules of war in its assaults (including on civilians) and is called to answer for such crimes by an army that seeks to control and disavow its vanguard activities. John Cerullo masterfully situates the army’s ambivalence toward “Conan-types” and the exceptional justice that they can use to restrain men like him as well as to punish the recalcitrant and the shell-shocked.

With similar deftness, Rick Fogarty discusses the multiple layers of Black and White in Color, a satire on war and colonialism set in the Ivory Coast during the Great War. The handful of white French residents and their two priests are no better than racist buffoons who mistreat the local black population and force them to fight against the Germans across the river. But the story of the seemingly broad-minded Fresnoy who turns into a Kurtz-like tyrant is the most compelling, showing how intelligence if unchecked can lead to hubris and moral corruption. In the guise of a war film, colonialism itself is under fire.

 

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Putain de guerre!] Teaching Jacques Tardi’s WWI Graphic Novels, by Robin Walz
“Anthem for Doomed Youth:” Jean Echenoz’s [1914], by Martha Hanna

Maybe Missed

‘French Savages’: War and Colonialism in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s [Black and White in Color], by Richard S. Fogarty
The Dangers of Valor: Roger Vercel’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s [Capitaine Conan], by John Cerullo

Classics in the Classroom

Teaching [Le Feu/Under Fire] by Henri Barbusse, by Susan R. Grayzel
[The Grand Illusion:] The Genius of Indirection, by Jay Winter

Volume 4, Issue 3, December 2013

A Word From the Editor

In this issue you will find a review of Robert Harris’s new novel An Officer and a Spy, set during the Dreyfus Affair and told from Colonel Picquart’s perspective. Julie Kalman explains where fiction and history mesh and where they cannot. Michael Miller revisits the birth of the department store with expert reviews of Zola’s novel, Au bonheur des dames (Ladies’ Paradise) and its BBC adaptation, The Paradise. Mark Micale, historian of psychiatry, completes the theme begun in the last issue, enthusiastically tackling a trio of films about “mad female artists,” Aloise, Séraphine, and Camille Claudel 1915.

Happy holidays and happy reading and viewing.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair: Robert Harris, [An Officer and a Spy], by Julie Kalman

Maybe Missed

Mad Women Artists: [Séraphine, Camille Claudel 1915, Aloïse], by Mark S. Micale

Classics in the Classroom

The Birth of the Department Store: Émile Zola’s [Au bonheur des dames] and BBC’s [The Paradise] miniseries, by Michael Miller

Volume 4, Issue 2, November 2013

A Word from the Editor

I’m pursuing a number of themes this year and one of them is the representation of psychiatry in recent French film and fiction. The two discussed in this issue address Charcot’s approach to hysteria and fin-de-siècle psychiatric debates. Judith Surkis notes the discrepancies between Alice Winocour’s Augustine and Charcot’s actual patient, but concludes that the film raises interesting points about gender, patient-analyst relations, fantasy, and mental illness, especially when combined with secondary sources. Richard Keller, in his review of Sebastian Faulks’s Human Traces, warns the reader to watch out for anachronisms. Faulks’s two fictional characters, a Frenchman and a Brit who open a posh psychiatric clinic in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, quarrel over appropriate treatments. Long didactic passages inform the reader about current debates, until Faulks inappropriately assigns late twentieth-century neuro-scientific methods to the early twentieth century. In the classics section, we have the unusual opportunity of learning how three members of the History department at Western Washington University teach the film Black Robe. Each uses it within a different historical context, New France for Cecilia Danysk, post-Tridentine Europe for Amanda Eurich, and colonial America for Laurie Hochstetler. They assign different texts alongside, demonstrating the film’s extraordinary versatility.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Alice Winocour’s [Augustine], by Judith Surkis

Maybe Missed

Sebastian Faulks, [Human Traces], by Richard C. Keller

Classics in the Classroom

Revisiting an old classic: [Black Robe] Three Ways, by Cecilia Danysk, Amanda Eurich, Laurie Hochstetler

Volume 4, Issue 1, October 2013

A Word from the Editor

The bulletin begins its fourth year with reviews of recent and new works that are not yet available in the United States. Two of the films are still making the rounds of festivals and we hope that popular demand will hasten their distribution.  Don Reid returns with a review of Tous au Larzac (winner of best documentary at the 2012 Césars) a “fiction du réel,” to quote its director Christian Rouaud, and thus within this bulletin’s mandate. Comparing Rouaud’s reconstruction of militant peasants of the 1970s to Claude Berri’s perennial favorites, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources (1986), Reid shows how these works display two sympathetic but contrary views of peasants. We encounter the peasantry of nostalgic imagination and also real peasants determined to defend their economic viability.

The second as-yet-to-be-widely released film is the two-part French miniseries Toussaint Louverture (2012). A subtitled version exists and has been shown on TV5 Monde USA as well as at various festivals, so more’s the shame. I found it quite engaging and Jimmy Jean-Louis, who plays Louverture, riveting. Alyssa Sepinwall does not disagree but she regrets that a serious attempt to depict the Haitian Revolution has proved so inaccurate, especially regarding the brutality of slave life. 12 Years a Slave (2013) is indeed the greater film in that regard (as she suggests), but it too argues that no matter how kind or violent the owner, it is the lack of freedom that matters.

In the Buzz feature, Charles Esdaile reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s last novel to be translated into English, The Siege, a mystery set in Cádiz in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Released in the UK in late August 2013, the book was slated to come out in January 2014 in the United States but has now vanished from pre-orders. Still, I like to pay attention to best-selling authors when they tackle French history, and Charles Esdaile offers great insights into the myth of the siege in Spain and the way Pérez-Reverte reinforces this vision at the cost of historical accuracy.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Clinging to the Myth: Perez-Réverte on Napoleon’s siege of Cádiz, by Charles Esdaile

Maybe Missed

Happy as a Slave: The [Toussaint Louverture] miniseries, by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Classics in the Classroom

The Fifth Republic and the Peasants: [Jean de Florette], [Manon des Sources], and [Tous au Larzac], by Don Reid

Volume 3, Issue 6, April 2013

A Word from the Editor

Venita Datta presents Susan Daitch’s Paper Conspiracies, a multi-layered mediation on state violence and mystifications. The narrator of the first (and longest) segment, set in 1990s New York, is restoring a Méliès film, and for her the Dreyfus Affair is tied to the Holocaust and letter-bombs targeting Jews. She is contacted by a mysterious stranger for whom the French military’s lunatic cover-up of Esterhazy’s guilt and its fabrication of evidence evokes Vietnam, war crimes, and the “amnesty” of war-dodgers who had “done nothing wrong” and of the president who had. He tells her that clues to a murder appear in the last frames of Méliès’s film on Dreyfus, those very frames that her boss wants her to delete. We are led back to the 1890s through episodes featuring a number of female characters. There is the 1968 Paris concierge who recalls meeting the illiterate charwoman who rifled through the German Embassy’s wastebaskets and found the bordereau; back in 1934 (again the date is no coincidence) Esterhazy’s “mistress” discusses the forging of evidence with the Jewish lodger (she discovers) who hopes she has squirreled away more damning correspondence exposing the army’s duplicity. Back in the 1890s, Maryse manufactured old paper for her husband’s fake first editions; when that business dried up, he turned to forging documents. Meanwhile, Méliès’s fictions worry the paranoid French secret services who, busy concocting a parallel reality themselves, see sedition brewing everywhere. While a mystery offers one of the many narrative strands, Susan Daitch reminds us that smear campaigns and faked documents have polluted French politics since the days of Marie Antoinette.

Chris Millington and Jeff Ravel share their teaching experiences. In our Maybe Missed section, Millington describes how he uses Robert Guédiguian’s exploration of the Manouchian group in Army of Crime to discuss the French Resistance with his students.  Jeff Ravel does something quite different with Rappeneau’s 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac. Rather than showing the whole film, he uses its opening sequences to discuss French theatre and its audiences in the seventeenth century. Through a series of prints, he leads students to visualize contemporary staging, and then calls on them to assess the performance that opens Rappeneau’s film.  Each in his own way affirms the usefulness of fiction in the history classroom.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Méliès and the Dreyfus Affair: [Paper Conspiracies], by Venita Datta

Maybe Missed

Celebrating the Resistance: [L’armée du crime], by Chris Millington

Classics in the Classroom

Revisiting [Cyrano de Bergerac] (1990): Ideas for Teaching Old Regime Theater in the History Classroom, by Jeffrey S. Ravel

Volume 3, Issue 5, March 2013

A Word from the Editor

Spring brings a bouquet of reviews in lieu of Easter eggs but equally colourful. We begin with historian Barbara Corrado Pope’s trilogy of Belle Époque mysteries. The first, revolves around Paul Cézanne and takes place in Aix; the second is set in Nancy in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair; the third, just published –and an “Oprah.com choice” to boot—moves to the strange goings-on in Parisian anarchist circles.  As Charles Sowerwine explains, Pope uses her deep knowledge of the period to enrich her narratives, exploring questions of class, gender, and social justice through her investigating magistrate and his teacher spouse, staunchly republican members of the “nouvelle couche sociale.” While there are some inconsistencies between the first and last novel’s treatment of the “new woman,” this merely stirs our curiosity about the main characters and their –sometimes dramatic—career and life choices.

In the “Maybe Missed” feature Clare Crowston offers a masterly analysis of Andrew Miller’s prize-winning novel Pure, situated in Les Halles during the clearing of the Innocents Cemetery in the late 1780s. Miller obviously enjoys playing with the rather obvious metaphor for the crumbling regime, but in the process paints a memorable image of the neighbourhood and the mounds of cadavres whose smell drives some of the denizens crazy. We see Paris, Versailles, Valenciennes mines and Norman countryside through the eyes of his young and naive engineer hero, the hopes raised by science and technology, the stirrings of Revolution.

We are lucky in having our “Classics in the Classroom” presented by a specialist who knows both the Renaissance context and the modern Brazilian movie scene that yielded the little 1971 jewel How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman? As French historians, we rarely get the chance to discuss encounters between natives of the New World and Europeans except in New France. This film, set in Brazil in the 1550s, while deviating from the original narrative in ways that Michael Wintroub carefully delineates, addresses the multiple layers of misunderstanding that accompanied the “age of exploration.” The Tupinambá might not understand the French, Portuguese and Dutch with whom they interact, but the Europeans are duplicitous toward each other as well as toward the native population. We need to be wary of the versions we read and the versions we tell.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Death in the Belle Époque: Barbara Corrado Pope’s Trilogy of Mysteries, by Charles Sowerwine

Maybe Missed

Andrew Miller’s [Pure] and Les Innocents Cemetery, by Clare Crowston

Classics in the Classroom

Cannibal Histories: Some Comments on Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s [How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman], by Michael Wintroub

Volume 3, Number 4, February 2013

A Word from the Editor

An unintentionally Hugo-centric Issue allows us to compare the Hugo of 1831 writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame with an eye to recent events to the Hugo of 1862’s Les Misérables, looking back far more sympathetically at the failed uprising of 1832. Both works have become classics of World Literature, although the shorter Hunchback is far easier to assign to students. In my History of Paris course the students have to read Books 1-6, or about half of the novel, and since there is an assignment attached, they do read it and are able to discuss Hugo’s vision of medieval Paris and his larger thesis about the impending “shift in civilization.” Although Hugo’s mob of the 1470s is menacing at times, as Alex Nemiroff aptly notes, it is also a pre-modern crowd that still privileges buffoonery over outright social protest. Quite other is the setting of Les Misérables which winds its way to the barricades of 1832.

There have been umpteen film versions of the two novels and Alex Novikoff and Michael Sibalis remind us of the distortions that directors have routinely introduced. Moreover, both have been turned into musicals, although Notre Dame de Paris has not enjoyed the worldwide success of Les Mis. Michael Sibalis explains how we can use the recent film version to address commonly held misconceptions about nineteenth-century France and working-class protest. Reducing the struggle to a few handsome young bourgeois and the starving masses is just plain wrong, even if the songs are rousing.

France’s national character, far from defiant as in Hugo, has turned quiescent in Alexis Jenni’s telling. Last year’s Goncourt winner, L’art français de la guerre (The French Art of War, translated already into a number of languages but not yet English) argues that in the twenty years of war (from the Maquis to the end of the Algerian War) nobility of purpose yielded to massacres and torture, leading, as Jenni sees it, to the widespread acceptance of police brutality in contemporary France, and to a retreat from “true” masculinity to disengaged lethargy. Don Reid, who has waded through this massive novel for us, does a wonderful job of bringing out its themes and in assessing its –strange—positions.

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Who were [Les Misérables?], by Michael Sibalis

Maybe Missed

Jenni’s [French Art of War], by Donald Reid

Classics in the Classroom

Medievalism and Modernity in Victor Hugo’s [Hunchback of Notre Dame], by Alex J. Novikoff

Volume 3, Number 3, December 2012

A Word from the Editor

The guillotine and the death penalty, outlaws and criminals, are the subjects of this month’s reviews.  Smuggler extraordinaire Louis Mandrin, executed in 1755, became a legend in his own day and a popular hero after his death. Les chants de Mandrin investigates the survival of the gang after their leader’s execution and the politicization of Mandrin’s attacks on the General Farm. Although ostensibly addressing the construction of the legend through songs (La complainte de Mandrin being the most famous), it is the world of print and its underground circulation that most interest the director, Michael Kwass explains. In spite of its historical inaccuracies, the film offers a great opportunity to discuss the fiscal duress of the French state and the responses of the population. An added bonus: although as yet only available on region 2 French DVD, the disc comes with optional English subtitles.

Tom Cragin shows us through his analysis of Lacenaire and La veuve de Saint-Pierre how we can address our students’ fascination with the guillotine and our own (bourgeois) romanticization of criminality. Pierre-François Lacenaire, executed in 1836 for multiple murders, had his own obsession with the guillotine, but also firm views about the nature of his crimes that history has prefered to obscure. Can we understand nineteenth-century criminality through such distortions, Cragin wonders? The 1990 film starring Daniel Auteuil may be contrasted to the Lacenaire of Les Enfants du paradis (1945); the recently restored version is the subject of a special exhibition of the French Cinémathèque, accessible at this site.

Set in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, The Widow of Saint-Pierre transposes a crime committed in the 1880s to 1850 in order to echo the conflicts of the Second Republic.  While awaiting the guillotine that the French government has to send especially, a brutal murderer (played by an ultra-sympatico Emir Kusturica) is « reformed » by a caring middle-class officer’s wife. Although the killer wins the support of the fishing community, the melodrama focuses on the the island’s military commander and his wife, who side with the islanders to the ire of the island’s conservative elites. Tom Cragin explains how this very narrative can elicit discussion of nineteenth-century politics and of popular leadership.

A piece on the farcical Les aventures de Rabbi Jacob and Le chat du rabbin could not appear in this issue and will do so at a later date.

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Smugglers’ Songs], by Michael Kwass

Classics in the Classroom

À bas la guillotine! Vive la bourgeoisie? [Lacenaire] and [The Widow of Saint Pierre], by Thomas Cragin

Volume 3, Issue 2, November 2012

A Word from the Editor

Do literary distortions of historical events offer food for thought or merely drive us crazy?  A new film on Marie-Antoinette, based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, takes us Upstairs/ Downstairs at Versailles during the fateful days of 14 to 17 July 1789.  The queen is desperate to revive her relationship with the beautiful duchesse de Polignac and barely seems aware of the events taking place around her. Nothing here about the short-lived Breteuil ministry or the royal family mourning their recently deceased son. Yet rumours of the uprising in Paris reach the palace’s kitchens and barracks, and we follow the rapidly deteriorating situation through the eyes of the queen’s young reader. The vignettes about the queen’s household and the daily routines of her sevants, as Laura Mason points out, lend the film an unexpected charm.

Short of Quentin Tarentino taking on the French Revolution, Ken Russell’s The Devils offers the most outré version of Old Regime politics one is likely to encounter.  Its ostensible subject is the trial and execution in 1634 of Urbain Grandier of Loudun, after accusations of witchcraft by hysterical nuns.  But the real culprits are Richelieu and the Church that exact a terrible vengeance on the cleric who defies the chief minister. The depiction is so over-the-top that Darryl Dee doubts that any segment is salvageable, except to make students reflect on contradictions within the Catholic revival.  The film that takes the opposite stance, Monsieur Vincent, presents its own problems for the historian, as Michael Wolfe explains. Politics are practically absent, such as Vincent de Paul’s relationship to Queen Anne, or the efforts to eradicate Protestantism. Yet the film offers a highly engaging vision of the socially conscious saint, and the world of the pious in the seventeenth century.

A retired geography professor who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake captures the atmosphere of the German Occupation through a French Chief Inspector and a Gestapo Detektivinspektor who must work together to solve murders that fall under both jurisdictions.  Robin Walz, who invited Robert Janes to a meeting of the Western Society a decade ago, picks up the tale in its most recent incarnation.  Especially attuned to the details of daily life, Janes shows how conditions in France have deteriorated by the third year of its occupation.  The Germans are now aware that their hold on their conquered territories is growing more tenuous.  The series (and two new titles have already been announced) therefore offers a finely tuned picture of France during its dark years.

Happy reading!

Liana Vardi

University at Buffalo, SUNY

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Les adieux à la reine/Farewell, My Queen], by Laura Mason

Maybe Missed

Collaboration during the Occupation: The “St-Cyr and Kohler” Mysteries, by Robin Walz

Classics in the Classroom

Catholic Reform in the Grand Siècle: [Monsieur Vincent] (1947), by Michael Wolfe
Possession in the Grand Siècle: [The Devils], by Darryl Dee

Volume 3, Issue 1, October 2012

A Word from the Editor

I recently mentioned Jacques de Molay’s famous curse on Philip the Fair in my class on the history of Paris and I would have enjoyed showing a scene from Les rois maudits, the highly popular French mini-series (1973, 2005). Both verssions were adapted from Maurice Druon’s medieval saga –which is being reissued in English in 2013 by Harper Voyager, home of George R.R. Martin who touts it as the “original”  Game of Thrones. This might induce the release of subtitled DVDs or On-Demand streaming of the TV versions, but I doubt it. The French produce countless historical dramas (for sure not all masterpieces or even useful), illustrating episodes of French history or adapting literary classics, but they are only available with English subtitles on Air France flights or on TV5 Monde-USA, and, much more rarely, through a Canadian release. TV5 Monde solicits the subtitles for some of these dramas, and hence owns the rights to them, but refuses to issue DVDs. I pleaded with them to send me a screener of Yves Boisset’s L’Affaire Salengro (France 2, 2009)[1] to show in my class on Vichy France but, of course, it never materialized. Those of us who teach French history, therefore, remain prisoners of what gets subtitled and formatted for region 1, although FFFH sometimes strays beyond these limits, hoping to encourage the transfer from old VHS tapes to DVDs or to make subtitled streaming available on these shores.

As we begin another year, we return to the familiar grounds of Vichy France but with a twist. Our “Buzz” covers little-discussed aspects of the period: the fate of African Americans caught in the whirlwind and the activities at the Paris Mosque during the Occupation. Although only a modest success when it opened last year in France, Les Hommes libres offers, to my mind, an excellent depiction of how one joined the Resistance, be it as an Algerian fighting for future freedom or not. The film’s claims about the rector of the Mosque need to be handled with care, however, as Ethan Katz demonstrates. Jeff Jackson explains how Esi Edugyan’s prize-winning novel Half-Blood Blues captures the jazz culture and racial politics of 1930s Germany and the Fall of France, inviting us to learn more about the fate of African Americans imprisoned by the Germans. In this issue’s “Maybe Missed” Michael Vann discusses two feature films dealing with torture in the Algerian War: 1972’s Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès and the more recent Mon Colonel (2006). Both films, he argues, invite discussion of the ever-troubling question of what brought “ordinary men” to behave like monsters. Charlotte Wells in “Classics for the Classroom” fondly revisits Dorothy Dunnett’s six-part Lymond Chronicles asking what can be retained from these swashbuckling novels to enlighten students on Renaissance politics.

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

[1] The TV drama follows the accusations against Léon Blum’s Minister of the Interior that led to his suicide. You will find a French excerpt at this link.

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Vichy France from the Margins: [Les Hommes libres], by Ethan Katz
Vichy France from the Margins: [Half-Blood Blues], by Jeff Jackson

Maybe Missed

The Dark Side: French Men Becoming Monsters in Algeria, by Michael G. Vann

Classics in the Classroom

[The Lymond Chronicles], by Charlotte Wells

Volume 2, Issue 6, May 2012

A Word from the Editor

The Buzz and Classroom Classics on the French Revolution

2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and the centennial of Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif.  In their reviews, Colin Jones and Don Sutherland show why these novels deserve to be taken seriously by historians. A Place of Greater Safety is not only a literary tour de force and masterpiece of historical research, Jones argues, but it also challenges the standard version of the Terror by stressing the similarities between Danton and Robespierre and by turning the insufferable Desmoulins into a likable character. Mantel captures, moreover, as only fiction can, these men’s doubts and anxieties as the regime they were fashioning engulfed them. Don Sutherland is less indulgent toward Les dieux ont soif until its central character becomes a judge on the Revolutionary Tribunal. From this point on, France impeccably recreates the machinery of revolutionary justice and anyone tempted to doubt the Terror’s destructiveness would do well to reread this novel.

In our buzz feature, Aurore Chery examines the transformation in recent years of the representation of the French Revolution on television. Louis XVI, once treated as bumbling fool, has acquired new gravitas while a quirky little series, 1788 et demi, focuses on the forgotten subjects of the Old Regime: women, Jews, and Blacks, eschewing the great events of the day. Chery has convinced me that despite its high jinks and what I took to be its presentist mindest, the series depicts many aspects of the new historiography. Definitely worth a detour.

Maybe Missed on Gay Memoirs

Fictionalized memoirs garnered some of France’s top literary prizes last fall, the prix Médicis going to Mathieu Lindon (reviewed below) and the Renaudot to Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, while Delphine de Vigan’s paean to her mother, Rien ne s’oppose  à la nuit, topped the best-seller list Claude Arnaud’s Qu’as-tu fait de tes frères (also reviewed here) was shortlisted for every prize the year before. Autobiographical fiction is “in” and we historians will have to wrestle with the beast, sooner or later, as we strive to separate fact from fiction and ponder why this hybrid format proved so popular. The French, more given to literary genre-bending than Anglo-Americans, refer to it as “auto-fiction.” The tone of the two gay memoirs under review is confessional and reflective, underlining the fact that the form of the narration is as important as its content. As David Caron notes, Arnaud and Lindon’s struggles to forge their adult selves is inextricably tied to writing itself.

Liana Vardi
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[The French Revolution on TV in the New Millennium], by Aurore Chery

Maybe Missed

Sex, Drugs, and Literature, by David Caron

Classics in the Classroom

[A Place of Greater Safety], by Colin Jones
France’s Terror: [Les dieux ont soif ], by D.M.G Sutherland

Volume 2, Issue 5, April 2012

A Word from the Editor

The release of an Umberto Eco novel is always an event and when the book is set in nineteenth-century France, we take special notice. The Prague Cemetery closes with the connivance of continental secret services in the concoction of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion that purported to reveal a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. Eco gets us there through the diaries of a schizophrenic anti-hero(s), an Italian forger who has taken refuge in France and drifted from revolutionary to right-wing circles. The multiple-personality device, as Steven Englund makes plain, proves cumbersome, deflecting attention from late-nineteenth-century anti-Semitism to fractured identities with Freud making, unfortunately, an all-too-brief appearance. Despite vivid cameos by real historical figures, the reader reste sur sa faim on fin-de-siècle anti-Semitism. The silver-lining might be to stimulate our students to investigate these questions more fully.

Mathieu Kassovitz’s new film, L’ordre et la morale, released in France in November 2011 and opening in Australia this April, has yet to find an American distributor.  Whatever one may think of the volatile director, his film deserves to be seen : it is a heartfelt exploration of French colonialism in New Caledonia, a project to which he devoted ten years. As Denise Fisher, in her analysis of these events, tells us, the film not only offers a faithful portrayal of the clashes between native Kanak and French armed forces in 1988, it is a timely reminder that the subsequent Nouméa accords are about to expire.

Kassovitz’s critical approach to French grandeur is far removed, Robert Aldrich would say, from Pierre Schoendoerffer’s sentimental appraisal of French decolonization. Le Crabe-Tambour offers a crash course on the loss of Indochina and the officers’ revolt in Algeria, embodied by the handsome « Kurtz-like » maverick Willsdorff, whose exploits are recalled with both nostalgia and reproof by a group of aging naval officers. They are patroling the North Atlantic bound for Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, the bleak remains of empire, and they have yet to process fully their changed circumstances. It is this last point that lends the film its significance. Despite the mesmerizing image of Jacques Perrin in his spotless white uniform with his black cat on his shoulder, the film offers no glib judgment on the loss of empire.

Another classic, Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon, set in 1938 Senegal, evokes French colonialism in far less ambiguous fashion. Based on a novel set in the American heartland, the plot makes no claims to realism, but, as Alice Conklin points out, Tavernier masterfully captures the look and feel of Africa, its prewar deadbeat White settlers, their racism and violence. Like the other reviewers in this issue, she offers a sensational analysis of the work, while approaching the film as a teaching tool and pointing out what will be evident to students from the first and what might need explaining.

Liana Vardi

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Skating over the Abyss: A Review of Umberto Eco’s [The Prague Cemetery], by Steven Englund
The Need to Remember : [L’ordre et la morale] (Rebellion), by Denise Fisher

Classics in the Classroom

[Coup de Torchon], by Alice Conklin
[Le Crabe-Tambour:] In the Wake of Empire, by Robert Aldrich

Volume 2, Issue 4, March 2012

A Word from the Editor

Thanks to the efforts of David Smith and the H-France techies, the Bulletin moves this month from its temporary site to its permanent home on H-France. As a result, readers will notice some changes. The aims remain the same: discussion of recent and not-so-recent works with a focus on teaching. The presentation has been improved and incongruities fixed. You will now find a table of contents for each issue, new features, and a new method of indexing. We hope that this will make usage easier, and we welcome your comments. I want to take this opportunity to thank Howard Brown who created this bulletin with me last year, Tom Rushford who set up our temporary site, and Philip Whalen who helped proofread the reviews. Eric Reed and Charlotte Wells remain on board, and their help and advice is truly invaluable. All of us involved with H-France know the debt of gratitude we owe the selfless devotion and hard work of its editor-in-chief David Smith, which we cannot acknowledge enough.

In this issue, I introduce a new feature: an interview with Susanne Alleyn, the upstate New York novelist who sets her mysteries during the French Revolution and Directory and whose clever recasting of A Tale of Two Cities should please all those frustrated with Dicken’s biases. Sarah Maza, fresh from her study of Violette Nozière, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française and does a splendid job of explaining how to use it in the classroom. There follow three films on Louis XIV’s youth and early reign. With wit and insight, William Beik gauges the relative usefulness of The Taking of Power of Louis XIV and Vatel for discussions of the Sun King: the commonplaces they peddle and the interesting vignettes they offer. Brian Sandberg then tackles Louis enfant roi, a raunchy and theatrical retelling of the Fronde through Louis and his brother Philippe’s eyes.

Liana Vardi

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Interview with Susanne Alleyn, by Liana Vardi

Maybe Missed

[Suite Française,] Irène Némirovsky, by Sara Maza

Classics in the Classroom

[Louis, enfant roi], by Brian Sandberg
[The Grandeur of Louis XIV on Film], by Bill Beik

Volume 2, Issue 3, December 2011

Volume 2, Issue 3, December 2011

The Buzz

Forty or so versions of The Three Musketeers on film since 1903, some, admittedly loose adaptations or cartoons, but a plethora of choices from which, to my mind, only one version is worth salvaging, the 1973 Richard Lester film and its 1974 sequel. Since the world has not been waiting with baited breath for yet another Hollywood spin on the Dumas classic, Paul Anderson has not offered one. Instead he has created a steampunk fantasy that is so “loosely based” on the original that one wishes he had called it “Buckingham and Milady” rather than usurping the original title. Yet usurpation is perhaps no better than Dumas deserves, having himself claimed full authorship of a work written with the aid of Auguste Maquet. I suggest that L’autre Dumas, a recent film that examines their fraught relationship is well worth a detour.
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

Depicting saints’ lives, and female saints to boot, is no easy task, although one that never ceases to attract film-makers. I was particularly aware of the pitfalls as I watched two new French films. The first is a pedestrian biopic of Bernadette Soubirous, the Lourdes saint canonized in 1933, Je m’appelle Bernadette, and the second yet another spin on Joan of Arc, Philippe Ramos’s Jeanne captive (film trailer hot linked to text), which opened in slightly more theaters, deservedly so, although garnering almost as little attention.  There isn’t much one can do with Bernadette except to depict her “simple faith” and the director has opted to contrast her calm certitude to the controversies that raged around her, although so programmatically and clunkily that, knowing the outcome, one does not much care. Joan has been portrayed in so many ways, as Dan Hobbins explains in his comprehensive review, that there aren’t many options left. This latest Joan is a lost and devastated young woman whose voices have abandoned her and who therefore refuses to speak. Yet she has such presence (aided by a magnificent performance by Clémence Poésy) that men cannot help trying to save her.  It is easier for modern audiences to view Joan as national heroine than as Christian martyr, yet as Hobbins reminds us, Maria Falconetti’s performance remains the most memorable and we must contend with the saint as well as the warrior and woman.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

It is not easy to depict the complexities of the Revolution without sounding didactic or ponderous and, as a result, there are few “decent” films one would wish to show students, and even fewer that come with subtitles.  Two films that continue to engage our attention through powerful performances and stellar script are Ettore Scola’s 1982 La nuit de Varennes and Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 Danton. The first is set in June 1791 and presents a cross-section of French society and different stances on revolutionary events through a group of travelers following the king’s route, tossed about both literally and metaphorically in their stagecoach. Highly literate yet remarkably lively, the film offers us a way of approaching the Revolution without sacrificing its complexities. Now, all we need, is for the subtitled version (available on YouTube) to be dependably marketed. The second, based on a Polish play by Stanislawa Przybysweska, rewritten by Jean-Claude Carrière and Agnieszka Holland among others, is set at the heart of the Terror. It is, to my mind, the best film on the Revolution ever made, and one I show to students whenever I can, having managed to pick a slice that runs from the dinner confrontation between Danton and Robespierre to Danton’s arrest and the first stage of the trial, which is manageable in an hour-long class. I only wish that Robespierre had been played by a younger actor, but until someone decides to adapt Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece, A Place of Greater Safety (that we are reviewing in an upcoming issue), this will remain the most potent version of the conflict we have.
To read the review…

Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY

 

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Dumas for Dummies, by Liana Vardi

Maybe Missed

The Cinematic Maid: Teaching Joan of Arc through Film, by Daniel Hobbins

Classics in the Classroom

[La nuit de Varennes] and [Danton], by Jack Censer and Mary Ashburn Miller

Volume 2, Issue 2, November 2011

Volume 2, Issue 2, November 2011

The Buzz

Midnight in Paris
The American love story with Paris, rudely interrupted by the “Liberty Fries” episode, has recently revived with a vengeance in the form of memoirs, scholarly analyses, and a string of “chick-lit” romances. It is our great luck that Woody Allen has chosen to ride the crest of this wave with a fond look at the city and the days when Americans came in droves to fulfill their artistic dreams. Although the phenomenon is two-centuries’ old, the Lost Generation remains its most powerful embodiment : the huge success of the exhibition of the Stein family as art collectors [shown in San Francisco, Paris, and New York] being yet additional proof.  In managing to bring this particular moment of the past and present together in so entertaining a fashion, Woody Allen has offered those of us who teach the history of Paris on North American campuses a great vehicle for discussion, as Jeff Jackson demonstrates. Anyone who presumes that the myth of Paris as a Bohemian haven for writers is dead and gone might take a look at Douglas Kennedy’s The Woman from the Fifth, “soon to be a major motion picture,” which offers a less rosy version of the transplantation. The fascination, one should note, is mutual, and the French remain as mesmerized by Manhattan as Americans by the City of Lights.
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

To The Hermitage
Cross-cultural encounters permeate this issue, although by accident rather than conscious decision. In To the Hermitage Malcolm Bradbury weaves parallel stories of the voyage to Saint Petersburg of an English novelist in 1993 and Denis Diderot’s visit to Catherine the Great in 1773. The juxtaposition allows Bradbury to address both the Enlightenment and its critics and, as Kent Wright argues in his illuminating review, to offer his own rejoinder.  He was not alone, moreover, in believing that fiction offered the best vehicle for a sympathetic rendering of the Enlightenment. The novel combines tongue-in-cheek pastiche of academic wrangles and eighteenth-century literature with realistic narrative, and can therefore be read (and hence taught) on multiple levels. Like David Lodge, Bradbury brings to his romps a profound literary knowledge and his novel is as good a guide as any to the literary currents of the late twentieth century. One might hesitate to assign Patrick Suskind’s Perfume or Andrew Miller’s Pure, despite their vivid recreations of eighteenth-century Paris, when one can have students read Diderot, Mercier, or Marivaux, but To the Hermitage does something more. Unlike Woody Allen who, in juxtaposing two eras, asks that we distance ourselves from an imaginary past, Bradbury uses the juxtaposition to bring us into the past.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7
France and America are featured once more in Patrick Young and Rebecca Pulju’s examination of post-war consumer culture through the classic New Wave films Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7. The cultural changes that accompanied the French economic miracle fascinated and worried observers who depicted a young generation adrift amidst the plenty. Godard’s film offered an homage to American cinema, but, as Patrick Young observes, by framing it within French existential philosophy, it invented a powerful new genre. Both Breathless and Cléo de 5 à 7 tie the new consumerism to an inner emptiness and narcissism. Characters roam about unmoored, seeking to affirm their existence through appearance, seeking their reflection in mirrors. The more optimistic of the two, Agnès Varda suggests that an inner self remains locked within and that women can recover it by breaking free from the temptations and demands of the market. The films therefore provide fodder for discussions of French post-war prosperity against the backdrop of the Cold War and Algerian War, gender, consumerism, and selfhood.
To read the review…

Liana Vardi, University of Buffalo

 

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Midnight in Paris], by Jeffrey H. Jackson

Maybe Missed

[To the Hermitage], by Kent Wright

Classics in the Classroom

[Breathless] and [Cléo de 5 à 7], by Patrick Young and Rebecca Pulju

Volume 2, Issue 1, October 2011

Volume 2, Issue 1, October 2011

The Buzz

Black Venus/Vénus Noire
No one who sees the film is likely to forget the magnificent performance of its star, Yahima Torres.  The woman she plays, Sara Baartman, is best known to historians as the subject of Georges Cuvier’s prurient comparative anatomy, but the recent repatriation of her remains to South Africa has also renewed curiosity about her fate and granted her some agency.  As Matt Ramsey explains in his highly-informative review, the film is constructed as a series of vignettes that follow Baartman’s career in Europe’s freak shows and thus allows the selection of scenes to illustrate racial science, abolitionism, public entertainments and sexuality.  The film as a whole, we are warned, requires careful framing, but those very pitfalls can induce fruitful discussions.  “On-demand” viewing, which is increasingly becoming our sole source for foreign films, might well offer a silver lining.  Longer films such as this one can now be assigned, at minimal cost, for home viewing and thus permit comparison with documentaries.
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

Haussmann or the Distinction
It is hard to imagine, come a certain age, having to finish a novel one does not like, as was the case with our present reviewer.  Skeptics might keep in mind the paucity of novels about haussmannization. Short of assigning one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquarts, the field is rather barren.  It was therefore intriguing to discover that a contemporary novelist has engaged with the period imaginatively, transposing the relationship between Haussmann and Paris into a “romance.” An adolescent girl, Madeleine, (whom we might treat as Paris herself) raised on the crowded and insalubrious Ile de la Cité, dreams of a “lost nobility.”  In her yearning for upward mobility and self-improvement, she gives herself to (or alternatively, is “rescued by”) a Parisian entrepreneur, a demolition man who makes a fortune from urban renewal.  Through his ambitions and hers, she becomes Haussmann’s mistress, and they form a precarious ménage-à-trois.  That the romance turns sour is yet another reminder of the allegorical nature of this work.  The playfulness includes pastiches of the nineteenth-century French novel with its obsession with the corrupt and hypocritical mores of the Second Empire.  Paul La Farge did not write his novel with French historians in mind but, once one accepts the leap into fiction and reliance on metaphor, one can appreciate the cleverness of its conceit and, if one is so inclined, ask students what they make of this treatment of the rebuilding of Paris — that watershed moment, as David Jordan reminds us, not only in French but in world history.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien
Why people chose to join the Resistance is a question that historians must strive to answer, and they do so with caution and trepidation because there is no simple answer.  If fiction offers far greater freedom to speculate on the motivations of resisters, two of the most potent films to grapple with this issue, Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien, jettison a psychological approach.  The first presumes that resistance was necessary and focuses on the moral dilemmas such engagement posed for participants; the second famously proposes that the decision to resist or to collaborate was the result of circumstances rather than ideological commitment.  Whether one agrees with this proposition or not, Lacombe, Lucien just like Army of Shadows, raises the important question of choice and what it entailed, as our two specialists demonstrate.  Students like to imagine how they would have responded and need sophisticated ways to think about it.  The resistance continues to attract writers and filmmakers, as witnessed by the release of Ismael Ferroukhi’s Les hommes libres (Free Men) in September which, like other recent films, seks to highlight a little-known aspect of Parisian resistance.  Michael Lonsdale plays Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, rector of the Paris Mosque, who saw it as his humanitarian duty to hide Jews and resisters, and Tahar Rahim, of The Prophet fame, a young Algerian who drifts, somewhat Lucien Lacombe-like, into collaboration before experiencing moral qualms and a change of heart.  Unlike the despair of Army of Shadows or the cynicism of Lacombe, Lucien, and without being maudlin, the film offers a psychologically credible depiction of engagement.
To read the review…

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Black Venus/Vénus Noire], by Matthew Ramsey

Maybe Missed

An Unreconstructed Haussmann, by David P. Jordan

Classics in the Classroom

[Army of Shadows] and [Lacombe, Lucien], by Simon Kitson and Richard Vinen

Princesse of Clèves

No one could have predicted that a late seventeenth-century noblewoman would become one of the most intensely charged symbols in early twenty-first-century France.  Eldest daughter of a minor noble family tied to cardinal Richelieu, lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, married off to the comte de Lafayette in 1651, friends with a constellation of Grand siècle figures that included Madame de Sévigné, Henrietta of England, grammarian Gilles Ménage, cardinal de Retz, and La Rochefoucauld, habitué of the most brilliant Parisian salons and salonnière in her own right, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne (1634-1693) was one of the most admired literary figures of her day.  Madame de Lafayette, as she is generally referred to, is best known as the author of The Princess of Cleves, which is held up by literary historians as the first modern novel for its psychological and historical realism, and is today a pillar of the French literary canon. In the period since he launched his 2007 campaign for president, Nicolas Sarkozy made the curious choice to single out Madame de Lafayette’s novel for attack not once, but repeatedly.  At a campaign event in February 2006, the then-candidate declared:

The other day, for fun – we take whatever fun we can get – I looked through the syllabus for the civil service examination to become an administrative assistant.  A sadist or an imbecile – I leave the choice to you – had put on the syllabus that candidates would be tested on The Princesse of Clèves.  I don’t know if you have often found yourself asking the woman at the counter window what she thought of The Princesse of Clèves.  Just imagine the spectacle!

In July 2008, now-president Sarkozy brought up the princess again – proof that his first potshot was no accident – in a speech in which he once again criticized France’s civil service examinations for testing knowledge of literary culture.[1]  “That said, I don’t have anything against it,” continued Sarkozy, though he interjected an autobiographical detail that screams for psychoanalytical explanation, noting that he disliked the work “because I suffered a lot over her.”[2] Sarkozy’s sharp attack on The Princess of Cleves can be analyzed on many levels: as a dismissal of literature as irrelevant; as a reductive vision of the study of literature, consisting in his view of the mindless memorization of literary texts rather than the effort to understand them; as a kind of know-nothing critique of deeply ingrained features of the French educational system; as a populist posture aimed at connecting with all those who did not enjoy school; as a patronizing dismissal of civil servants as paper-processing automatons with whom it would be unthinkable to strike up a conversation about literature; and as a revealing glimpse at the president’s gendered vision of the lower civil service in his evocation of a woman rather than a man at the teller window.  Sarkozy’s dismissive view of The Princess of Cleves reflects a broader contempt of literature, and echoes a remark he made in 2007 concerning his plans for university reform.  “You have the right to study Classics, but the taxpayer shouldn’t necessarily be obliged to finance your studies” if they lead nowhere in the workplace.  State-funded education should be utilitarian and serve economic growth: “The pleasure of knowledge is wonderful but the state needs to focus first and foremost on young peoples’ professional success.”[3] No idle talk, Sarkozy’s assault on Madame de Lafayette was aimed at preparing a shift in state policy.  In late 2008, his government reduced the number of questions on literary culture in the entrance examinations for the two lowest categories of civil servants (the weighting of literary culture for high civil servants remained unchanged).  André Santini, the secretary of state in charge of the civil service, justified the reform by arguing that candidates were being questioned with “overly academic and ridiculously difficult questions which reveal nothing about their real aptitudes to fill a position.” “[C]ommon-sense questions” would take their place.  After all, “What use is it to give a history test to firefighters, or to have university-educated policeman.  We have reached the limits of a sterile elitism.  I would prefer instead to find candidates whose skills are tailored to the position, rather than overqualified people who are not necessarily at their place.”  Shrewdly mobilizing Pierre Bourdieu’s arguments in the service of a cause which, one suspects, would have horrified the sociologist, Santini criticized the exams because they “eliminate all those who do not possess the codes, often inherited from the family environment.  It’s a form of invisible discrimination.  But the civil service should contribute to upward social mobility, integration and should reflect the population as a whole.”  Santini claimed that Sarkozy had become aware of the absurdity of the system upon learning that his own secretary had failed an administrative exam because she couldn’t name the author of The Princess of Cleves.[4]  Whatever social and ethnic inequalities plagued the French civil service, c’est la faute à Madame de Lafayette. Sarkozy’s remarks provoked a firestorm of controversy, whose embers still glow red-hot today.  That writers, intellectuals and university humanities departments cried foul is no surprise.[5]  But Sarkozy had hit a sensitive nerve, and the debate spilled well beyond the academy.  The president’s literary cheap shot sparked a veritable “Princess of Cleves Affair.”[6]  A (Socialist) senator sought clarification in a written question to Sarkozy in Parliament.[7]  A group of jurists, writers and actors organized a mock trial of the novel to judge its allege irrelevance.[8]  A parade of talking-heads, intellectuals, filmmakers and actors voiced their outrage on television talk shows.  Isabelle Adjani voiced her “consternation.”[9]  Philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut invited professors of literarature Hélène Merlin-Kajman and Claude Habib onto his France Culture radio show to discuss the question “And what if we read The Princess of Cleves?”[10]  At the 2009 Salon du Livre, buttons labeled “I read The Princess of Cleves” rapidly sold out.[11]  A songwriting duo put out an ironic alt-rock ode to the affair.[12]  The novelist Régis Jauffret declared that “to spit on The Princess of Cleves is to spit on France,” and called on his compatriots to mail copies of the novel to the Élysée palace.[13]  A journalist called the novel “Anti-Sarkozyism’s real breviary”.  A faculty member in French literature lectured an audience at the University of Grenoble-3 on “Sarkozy and the Princess: To What Is The Princesse of Cleves the NO?”[14]  During the strikes which shut down university campuses across France for much of the 2008-9 academic year, public readings of the novel became staples of the protests against the government’s university autonomy reform law.[15] The novel has become a running joke in France, an emblem for the traditional forms of culture and education which Sarkozy’s opponents believe to be under attack, a trope in the now well-stocked arsenal of symbolic weapons aimed at the president.  Ironically, Sarkozy’s populist diatribes were the best thing that could have happened to Madame de Lafayette’s current literary fortunes.  Publishers have noted a marked increase in sales of the novel since Sarkozy made his remarks: Livre de Poche reported that sales of the novel doubled in 2008, and Folio enjoyed a comparable increase in 2009.[16]  In what is hard to interpret as anything but a grande école thumbing its nose at Sarkozy, the École Normale Supérieure put the novel on the program for its 2009-10 entrance examination.[17]  Thanks to Sarko, the novel is no longer a faded monument of the French literary canon, but has been transformed into a living, incandescent political symbol and cultural icon.[18] The “Princess of Cleves Affair” thus offers a rich subject for the study of contemporary France.  It would make an eminently teachable moment in courses on modern France or classical French literature.  Its contours, intensity and longevity not only lay bare important features of French culture, but point to crucial points of tension in contemporary French society.  A number of important broader debates have crystallized around the novel.  Can educational systems bring societies together around a common literary culture (as many of Sarkozy’s critics argue) or does the teaching of literature instead divide by excluding those who have not been provided the tools with which to master elitist culture by their families (Santini is not along in arguing this – the president of the CRAN, the Representative Council of Black Associations, applauded the suppression of literary culture from civil service exams for precisely these reasons[19])?  Is French national identity founded on a literary tradition?  Explicitly linking the Princess of Cleves affair and the debate over “national identity” which Sarkozy recently initiated, Finkielkraut proclaimed that “France has long been a literary people, who knew its classics.  But it will be necessary for it to remain so.”[20]  Not all of Sarkozy’s critics agree with this vision, instead contesting a narrowly literary conception of French national identity.[21]  Sarkozy’s own manifestly vexed relationship with the humanities is in and of itself significant: not only is he the only president of the Fifth Republic not to have been steeped in literary culture during studies at a grande école, he is also the first to openly distance himself from it.  This perhaps constitutes one of the reasons for his vertiginous drop in popularity.  His recent public efforts to let it be known that Louis-Ferdinand Céline is his favorite author suggests that he has recognized his political mistake.  It’s hard to imagine such an affair taking place elsewhere than France.  Try picturing Silvio Berlusconi attacking Dante, David Cameron taking Jane Austen to task, or George Bush belittling Henry James. Despite all this fuss, Tavernier sharply denies that Sarkozy’s remarks inspired his film:

No relation at all.  Sarkozy’s remarks on The Princess of Clèves were bullshit which he is moreover trying to make us all forget by talking about everything he is reading … Pretty soon, he will have read too many books … But one doesn’t launch a project that will take two years out of one’s life because of statements like that, which are nothing more than an epiphenomenon.[22]

Tavernier’s protestations notwithstanding, the force with which he contests Sarkozy suggests the contrary.  “I didn’t make the movie to respond to that,” he repeats in another interview – and yet what follows seems once again to indicate otherwise:

This phrase did however make it possible for the novel to become a bestseller again. … It’s condescending to talk the way Nicolas Sarkozy did.  He doesn’t seem to understand that all levels of the population can be inspired by culture. … Even when they came from modest backgrounds, scholars, teachers, writers became what they are thanks to primary school teachers who transmitted the pleasure of learning to them.  Sarkozy has no idea what great dreams culture can inspire.[23]

Alas, it will be a long time before it again becomes possible in France to read Madame de Lafayette’s work on the page, or watch adaptations on the screen, without reference to Sarkozy.

Volume 1, Issue 6, May 2011

Issue 6 May 2011

The Buzz

La Princesse de Montpensier
Love and war and love as war come together in Bertrand Tavernier’s stunning adaptation of “La princesse de Montpensier,” a short story by Mme de Lafayette set during the Wars of Religion.  The violence of the battlefield, magnificently depicted, is replicated in the violent passions that the beautiful princess arouses and feels herself.  Whereas Mme de Lafayette wrote a terse morality tale, warning both of the torments and evanescence of love, Tavernier expands it to the broader canvas of aristocratic culture, one in which contractual marriages and the demands of war force young men and women to grow up fast.  Survival depends on overcoming temptation and developing inner strength.  Taking his cue from Mme de Lafayette, Tavernier shows how beauty and renown play foul with such demands.  In Tavernier’s telling, women are the greater victims, but men too labor under their own constraints, both in emotional intimacy and savage violence.  Our reviewer believes that Tavernier has replaced Mme de Lafayette’s moral dilemmas with a banal tale of seduction, but perhaps the film-maker simply sees the sixteenth century as blind to nuance.  Tavernier deems the original story essentially anachronistic, even ahistorical; is he guilty of the same thing, or worse?  The film’s combination of modern and historicizing sensibilities that our reviewer finds perplexing can be used to stimulate discussions of aristocratic values, gender roles, and the contradictory demands of war, love, and duty.
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

Duelling Films
Dueling had no set rules in the sixteenth century, Tavernier informs us in his commentary to La princesse de Montpensier.  The Duellists and Tomorrow at Dawn, the one set during the Napoleonic Wars and the second in modern-day France among Napoleonic re-enactors, are firmly ensconced within the codes of honor that came to regulate such encounters.  Against the real, gruesome and uncontrollable violence of warfare, men were able to settle their real or imagined grievances according to a set scenario whose outcome, of course, remained uncertain.  The escalating cycle of violence between these combatants, like that among nations, had to end somehow.  Both films, although set in different eras, address this question and ask us to think about our atavistic impulses and how past and present cultures handle them.  In doing so, the films take us beyond the Napoleonic era to engage students on multiple levels and stimulate broad-ranging discussions, ones that could cover anything from historical accuracy to role playing video games.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

Louis XIV’s Court
Life at the court of Louis XIV has never really gone out of fashion.  Apart from public interest, historians continue to debate its significance in defining the nature of French absolutism. Norbert Elias’s interpretation of the Sun King’s court was at the heart of The Civilizing Process, one of the most influential works of cultural history ever published. Filmmakers, too, have been attracted by its interpretive possibilities. The two films reviewed here nicely capture one of the central aspects of Louis XIV’s court – the tension between public and private.  Although both approach the issue by focusing on a close associate of the king, their perspectives could hardly be more different. The spectacular Le roi danse (The King is Dancing) uses the life of the court composer of ballets, Gianbattista Lully, to showcase how the young Louis used lavish cultural displays to enhance his royal prestige. In contrast, L’Allee du roi (The King’s Way) reveals intimate aspects of Louis’s private life by tracing the trajectory of Constant d’Aubigné from genteel provincial poverty through elevation to the Marquise de Maintenon and on to her morganatic marriage to the aging king, an event that was never admitted publicly.  As our reviewers duly note, however, both are rather narrow, even distorted visions.  If only more political films were released with English subtitles, notably Louis, enfant roi (1996) with its focus on the Fronde, then students could begin putting public and private aspects of Louis XIV’s court into their larger political context.
To read the review…

 

Previous Issues

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[La Princesse de Montpensier], by Paul Cohen

Maybe Missed

Duelling Films, by Howard G. Brown

Classics in the Classroom

[The King is Dancing] and [The King’s Way], by Michael P. Breen and Junko Thérèse Takeda

Volume 1, Issue 5, April 2011

Issue 5 April 2011

The Buzz

Neither Saint nor Whore
In Candide (1758), Voltaire famously quipped that France and Britain are at war “over a few acres of snow around Canada” – many Canadians can even quote this part in the original French: “pour quelques arpents de neige vers le Canada.” – “and that they are spending more on this beautiful war than all Canada is worth.”  Not even counting the costs of actual war, the colony of New France had long been an expensive proposition for the French monarchy.  When faced with a choice, the Duke of Choiseul did not hesitate to bargain with Britain to keep the sugar colonies of the Caribbean instead.  After all, Saint-Domingue was rapidly becoming the most lucrative colony in the western hemisphere.  But New France became Canada, a member of the G-8 group of nations and the United States’ largest trading partner, so its humble origins have been gaining significance over time.  Now there’s a novel that sheds fascinating light on many of the earliest French women forced to take part in the monarchy’s colonial project in North America.  But Suzanne Desrochers, Bride of New France, is more than simply fiction.  As our in-house reviewer explains, it blends important new scholarship with the author’s own archival research.  If there is a danger here, it is no longer the relative obscurity of the subject, but that students might be so enthralled that they would describe this as “better-than-history social fiction.”
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

Parot’s Eighteenth-Century Mysteries
Robert Muchembled, in his latest book, Les Ripoux des Lumières, corruption policière et révolution (2011), argues that the eighteenth-century Paris police was a hotbed of corruption, exploiting its knowledge of the city’s decadent underbelly to manipulate, spy on, and blackmail its denizens, falsifying documents (hence our precious judicial archives might just hide a series of lies), and leaving false trails. The ancien régime itself would collapse from the rot and debauchery that he deems endemic. After 500 pages and counting, Muchembled’s real-life inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, mastermind and knave, seems highly implausible, whereas Jean-François Parot’s fictional hero, Nicolas Le Floch, who navigates the same terrain, shows why the Paris police was deemed the best in Europe. Is truth then stranger than fiction or is this a matter of perspective?  Parot’s old regime functions despite its foul sides; there is no fragrance in Muchembled’s world.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

Beaumarchais l’insolent and Ridicule
Historical romps are fashionable these days, and the French six-part, over-the-top miniseries, 1788 et demi that aired this past winter, outdid all the anachronisms Sofia Coppola threw in to enliven and modernize her Marie Antoinette (2006). Perhaps history has only become palatable as farce, being too “boring” otherwise.  Since the above productions did not have the classroom in mind, but a public of their own choosing, it is churlish to complain.  On the other hand, and despite their own anachronisms, we suggest two movies that would work well, or have already worked well, in courses covering the Old Regime.  Ridicule has proven irresistible to many of us and Beaumarchais l’insolent deserves to be reissued.  Both films appeared in 1996 and both reflected contemporary trends in scholarship on the Enlightenment.  (How often can that be said of periodized costume dramas?)  Ridicule may caricature late eighteenth-century courtiers, but it provocatively raises issues of contested gender roles (both male and female), royal representations, and the often confusing idea of an aristocratic elite divided between enlightened reformers and self-interested grandees.  Moreover scholarly interest in the consequences of cultural production, from the subversive libellistes of “Grub Street” to the melodramatic representations of courtroom causes célèbres, make Beauchmarchais a great figure for students to begin exploring.  After all, his personal story is true and fashionable too.
To read the review…

 

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Neither Saint nor Whore, by Liana Vardi

Maybe Missed

Parot’s Eighteenth-Century Mysteries, by David Garrioch

Classics in the Classroom

[Beaumarchais l’insolent] and [Ridicule], by Thomas E. Kaiser and Lisa Jane Graham

Volume 1, Issue 4, March 2011

Issue 4 March 2011

The Buzz

Outside the Law
Hors la loi (2010) is one of a number of recent French films dealing with the Algerian War.  Mon colonel (2006, Laurent Herbier, director) revisits the use of torture through the eyes of a traumatized French lieutenant. Despite being shot in Algeria, the film focuses on the French experience. The TV drama Nuit noire [English version: October 17, 1961] (2005, Alain Tasma, director) depicts the events leading up to the infamous massacre of demonstrators in Paris in 1961 from multiple perspectives: that of the policemen (all the way from the hapless victim of reprisals to Prefect of Police Maurice Papon who organizes the repression), members of the FLN (who are divided on tactics), French supporters of the Algerian cause, and innocent bystanders caught in events. Set mainly in the 18th arrondissement, it offers glimpses of the Nanterre bidonville. Outside the Law takes us even further into the heart of the bidonville. The movie’s parti pris is to present events from the perspective of Arab Algerians eking a miserable living in France and to account for their increasing militancy. Whether the rendition is accurate or not, an issue our reviewer addresses, the film gives us new ways of discussing the war, exile, and terrorism with our students.
To read the review…

Maybe Missed

Being Medieval and Civilized
A personal confession from Liana Vardi: A. B. Yehoshua’s novel A Journey to the End of the Millenium has been, since its publication, one of my all-time favorites. I have loved its extraordinary recreation of Europe in 999. Although the plot revolves around the erasure of polygamy from Jewish practices in the West, it is the descriptions of early medieval Paris that took my breath away and the way that Yehoshua connects the city to the trading networks of the Mediterranean. If not the entire novel then selected chapters can certainly enrich a course on the History of Paris, among others. It does not offer the complete panorama of The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the courtly intrigues of Les rois maudits.  Rather it is a miniature brought to life. In contrast stands The Dream of Scipio, a sweeping meditation on the essence of being civilized that ranges across fifteen hundred years of “French” history. There are some college courses that cover “France” from Gaul to De Gaulle. Like any good course on “world history,” these courses depend on following certain themes. One of those themes could well be the challenge to any “civilized” person or polity posed by violence and widespread death. By interweaving personal struggles to cope with the moral challenges created by the Visigoths of the 5th century, the bubonic plague of the 14th century, and the Nazi ascendancy of the 20th century, renowned author Iain Pears raises timeless questions about the relationship between individuals and the larger values that uphold civic life. His novel inspires our reviewer to imagine some other intriguing courses.
To read the review…

Classroom Classics

Indochine & The Sea Wall
The history of France has never been just the history of France; too much of that polity and its history do not fit into the large hexagon one finds on maps of Western Europe. For hundreds of years, the notion of France included overseas territories. It still does. The French colonial empire was at its height between the First and Second World Wars, so it is fitting that various film-makers have chosen that period as a suitable moment to explore the French presence in south-east Asia. How much of the complexity of that presence can be captured by a film, especially one intended for a popular audience? Big-budget and star-led productions such as Indochine (1992) and The Sea Wall (2009) confront serious challenges when it comes to telling a colonial story. Are novels, even the semi-autobiographical ones of Marguerite Duras known as the “Indochina trilogy” on which these films (and others) are partly based, any better? How do the films and novels compare? Our expert reviewers respond by exploring the historical complexity represented – or not – in these dramatic depictions.
To read the reviews…

 

Previous Issues

 

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Hors-la-loi/Outside the Law], by Todd Shepard

Maybe Missed

Being Medieval and Civilized, by Daniel Lord Smail

Classics in the Classroom

[Indochine] and [The Sea Wall], by Alison J. Murray Levine and Eric T. Jennings

Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2011

Issue 3   February 2011

The Haitian Revolution as Theme
The revolutionary events in Saint Domingue that gave birth to an independent Haiti in 1804 have finally begun to take their proper place in French history.  Rather than being ignored as irrelevant to the main event – the French Revolution and Napoleon’s ascent – the Haitian Revolution has become the focal point of an outpouring of new scholarship. In the decades of relative neglect, despite a few pathbreaking works mentioned by our reviewers, fiction took up the slack.  In this issue historians return to this literary heritage to examine what it added and can continue to add to our understanding of the Haitian Revolution. The publication of Isabel Allende’s novel inspired us to break from our usual format and to publish a thematic issue. So many of us are now including Haiti in our lectures or devoting whole courses to it, that a broad review of the fictionalized treatment of the event seemed in order.  Although there are as yet no films that deal with the Haitian Revolution, our “classics” section offers a full array of alternatives. The fiction speaks for itself, but in doing so it both inspires and requires historical inquiry.

The Buzz

Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea
For a second time this year, a world-renowned novelist has tackled a French event within an Atlantic framework. Last issue we reviewed Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America; this time we turn to Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s retelling of the Haitian Revolution.  The story, part history, part chick-lit, is told from the perspective of a female slave who, after the defeat of the first Haitian uprising, which she helped to organize, is taken to Cuba and then to New Orleans by the master she foolishly rescues. Wherever she goes she continues to fight for her freedom and that of her children, and to keeps her forebears’ religious traditions alive.  This broad canvas allows Allende to examine cultural transfers of African music, religion, and practices to the New World, both in a plantation setting and in the peculiar French, Spanish, American, and African milieu of New Orleans in the early 1800s. Does her tale stand up to recent scholarship? An historian responds.
To read the review . . .

Maybe Missed

Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian Revolution Trilogy
Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy set during the Haitian Revolution has been praised more for its vivid array of fictional characters than its treatment of historical events. Historians have reason to doubt whether the slave revolt of 1791was started by white men, or yellow fever deliberately used to preserve black independence in 1803. But the special truth of fiction really depends on creating a sense of authenticity, of capturing time, place, and personality.  In Bell’s novels the people are all real, even the historical ones. For once the complexity of character matches the complexity of events. The profound enigma that was Toussaint Louverture makes him the perfect axle around which everyone else’s often brutal stories turn.
To read the review . . .

Classroom Classics

Les caprices d’un fleuve and Burn!
Somewhat surprisingly, no films deal directly with the Haitian Revolution – although a biopic on Toussaint Louverture is in the works.  All the same Burn! transparently alludes to it, and Les caprices d’un fleuve, set in a slave-trading port in Africa, potently displays French racial prejudices in the age of the French Revolution.  Neither film is new, and they would surely be markedly different if made today.  But that is why showing an historical film – in both senses of the adjective – can be so helpful to students.  In an old cliché, the context becomes the text.  The time and place in which the story takes place is doubled by the time and place in which the film was made.  And as our reviewer points out, showing such movies alongside ones of a similar genre creates a third layer of contextualization. Pretty soon nothing is just black and white – not the characters, not the prejudices, not even the older films themselves.
To read the review . . .

Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Unwritten Stories], by Laurent Dubois

Maybe Missed

Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian Revolution Trilogy, by Jeremy D. Popkin

Classics in the Classroom

[Les caprices d’un fleuve] and [Burn!], by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Volume 1, Issue 2, January 2011

Issue 2   January 2011

The Buzz

Parrot and Olivier in America
From the moment of its publication, we knew that we would feature Peter Carey’s new novel in one of our early issues. How could we not address the world-renowned author’s grappling with the legacy of the French Revolution? The perspective might be that of a highly fictionalized Alexis de Tocqueville, in the guise of a Restoration Don Quixote (or rather a Bertie Wooster to his English manservant’s Jeeves) whose picaresque travels through America we follow, with forays into French post-revolutionary aristocratic trauma and English working-class ambitions, and a glimpse at Australian convict experience. But it is Carey’s question, mirroring Tocqueville’s, which ought to propel this novel into the classroom: Viewed from 1830, did America rather than France represent the democratic future?
To read the review . . .

Maybe Missed

Patrick Rambaud’s Napoleonic Trilogy
Patrick Rambaud’s trilogy of novels about Napoleon is doubly unusual. His attitude toward historical fiction is similar to that of the once famous André Chamson, director of the Archives Nationales in the 1960s, who described his own novels as romans dans l’histoire, rather than romans historiques or – worse – histoires romancées, such as those of Alexandre Dumas.  Like Chanson, Rambaud repudiates these other forms, and seeks instead to relive historical events through personal close ups based on first-hand accounts.  Rambaud is also distinctive in writing about the inglorious Napoleon, the loser of a major battle in 1809, the organizer of defeat in Russia in 1812, and the ruler of an island kingdom rather than a continental empire in 1814-15.  Here, then, is one author combining two unusual perspectives over three novels.  Students will have much to discuss.
To read the review . . .

Classroom Classics

May Fools, The Dreamers & Regular Lovers
At its fortieth anniversary, much covered by the international press, 1968 remained “the year that changed everything,” from the Prague Spring to the Chicago riots, by way of a French general strike and the occupation of the Sorbonne.  The controversy over its legacy, however, has been bitter in France, focused on the hedonistic abandon of its middle-class participants.  The political intrudes occasionally in Louis Malle’s Milou en mai, but, unlike documentaries about the period, it is indeed sexual liberation that permeates the fiction on this period.  Does this tell us something worth addressing with our students, or does the phenomenon merely reflect the personal obsessions of the film directors?
To read the review . . .

Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[Parrot and Olivier in America], by K. Steven Vincent

Maybe Missed

Patrick Rambaud’s Napoleonic Trilogy, by Michael Sibalis

Classics in the Classroom

[May Fools, The Dreamers & Regular Lovers], by Donald M. Reid

Volume 1, Issue 1, December 2010

Issue 1    December 2010

The Buzz

La Rafle
The film La Rafle opened in Paris in March 2010 to great fanfare and public debate.  As the title indicates, the subject is the round-up of Jews by French police on 16 July 1942, their incarceration at the Vel’ d’hiv, and subsequent deportation to the death camps.  The film raises the issue, still troubling to the French, of the Vichy Regime’s participation in the Holocaust.  Note that the same events are addressed in Sarah’s Key, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestseller (2007), which opened in October 2010. Both films are highly accessible, intended for broad audiences, and in their own way, resolutely didactic. They are expected to open in North America and to become available on DVD, allowing for ready use in courses.

Maybe Missed

Crime, Terror & Sleuthing in Paris, 1889
Those interested in assigning novels on nineteenth-century Paris might be intrigued by a recent spate of mystery novels set during the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 and featuring the Eiffel Tower as the symbol for a troubled modernity.  The novels hail from three continents and, each in its own quirky way, reminds us of the continued resonance of the Belle Epoque in the popular imaginary, a phenomenon that only mid-Victorian London appears to equal for aficionados of the nineteenth century.

Classroom Classics

Antonin’s Stories and Life and Nothing but
Two films, made over twenty-five years apart, engage with WWI through its invisible victims: the countless, nameless dead, and the shell-shocked, removed from sight.  Both are set in the immediate post-war period when France had to come to terms with its traumatic impact.  They explore conflicting influences that ranging from the nation-state to romantic love, from psychiatry to memory.  We asked two historians to gauge the respective value of these films for the classroom.

Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY

Table of Contents

The Buzz

[La Rafle], by Julian Jackson

Maybe Missed

Crime, Terror & Sleuthing in Paris, 1889, by Charles Rearick

Classics in the Classroom

[Antonin’s Stories] and [Life and Nothing But], by Paul Jankowski and Martha Hanna