From time to time, individuals write to H-France asking for suggestions about possible fictional materials to assign in a French history course. A flurry of emails follows with recommendations of movies or novels. Sometimes, as in the case of Sofia Coppola’s film Marie-Antoinette (2006), a lively debate ensues. Such exchanges suggest the usefulness of “a cultural bulletin” that informs list-members of new novels or films related to the history of France, especially with an eye to their use in the classroom. Reviews written by paid critics for such venues as The New York Times or The New Republic rarely assess the compatibility of fictional representations of the past and historians’ knowledge of it. They certainly never consider recent cultural productions from the perspective of pedagogy. That is the purpose of Film and Fiction for French Historians: A Cultural Bulletin.
Simultaneously, the bulletin means to tickle the movie buffs or fiction lovers amongst us by drawing their attention to what is available. Yet the primary motivation remains pedagogical: asking whether these materials would be useful in the classroom. We do so knowing that any fictionalized version of the past has its limitations; but then, so too do the strict rules of historical scholarship. A lively imagination is as necessary to an analysis of the past as it is to a passion for history. We see historical fiction as a way to aid our students’ imagination, a means to transport them to a distant time and place that they often have difficulty envisioning. Fiction and film can make that journey easier.
If we make the travel metaphor literal, we realize that many of us do not get to France as often, or for as long, as we would like, especially given rising costs and reduced institutional support. As a result we are probably individually and collectively less aware of the existence (or reissue) of a good number of works. Although each of us can access this information online–if we have the time and know where to look–we believe that a communal, professional discussion of the items in question will be distinctive, stimulating and helpful.
The bulletin therefore serves to keep its readers abreast of new fiction and film and of works that might have been “missed” and deserve a second look. Classics in the classroom are revisited with a fresh eye, as our reviewers assess them in light of recent scholarship. The contributors are French historians chosen for their expertise in a particular period or theme. We have had great luck recruiting them and hope that you will enjoy their reviews as much as we have. Feel free to share your own impression of the films and novels, your experience teaching them, or to suggest alternatives
Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY