Archival Research in Print: La cinématheque-musée


Stéphanie Louis’ book, La cinématheque musée, une innovation cinéphile au coeur de la patrimonialisation du cinema en France, published in March of 2020, spans from the early days of the Cinémathèque Française in the wake of the Second World War to the late 1960s. Chronicling the advent of both mainstream and specialist interest in cinephile heritage over the greater part of three decades, this essential work explores the manner in which the origins of cinematographic museums and institutions transformed the experience of and around film viewership in France, as well as the role of film heritage in the fabric of contemporary French cultural identity.

As part of a new project from the ACE in the promotion of new and significant publications in the field of cinema scholarship, Anna Fiaccarini of Il Cineteca di Bologna spoke with Stéphanie Louis on Monday, the 19th of July about her research. ‘The effect of showing, in this historic work of research, the development of cinematheques everywhere, but in France, clearly, and the prime example of the Cinématheque Française, is how these developments had a strong influence on the practice of cinephilia,’ Fiaccarini said, urging archivists, scholars, and institutions to include the volume in their collections. ‘I have also borrowed the words of Donata Pesenti Campagnoni, who wrote a very nice presentation on Stéphanie’s volume in The Journal of Film Preservation (this summary and additional materials on the text can be accessed on the Association française de recherche sur l’histoire du cinéma’s website) in October of 2020. It is very interesting, because like Donata said here, we really come to understand how we have arrived at this world of cinematheques today, and why we watch and re-watch heritage films.’

The period that began after the Liberation of France in 1944 was one of mass cinephilia. Before the Second World War, cinema was popular entertainment, but here it was a scholarly, loving approach to films that developed and which enjoyed a “golden age” in cinemas until 1968.

Before the war, the Cinémathèque had already begun to lay the foundations for later conservation work, with the establishment of a Cinéclub dedicated to the assembly, collection, and showing of works of silent cinema. This work, and, ultimately, the opening of the Cinématheque Française on Avenue de Messine in 1944, was done in order to construct a ‘history of cinema not only as a history of the invention of a device, but the history of a spectacle, the history of a culture, the history of an art.’ The Cinémathèque Française became an exceptional European institution in film programming. During the 40s, it began with temporary exhibitions and experimenting with the possibilities of a veritable film museum. Moreover, 1945 was a year of commemoration and retrospection: a grand celebration of the anniversary of cinematography was supposed to take place, with the involvement of the biggest names in French cinema. However, the French government lacked sufficient resources to execute their plans to completion, which ultimately led the Cinémathèque Française to postpone this anniversary. This consequently strengthened its influence among French film professionals. Nevertheless, an illuminating feature of the text is the inclusion of archival documents and images, with photos taken from the Cinématheque Française and other archives to reproduce and reconstruct the contents and contexts of early exhibitions and plans.

During the 1950s, though cinema held a more prominent place in the cultural zeitgeist than at any point before, the Cinémathèque found itself in an unfavourable administrative context. The creation of the Ministère des affaires culturelles in 1959 changed the situation and the Cinémathèque benefited from the support of André Malraux, as it met the ambitions of his policy. Gradually, in the mid-1960, the objectives of Langlois and Malraux were to drift apart. Indeed, Malraux was implementing a national heritage inventory, and he wanted to impose this agenda on Langlois, who resisted interference.

The final section of the book presents the reconfigured organisation of film heritage institutions in France between 1965 and 1968, with new archives and museums established in Toulouse, Annecy, and Lyon. This expansion was in response to growing cinephilic demand, and the desire of the French population beyond Paris for access to more extensive archival screenings and film materials. However, these projects were completed to varying degrees of success, with the majority of the Cinématheque’s resources, materials, and tangible film artifacts retained in Paris. This caused a period of tumult, with animosity between branches. ‘It was a moment of two completely different ways of functioning between Paris and Toulouse, and I think it was really that which fed the conflict,’ Louis elucidates. The final years of the 1960s also saw the creation of the Centre national de la cinématographie’s central archives, another significant move towards the consolidation of heritage artifacts in a single location.

In 1968, at the very end of the period covered by the volume, the Langlois Affair and the replacement of Henri Langlois with Pierre Barbin as director of the Cinémathèque Française, marked, even aborted, the paroxysm of tensions with the State and a point of no return. As Louis puts it, ‘after the Affair Langlois, the creation of the Service des archives du film showed, in a sense, that we had arrived at the end of a system. The model of the Cinémathèque Musée, that is to say, “I conserve copies, I show them, and in that way, I contribute to the transmission of cinema history,” is a model that is very much inspired by cinephilia, but which has its limit.’ The French government’s choice prompted a prioritisation of conservation and which facilitated cooperation between cinematheques, further laying the groundwork for the future of cinema heritage.

The full French language interview with Stéphanie Louis is available on the ACE YouTube channel. For those in attendance at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, La Cinématheque musée, une innovation Cinéphile au Coeur de la patrimonialisation du cinema en France (an AFRHC edition in partnership with CTHS and the support of Centre Jean-Mabillon,) will be available to purchase at the Libreria Cinema Teatro Musica stall at the festival bookfair, as well as for order online.


UPDATE 14/09:

On our YouTube Channel you can now find the English language version of Anna Fiaccarini’s interview with Stéphanie Louis. Click here.

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