En cas de malheur de Simenon à Autant-Lara (1956-1958). Essai de génétique scénaristique 

En cas de malheur de Simenon à Autant-Lara (1956-1958). Essai de génétique scénaristique 
by Alain Boillat

Droz, Genève, Switzerland, 2020 Ciné courant series
376 pp., illus. b/w. 24 CHR
ISBN: 9782600060462.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2020

En cas de malheur (1958, English title: In Case of Adversity; American title: Love is My Profession) is or at least used to be a famous movie by French director Claude Autant-Lara (19001-2000). An adaptation of Georges Simenon’s eponymous novel (1956, English title: In Case of Emergency), the work was critically praised and commercially very successful at its release, before falling from grace as the typical and typically despicable example of the old-school French moviemaking of “French Quality” Cinema (the quality label explicitly referring to the lack of quality and cultural prestige of Hollywood cinema as seen through chauvinist and protectionist French eyes). It was first challenged and eventually totally discredited by the New Wave. Today, after history’s verdict, there may be room however for a fresh take on En cas de malheur. There are obviously many good reasons to categorically reject both the movie and its maker, besides the utterly unpleasant character of the director and the large historical shift towards more contemporary and thus allegedly more “realistic” themes and a more personal, that is more “auteur”-centered way of shooting and editing. Let us list for example: the blatant misogyny and patriarchalism of Simenon’s novel and Autant-Lara’s film, openly sympathetic to the attempts to restored shattered ideas of masculinity in post-war France; the awkward encounter of the two biggest stars ever of French cinema, Jean Gabin, the paradigmatic example of prewar vitality, manliness and working class strength, and Brigitte Bardot, the new sex symbol that had conquered the world overnight since And God Created Woman (1956), but here acting in her first “serious” role; and above all the problematic and supposedly harmful role played by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the screenwriters duo that had dominated the “French Quality” scene since 1940 and whose position and philosophy were so violently attacked by François Truffaut and his friends of the Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s (Truffaut’s 1954 article “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” is until today on the reading list of any film course whatsoever). Yet the ambition of Boillat’s book, provisional tailpiece of a larger research project exploring the exceptionally rich personal archive of Claude Autant-Lara [1] is less to come back on the many polemics that have accompanied the work and figure of the director than to reopen the case of his pivotal movie, at the historical interface of “French Quality” and New Wave, and to use this case study to elaborate a new method of film analysis, based on two major pillars. First the integration of a method and theory well-established in literary studies but never really implemented in film studies, namely genetic criticism, which studies a text via the process by which it came to be. Second a new approach of interdisciplinarity, apparently quite modest and pragmatic but exceptionally functional and illuminating.

In a very welcome state of the art chapter on genetic criticism in general and in film studies in particular, Boillat stresses two points. On the one hand, the absence of actual best practices when it comes down to apply this method to film studies (references to genetic criticism rarely go beyond general claims, examples of close-reading are almost non-existing, and the work done systematically sticks to a simplified and narrowly linear idea of the writing process of a movie, from source-text to scenario and from scenario to movie). On the other hand, the necessity of redefining what the object of genetic criticism in film studies ought to be. Not a one-man or one-woman show (that of the screenwriter working through a series of versions) but a collective enterprise (equally involving the director, the producer, the actors, the agents, the critics, the public, etc.). And neither a linear process (even if there is always a beginning, a middle and an end), but a spiraling development with many dead ends, a proliferating network that has to take into account the various stages of the script as well as many other data and documents such as for instance the idea of the star in they eyes of the public at a certain moment in time or the quarrels between the actor’s agent and the producer’s sponsors. Intertextuality, here, does not mean the subordination of film studies to some “grand theory” borrowed from a different, perhaps more prestigious field such as psychoanalysis or Marxism, but the fine-grained and very organic blending of closely related scholarly traditions that seamlessly complement each other, each of them addressing a specific component of the whole work. In this case, the domains involved are: narratology, cultural studies (more particularly gender studies), star studies, film history, and of course genetic criticism. Let me give an example of the way Boillat manages to intertwine these methods and theories and how genetic criticism intervenes in the building of their mutual dialogue. A striking feature of Autant-Lara’s movie is the progressive abandon, as shown by the study of the genetic archive, of one of the most distinctive characteristics of “French Quality” of these years: the use of flash-backs (“French Quality” scripts generally tend to “add” flash-backs to the literary source texts they adapt, mainly in order to display the “literary” qualities of their adaptation; in the case of En cas de malheur the non-flash-back policy is all the more revealing since Simenon’s source-text heavily relies on such flash-backs). Yet flash-backs are not neutral, ideologically speaking: in many case, they are used by the “French Quality” screenwriters to foreground the male point of view (the flash-back is often seen through their eyes while the women are reduced to the traditional position of to-be-looked-at-ness). The rejection of the flash-back technique can thus be seen as an element that underlines the relatively modern gender policy of Claude Autant-Lara’s movie, which is not a Jean Gabin vehicle reducing Brigitte Bardot to the mere role of sexualized victim. More generally, the close examination of the genetic archive in the broad sense of the word further strengthens this more woman- and youth-friendly interpretation. In spite of Gabin’s repeated interference with the work of both the scriptwriters as the director, the archival-genetic perspective clearly demonstrates not only the permanent tension between the star and the way his image is used (and according to him: badly used) in the movie, but also the gradual emergence of a more gender-balanced presentation of the two stars, male and female, and the characters they embody and shape in the movie (a process that eventually also transforms their star image and status).

In a period of great suspicion toward theory, certainly if this theory tastes of French Theory, and of a frequently uncritical and naïve embrace of interdisciplinarity, it is a pleasure and a relief to accompany Alain Boillat on his journey through the Autant-Lara archive. What makes this book so convincing, next to its great clarity and lack of jargon, is of course the high quality of its research and analysis. Theory is exemplarily put at the service of understanding and interpretation does what it should do: help discover what would have stayed under the radar, establish links that might have gone unnoticed, revise and nuance existing ways of reading (instead of purely debunk, discard or ignore them). From all these points of view, Boillat’s monograph is a considerable enrichment of our current knowledge of a pivotal moment in French cinema (if not in cinema tout court). It breaks away from the prejudices against “French Quality”, without indulging in some soft ecumenism concerning its gender politics, for instance. It powerfully innovates the narrative analysis of cinema, appropriating the literary tools in a way quite different from what finds in literary studies. It complexifies our stereotyped reading of gender, contextualizing issues concerning the male gaze while reasserting female agency in sometimes surprising ways. And of course it demonstrates the possibility, if not the necessity to enlarge the very object of film studies by proposing a totally new definition of a movie’s archive. Although Boillat’s approach will not be immediately accessible to every film student or scholar, since not all archives are as complete as that of Autant-Lara while not all of us are as well institutionally and financially backed by the Swiss Science Foundation, this book has everything to become a major source of inspiration for all those working in the field. 

Notes

[1] For more details, see: https://wp.unil.ch/cinematheque-unil/projets/personnage-et-vedettariat-au-prisme-du-genre/, and the previous publication of the author: L’Adaptation. Des livres aux scénarios, eds Alain Boillat and Gilles Philippe (Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2018).