Reading Michel Ciment

Michel Ciment

In a tribute to its leading editorial voice, Michel Ciment, who passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-five, Positif notes that it was exactly sixty years ago that the French film magazine published the great critic and historian’s first article. Positif had just run a roundtable discussion of The Trial (1962) that ran fifteen pages, and as he told David Davidson in 2020, Ciment was “shocked by the rather poor critical reception of Orson Welles’s film, even in France.” He had little hope that Positif would run his defense, a cold submission from an unknown writer, but “they found my text interesting and they offered to publish it, and then they asked me to collaborate with the magazine, to write articles,” and by 1966, he had joined the editorial board.

Davidson covers a lot of ground in his delightful interview, but he’s naturally especially interested in hearing about the friendly rivalry between Positif and Cahiers du cinéma. Founded in 1951 and edited in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Eric Rohmer, Cahiers made its indelible mark with early reviews by such future French New Wave filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. In those years, Cahiers leaned rightward politically, while Positif, founded a few months after Cahiers by Bernard Chardère, who passed away in August, tilted left.

“I was sympathetic to Positif for political reasons,” Ciment told Davidson, but one day, he dropped by the Cahiers office to pick up some old issues. “And I saw a boy . . . it was Truffaut who was sitting there, and I said: ‘I really like what you write, what Rohmer and Rivette write, but there is one that I don’t, I absolutely don’t understand, it’s Godard. He doesn’t talk about films, he talks about something else. It’s not criticism.’ He said to me: ‘You are wrong because he is the most talented of us all.’ It’s funny because when I now reread, for example, Godard’s article on [Bitter Victory] by Nicholas Ray . . . [Godard] doesn’t talk about the film at all, he talks about the Champs-Élysées, the machines, the pinballs. In fact, he talks about the young girls he likes to meet on the Champs-Élysées. In fact, he is talking about Breathless, which he had not yet filmed. But it’s already a film he was thinking about. So . . . he was doing criticism that announced the cinema that he was going to make.”

Reviewing Positif Fifty Years: Selections from the French Film Journal, a collection edited by Ciment and Lawrence Kardish, for Senses of Cinema in 2003, Steve Erickson noted that while Cahiers had swerved radically from right to left and back again under succeeding editorial regimes, “Positif has retained the same basic format for years. Each issue includes relatively lengthy Q&A interviews, reviews, a ‘bloc notes’ section (a sort of monthly diary in which a critic offers his or her commentary on events in and outside the film world) and a ‘dossier’ containing several essays on a theme or filmmaker . . . While the magazine’s proclaimed connections to surrealism are sometimes difficult to spot (apart from its love for the gameplay of Luis Buñuel, Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, and Raúl Ruiz), its writers’ erudition is quite impressive.”

In 1970, Ciment started contributing to the weekly radio program Le Masque et la Plume, and three years later, he published his first book, Kazan par Kazan. He’d met Elia Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden, when she was in Venice for the world premiere of Wanda (1970), and Ciment proposed a book-length interview along the lines of Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966). Similar projects followed with Stanley Kubrick, Joseph Losey, and Jane Campion, and Ciment ultimately authored or coauthored more than two dozen books. He served on juries in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Locarno, and critics swarmed social media on Monday evening to recall their engaging conversations with Ciment, an honorary president of the International Federation of Film Critics.

We’ve been privileged to publish two essays by Ciment, one from 2004 on Salvatore Giuliano (1961) by Francesco Rosi, “the greatest political filmmaker of his time,” and the other from 2008 on The Fire Within (1963), one of Louis Malle’s “most idiosyncratic films.” Steve Macfarlane, in the meantime, points us to “some of the best Kubrick interviews you’ll ever read,” three excerpts from Ciment’s 1980 book. “I think Nabokov may have had the right approach to interviews,” Kubrick told Ciment. “He would only agree to write down the answers and then send them on to the interviewer who would then write the questions.”

But Ciment did get Kubrick to warm up to the idea of discussing Barry Lyndon (1975), and as he told Davidson, he seems to have been the only one. When Taschen was putting together The Stanley Kubrick Archives, the luxury art book publisher said that they had searched high and low and couldn’t find another instance of Kubrick talking at substantial length about the film. “With Dr. Strangelove, I could talk about the spectrum of bizarre ideas connected with the possibilities of accidental or unintentional warfare,” Kubrick told Ciment. “2001: A Space Odyssey allowed speculation about ultra-intelligent computers, life in the universe, and a whole range of science-fiction ideas. A Clockwork Orange involved law and order, criminal violence, authority versus freedom, etc. With Barry Lyndon, you haven’t got these topical issues to talk around, so I suppose that does make it a bit more difficult.”

“The most impressive thing about Michel was the way in which some of the most important filmmakers regarded him as a privileged interlocutor, a partner in their work of thinking about cinema,” Les Inrocks editor Jean-Marc Lalanne tells Screen’s Rebecca Leffler. “For Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick, he was practically the only critic in the world to whom they gave regular interviews. Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Aki Kaurismäki gave him time like no other journalist. There was something very pragmatic in his approach to films, a respect and intelligence about how they were made, which earned him the respect of many filmmakers in quite unique proportions.”

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