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La République En Film!

After the soixante-huitards come the quatre-vingt-dix-septards. Rachel Kushner thus anoints an imagined community of moviegoers who, like herself, discovered Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore at New York’s Film Forum in 1997 [“French Lessons,” Easy Chair, June]. It’s a nostalgic gesture in a column permeated with nostalgia for an era when filmmakers acted as “seismographers,” as Serge Daney would put it, archivists documenting history for future viewers.

Each film Kushner revisits imparts its own “French lesson.” In 1969, Marcel Ophuls recovered the memory of a deeply divided France under occupation. Decades later, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour unceasingly rewrite the history of Vichy to deny French complicity. In 1977, Chris Marker illuminated another instance of social fracturing: the birth of the New Right and the founding of a far-right party under Jean-Marie Le Pen, which ushered Holocaust denial into the mainstream. The Mother and the Whore chronicles a society grappling—like contemporary France—with the aftershocks of conflicts, from the occupation to May ’68.

Eustache’s film has gained a second life in the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron’s reelection: in May, a restored version was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it scandalously premiered in 1973. In June, it will be rereleased in France, joining contemporary films equally concerned with the postwar years, such as Audrey Diwan’s Happening, about an unwanted pregnancy in 1963, a time when abortion was criminalized in France, and Philippe Le Guay’s The Man in the Basement, a thriller centered on a Holocaust denier in present-day Paris. French cinema, it seems, is still haunted by the same ghosts.

Jennifer Cazenave
Assistant Professor of French, Boston University

 

Kushner accurately describes Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, a film that pulls back the curtain on a France unwilling to face its collaborationist past. The impulse to fashion comfort from history is still alive: in 2020, De Gaulle, a biopic by Gabriel Le Bomin, portrayed the general as an uncomplicated hero and the savior of France’s dignity. Watching this film—as many did; it was a remarkable box office success—one could easily conclude that Ophuls’s lessons have been forgotten. Yet Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, which centers on police violence, was one of the most popular films of 2019. Watching these movies, we witness the competing narratives relevant to our most recent election. In Le Bomin’s film we see a glorified France that romanticizes its history, similarly to Macron’s campaign; in Ly’s, we see one that is beset by racism and militarized police, forces over which those on the right and the left fought in the lead-up to the election. These movies reflect the mood in France today. Through them we can learn about the state of the nation, as long as we refuse the influence of easy categorizations.

Emilie Bickerton
Paris

 

 

Crisis of Control

On the basis of his experiences in France, Justin E. H. Smith paints a picture of a global pandemic response so unlike that of the United States as to be unrecognizable here [“Permanent Pandemic,” Essay, June]. We have no national vaccine passports, no dings alerting us to potential exposure based on location. In fact, our federal government has shown little interest in protecting us at all. Some states and cities instituted precautions such as temporary mask mandates or halts to indoor dining, but the vast majority of those measures ended long ago. In major swaths of the country they were never even implemented.

The state may be exerting pressure on its citizens, but to a different end: in order to get them back to work even when they’re sick, or to forgo mandates at their employers’ behest, all without providing the barest regulation of public spaces. Smith’s major concern with the “regime” appears to be data collection, which does raise important privacy questions. But to suggest that the potential harms of collecting data, which can be mitigated, outweigh the real harms of allowing a novel virus to spread through the population is dangerous. In another misrepresentation, his “COVID maximalists”—those who supposedly flaunt their precautions from exclusively upper-class perches—are straw men. Concerns about COVID range across demographic groups. Research shows that wealthier, white Americans are less concerned than marginalized communities about serious illness from COVID.

Smith’s essay chronicles the emergence of a regime different from the one he envisions: that of individuals clinging to what used to be, even in the face of towering evidence that their version of normal was only made possible at the expense of the vulnerable, the invisible, the discarded.

Melody Schreiber
Washington, D.C.

 

Justin E. H. Smith responds:

I’ve long noticed an unwillingness among Americans to accept that any reportage from France could belong to their same universe. I take the more recent habit of contrasting the efficacy of Europe’s COVID response with U.S. indifference to be an updated version of the fantasy that France is a land of uninterrupted sensual pleasure and “the good life.” It doesn’t matter which countries rolled out the most sophisticated surveillance technologies to battle COVID, or which, because of qualms or incompetence, held back. What matters is that once such technologies are out there, national borders are too weak to contain them. I don’t argue in the piece that concerns about surveillance “outweigh” concerns about epidemiology. I simply acknowledge that the solution to one problem is sometimes the creation of another. It’s a variety of dogmatic maximalism to insist that that is not true.

 

 

Corrections

The June New Books column mistakenly referred to a company in Peter C. Baker’s novel Planes as “Atlantic Industries.” It should be “Arcadian Airlines.”

The Matter of War” by Nicole Tung [Photo Essay, June] incorrectly identified a Pantsir air defense system as a rocket launcher. In fact, it is a missile launcher.

We regret the errors.