Man of Cinema: Jean-Louis Comolli

(July 30, 1941 - May 19, 2022)

(1) Jean-Louis Comolli, filmer pour voir ! (Ginette Lavigne, 2013)

Critic, film theorist and filmmaker, Jean-Louis Comolli died in his adoptive home city of Paris on May 19, 2022, at the age of eighty. An editor of Cahiers du Cinéma from 1965 to 1973, his international reputation in the field of film studies rests largely on a handful of texts – ‘The Detour through the Direct’, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, ‘Technique and Ideology’ – written as he and his co-editor Jean Narboni steered the journal towards a Marxist-Leninist line in the wake of the May ’68 uprising. In France, meanwhile, he is equally well-known for the corpus of films made after departing Cahiers: a body of more than forty titles incorporating both fiction and (more preponderantly) documentary formats, and made for both cinema and television. After a hiatus from writing on cinema, he returned to film theory in the late 1980s and had been a prolific writer since then, publishing two volumes of collected articles (Voir et pouvoir from 2004 and Corps et cadre from 2012), as well as a series of monographs which culminated with the polemical pamphlet Une certaine tendence du cinéma documentaire in 2021. Outside of the cinema, Comolli was also a passionate aficionado of jazz music, writing frequently for Jazz Magazine and co-authoring the book Free Jazz/Black Power in 1971 with Philippe Carles.

Born to a pied-noir family in the Algerian town of Philippeville (now Skikda) in 1941, Comolli’s youth was marked by the brutality of the French occupation and the ensuing war of independence waged by the FLN. In his recent memoir, Une terrasse en Algérie (2018), he recalled in vivid terms the daily realities of life in the dying days of colonial rule, with one particular episode from 1955 marking a formative political experience for the young Comolli: returning home from a beach excursion, he witnessed a group of Arab prisoners held by riot police forced to give up their identity cards, which were then summarily torn to shreds in front of their eyes in a capricious act of state terror. His Algerian youth was also one of cultural discovery, however. Comolli recalls a voracious appetite for buying jazz records and trips to Philippeville’s maison de la presse to read the single copy of Cahiers du Cinéma that made it to the town. After moving to the Algerian capital to study in 1958, Comolli assiduously attended the Algiers ciné-club run by Barthélemy Amengual, and he made the acquaintance of Narboni – initiating a close friendship that would last until Comolli’s death.

1961 saw Comolli make another move, this time to Paris, where alongside new friends Jean-André Fieschi and Jean Eustache he would start writing for Cahiers, then under the editorship of Éric Rohmer. An inaugural text on Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York was followed by the ambitious treatise ‘Vivre le film’, which argued for a humanist, phenomenological approach to film that would be at odds with the perspective of his later writings. Comolli’s critical debut came at a turning point for Cahiers: soon afterwards, Rohmer was ousted in an internal “putsch” and replaced by Jacques Rivette. Keen to make the transition to feature filmmaking that had already been achieved by his peers at Cahiers, Rivette saw his role as a transitional one, and by 1965 had handed the reins over to Comolli, who would later be joined by Narboni as co-editor. Still in his mid-twenties, with only a couple of years as a critic under his belt, Comolli thus found himself responsible for editing the most prestigious film magazine in France, if not the world.

If he was daunted by the magnitude of the task, Comolli did not show it. Cahiers in the latter half of the 1960s was in a vibrant state, in step with its time. While ushering in a new generation of critics into the Cahiers team (including Jacques Bontemps, Jacques Aumont, Sylvie Pierre, Bernard Eisenschitz, Pascal Bonitzer and others), Comolli and Narboni chose both to retain a fidelity with Cahiers’ pantheon of Hollywood auteurs (penning paeans to the late works of Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford), while also advocating for the new wave films of young directors from France, Italy, Poland, Quebec, Brazil and elsewhere. The critics also became cultural animators, as, frustrated by the insufficiencies of French film distribution, the journal launched an annual Semaine des Cahiers to showcase the newest films by Bertolucci, Skolimowski, Moullet and others.

(2) Festivals 66 Cinéma 67 (Gilles Guy, 1967)

As with so many others of his generation, May ’68 had an electrifying effect on Comolli’s life, but it was not entirely unanticipated for the Cahiers team: the journal had experienced earlier confrontations with Gaullist state repression, fighting to overturn the banning of Rivette’s La religieuse in 1966 and the sacking of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque française in February 1968, regarded (at least in film circles) as a prelude to the protests that erupted three months later. In May, Comolli and his colleagues joined the barricades in Paris, while also participating in the États généraux du cinéma, a mass assembly of French film workers that collectively discussed plans to radically transform the French film industry. These projects came to naught after de Gaulle had re-affirmed his power in the June 1968 legislative elections, a moment of political reaction that Comolli himself captured in his first film project, the documentary Les deux marseillaises, co-directed with André S. Labarthe. His experience with the documentary form also led to one of his most theoretically developed articles from this period, ‘The Detour through the Direct’, which explored the infiltration of “direct” methods (portable cameras, synch sound, improvised shoots) in both documentary and fiction filmmaking, while also critiquing the naïve excesses of the proponents of cinéma-vérité: the “basic deception” of this method is its claim to “transcribe truly the truth of life”, whereas in fact a cinema totally free of aesthetic manipulation is an impossibility. For Comolli, those films which are productively informed by direct cinema – the fictional works of Miklós Jancsó, for instance, or exceptional documentary vignettes like La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (Jacques Willemont, 1968) – work with the “principle of perversion” that lies at the foundation of the cinema itself.1

May ‘68 would have a lasting impact on the Cahiers team. From the eclectic left-wing politics of the pre-1968 years, it shifted rapidly towards Marxism, first with a counter-intuitive orientation towards the Parti communiste français, and then, in a volte-face made in late-1971, to the “anti-revisionism” of the French Maoist movement. Comolli and Narboni’s October 1969 editorial ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ was the overt signal for this turn, openly proclaiming that “every film is political” while developing a seven-part classification determining the political value of films based principally on formal criteria. Cinema, in this view, was determined by the ideology governing the society in which it is produced, and therefore “burdened from the very beginning, from the very first metre of film processed, by the inevitability of reproducing things not as they are in their concrete reality, but as they are when refracted through ideology.” It was therefore the task of film criticism to “attempt the elaboration and application of a critical theory of the cinema, a specific mode of apprehension of rigorously determined objects, with direct reference to the method of dialectical materialism.”2

The editorial was a watershed for Cahiers, leading to a confrontation with owner Daniel Filipacchi which was resolved in March 1970 by the editorial team buying out the journal and running it on autonomous lines, while also bearing witness to the increasing influence of contemporary critical theory on Comolli and his team. Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and Michel Foucault became common reference points for the journal, but it was Louis Althusser who was the most overt maître à penser for Cahiers under Comolli and Narboni, and much of their work on cinema was indebted to the theory of ideology he developed alongside disciples such as Pierre Macherey, Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou. This directly served as the theoretical bedrock for Comolli’s unfinished six-part text, ‘Technique and Ideology’ (published in 1971–1972), which sought to stake out a position on the historical relationship of film technology and ideology – between the excessive determinism of Marcelin Pleynet and Jean-Louis Baudry, seeing cinema as an innately idealist instrument of bourgeois domination, and the naïve scientism of Jean-Patrick Lebel, for whom the film camera was a neutral, objective implement. Although Comolli saw himself “in agreement with Lebel in refusing to brand the cinema with a ‘natural ideological taint’”, he nonetheless found it necessary to argue that “it is under the effects of an economic demand – that is, within ideology and as an instrument of ideology – that the cinema is progressively imagined, made and purchased.”3

While Comolli was immersed in film history, delving into the invention of the film camera and the advent of techniques such as the close-up, depth-of-field and sound cinema, Cahiers was in a tumultuous state. The journal’s turn to Maoism brought with it personal ructions (Bernard Eisenschitz was expelled for remaining a member of the PCF, while Pierre Baudry resigned and Sylvie Pierre departed for Brazil), and a near abandonment of film criticism, with interest reserved for only a handful of filmmakers (principally Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet). After an ill-fated project to build a “Front culturel révolutionnaire” with other Marxist cultural activists, the journal was at the point of collapse in late 1973, with Comolli and Narboni both resigning their editorial posts in despair, at a time when the militant left more broadly found itself in a state of crisis. As Comolli would later relate, “We emerged from the failure of the Revolutionary Cultural Front bruised and bloodied. Afterwards, we met in a bar one evening, we looked at each other, and without needing to say much at all, we all profoundly understood that our will to continue this project had been broken.”4

(3) Jean-Louis Comolli in Les carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Emerging from a critical activity that had monopolised the previous decade of his life, Comolli embarked on a long yearned-for transition to directing films. His first feature project, La Cecilia (filmed in late 1974), took for its subject matter the historical experience of a colony of Italian anarchists, who under the leadership of Giovanni Rossi founded a short-lived agricultural commune in Brazil in the late nineteenth century. With improvised performances and sweeping deep-focus long-takes, on a formal level La Cecilia was indebted to filmmakers in Comolli’s pantheon such as Jancsó and Pierre Perrault (both of whom had been the subjects of episodes Comolli directed for Labarthe’s Cinéastes de notre temps series), but it is also, in retrospect, an allegory for Comolli’s experiences at Cahiers, with its combination of utopian collectivism, political obduracy and hermetic detachment from the outside world inevitably leading to internal discord. La Cecilia was modestly but warmly received upon its release, but Comolli’s attempts to break into the film industry as an auteur on the model of Godard or François Truffaut would be frustrated: a project on the Paris commune was announced for 1978 but fell through, and his next release was 1982’s L’ombre rouge. An espionage thriller centring on Marseilles-based communist weapons traffickers during the Spanish Civil War, the film was a more considerable logistical undertaking than his first feature, and absent the spontaneous improvisation of La Cecilia, the shoot was far from an unequivocally positive experience for Comolli.

Instead, it was in the realm of documentary that Comolli found his calling as a filmmaker. Returning twenty years later to the site of Les deux marseillaises, electoral politics in the Parisian suburb of Asnières, for the 1988 documentary Tous pour un!, Comolli was inspired to launch a project that would eventually morph into the ten-part series Marseille contre Marseille. Alongside journalist Michel Samson, he returned to the southern city for election after election from 1989 to 2014, producing a long-form chronicle of the political transformations of the era: from the collapse of social-democratic hegemony in the working-class city to the rise of the National Front’s xenophobic populism. The latter, in Comolli’s diagnosis, was a mere symptom of the transformation of electoral politics from organic mobilisations of the local populace to empty, soundbite-laden spectacles. His gesture of repeatedly filming prolonged interviews with candidates and other political figures, teasing out the deeper dynamics subtending the short-term twists and turns of electoral campaigns, was antithetical to the governing logic of television coverage of the political sphere, but ironically most of the series was made for broadcast on public TV networks, a choice he defended on the basis of television’s ability to “show on the small screen […] formal systems which diverge from the dominant ones” and to “reach viewers who have not already been strictly classified within the cultural segments of the market.”5

Marseille contre Marseille was just one part of Comolli’s documentary output from the 1990s to the 2010s, which looked at media coverage of political events (Jeux de rôles à Carpentras, 1998, and Le monde dans l’arène, 2008), trade union strikes (Rêve d’un jour, 1995, and Jours de grève à Paris Nord, 2003), the legacy of French colonialism (Belep danse autour de la terre, 1990 and Les Esprits de Koniambo (en terre kanak), 2004), and, with documentary tributes to Chahine, Rossellini, Fellini and Resnais, the cinema itself. In 2011, meanwhile, Comolli even interrogated his own past at Cahiers together with Narboni in À voir absolument (si possible). But the ten films that comprise the Marseilles series will inevitably be regarded as his true magnum opus, and a unique endeavor in the history of film.

(4) Nicolas Philibert, hasard et nécessité (Jean-Louis Comolli, 2019)

This oeuvre is made all the more distinctive by the fact that Comolli pursued it in tandem with a renewed theoretical investigation of the cinema, which places him in the lineage of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Jean Epstein, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alexander Kluge as one of the great filmmaker-theorists. Many of his texts from this period – in the form of articles, book chapters, prefaces or interviews – interrogate his own filmmaking, and reading them today can help us to chart the evolution of his thinking about the shape that a truly political cinema should take, a question that assumed greater urgency when it came to combatting the electoral ascendancy of the National Front. But he was equally prolific when it came to writing on the work of others, or probing more general problems of film theory and history. In 2009, his book-length work Cinema Against Spectacle sought to finally provide a capstone to ‘Technique and Ideology’, thirty-seven years after the series had initially been left incomplete. In the intervening period, however, the cinema (and the world at large) had undergone immeasurable transformations, such that Comolli would claim that “the holy alliance of the spectacle and the commodity, foreseen and analysed by Guy Debord from 1967 onwards, has now been realised. It governs our world. From pole to pole, across the tropics, capital in its current guise has found the ultimate weapon for its domination: images and sounds.”6 If the Comolli of the twenty-first century found Debord’s diagnosis of late capitalism persuasive, he nonetheless did not share the situationists’ totalising dismissal of the cinema, instead retaining a militant conception of a medium that can still, in his view, be “in a position to conceive of and construct spectator worthy of the name.”7

This militant position, a testament to his continued faith in the possibility of political and artistic emancipation in the half-century since May ’68, also formed the basis for Comolli’s subsequent books on documentary cinema in the contemporary era, Cinéma, mode d’emploi (2015, with Vincent Sorel), Cinéma, numérique, survie (2019) and Une certaine tendence du cinéma documentaire. In all of them, Comolli railed against the dictatorial ideology of digital technology, while at the same time advocating its usage for creating alternative audiovisual forms. In Daech, le cinéma et la mort (2015), meanwhile, he turned his eye to one of the most grisly phenomena in the image culture of the mid-2010s, the video clips produced by ISIS that depicted the torture or execution of the Islamic fundamentalist movement’s captives. No matter how ontologically obscene these media artefacts may be, Comolli ends up accepting that “through their inscription of a frame, their elapsing in a specific duration, the ISIS clips do indeed come under the category of the cinema.” This, he readily admitted, “shocks me, it overturns what remains in me of my young cinephilia, but it is a fact.”8 Controversially, he insisted on the moral necessity of watching these videos, in order to critique them and therefore more effectively combat them, with the hope of “saving the cinema from what sullies it.”

The persistent radicalism of Comolli’s politics was matched only by his unstinting personal warmth and generosity. The loving husband of Marianne di Vettimo until her death a few years before his own, Comolli retained lifelong friendships with his peers, including many of his former Cahiers colleagues, and yet was also willing to give limitless time and energy to the entreaties of younger cinephiles, scholars and filmmakers. Above all, it was his passion for the cinema that was an ever-present part of his life, from his youthful days avidly watching the offerings in the Algiers cinémathèque, through the Sturm und Drang of his time as editor of Cahiers, to his decades-long experience of making, theorising and teaching film. Of Jean-Louis Comolli it can truly be said that he was a man of cinema.

(5) Cinéma documentaire, Fragments d'une histoire (Jean-Louis Comolli, 2014)

  • 1Jean-Louis Comolli, “The Detour through the Direct,” trans. Christopher Williams, in idem. (ed.), Realism and the Cinema: A Reader (London: BFI, 1980), 225–226.
  • 2 Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, in Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited, trans. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 254, 259.
  • 3Jean-Louis Comolli, “Technique and Ideology”, in Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle, 170.
  • 4Jean-Louis Comolli, interviewed by Daniel Fairfax, “‘Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (Part 1),” Senses of Cinema no. 62 (April 2012).
  • 5Comolli, Cinema against spectacle, 105.
  • 6Ibid., 49.
  • 7Ibid., 52.
  • 8Jean-Louis Comolli, Daech, le cinéma et la mort (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2015), 11–12.

Image (1) from Jean-Louis Comolli, filmer pour voir ! (Ginette Lavigne, 2013)

Image (2) from Festivals 66 Cinéma 67 (Gilles Guy, 1967)

Image (3): Jean-Louis Comolli in Les carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Images (4) from Nicolas Philibert, hasard et nécessité (Jean-Louis Comolli, 2019)

Image (5) from Cinéma documentaire, Fragments d’une histoire (Jean-Louis Comolli, 2014)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.