Mod­ern Cinema

Denis Lévy

What I describe in this text as mod­ern is the con­stel­la­tion of films that emerged dur­ing the sev­en­ties, but already showed pre­lim­i­nary signs of its appear­ance from the six­ties. Com­mon to these films is, in my under­stand­ing, their mutual inter­rupt­ing of a pre­vi­ously dom­i­nant aes­thetic sys­tem — an aes­thetic sys­tem that I pro­pose to call real­ism. I don’t have time to fully develop what I mean by real­ism so I would ask you to grant this term the fol­low­ing mean­ing: the sys­tem of con­di­tions that con­sti­tuted clas­sic cin­ema from at least the end of the silent era. This rup­ture was not a form of destruc­tion between clas­si­cal and mod­ern, but, rather, an inter­rup­tion of the sys­tem of con­di­tions; the art of real­ism was con­trar­ily main­tained. The mod­erns are not merely heirs of the clas­sics, they are in fact the only heirs of clas­si­cal art. For exam­ple, the nat­u­ral­is­tic real­ism (itself a descen­dant of clas­si­cism), tri­umphant on all screens today, is undoubt­edly loyal to the sys­tem, but betrays the art.

So, the real mod­ern break is that which occurs with the aca­d­e­mic ver­sion of real­ism but not with real­is­tic art, which, instead, takes refuge in thought. How this bal­ances can be sum­marised in five main points:


Real­ism is a con­clu­sive thought directed by the will to con­vince the viewer of an idea, more specif­i­cally, to instill a belief-​effect (even if only for the dura­tion of the film).

In mod­ern cin­ema the chal­lenge is not to con­vince view­ers but to present a sin­gu­lar course of think­ing in order to make them reflect upon their own posi­tion. Fac­ing this declara­tory thought, view­ers are not cap­tive but fixed to their own sub­jec­tive capac­ity in the world — ques­tion­ing each film in turn, they are encour­aged to be crit­i­cal of cin­ema itself.


But this egal­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ple demands work from view­ers in return: each encounter with a film requires view­ers to accept their role halfway with­out expect­ing the film to seduce them and manip­u­late their gaze. This is cer­tainly the great­est chal­lenge of mod­ern cin­ema, requir­ing from the viewer a pro­found change in their men­tal atti­tude; to dis­tance itself from real­ism. Aes­thetic plea­sure here is not achieved through iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the effects pro­duced by emo­tional seduc­tion but the effects of oth­er­ness that requires atten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion, mem­ory and avail­abil­ity; unlearn­ing every­thing cur­rent “enter­tain­ment” cin­ema and tele­vi­sion employs; in the under­stand­ing that mod­ern cin­ema must make do with a reduced audi­ence — an audi­ence that decide to be view­ers. There­fore, mod­ern cin­ema deci­sively abstains from effects that dom­i­nate the viewer’s gaze, allow­ing one the full enjoy­ment of one’s freedom.

Unty­ing the gaze requires the aban­don­ment of mis­lead­ingly emo­tive dra­matic effects that are rife within the film indus­try since they are the habit­ual rags of ide­o­log­i­cal “mes­sages.” If there is art in cin­ema it is not to be found there; we teach the mod­ern ones to move beyond mes­sages and sen­ti­men­tal­ity as such, in a bid for the viewer to engage in thought.

The man­ner in which mod­ern films evade the sig­ni­fi­ca­tory order, do not lend them­selves to inter­pre­ta­tion, and escape ide­o­log­i­cal expla­na­tion, is not a ques­tion of mean­ing but of sub­ject that is made cen­tral to its rela­tion with the viewer. (One under­stand by sub­ject here as the Real of the film, which ori­ents the nar­ra­tive yet is not reducible to it.) Thus the viewer is less in a posi­tion to inter­pret what they encounter, or to con­front them­selves with another thought (since it is sup­posed that the viewer thinks what they feel).

In sum, thought in mod­ern cin­ema can only be fully achieved in the con­junc­tion of two view­points: that of the film­maker, and of the viewer. Mod­erns there­fore inte­grate the supposed-​thought of view­ers, his view as an exte­rior per­spec­tive — which actu­ally is — within the cin­e­matic process.


The posi­tion of the film­maker presents itself as one among many pos­si­ble posi­tions. Its point of view itself is rel­a­tivised, and does not claim any author­ity. Welles, Rossellini, and the Nou­velle Vague already under­took the ruin of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with heroes. Mod­erns attack iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the film­maker: they must main­tain a dis­tance from them­selves, in a reflex­ive pos­ture where for­mal processes become appar­ent, and they will des­ig­nate them­selves as such, in oppo­si­tion to the trans­parency of the real­ist form. The viewer can no longer indulge in illu­sions of a world that is for­get­ful of its arti­fi­cial­ity; arti­fice here is con­stantly referred to and reminded of: it is a film stand­ing before us, not a world that is to be seen. Fol­low­ing this exam­ple, the most sig­nif­i­cant abol­ish­ment of trans­parency is the dis­so­ci­a­tion of image and sound, where the syn­chro­ni­sa­tion that enslaves sound with image employed by real­ism — the “nat­ural” rela­tion between images and sounds — is bro­ken. Mod­erns hear sound for “him­self,” and see image for “her­self” in the will to arrange a film’s ele­ments equally; oppos­ing the real­is­tic hier­ar­chy of these ele­ments dom­i­nated by char­ac­ter and speech. This gen­dered dynamic is also found in the rela­tion­ship of cin­ema with other arts. While real­ism lived on in the idea that cin­ema is a syn­the­sis of all arts (that is to say a total art, or a form of total­i­tar­i­an­ism enslav­ing other arts for its ends), mod­ern cin­ema merely accom­mo­dates other arts to work on an egal­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ple (between cin­ema and other arts); a respect­ful auton­omy that does not pro­hibit their inter­con­nec­tions. Thus, mod­ern cin­ema most notably returns to the­atre (going as far as to declare, as Manoel de Oliveira did: “mak­ing the­atre and cin­ema is the same thing”): in a good num­ber of mod­ern films, the­atre is pre­cisely what per­mits detach­ment from real­ism, on the con­di­tion that the­atre is not pro­duced in the mode of adap­ta­tion. Mod­ern cin­ema is essen­tially inspired by the­atri­cal­ity: when a text is heard, instead of dia­logue; when an actor appears, instead of a char­ac­ter; when a scene is pre­sented, instead of a world; when, finally, a viewer is con­vened, instead of a public.


Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the­atre does not mean that cin­ema should imi­tate the­atre: cin­ema bor­rows prin­ci­ples yet retains its own oper­a­tions. There is one obvi­ous exam­ple in the treat­ment of act­ing: mod­erns will­ingly prac­tice, under Bresson’s parent­age, the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of act­ing. The actor is effaced before the text, and sim­ply becomes noth­ing more than a sup­port­ing fig­ure for the text. Mod­ern neu­tral­i­sa­tion, against any impres­sion of nat­u­ral­ness, para­dox­i­cally stresses the arti­fice of act­ing by reduc­ing it to an extreme.

The will of this neu­tral­i­sa­tion touches not only upon act­ing but also sit­u­a­tions and tonal­i­ties. The neu­tral­ity of sit­u­a­tions stems from the de-​dramatisation proper to mod­ern films: we are far from sus­pense, which is the focus of dra­matic effects, push­ing the viewer to antic­i­pate action — sus­pense leads to a per­pet­ual forward-​rushing gaze, caught in the con­tra­dic­tory desire to both “know what fol­lows” and delay the moment of cli­max, which we know full well sig­ni­fies the end of the film (all of Hitchcock’s art obvi­ously exploits this con­tra­dic­tory desire). More gen­er­ally, time in real­is­tic film, as struc­tured by drama, con­sists of sequences that give the appear­ance of an impe­ri­ous neces­sity, where chance itself is pre­sented as a fig­ure of fate: the pas­sage of time is relent­less, like images cours­ing through the reels of a film pro­jec­tor. Real­is­tic film time is nec­es­sar­ily a chronology.

Mod­ern cin­ema, how­ever, seeks not so much this antic­i­pa­tion on the part of the viewer, but instead their rec­ol­lec­tion: the rid­dle is not down­stream from the film (“what will hap­pen?”), but upstream, and, more pre­cisely, in the rela­tion between the present instant and all those pre­ced­ing it. Con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory are con­stantly demanded of the viewer — this is why mod­ern films are always con­fronted by cru­cial prob­lems posed by dura­tion, con­strained by the exer­cise of mem­ory, and also by time needed to “learn” the film (time that the film­mak­ers always spare). It is also the case that film dura­tion, which is free of dra­matic struc­tures, no longer has “stan­dards.” Time here is not con­cerned with restor­ing the impres­sion of a con­tin­u­ous flow, instead it is built from suc­ces­sive blocks torn from actual time (the time of the take) in a cumu­la­tive logic: time is not linked together, it is amassed — the con­cept of con­nec­tion is not applic­a­ble here, and rep­e­ti­tion becomes a major rhyth­mic figure.

The tonal­i­ties are equally neu­tral, and are never given as they were, for exam­ple, in the genre sys­tem. They also require from the viewer a spe­cial effort: an active role: one must decide whether to laugh or cry, get excited or revolt. Emo­tions are thus sub­ject to debate.

It is not about a “mix­ture of gen­res,” but of unde­cided tonal­ity, some­thing that is always left for us to dis­cern. There is, there­fore, a pro­found dis­com­fort in mod­ern cin­ema that imposes no agreed emo­tional schema.


The neu­tral­i­sa­tion of actions, sit­u­a­tions and tonal­i­ties inte­grate into a far broader strat­egy that attempts to cir­cum­vent rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in order to return the rights to things in-​themselves; con­se­quently it implies that the viewer must sever from them­selves their reign over the images and objects (that they them­selves con­sti­tute) whilst main­tain­ing the ques­tion of rela­tion between things and ideas.

The object (rep­re­sented) has long been an embar­rass­ment of cin­ema: Hol­ly­wood types have clung to the triv­i­al­i­sa­tion of the object through rep­e­ti­tion (same his­to­ries, same types), and an abstrac­tion of it by typ­i­fi­ca­tion. The dou­ble oper­a­tion of triv­i­al­i­sa­tion and abstrac­tion, which we see today in the work of neu­tral­i­sa­tion as reflex­iv­ity and mod­ern the­atri­cal­ity, tends instead to pre­pare the object as a pure emblem — in cin­e­matic terms — of an idea, and thus allows the stag­ing of ideas in debate, by virtue of incar­na­tion. It is in fact an oper­a­tion that con­sists of the evac­u­a­tion of the object’s meaning.

Welles and Rossellini, through very dif­fer­ent ways, already pro­posed an under­stand­ing of the obscured ideas of things. After the Nou­velle Vague, the mod­ern ones now con­tinue this approach to things, fully aware that we do not have to seek ade­quacy between ideas and things, and that the object and the image are rep­re­sen­ta­tions; which is to say, imag­i­nary, and pro­vide only a lim­ited access to real­ity — con­scious­ness of the fact that the real is unrepresentable.

Moder­nity there­fore con­sists in the object deposed, under the sign of a meet­ing held between ideas and things, in the void that sep­a­rates them. And it is bet­ter to address this void that reduces objects to insignif­i­cance. In mod­ern cin­ema, this hap­pens in var­i­ous ways:

—rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion [l’extrémisation] of the documentary-​effect, to include as such the fic­tion of real­ity frag­mented, edited and iso­lated, or, rather, a fic­tion pro­duced by the unique blend of these frag­ments released from their con­text; untied from their con­text; object sug­gests thing;

—exhaus­tion [l’épuisement] of the object by insis­tent dura­tions of image (or sound): the time it takes to pass from the ques­tion “What does that represent/​what does that mean?” to “What is it?”

—Accen­tu­at­ing ellipses deter­mined by fram­ing: the hid­den appears as such instantly, as takes are not only long, but fixed. The reverse-​shot is often refused. This “blocked gaze” draws atten­tion to what remains hid­den (which in real­ism would have been revealed long before): the off­screen, which is based on invis­i­bil­ity, and rad­i­cal empti­ness. Not of noth­ing, since the off­screen insists and weighs on the edges of the hid­den, sug­gest­ing its invis­i­ble pres­ence in var­i­ous ways.

—Evac­u­a­tion of the field, either by extreme prox­im­ity to objects or, con­trar­ily, by extreme dis­tance — or the oppo­site method, which is to pro­lif­er­ate objects, but the result is the same, to evac­u­ate mean­ing, to void the object. Here we have two con­verged ways, the source of which, for the first, can be traced in Bres­son, Dreyer and Ozu, and for the sec­ond in Welles and Ophuls.

—Finally, an enter­prise that might be called the denat­u­ral­i­sa­tion [dénat­u­ral­i­sa­tion] of the object, both by height­en­ing arti­fi­cial­ity (as seen in the­atri­cal­i­sa­tion) and by a sys­tem­atic rup­tur­ing of nat­ural rela­tions, already begun by ellip­ti­cal fram­ing; one that refuses the mechan­ics of sequen­tial causal­ity, the sys­tem­atic syn­chro­nism of image and sound, dra­matic logic — even the logic of discourse.

Moder­nity in effect com­pletes this long his­tor­i­cal sequence where cin­ema was sup­posed to be con­sti­tuted in dis­course: of Eisenstein’s “inte­rior mono­logue” [mono­logue intérieur], Vertov’s “cine-​language” [ciné-​langue], not to men­tion the implicit argu­men­ta­tion of real­ist film­mak­ers. It is not an issue for mod­erns to artic­u­late mean­ing any more: mod­ern cin­ema is no longer an attempt to resem­ble lan­guage. So, metaphor­i­cally, it is thus very nec­es­sary to under­stand the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion “declara­tory” I attrib­uted to moder­nity: mod­ern dec­la­ra­tion is not car­ried out in a lin­guis­tic mode, the ideas that it pro­duces are ideas “in cin­ema,” and the organ­i­sa­tion it makes is in fact not rhetorical.

This is also why mod­erns recon­nect with mon­tage, but in an entirely dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion from that of the Sovi­ets, and that which fol­lowed Welles: mod­ern mon­tage is no longer dis­cur­sive, or rhetor­i­cal; its coherency is no longer com­posed of sequences, but of con­glom­er­ates around a void. The col­lage tech­nique, of draw­ing together objects with­out nat­ural con­nec­tions that can be embell­ished as a documentary-​effect.

The dis­con­ti­nu­ity of mod­ern mon­tage, which pro­duces voids, is opposed to the plen­i­tude of real­ist edit­ing, which fills voids. The mon­tage diverted from its dis­cur­sive func­tion is no longer restricted to clash­ing images, and should be under­stood in a broader sense of com­po­si­tion, organ­i­sa­tion and ordered sets [math­e­mat­ics] where the meet­ing of images (mon­tage in its tech­ni­cal sense) is one pro­ce­dure among oth­ers. Mod­ern montage-​composition is a global and syn­thet­i­cal project.

There­fore, the mod­ern con­cept of mon­tage allows us to define ret­ro­spec­tively the art of cin­ema as an organ­i­sa­tion of occur­rences, of encoun­ters. Per­haps this is the most impor­tant les­son of the mod­erns; who teach us how to per­ceive cin­ema as the art of cin­ema, beyond any spe­cific aes­thetic. This train­ing of the gaze is pos­si­ble because mod­erns reject a cin­ema of the object: in this sense, mod­ern cin­ema can be under­stood as non-​figurative—this will not be under­stood in the plas­tic sense (since it is not images that make cin­ema). One could just as well refer to it in another metaphor: atonal. Moder­nity high­lights, in this depo­si­tion of the object, the oper­a­tion: that which at once mat­ters to thought but is not the object. Non-​figurative art presents its oper­a­tions, and non-​figurative cin­ema presents itself as mon­tage, i.e., as a com­po­si­tion of encounters.

Thus, if real­ist cin­ema incar­nated ideas in things, and if neo-​realism sought ideas through things, the poet­ics of mod­ern cin­ema — which does not see plen­i­tude but the void that exists between ideas and things, and between things them­selves — divides things in order to ele­vate them to ideas.


One won­ders whether the iso­la­tion of film­mak­ers against each other is not one of modernity’s dif­fi­cul­ties. It is an objec­tive of our asso­ci­a­tion, L’Art du cin­ema, to try, at least among view­ers, to com­pare their works and to demon­strate its con­sis­tency.1

On the future of mod­ern cin­ema, one can advance a hypoth­e­sis: the bal­ance of moder­nity will remain depen­dent on its rela­tion with the clas­si­cal, and the respon­si­bil­ity of the mod­erns lies in accor­dance to the atti­tudes they adopt toward the his­tory of their art. Beyond the clo­sure of the great real­ist sys­tem, moder­nity is recon­structed through nego­ti­a­tions with the old.

Thus, far beyond rela­tion­ships located in style, there is, with cer­tainty, a con­ti­nu­ity of thought between Welles and Godard; in the rhythm made of their suc­ces­sive accu­mu­la­tions and cuts (the rhythm of our cen­tury); or between Rossellini and Straub-​Huillet, and their metic­u­lous atten­tion to objects. We wanted to encour­age some of these encoun­ters with our pro­gram­ming, with each one of our ses­sions, show­ing a tra­di­tional film fol­low­ing a mod­ern film. I hope that they will be for all a source of learn­ing and emotion.

We know that the surest — and fastest — way to amaze our­selves is to stay fixed, always look­ing at the same object unper­turbed. In a beau­ti­ful moment this object will show to us — mirac­u­lously — what has not yet been seen.2

The start­ing point of Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resis­tance, Jean-​Marie Straub & Danièle Huil­let, 1979) is a mon­tage of texts by Cesare Pavese, extracts of Dia­logues with Leuco for the first part, and The Moon and the Bon­fire for the second.

The­atri­cal­ity, which is more notice­able in the first part, is pri­mar­ily a result of the text, where lan­guage is more poetic than in the sec­ond, that is based more on roman­tic prose, and alter­nates with voice-​over nar­ra­tion that is again taken from Pavese dia­logues in its lit­er­al­ity. This lit­er­al­ity, how­ever, main­tains the text’s influ­ence until the end; accen­tu­ated by the recto tono deliv­ery now syn­ony­mous with Straub’s actors: a form of deliv­ery that was inau­gu­rated with Bres­son and became a mod­ernist char­ac­ter­is­tic, which was nec­es­sary for the simul­ta­ne­ous de-​dramatisation and denat­u­ral­i­sa­tion of act­ing, rather than an arbi­trary fash­ion. We can clearly see here how the­atri­cal­ity does not nec­es­sar­ily con­sist of apply­ing the “the­atri­cal” (what one imag­ines to be the­atri­cal act­ing) to cin­ema, but can be entirely com­pat­i­ble with the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of act­ing. We should note in this pas­sage that this neu­tral­i­sa­tion is not uni­form: with­out refer­ring to an exam­ple by Godard, whom we would at least con­cede has had an impres­sive diver­sity in his direc­tion of actors — but also in the case of Oliveira, as can be seen in the beau­ti­ful Abraham’s Val­ley (Vale Abraão, 1993) — the recto tono of Straub sup­ports a great vari­ety of act­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the var­i­ous accents of Othon (1969), but also, here, in the dif­fer­ences between the deliv­ery of the Dia­logues and that of The Moon and the Bon­fire. These are the dif­fer­ences that make the dialec­tic of the film between the sym­bolic myths and his­tor­i­cal real­ity perceptible.

This dialec­tic func­tions equally in the strik­ing dif­fer­ence between the prin­ci­ples used to frame the two parts: in the first, tight frames, which fix the viewer’s gaze force­fully, simul­ta­ne­ously teaches it to pay unusual atten­tion. The most strik­ing exam­ple is Oedi­pus and Tire­sias’ dia­logue (The Blind) filmed from behind the oxcart: the con­tin­u­ous take of both pro­tag­o­nists forces the viewer to refo­cus their atten­tion, as if struck par­tially blind by the text, to notice: the noise of wheels that hint at the land­scape; the ox-​herding slave (cen­tral to both image and dia­logue: the unspo­ken sub­ject, one might believe); and finally the backs of Oedi­pus and Tire­sias, whom we never see from the front in order to empathise with their blindness.

In the sec­ond part the frame widens and frees the gaze for explo­ration, just as the text and nar­ra­tion become ellip­ti­cal, and open to the imag­i­na­tion. In the mean­time human­ity has learned to do with­out the gods, to use their free­dom: no longer look­ing to be directed, they must learn to act freely, accord­ing to their own decisions.

The dialec­tic of the film is, how­ever, not a sim­ple binary of two parts — a whole net­work of con­nec­tions is sub­tly estab­lished; such as the con­ver­sa­tion on a moun­tain lane, for exam­ple, which seems to “rhyme” with the dia­logue of the blind men in the arrange­ments of the char­ac­ters, and the fram­ing and move­ment that accom­pa­nies them. So, reflec­tion seeks to reartic­u­late the whole in order to ret­ro­spec­tively find rela­tion­ships estab­lished between parts and sequences. The fact that these sequences arise explic­itly dis­joined nec­es­sar­ily raises the ques­tion of their asso­ci­a­tion and of their mean­ing upon regroup­ing: the ques­tion of mon­tage is delib­er­ately posed to the viewer’s thought (and it is clear that this is not a tech­ni­cal issue). This was already true for Rossellini in Paisà (1946) — for any­one not sat­is­fied by watch­ing a film “in sketches,” at least: the suc­ces­sion of dif­fer­ing episodes, which seem to have only a loose con­nec­tion between them, requires close scrutiny in order to make sense.

Mean­ing” here must be removed from ambi­gu­ity: in the case of Straub, as in that of Rossellini (a pre­cur­sor of the present moder­nity), this term should not be taken in the sense of a dis­cur­sive logic. The con­struc­tion is not that of a demon­stra­tive sequence, but instead an absence of asso­ci­a­tion between sequences, an enigma, one that requires the mind, as Bazin said of Paisà, “to leap from one event to the other as one leaps from stone to stone in cross­ing a river.” The ques­tion here is not of nam­ing rela­tions, but rather of recog­nis­ing cin­e­matic ideas untrans­lat­able to other media.

To describe the film as a path lead­ing from the tyranny of gods to a resis­tant human­ity does not con­vey the aim of the film com­pletely, for it is equally the route for a gaze that shakes the bar­bar­ity of the imag­i­nary in order to reach the free exer­cise of thought.


  1. Orig­i­nally pre­sented at the inau­gural con­fer­ence of L’Art du cin­ema on 29 March 1993. Trans­la­tion for Lumen by Edwin Mak and Niko­laus Vryzidis.
  2. Pavese, Cesare. Intro­duc­tion to Dia­logues with Leuco, 1947.

Still images in order of appearance

  • Zorns Lemma (Hol­lis Framp­ton, 1970)
  • 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-​Luc Godard, 1967)
  • Un con­damné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souf­fle où il veut (A Man Escaped, Robert Bres­son, 1956)
  • Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resis­tance, Jean-​Marie Straub & Danièle Huil­let, 1979)


Denis Lévy is a film scholar and critic who co-​founded L’art du cin­ema with Alain Badiou in 1993.