Gender, nostalgia, and the making of historical heroines
In the decade from 2008–2018, television networks and streaming services were noticeably captivated by the stories of real and fictitious nurses set in historical hospitals – some iconic, some forgotten, and others only imagined or fleeting in their existence. Although these historical medical dramas featured large ensemble casts of hospital staff and patients, their leading characters and protagonists were all women who worked as nurses in the eras concentrated between the 1860s and the 1920s. These hospital-based series have contributed to the public historical consciousness and literacy by disseminating both a multi-dimensional experience of space, time, and people in the past, but also by facilitating an emotional connection to the human condition of those who lived, worked, and struggled in familiar ways through unfamiliar circumstances. Despite the ‘Netflix effect’ that aimed at illuminating lesser-known regional or national locations and events, television series from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Spain, and Australia still offered familiar depictions of historical nurses across time and place. The tensions between tradition and progress, religion and science, nurses and doctors, women and men serve to drive dramatic television storylines, but often, they also serve the audience’s nostalgic desire to imagine a shared past as it might have been. By engaging with theoretical and empirical studies of gender, nostalgia, and the historical representation of nurses, this chapter illuminates how creators and audiences have collaboratively reimagined the past as a transnational social commentary for the present.
Les Misérables, La Rafle and Elle s’appelait Sarah
After discussing the depiction of French collaboration in Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien and Marcel Ophuls’ Le Chagrin et la pitié, chapter 2 focuses on the representation of the archetypal figures and consequences of French collaboration during the Second World War, taking Les Misérables (Claude Lelouch), La Rafle (Roselyne Bosch) and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Gilles Paquet-Brenner) as its case studies. Lelouch’s adaptation of Les Misérables spans generations and timelines in a French society divided by class and wartime loyalties and experiences. By creating archetypal characters, the film universalises the events of the Occupation in order to highlight its ongoing relevance. It also allows for the representation of many different French identities of the time, including those of collaborators at various levels. Roselyne Bosch’s La Rafle is a direct depiction of the roundup of Vél’ d’Hiv, during which thousands of Jewish French citizens were arrested and deported in July 1942, taking particular aim at French authorities and power structures who executed the operation. Elle s’appelait Sarah, through its central characters’ personal engagement with their own history and that of those around them, questions the idea of culpability and how a contemporary society can confront and ultimately come to terms with its past in order to move forward and create a better future.
This final chapter draws conclusions from the themes discussed throughout the book and considers the contemporary commemorative context surrounding the Second World War both in France and around the world. It identifies potential further studies within the field, including broadening the scope to include more recent films and films of other national cinemas. This concluding chapter also discusses the legacies of significant individuals who passed away between 2015 and 2020, including Jacques Chirac and Claude Lanzmann. It finally argues for the need of ongoing, critical reflections of the past as we look to a future where storytelling and ‘truth’-telling remain vital to fostering cohesive local, national and international societies.
Laissez-passer, Effroyables Jardins and Monsieur Batignole
Chapter 3 examines the grey zone which exists in between resistance and collaboration: an ambiguous zone which challenges characters with a moral dilemma. This had been seen in Le Silence de la mer, La Traversée de Paris, La Grande Vadrouille and Le Dernier Métro, but more recently in Laissez-passer (Bertrand Tavernier), Effroyables Jardins (Jean Becker) and Monsieur Batignole (Gérard Jugnot). These films offer nuanced representations of actions taken by everyday French citizens in order to survive and, usually through a transformative experience, make a contribution to the Franco-Français conflict. The self-reflective narrative of Tavernier’s Laissez-passer places itself within the cinema industry during the time of the Occupation by focusing on two (real-life) men; an assistant director and a screenwriter. Each resists in some way, both feeling the heavy responsibility of their roles as storytellers and ‘history makers’ during this difficult period. Jugnot’s Monsieur Batignole and Becker’s Effroyables Jardins each interrogate the notion of choice and agency, with central characters forced to make a decision, to pick a side; attentisme (simply waiting for the war to end) and passivity no longer remain options. The characters in these whimsical films choose to protect those around them, to become unlikely heroes.
The book’s introduction outlines the aim and scope of the book, providing context of the historical period and charting its commemoration over the last seventy years. It discusses the significance of President Jacques Chirac’s 1995 speech in a sociocultural context. It contains discussion of relevant case studies including a self-reflective exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet and Alain Resnais’s seminal film discussing the memory of the Second World War, Hiroshima mon amour. This latter example allows for reflection on the interrelationship between film and history. The book’s place within existing literature is established, drawing inspiration from the work of Henry Rousso in Le syndrome de Vichy. This first section also explains the structure and thematic approach the book as a whole will take.
Un héros très discret, Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars, Indigènes and Diplomatie
Chapter 4 considers the topic of legacy. After analysing Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard and Lanzmann’s Shoah, it discusses four French films engaging with the legacy left by les années noires of the Occupation. In Un héros très discret, the story of a young man who takes advantage of post-war confusion to falsely assume the status of a former Resistant, Audiard interrogates the reliability of testimony and how the public can be manipulated for different political and personal purposes. It also challenges the ‘official’, Gaullist retelling of the Occupation. Le Promeneur du Champ-de-Mars is based on the last few months of François Mitterrand’s life, focusing closely on the ambiguity of his wartime allegiances and teasing out what legacy can mean on both a grand and personal scale. Another politically charged film is Bouchareb’s Indigènes, which actively aimed to right wrongs of the past and ongoing injustices faced by Second World War veterans from previous colonial territories in North Africa. An effort to rectify a lack of recognition but also an appeal for compensation, this film illustrates the relevance of films telling stories from the past and their potential impact on the contemporary society viewing them. Finally, Diplomatie is a dialogue debating the importance of a nation’s cultural heritage, one that is worthy of respect and protection.
Acting as symbols of hope, children feature heavily in historical war films. This is also true of French cinema’s representation of the Second World War. Chapter 5 discusses the allegorical role of children in older films such as Jeux interdits, Le Vieil Homme et l’enfant and Au revoir les enfants. It then examines three French films – Un secret (Claude Miller), Belle et Sébastien (Nicolas Vanier) and Les Héritiers (Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar) which propose that new generations confront the complicated idea of commemoration by discussing nuanced ideas of identity, innocence, memory and pedagogy. A closer look at Vanier’s Belle et Sébastien allows us to interrogate the concepts of nostalgia and innocence in relation to this period and how it is being retold. The pedagogical aim and scope of Les Héritiers is discussed in relation to its message that contemporary awareness of the past can bring about social cohesion in the present. Un secret also engages with the theme of memory and lost innocence within a family unit. Complementing the trend of films made since 1995, it acknowledges the chronological distance between its contemporary central character and the history that still haunts him and his family by organising its narrative structure into several timelines, each affected by the others.
Nazi-occupied France, 16 July 1942. The French police arrest 13,152 Jewish residents of Paris and hold them at the Vélodrome d’Hiver before facilitating their deportation to extermination camps, over two-thirds to Auschwitz. Not until 1995, on the fifty-third anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup, was the French authorities’ complicity in this event officially acknowledged in a speech by newly elected president Jacques Chirac: ‘France, land of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights … France, on that day, committed an irreparable act.’ Reframing remembrance: Contemporary French cinema and the Second World War argues that Chirac’s speech marked a shift in the way French society, and its filmmakers, commemorated the Second World War. By following Henry Rousso’s model (outlined in Le syndrome de Vichy), viewing historical films as vectors of memory, this book analyses cinematic representations of the Occupation as expressions of commemoration. It charts the evolution of Second World War stories told on French screens and argues that more recent films are concerned with the collective experience of the Occupation, the pedagogical responsibility of historical films and with adopting a self-reflective approach to their narrative structures. With its catalogue-like structure and clear thematic analysis of key concepts such as resistance, collaboration and legacy, Reframing remembrance is an informative and accessible investigation into French cinema and its treatment of the Second World War.
Lucie Aubrac, Bon Voyage, Les Femmes de l’ombre and L’Armée du crime
Chapter 1 discusses French resistance on screen. It begins with an overview of the depiction of French resistance in films made prior to 1995, including works of Clément, Melville, Bresson and Poiré. The contemporary case studies in this chapter represent and glorify resistance, paying particular homage to militarised Resistance movements during the Occupation. These three films paint a complicated political picture of the Resistance and the various organisations which fell under this term. An analysis of Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac and its subsequent scandals discusses the representation of ‘obvious’ resistance by ordinary French citizens and the problematic bias of biopics. Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage is a broad-stroke depiction of resistance that focuses largely on the middle and upper classes. It charts (in a strangely light-hearted way) the journeys of several French citizens belonging to a Resistance cell during the Occupation. Les Femmes de l’ombre is a fictionalised account of a female group of Resistance fighters who, though reticent at first, respond to an appeal to fight for their nation, many sacrificing themselves for the greater good along the way. L’Armée du crime shifts focus to the Resistance group led by Missak Manouchian. Immortalised in l’Affiche rouge (the red poster), this group consisted of migrant Communist resistants who again made the ultimate sacrifice in fighting against the occupying forces.
Chapter 11 unpacks Jarman's creative use of colour as a queer strategy for creating history in the midst of crisis in the film and accompanying book of poetry, Blue, and the book Chroma. It considers the ethics of bearing witness in the face of trauma and loss, and the therapeutic possibilities of abstraction.