This book aims to demystify the place and power of the screenwriter within French film production, in creative and artistic terms, but also in the context of film criticism and film discourse more generally, whether that be in mainstream, popular or auteur cinema. Critical discourses on French cinema have tended to consider words to be of secondary importance to the image, regarding screenwriters as either over-dominant or completely eclipsed. The reality is, of course, that screenwriting has remained an integral part of the industry since the coming of sound. This book takes a number of key figures in the history of French screenwriting from the transition to sound to the present day, in order to explore the shifting function and position of screenwriters and major trends in screenwriting practice. It considers the industrial categorisation of screenwriting as adaptation, script development and dialogue writing, and explores creative practices around these three specialist areas – which are rarely as clearly defined as film credits might have us believe. It addresses and questions the myths that have emerged around certain writers in critical discourses, as well as the narrative mythologies that these writers have helped to shape in their films: from fatalism and the working-class (anti)hero to the small-minded petit bourgeois; from the neurotic protagonist to the naive fool of comedy. In doing so, it also reflects on the methodological challenges of screenwriting research, and the opportunities opened up by shedding light on these frequently neglected figures.
Charles Spaak is one of the earliest major screenwriters in French sound cinema, alongside Marcel Pagnol, Jacques Prévert and Henri Jeanson, and the first to start out by writing for the movies. He collaborated as writer on around 100 feature films in a career that spanned more than forty years, and was one of the most sought-after screenwriters of the classical period, described – in opposition to Prévert, the poet – as the ‘dramaturge’ of French cinema. This chapter explores Spaak’s role in shaping the classic French cinema, influencing the stories that were told and their recurring preoccupations, including themes indelibly associated with the 1930s, such as social class, exile and nostalgia, fatalism and the construction of masculinity.
Jacques Prévert (1900–77) is perhaps the best known of all French screenwriters. Poet, songwriter, surrealist, creator of collages and animator of the Groupe Octobre, the best-known agit-prop theatre troupe of the 1930s, this anti-conformist figure was also the inventor of many of the most memorable characters and lines of 1930s and 1940s French cinema. His public image is based not only on prominent billing and an ability to sell movies, but also on an intertextual persona encompassing his prolific and wide-ranging artistic output, personal life, connections to places, and to cultural and political movements and figures of the twentieth century: Surrealism, the Groupe Octobre and the Left, Poetic Realism, Miró, Picasso. This chapter examines the Prévert ‘myth’, from his beginnings in cinema, to key partnerships, including with Marcel Carné, to consider the notion of collaborative creativity. Prévert’s extensive output and the thematic and stylistic coherence across his œuvre are evidence of his authorial creativity, but a close look at his screenwriting practices and outputs shows that this creativity was driven not by individual inspiration but by collaborative exchange.
With over eighty films to his credit, Jeanson is one of the foremost writers of classic French cinema. His fame is largely attributed to his talent for the mot d’auteur, the scene-stealing line which leaps off the screen and threatens to undermine the narrative illusion. Indeed, Jeanson is responsible for hundreds of the best known lines in French film history. He vigorously defended the idea that dialogue should not pass unnoticed, reacting violently against critics who complained of dialogue that was ‘too brilliant, too witty, too written’, and showing contempt for the idea that lines should ‘discreetly cross the screen on tiptoe so as not to excite the spectator in his boredom’ (Jeanson 2000: 9). This chapter considers Jeanson’s career, sketching out his unique position among French dialogue writers, his preferred themes and screenwriting style, and the connections between his journalism and his film writing. It also explores Jeanson’s collaborations with the actors who performed his ‘spectacular dialogue’, analysing the pleasures of cinematic dialogue via the connection it establishes between writer, performer and audience.
Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost are best known as the foremost screenwriters of the French ‘tradition of quality’ lambasted by François Truffaut who bemoaned the ‘psychological realism’ of their films which he claimed had little to do with post-war France. This chapter looks again at the screenwriting of Aurenche and Bost and argues that the peculiarities and context of the so-called tradition of quality have been critically and academically neglected largely due to the auteurist orthodoxy established by New Wave critics. Aurenche and Bost collaborated on thirty feature films working with directors such as Yves Allégret, Jean Delannoy, René Clément and, most frequently, Claude Autant-Lara. Many of these films have been critically dismissed as emblematic of post-war stagnation and ‘academicism’. Focusing on their collaborations with Autant-Lara, this chapter draws on archival research that highlights the collective, contingent nature of their screenwriting, adaptation and filmmaking practices and reveals how these influential films were in fact firmly rooted in their times.
The French New Wave and its critical legacy have had a fundamental impact on the way screenwriting practices have developed since the 1960s. Because of the influence of the auteurist position that privileges the director’s role, they have also affected the way screenwriting and the screenwriter have been conceptualised in film studies. Using examples from three key writer-directors – Truffaut, Varda and Rohmer – this chapter engages with film authorship and the auteur from a screenwriting perspective to challenge enduring myths regarding the New Wave and screenwriters. It looks at how the privileging of mise en scene by the politique des auteurs led not to the disappearance of screenwriters and screenplays but to different, more flexible approaches to writing, which changed established models of film development. The chapter explores a number of innovative writing methods developed by Truffaut, Varda and Rohmer for the screen and considers how these affect the traditionally collaborative nature of film development and the writing process.
Michel Audiard is a prolific French screenwriter and dialogue writer. Between 1948 and 1984, he wrote the dialogue for around 130 films and twenty full screenplays. He also directed nine films, but – like Jeanson – his main talent resided in the conception of polished dialogue for specific actors, thus populating stories that were frequently written or adapted by established authors. His fictional worlds bring to life a gallery of colourful characters, interpreted by national (and sometimes international) film stars with strong personas (Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo …). The chapter investigates Audiard’s screenwriting practices including his role in the consolidation of the use of dialogue as a major element of French popular post-war cinema. It focuses on particular cult comedies, crime stories and spoof gangster films from the late 1950s and 1960s coinciding with the emergence of the New Wave. It identifies Audiard’s ‘family’ at different stages of his career: the writing teams, directors and actors who contributed to the writing process in various ways and some of the features of dialogue that define his polished signature style. It also addresses his impact on screenwriter visibility and his legacy as a dialogue writer.
Given the centrality of the comedy genre to the French film industry and its popularity, this chapter looks at two case studies of comedy screenwriters to explore significant trends in the process of writing comedy films. The first is that of Francis Veber, an established comedy screenwriter whose career spans from the 1970s to 2010 and includes hits such as L’emmerdeur, La chèvre and Le Dîner de cons all featuring his canonical comic protagonist François Pignon. Veber has a special talent for dialogue writing, characterisation and well-oiled plots capturing the social air du temps. The chapter also explores the more collective writing experience of Le Splendid, a Paris café-théâtre troupe of the late 1970s who adapted some of their live shows into comedy films like Les Bronzés and Le Père Noël est une ordure. These cult films renewed the comedy genre revealed the next generation of successful film stars, screenwriters and directors, including Josiane Balasko, Gérard Jugnot and Christian Clavier.