Auteur Theory

François Truffaut by Luis Grañena

In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary ‘auteur’ (the French word for ‘author’). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur’s creative voice is distinct enough to shine through all kinds of studio interference and through the collective process.

In law, the film is treated as a work of art, and the auteur, as the creator of the film, is the original copyright holder. Under European Union law, the film director is considered the author or one of the authors of a film, largely as a result of the influence of auteur theory.

Auteur theory has influenced film criticism since 1954, when it was advocated by film director and critic François Truffaut. This method of film analysis was originally associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for the French film review periodical ‘Cahiers du Cinéma.’ Auteur theory was developed a few years later in America through the writings of ‘The Village Voice’ critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris used auteur theory as a way to further the analysis of what defines serious work through the study of respected directors and their films.

Truffaut recognized that movie-making was an industrial process. However, he proposed an ideal to strive for, encouraging the director to use the commercial apparatus as a writer uses a pen, and, through the mise en scène, imprint his or her vision on the work (minimizing the role of the screenwriter). Recognizing the difficulty of reaching this ideal, they valued the work of directors who came close. The idea of a ‘Camera-pen’ traces to Alexandre Astruc who encouraged directors to wield cameras as writers use pens and to guard against the hindrances of traditional storytelling. The cinema enthusiasts who wrote for ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ championed filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir as absolute ‘auteurs’ of their films.

The definition of an Auteur was debated upon since the 1940’s. Andre Bazin and Roger Leenhardt presented the theory that it is the director that brings the film to life and uses the film to express their thoughts and feelings of the subject matter as well as a world view as an auteur. An auteur can use lighting, camerawork, staging and editing to add to their vision. Michel Foucault wrote a literary piece called ‘What is an author?’ which contributes to the the Auteur Theory. The texts relation to an anuthor is the ‘author function.’ This is connected to a legal system concerning who owns the text. This theory has become more complex than just attribution. According to Foucault, ‘author’ does not refer to just a real individual but rather as an alter ego of an actual person. ‘Author’ is too narrow of a definition for some who Foucault calls ‘founders of discursivity.’

In his 1954 essay ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ (‘A certain tendency in French cinema’), François Truffaut coined the phrase ‘la politique des Auteurs,’ asserting that the worst of Jean Renoir’s movies would always be more interesting than the best of the movies of Jean Delannoy. ‘Politique’ might very well be translated as ‘policy’ or ‘program’; it involves a conscious decision to value and look at films in a certain way. One might see it as the policy of treating any director that uses a personal style or a unique world view as an Auteur. Truffaut criticized the Cinema of Quality as ‘Scenarists’ films,’ which are works that lack originality and rely on literary classics. According to Truffaut, this means that the director is only a metteur en scene, a ‘stager.’ This tradition suggests that the screenwriter hands the script to the director and the director simply adds the performers and pictures. Truffaut provocatively said: ‘(t)here are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.’

Truffaut’s article, by his own admission, dealt primarily with scenarists or screenwriters, precisely the screenwriting duo Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who, Truffaut believed, simplified and compromised many of the great works of French literature in order to support the political agenda of their day. In Truffaut’s article, he references the director Claude Autant-Lara’s characterization of his adaptation of Raymond Radiguet’s ‘Devil in the Flesh’ as an ‘anti-war’ book, citing the problem that the book pre-dated the Second World War. Truffaut applied the term ‘auteur’ to directors like Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Jacques Becker, Jacques Tati, and Robert Bresson, who, aside from exerting their distinct style, wrote the screenplays or worked on the writing of screenplays of their films.

In its embryonic form, the auteur theory dealt with the nature of literary adaptations and Truffaut’s discomfort with the screenwriters Aurenche’s and Bost’s maxim that any film adaptation of a novel should capture the spirit of the novel and deal only with its ‘filmable’ aspects. Truffaut believed that film directors like Robert Bresson were able to use the film narrative to approach even the so-called ‘unfilmable’ scenes. To support this assertion, he referred to the film version of Georges Bernanos’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’

Much of the writing of Truffaut and his colleagues at ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ was designed to lambaste not only the post-war French cinema but especially the big production films of the cinéma de qualité (‘quality films’). Truffaut’s circle referred to these films with disdain as sterile, old-fashioned cinéma de papa (or ‘Dad’s cinema’). During the Nazi occupation, the Vichy government did not allow the exhibition of U.S. films such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Citizen Kane.’ In 1946, when French film critics were finally able to see the 1940s U.S. movies, they were enamoured with them.

Truffaut’s theory maintains that a good director (and many bad ones) exerts such a distinctive style or promotes such a consistent theme that his or her influence is unmistakable in the body of his or her work. Truffaut himself was appreciative of directors whose work showed a marked visual style (such as Alfred Hitchcock) as well as those whose visual style was less pronounced but whose movies reflected a consistent theme (such as Jean Renoir’s humanism). Truffaut et al. made the distinction between auteurs and ‘metteurs en scene,’ the latter not being described as inferior directors making inherently poor films, just lacking the authorial signature.

The auteur theory was used by the directors of the nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement of French cinema in the 1960s (many of whom were also critics at the ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’) as justification for their intensely personal and idiosyncratic films. One of the ironies of the Auteur theory is that, at the very moment Truffaut was writing, the break-up of the Hollywood studio system during the 1950s was ushering in a period of uncertainty and conservatism in American cinema, with the result that fewer of the sort of films Truffaut admired were actually being made.

The ‘auteur’ approach was adopted in English-language film criticism in the 1960s. In the UK, ‘Movie’ adopted Auteurism, while in the U.S., Andrew Sarris introduced it in the essay, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,’ from which the term ‘Auteur theory’ originates. To be classified as an ‘auteur,’ according to Sarris, a director must accomplish technical competence in their technique, personal style in terms of how the movie looks and feels, and interior meaning (although many of Sarris’s auterist criteria were left vague. Later in the decade, Sarris published ‘The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968,’ which quickly became the unofficial bible of auteurism.

Starting in the 1960s, some film critics began criticizing auteur theory’s focus on the authorial role of the director. Pauline Kael and Sarris feuded in the pages of ‘The New Yorker’ and various film magazines. One reason for the backlash is the collaborative aspect of shooting a film, and in the theory’s privileging of the role of the director (whose name, at times, has become more important than the movie itself). In Kael’s review of ‘Citizen Kane,’ a classic film for the auteur model, she points out how the film made extensive use of the distinctive talents of co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland.

Notable screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman, Nicholas Kazan, Robert Riskin, and William Goldman have publicly balked at the idea that directors are more authorial than screenwriters, while film historian Aljean Harmetz, referring to the creative input of producers and studio executives in classical Hollywood, argues that the auteur theory ‘collapses against the reality of the studio system.’

The auteur theory was also challenged by the influence of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism. The New Critics argued that critics made an ‘intentional fallacy’ when they tried to interpret works of art by speculating about what the author meant, based on the author’s personality or life experiences. New Critics argued that that information or speculation about an author’s intention was secondary to the words on the page as the basis of the experience of reading literature.

In 2006, David Kippen coined the term ‘Schreiber theory’ to refer to the theory of the screenwriter as the principal author of a film.

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