Jean Douchet, Socrates of Criticism

On Film / The Daily — Nov 25, 2019
Jean Douchet

For over sixty years, Jean Douchet, who passed away on Friday at the age of ninety, made and wrote about films, but it was the way he talked about them that led French cinephiles to call him the “Socrates of criticism.” As Danilo Scholz points out in the German magazine Cargo, Douchet’s agora was the ciné-club, where, with a contagious passion, he would introduce, screen, and discuss films by directors he admired (Kenji Mizoguchi and Jean Renoir were favorites) and worked with (just about all the major filmmakers of the French New Wave). Douchet also taught at the renowned Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris (renamed La Fémis in the late 1980s) and counted among his students future filmmakers Arnaud Desplechin, Noémie Lvovsky, Émilie Deleuze, and François Ozon.

In 1949, Douchet was twenty and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne when he boarded a night train to Biarritz and the Festival du film maudit. On board, he spotted Eric Rohmer, and the Belgian site Sabzian quotes a passage from Antoine de Baecque’s biography of Rohmer in which Douchet looks back on that fateful night: “At that time I was as shy as he was. I saw him. I went up to him. We talked all night in the corridor. We discussed Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious, Rossellini, John Ford, Keaton, Renoir, and Murnau. We agreed about everything.” During the car ride back to Paris, Douchet talked movies with François Truffaut.

The following year, he began writing for Rohmer’s short-lived magazine, La Gazette du cinéma, but his career in criticism was interrupted by France’s mandatory military service. When he returned to Paris, he published his first article in Cahiers du cinéma in 1958 and began taking walk-on roles in films by his fellow critics—Antoine Doinel’s mother’s lover in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), for example, or an anonymous man at the scene of an accident in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Over the decades that followed, Douchet briefly appeared in films by Rohmer, Jean Eustache, Jacques Rivette, Xavier Beauvois, Patrice Chéreau, João César Monteiro, and Otar Iosseliani. As a director, Douchet contributed a short to the omnibus film Paris vu par . . . (Six in Paris, 1965), which included contributions from Godard, Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jean Rouch, but he’s primarily known for his documentaries about cinema, many of them made for French television.

Douchet’s first book, Alfred Hitchcock, appeared in 1967, and a collection of essays written for Cahiers, the weekly magazine Arts, and other publications was published in 1987. The title is a neat summation of his approach to film criticism: L’Art d’aimer, The Art of Loving. “My approach involves sensation, then an attempt at a lucid analysis of this sensation,” he told Cahiers editors Emmanuel Burdeau and Thierry Lounas in a 2006 interview that Srikanth Srinivasan has translated and posted. The occasion for the interview was a collection of DVD reviews Douchet had written for the magazine he left after Rohmer was ousted as editor in 1963. After waiting out the magazine’s Maoist phase, he began writing for it again in the 1980s, encouraged by a critic he’d brought on years earlier, Serge Daney.

In the early 2000s, Douchet was a great champion of the DVD as a format for discovery, and when Burdeau and Lounas asked him how he went about choosing which titles to write about, he answered: “No predetermined selection, only impulses, urges to write. I chose DVDs based sometimes on what I liked, sometimes on what I received. This ‘chance’ went hand in hand with my chief trait: epicureanism, pleasure above all. Now, pleasure is a question of receptiveness. Even when it’s a gift, this gift intensifies reception. I receive, I give, pleasure amplifies the pleasure of having received. A perpetual exchange.”

For the past several years, the Cinémathèque française hosted a weekly Ciné-Club Jean Douchet, and as a tribute on Friday, the Cinémathèque began posting video recorded on several of those evenings. Those fluent in French may want to sample Douchet’s talk on Ernst Lubitsch or his conversation with Desplechin about Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), a film Douchet claimed to have seen “two or three hundred times.”

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