Faculty Lecture, Margaret Flinn: "1930s 'Banlieutopia' and the Films of Julien Duvivier"
Guest Writer: Cameron Riopelle

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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Duvivier 1934 
[On Monday, March 12, 2012, Margaret Flinn, (French, Media & Cinema Studies), gave the Unit for Criticism’s annual faculty lecture titled "1930s 'Banlieutopia' and the Films of Julien Duvivier". Below is a response from Cameron Riopelle, a graduate student in Sociology]

“Cinema and the Curious Property of Heterotopia”

Written by Cameron Riopelle (Sociology)

"Third principle. The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space."
--Michel Foucault “Of Other Spaces” (Foucault, 25)

The modern banlieue (French suburbs) are often sites of poverty, ghettoization, and unrest. The banlieues house mostly poor immigrant communities. Banlieues have been represented in the cinema, sometimes exploitively, through realism or action-oriented representation, or both. Often the movies taking place in these suburbs depict North African characters. This genre is known as Cinéma de banlieue or “banlieue cinema.”

In the period between World Wars I and II, however, the banlieues were represented in movies as working-class utopias. At this time, occupants of the banlieue were primarily white and working-class. Accordingly, Popular Front filmmakers idealized these communities. Although filmmaker Julien Duvivier was considered a second-rate film director by French film critics of his time, and though his works were apolitical, he shared in this idealization of the suburbs.

Margaret Flinn, University of Illinois professor of French and Media & Cinema Studies, discussed this shared idealization in Foucauldian terms, drawing on two Duvivier films Au Bonheur des Dames (1930) and La Belle Equipe (1936). Ignoring the obligatory movie romance plots, in both movies the filmmaker is concerned with the relationship between city center and banlieue. The banlieues are portrayed as places where working-class characters go to escape, relax, be free, and close to nature. They are therefore utopic in a mainstream sense but not in a Foucault’s sense. According to Foucault, a utopia is a space without -- and the banlieue only make sense in the context of place, especially since in these films the space of the banlieue is intentionally created as a space in which actors will perform the drama (Foucault, 24).

Banlieue and city are defined in relation to one another. A dichotomous list appears simple at first glance: 

CITY                           BANLIEUE
Real                            Idyllic
Dystopian                  Utopian
Industrial                    Pastoral
Dirty                             Clean
Technological            Natural
Moral                            Immoral
Individual                     Collective

La Haine 1995
However, Flinn complicates these terms by bringing in Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. By introducing human action into these apparently utopian spaces, both on the part of characters acting out plots and audience members watching the screen in the real world, the banlieues are not utopic but heterotopic, having "the curious property of being in relation to all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to mirror, designate, or reflect" (Foucault, 24). Contradiction arises as these connections between real/unreal and place/non-place seem to co-exist. All the counteractions between city and suburb that appear dichotomous in fact exist simultaneously in all places at once in the (represented) city center, the (represented) banlieues, as well as the real-world referents known to the audience.

Flinn thus argues that the two Duvivier films depict utopian banlieues that become heterotopic upon their viewing. There emerges an ungrounded simultaneity between the act of observation and the constructions of reality such viewership entails. Behind the viewer’s perception of the film is the director’s construction of a physical set. And in between is the contradiction of an odd rectangular room (movie showing space) with the two-dimensional screen on which is projected a reflection of the three-dimensional world.


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