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Michel Serceau (dir.) (1993), « Panorama des genres au cinéma »

CinémAction, no 68, 3e trimestre
Mercedes Escamilla
p. 194-200
Référence(s) :

Michel Serceau (dir.) (1993), « Panorama des genres au cinéma », CinémAction, no 68, 3e trimestre.

Texte intégral

1Panorama des genres au cinéma is dedicated « to the new cinephiles » : high school and university students. Though not intended as a Monograph, it introduces and discusses the complex issue of « genres » through a compilation of 24 specialized contributions (completed with complementary bibliographies, filmographies and photographic material including movie stills). The objective of this thematic edition is to help non-initiated people find their way through the jungle of the « genres » and their classifications. It intends to formulate pertinent questions about the genres that will help the reader to develop an initial understanding of this hotly debated subject, although it does not offer a comprehensive answer.

2The Panorama is a collection of independent short essays, which are organized into 10 chapters and an Introduction. The first three chapters are dedicated to the geographical location (Hollywood, France, Japan and India), showing that the genres debate is to a large extent also a cultural debate. The following six chapters are focused on a particular genre : comedy, melodrama, fantasy and science fiction, historical films, realistic films, and porno movies. Within these chapters the editor has chosen either a cultural sub-division (like the English or Italian comedy) or a genre-based subdivision (the political film, the documentary). The concluding chapter brings us back to the fundamentals of the genre debate, comprising three essays on the meaning of genres for classifying cinema. Although it is hard to do justice in a lecturer’s note to the wealth of information and film references that are mobilized by each of the 23 specialists (each essay in essence being a summary in itself), it seems interesting to present the core of the contents in order to show both extent and depth as well as bias and eclecticism in the collection. At the end of the résumé, we will discuss whether the volume meets its objectives.

3After a brief introduction by the editor, the kick-off comes from François de la Bretèque who analyses Les genres du cinema (1963). This classic by Antoine Vallet proposes nine different genres all of them related to literature, and as such is an interesting historical starting point for asking the right questions. However, he concludes, it is doubtful whether literary genres still offer a useful tool for understanding cinema. As a matter of fact, they are not used to organize the core of the volume.

4Chapter I takes us to, arguably, the most influential hometown of cinema : Hollywood. Three genres are closely related to the Californian Mountains, being the Western, the Musical and the « film noir ».

5Starting with the Western, Suzanne Liandra-Guigues remarks that its classification often lacks a real understanding related to its geographical context producing a mythical space. The inaccurate question of what the Western is should be replaced by a reflection on the Western itself. Observing the different elements that appear within the Western, she concludes that a genre is a collection of other works, a body linked to other bodies. Also the Musical, writes N.T. Bihn, provokes ambivalent positions. To define it we must consider it as a blend of other artistic branches : its success results from the harmony between movement, image and sound. Even without sound there were film musicals as early as the 1920s. When the voice appeared in 1927, the genre rapidly reached maturity with the 1929 film Broadway Melody by Harry Beaumont and Parade by Ernst Lubitsch. The « film noir », defends Michel Cieutat, is not just a variation of the detective film, but a mature genre in itself. He defines a list of 22 parameters that define a movie as « noir », obviously containing the crime, the city and the night, but also the « femme fatale », greediness, anti heroes or oppressive closed doors.

6In contrast to Anglo-Saxon cinema, the French cinema is much less based on genres but on Theatre and Literature, and as such can be considered a genre in itself. In Chapter II René Predal explains that French cinematography has a very narrow genre spectrum and a particular form of narrating. In essence, one can distinguish the psychological film and the « cinéma d’auteur » (the Nouvelle Vague). The former flirts with all the other genres whereas in the latter the director expresses himself by means of the characters and the plot : delving deeply into the characters and minimizing the plot ; the tempo is more reflexive than active.

7Going beyond Occidental film cultures and with the aim to extend the genre debate, Chapter III takes us to Japan and to India. Hubert Niogret examines the Japanese cinematography and establishes two main categories, the historical film (jidai-geki) and the modern film (gendaki-geki) that include stories since 1868 at the beginning of the Meiji era, a sub-genre itself. Jidai-geki films include historic films and those called sable films where the duel is part of the development of the story ; Gendaki-geki includes monsters, action, and erotic films. Interestingly, in both categories corresponding genres appear similar to those from theatre and literature. As in literature Japanese audiences look for points of reference, this explains the boom of serials and remakes with specific codes for specific audiences. As for the Indian cinema, Rashmi Doraiswamy explains that socialist ideas and hope for a better future appear as recurrent themes. After the independence of 1947 up until the end of the 1960s the cinema appears as a dream : situation changes and so do idealistic thoughts, the accent going from the collective destiny to the individual one. 1989 brings the lost of faith in the institutions, the government, the judicial system, police and its capacity to restore Justice and this is reflected in the films of the last 20 years. There is nothing in common between films that belong to the same genre but were made in the 1950s and in the 1980s.

8After this geographical orientation, the next chapters discuss a selection of genres, starting with the Comedy (Chapter IV). Comedies are highly culture-bound, and large differences exist between American, English and Italian comedy. But also within one culture, claims Grégoire Halbout in his introductory essay. It is a mistake to reduce a multiform genre and to deny the evolution from the silent film era to the burlesque and to the situation comedy. With respect to the American Comedy two patterns of success can be identified : popular and screwball comedies. They are closely related to the cultural reality of each epoch, representing a society closely related to its audience : life is simple, honest work dignifies, all is well that ends well. Also, the comedies serve to underline the imperfections of a society without classes. Censorship often limited the comedy to the pursuit of happiness of the couple as the fundamental cell of society. In contrast to the American Theatre where comedy and drama are totally opposed, La comédie à l’italienne (title of the essay by Sandro Bernardi) tends to demonstrate that the comic and the tragic are not separate but identical universes. Italian comedy has a pejorative connotation and has been used to designate a cinematography genre with deep roots in the Roman nature, the ancient comedy of Plauto and the classic author. The English Comedy, at last, is closely related to the contradictory nature of English humor : the logic of the absurd. Alain Malassinet emphasizes the leitmotivs that converge on it : realism (originated in the documentary school and its seal in the war movies) ; the psychological approach or the social description ; the adaptation of classical works (like Shakespeare and Dickens) ; the detective film (represented by Hitchcock), the fantastic (natural result of the realism) and the humorous approach with its sources also in the realism.

9Aspects of the melodrama (Chapter V) are introduced based on three cinema-cultures : the American, Italian and Spanish. In Le mélodrame américain, Jean-Pierre Piton writes about the predominance of this genre that produced some beautiful films of the golden age of Hollywood. Melodrama, still one of the most popular genres, has several key characters and archetypal situations, which are used to create stories that oppose irreconcilable worlds (because of conventions, age, race, ways of life). The fight against conventions is worse when racial prejudice is highlighted, but at its best melodrama exalts the values of the free market and American capitalism ; work is the key to success. In contrast, the Italian melodrama appeared in an era of censorship and closely related to political matters. Sentimentality gave place to a code of intentions directed to an audience looking to escape from a difficult life. Historic references in the melodrama are a kind of pretext ; the author, Stephano Socci, explains that melodrama always has a metaphysical dimension : ambiguous, symbolic and fluctuating between aesthetic and technical experimentation (color and atmosphere), a return to the grandiloquent melodrama Hollywood style, the autobiographic and unconscious bends. In the case of Spain, argues Marcel Oms, melodramas are impregnated with semi-pagan religiosity full of rich characters among which the priest takes a special place. In the specific case of Mexico, melodramas underline the conflict that resulted from the confrontation of Indian blood and the Catholic conquest.

10The sources of the fantastic film are legends and folklore, writes Jean-Pierre Piton, in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Chapter VI). The roots are undoubtedly present in German and Scandinavian culture and also France tales. Later, many of those characters appear in Anglo-Saxon cinema, like the vampire myth that evolved from the pure sexual connotations to social and political interpretations : vampirism = Nazism or capitalism. The genre adopts many forms : the strange (non common phenomena but compatible with natural laws), the marvelous (a singular universe where everything is possible) or the dominion of fairies. A contrasting form is Terror, in itself difficult to delimit, belonging to uncommon individuals and relating to our deepest fears. A particular type of fantasy is Science Fiction (SF). Claude Billard explains that this genre can be situated in the confluence of two sources of inspiration : fairy tales and technical advances of science. Science Fiction represents, in particular in films, the imaginary place where the human individual has reached a return to himself in a reflection on the destiny of humankind. SF images are those of Jerome Bosch and they aim to lead us astray sending us far away from our landmarks as a result of the technical and scientific power. There are unequivocal signs in Science Fiction : robots, machines, space, future, extra terrestrials, and future cosmos dominion.

11Chapter VII accentuates the place of history in cinema. Not without humor, Claude Aziza starts this section with the so-called peplum cinema : historical films dedicated to glorify the male figure named after a female garment ! They appear in the 1960s, but there are early productions (the antepeplum, the archpeplum) as well as contemporary ones (the neopeplum). What these films have in common is their historical setting in the Antiquity, that is, European antiquity glorifying Greek, Roman or Christian heroes. Peplum, therefore, hardly is a genre, but a mixture of any kind of historical influences, often leading to mediocre cinema complete with well-oiled biceps ready to save the threatened beauty. A second branch of the historic genre includes the French creation of cloak-and-dagger films. Pierre Guibbert points out that this genre is recognized for its reference to a determinate moment (witnessed by the film poster) where the hero of the film appears geared with cloak and dagger. The genre renewed with the Ancient Regime following the cavalry films where the heroes use armor and pikes. This type of expression situated French history in the path of a contemporary realism and marks the romantic decline of the Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Louis XV regimes. The films abound in landscapes and nature ; geography is present, as are parks and gardens. This typical national genre reaches its heights during the epoch of Gaullism and later diminishes with the fading of national pride.

12In classifications, Fiction is often contrasted with non-Fiction (the cinema of the real). In Chapter VIII four authors try to nuance this simplistic view. First, Genevieve Jacquinot introduces the idea that Fiction itself has a documentary value. This discussion brings us to the underlying question about the relationships between films and reality, something that, a priori can lead us to declare that the Documentary is not a genre but an adventure of cinematography that extend to all the other genres. The debate relates both to the intrinsic nature of reality, the possibility to interfere actively with the environment and since the 1970s to camera objectivity and semiological ideas about the image as a language. In his short contribution, Yves Laberge illustrates the theme, presenting the Quebecois Documentary movement. Its proponents held the idea that the event must be lived and not narrated. Real sound was one of the innovations replacing narration and musical score in the background. During the 60’s technical advances had a big influence, approaching fiction and non-fiction. In France, the young filmmakers from the Nouvelle Vague changed the scheme for the fiction movies and the French-speaking filmmakers in Canada tried to do something similar in relation to the traditional Documentary. Part of it can be explained by ethics (a different approach to the world), social concerns (the need to show the real more closely) or cultural identity (refusal to adopt or stop to use British methods).

13Nicolas Schmidt, in his Cinema verité, considers « the cinema of the real » as a literal translation of Vertov’s Kino Pravda. Cinema verité accounts for films rooted in observation : the director actively participates in the occupations of those who are observed. It is at the same time a manifestation of the possibilities that the cinema offers and a manifest as a part of cinema that has a critical vision, a social tendency that alters the nearness between those who film and those filmed. It is an heterogeneous genre with sources in the beginning of cinema (Italian neo-realism), and evolving through the French Nouvelle Vague, the Free Cinema and the New York School.

14A fourth expression of the real cinema is the Political film. Raymond Lefèvre points out that this cinema is characterized by its political message sometimes with a militant aim. The genre also includes propaganda films where the tendentious gives place to cynicism. Another aspect of the Political film is its purpose to arouse class-consciousness or a revolutionary attitude as the treatment given to strikes (like 1953’s Salt of the Earth). Finally, big scandals are also enclosed in the genre including authority or justice abuses, pointing out totalitarian or discriminatory regimes.

15Chapter IX reserves a place for the « Unclassifiable Porno ». In his second essay, Raymond Lefèvre approaches the theme through a historical return. Porno, attached to the time when nudity started to appear in films, is generated with the « Scandinavian immodesty » in the 1950s. Repression followed in the form of laws like the one in France of 1975 classifying films of pornographic character. Religious and moral censorship on the one hand and economic factors on the other bring the genre to decadence. All this banned porno from exhibition places, nowadays limiting it to video.

16As a genre one may define porno related to its function : the refusal of symbols or simulation of sexuality and situating it under the raw light of the Documentary. The characters are defined only for their sexual greed (gluttony) in the celebration of sex, without exception the central theme in all pornographic material.

17The final chapter brings the reader back to the initial debate on the use and usefulness of genres.

18Two short essays signed by Barthelemy Amengual and Michel Larouche revive once more the everlasting discussion. Whereas Amengual rejects the concept of genre, Larouche insists on the difficulty to classify in genres, since most films reflect the position of the director. Amengual agrees with this latter idea, promoting the « cinema d’auteur » as an alternative to the theoretical abstraction of genres. The final words come from the volume’s editor, Michel Serceau. In Vie, mort et retour des genres he identifies two (apparently contradictory) ways to establish the problem of cinematographic genres. The first one is rooted in the history of language and in the history of forms (in semiotics) and considers the genres as a simulacrum. A contrasting view comes from the perspective of cultural anthropology, which favors the continuity or even the return of the genres. However, he continues, we are not dealing with a difference, but at most with a divergence of points of view. Genres are not born and do not die : they continuously evolve and reformulate the relation between literature, society and cinematography. Therefore, he concludes, genres are neither framework nor code of reference. They are not the answer to the spectator in need of a classification, but in itself « a crystallization of its interrogation ».

19The very specialized contents of Panorama des genres au cinema make it not very well suited for non-initiated, but an interesting study document for initiated. The essays require not only the reader’s interest, but also a solid and theoretical understanding of the genres concept. Most authors write for an audience assuming knowledge that permits the reflection on the relative nature of what genres are. As is normal with so many French essayists, there is an emphasis on French cinematography, as well as historical and political connections that result in very rich and controversial material. As a final consideration, we are compelled to mention that if we would take François de la Bréteque’s suggestion to reread Les genres du cinema, we would find that one important genre is clearly missing in the present compilation : animations.

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Mercedes Escamilla, « Michel Serceau (dir.) (1993), « Panorama des genres au cinéma » », Communication, Vol. 23/1 | 2004, 194-200.

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Mercedes Escamilla, « Michel Serceau (dir.) (1993), « Panorama des genres au cinéma » », Communication [En ligne], Vol. 23/1 | 2004, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 20 janvier 2018. URL :

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Mercedes Escamilla

Oficina de Comunicacion del Lago.

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Les contenus de la revue Communication sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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