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Intertextuality and Reflexivity in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007)

Intertextualité et réflexivité dans Atonement de Joe Wright (2017)
Christophe Gelly


La question de l’intertextualité est intimement liée à celle de la réflexivité, dans la mesure où une œuvre intertextuelle peut être considérée comme mise en scène potentielle d’un discours réflexif sur le rapport de cette œuvre à d’autres textes. Cet article tente d’exposer les différentes relations possibles entre ces deux concepts ; il examine également la manière dont ils peuvent s’appliquer dans le cadre d’une étude comparée du roman d’Ian McEwan et de son adaptation filmique par Joe Wright. La dimension éthique de ce versant réflexif des œuvres est également abordée comme point commun entre le film et le roman.

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1The two topics to be dealt with in this essay are very often treated as a critical commonplace regarding postmodern writing. Intertextuality, or the very conspicuous relation a text entertains with a given literary tradition, repeatedly appears as a defining trait of post-1950 literature. But it is also regularly associated with self-consciousness or reflexivity, in the sense that a text which conspicuously inserts quotes may appear as a reflexive text—namely, a text that refers us not only or not mainly to the diegetic reality that is represented, but to textuality itself. My aim here is to examine more closely this specific relation between intertextuality and self-consciousness, a connection which is neither automatic nor self-evident, and to investigate the meaning this relation may take in the context of adaptation, regarding Joe Wright’s film version of Atonement. After studying the link between intertextuality and reflexivity, I shall first concern myself with the way intertextuality appears in the novel and in the film, through different devices and with sometimes dissimilar results. Then this reading will focus on the way reflexivity operates in the two works, particularly concerning images in the film. Finally, I shall assess the specific aim that is served by this reflexive trait in relation to the ethical discourse in both the source text and its adaptation.

Intertextuality versus Reflexivity

  • 1 For clarity’s sake the two terms will be considered as synonymous in this essay, although they are (...)

2Reflexivity, or metafiction,1 can be defined after Patricia Waugh’s influential essay, as fiction which comments upon fiction, and whose aim is to shed light on and critically approach the devices and conventions of fiction writing. To do so, metafictional texts present themselves openly as artefacts, as non-realistic expressions of a story world which is definitely presented as fictional. In Waugh’s words, metafiction ‘lays the device bare,’ i.e. it displays the conventional nature of fiction writing and reading with a view to exploring not only the workings but also the limits of fiction.

In novelistic practice, [metafiction] results in writing which consistently displays its conventionality, which explicitly and overtly lays bare its condition of artifice, and which thereby explores the problematic relationship between life and fiction […] (Waugh 4).

3The relation of metafiction to intertextuality can be diverse, but of significant interest is the remark by Waugh (5) that novels, as a particularly dialogic genre, integrate various modes of communication (memoirs, journals, diaries, journalism, etc.) which question each other and hence account for an intrinsically reflexive quality of novels as a genre. This dialogism is treated differently in metafictional novels and non-reflexive novels.

The conflict of languages and voices is apparently resolved in realistic fashion through their subordination to the dominant ‘voice’ of the omniscient, godlike author. Novels which Bakhtin refers to as ‘dialogic’ resist such resolution. Metafiction displays and rejoices in the impossibility of such a resolution and thus clearly reveals the basic identity of the novel as genre. (Waugh 6)

4I intend to examine whether the intertextual references in Joe Wright’s Atonement can be considered in this perspective as part of a dialogic texture in the film (and in the novel) and as implementing the metafictional function of the film, through the way they question the status of fiction within fiction.

5A first step in examining how intertextuality and reflexivity can account for the way both works function is to examine how the intertext appears in both novel and film. The novel announces its intertextual concern right from the beginning or more exactly before the beginning, through the paratext that spells out a moral of sorts taken from Austen’s Northanger Abbey, expounding the dangers of fiction. But this is only one part of the ‘lesson’ of the novel, and we know that much of the intertextual material in McEwan’s Atonement refers to the early 20th century, especially with the fictional letter reproduced on pages 311-315 and signed ‘CC,’ sent in answer to Briony’s manuscript. This letter has consistently been identified as a fictional recreation of a letter by Cyril Connolly, the famous editor (Hesse 85), and it mentions such prominent figures as Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen. Hence the conclusion by critic Bastin (192) that McEwan has a bone to pick with modernism primarily, and that this is what motivates the intertext in the novel. Concomitant with but not depending on these references, the novel also articulates reflexive notations which aim at a comparison between various modes of writing, as when Briony assesses the merits of drama and prose.

A story was direct and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader—no intermediaries with their private ambitions or incompetence, no pressures of time, no limits on resources. In a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and you could have the world; in a play you had to make do with what was available: no horses, no village streets, no seaside. No curtain. It seemed so obvious now that it was too late: a story was a form of telepathy. (37)

6Reflexivity thus often appears not as connected to a direct intertextual quote (except in the epigraph) but rather as a more general discourse on the nature of fiction. By contrast, the film inserts several direct ‘quotes’ within its own narrative, most noticeably one extract from Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes (1938), which appears twice—once when Robbie is visiting a cinema thronged with British soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation, and once when he is having hallucinations in an underground shelter just before dying. However, these passages do not elicit any explicit discourse on the form and validity of the cinematic message, unlike what happens in the novel for modes of writing. Thus, reflexivity seems disjointed from the actual insertion of intertexts in both works, since indirect intertextuality in the novel does not prevent reflexivity whereas the contrary is true for the film, which includes direct interfilmic quotes but fails to voice an explicit discourse on cinematic representation.

  • 2 This conception of cinematic enunciation as ‘external,’ or relying on an outer, impersonal agency, (...)

7This contrasted use of intertextuality (meaning here both intertextual and interfilmic devices) proceeds from an essential difference in the handling of reflexive comments on the medium—novel and film. These comments are integrated by Briony in the novel as the (hidden) author of the work we are reading, but they cannot keep the same status in the film unless Briony is presented as the (hidden) filmmaker. Matthew Bolton (34) has remarked how implausible this would have been, and shows that signs of Briony’s manipulation appear elsewhere, and in another way, in Joe Wright’s Atonement—noticeably by inserting clues that point to the instability of narrative frontiers and that thus suggest the acting presence of an organizing consciousness behind the narrative flow (Bolton, 36). But the intertextual elements remain distinct from the novel to the film, since their representation can be attributed to Briony’s direct authorship only in the novel, whereas in the film they are mediated by an external enunciation.2 Does it mean that reflexivity functions differently in the two works? And how can Briony in the film be given full responsibility for these reflexive comments if, as Bolton argues (35), she partly disappears as an author from the film?

8The latter question is easily solved: even if the film cannot maintain the same degree of ‘authorship’ for Briony as in the novel, we ultimately discover that as the general organizer of the narrative she may have had an influence over the very form of representation that was offered to us—hence she can be partly considered as responsible for the manipulative narrative that unfolds. She is at the origin of cinematic misrepresentation—the best proof of it is that her discourse in the end, supposedly true, triggers another representation on screen of Robbie’s and Cecilia’s deaths. But the former query is to be regarded more cautiously. Since Briony cannot be represented as a filmmaker in the adaptation, it means that the reflexivity of representation, the discourse held by the film on film as a medium is transposed into the filmic expression itself, noticeably through interfilmic references. We are now to examine the specific role of these references and how they may determine the metafictional quality of representation.

Two Figures by a Fountain

  • 3 This scene corresponds to what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction, i.e. a fictional d (...)

9When dealing with the relationship between intertext and metafiction in the film, it is essential to consider the status of this intertext. We have already identified Quai des brumes as a direct, explicit reference, but this is not the most frequent form inter-iconicity assumes in the film. Most frequently, the film refers to images treated as intertexts—i.e. images distinct from the main narration but inserted in it as visual quotes—by emphasizing the constructed nature of these images. These images used by the film are also reflexively pointing to the unreliability of images and to the manipulation they make possible. Two obvious examples come to mind. The first one is the scene [1’33’49] where Briony, as a nurse, watches a news report in a cinema together with wounded soldiers, and discovers that Lola is to be married to Paul Marshall. In this newsreel, we see the couple being presented to King George VIth and the future Queen Elizabeth. What stands out here is the paradoxical association between an obviously autonomous, seemingly realistic audiovisual piece (featuring the King) and the fictional value attached to it through the presence of these fictional protagonists, Paul and Lola. The contrast is all the starker as Lola watches directly into the camera as if she was staring at Briony, who is looking at the screen, thus further blurring the limits between narratives—not only between history and fiction but also between the theatre where Briony is sitting and watching, and the chocolate factory which the King is visiting. An intriguing feature of the scene is the fact that the voice over comment in the newsreel mentions ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ not George VIth, as the official visitor of this factory, whereas Elizabeth was not proclaimed Queen until 1953. This inconsistency in the historical frame, which the comment refers us to, suggests a further blurring of the chronological landmarks—as if the comment originated from a period after the war, i.e. from Briony’s viewpoint as a narrator, not as an actor in the plot. This reinforces the intrinsic temporal confusion of the scene where two narrative levels are being merged, the first being the cinema where the report is broadcast, and the second being the metafilm showing Paul and Lola with the King.3 This historical frame—the actual images of the King—only seemingly lends verisimilitude to the sequence; above all, it calls the viewer’s attention to the constructedness of the image and ostensibly presents it as a fake collage. It thus associates intertextuality—the reference to a ‘real’ news report—with reflexivity understood as triggering a question on the status of this image, both true and false, history and fiction.

10Another intertextual episode that is deeply reflexive is to be found in the final twist through which an aged Briony reveals the truth about Robbie and Cecilia. The scene is an obvious addition to the novel and can be understood as a spectacular dramatization of the revelation made by Briony at the ending of the plot. It appears justified in the adaptation by the need to represent visually the full scope of Briony’s manipulation through the insertion of the images of that reality which she has fictionalized in her story (such as Cecilia’s and Robbie’s deaths). By contrast, the novel reveals this manipulation by other words, but images are needed in the film to “revise” the misleading visual representation which has prevailed so far. This episode in the film adaptation evokes numerous other confession scenes but it is specifically significant through the fact that the role of Briony’s interviewer is played by Anthony Minghella, who was famous for directing another confessional narrative, The English Patient (1996), adapted from Michael Ondaatje. This may not be a direct quotation and only an allusion, but it suggests a significant relation with a story which similarly dwells very much on reinterpretation and gradual disclosure. This hint is significantly associated in the film with a scene which reveals to the viewer the very obvious machinery of audiovisual recording and broadcast. It thus combines the interfilmic allusion proceeding from the implicit reference to Minghella’s œuvre, with a more general question raised about the reliability of audiovisual content. Unlike what happens in the scene which features Paul and Lola (soon to be) Marshall and the Queen, the connection relies on continuity, not synchronicity, but the result is similar. The presence of Minghella blurs the narrative frontiers between diegetic content (Briony’s confession) and extradiegetic references, and it problematizes our adhesion to it. This is confirmed by the rewind of the interview scene at the beginning of the sequence, which materializes the presence of an external observer of the scene and destabilizes any definitely truthful value we may ascribe to the sequence. The very structure of the ending of Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement similarly works at keeping the viewer away from any set perspective on the denouement, with its alternation between the revisions of Briony’s manipulative narrative and a final, wish-fulfilling coda showing the survival of the two lovers in their idyllic cottage by the sea. The constructed quality of this sequence appears all the more starkly as they are preceded by this framing device that includes both a ‘real-life’ director and a rewind of the beginning of the interview.

11The articulation between intertext and reflexivity appears sometimes more directly, if more fleetingly. A case in point lies in the rather obvious link the film establishes between specific shots and famous paintings. For instance, when Briony is lying awake on a sofa [47’20] just before Robbie’s arrest, the sequence slows down to tilt down on her body and present an image of her, similar to an ekphrasis, that strongly evokes John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1852), a painting that is again evoked in the end when, in accordance with Briony’s confession, we see Cecilia’s corpse floating in the water that flooded Balham underground station (Griggs, 357) or when, in an earlier scene [03’36], we see Cecilia lying on the lawn in front of the house, joined by Briony. Numerous other pictorial references are included within the film, noticeably to Vermeer’s paintings, through the use of a lateral light source—this connection being a commonplace of many Heritage films. Dealing with a post-Heritage work—as Atonement certainly is, considering the central role played by the twist in the plot, a postmodern feature according to critics such as Aurélie Ledoux or Paolo Bertetto—we should add that these references are not meant here to trigger a fetishistic, cultural revaluation of representation but to implement a reflexive move. Although Atonement may look in this respect as part of a traditional Heritage aesthetics, the final twist is bound to lead viewers to question the source of these intertextual, pictorial references: who is responsible for their inclusion in the narrative? Is it Briony as an ultimately manipulative enunciator determining the form of cinematic representation and introducing these ‘embellishments,’ or is it the filmic enunciation, somehow distinct from Briony’s control, which should be regarded as their source? The use of pictorial references as part of the intertext eventually blurs the notion of authorship and reflexively destabilizes enunciation. This corresponds again to the definition of metafiction by Patricia Waugh, as fiction questioning its own devices and development. This also reminds us that metafiction lies potentially in any sequence where a fictional character refers to fiction—here Briony as the author quoting Vermeer or Millais—because it blurs the limits between fiction and reality: if a fictional character quotes fiction, his or her status as fictional becomes dubious. But this is not systematic—realistic literature abounds with such intertextual references. What is needed for such a device to become metafictional is, as it happens here, the staging of a problematic relationship between texts which calls into question their place in the narrative structure.

12This overall presentation of the topic of reflexivity and intertextuality would be somewhat incomplete if one did not mention the specific devices through which the film signals its constructed nature generally and thus calls upon its viewers to assess its metafictional quality. Without developing the topic in detail, it seems essential to point out the role of sound in this strategy and its relationship to the interfilmic references. The initial scene is a case in point here, since it obviously blurs narrative levels in a way that tends to awaken the viewer to the potentially reflexive status of the scene. We see Briony sitting at her desk in her bedroom and typing the final words of her play, The Trials of Arabella, until she places the last sheet onto the pages she has already typewritten and takes it into a neat pile to her mother’s bedroom for her to read. The clatter of the typewriter soon merges with non-diegetic music which complies with the initial rhythm of Briony’s typing and integrates the clatter to accompany her walking through the corridors to her mother’s room, with a short pause during which Briony stops to talk with Robbie standing at the entrance door. This sequence then suggests Briony’s determined control over the filmic narrative and pinpoints the way the film already presents a confused or confusing version of narrative authority—as if the story level (Briony’s typing) and the narrative level (the non-diegetic music) were inseparable. This is of course much more significant when we understand that the narrative agency in the guise of the older Briony may have been responsible (at least partly) for this confusion. Another scene is analysed by Alexandra Wilson (164) and works quite differently. When Cecilia is walking restlessly in the drawing room waiting for her brother and Paul Marshall [8’51], a tense non-diegetic music is heard and goes crescendo until Cecilia bends over the piano and plucks a string that bring this music to harmonic resolution, as if again the non-diegetic and diegetic levels were merged, as if Cecilia could hear the non-diegetic music that accompanies her wandering through the room. These two scenes are chiasmatic since the first one turns diegetic sound into non-diegetic music, whereas the second one turns non-diegetic music into a diegetic sound, but they both underline the fragile barrier between narrative and story levels.

13What this use of sound demonstrates regarding reflexivity is the very centrality of the topic of metafiction in the film, since this blurring of ‘authorities’ over the narrative (whether we deem that the character or the filmic discourse itself organizes representation) is likely to interrogate the viewers’ reaction from the very beginning of the film not only about the role of the various agencies but also about our relation to the film as a medium. This relation is made more complex by this type of encroaching of narrative and story levels, and the incipit of Joe Wright’s Atonement can thus be seen as a reflexive orientation of the work itself. Yet, this device seems to do without any intertextual dimension, except if we consider another musical episode, that during which Robbie writes his doomed letter to Cecilia, a scene that uses cross-cuttings between Robbie in his mother’s cottage and Cecilia in the house, over the music ‘O Soave fanciulla,’ taken from Puccini’s La Bohême. Alexandra Wilson also commented on this scene as ‘retrospective prolepsis’ (a phrase taken from critic Guido Heldt), i.e. as a music that announces the doom that awaits both lovers, considering the fact that this piece accompanies the lovers’ death in the opera. It could thus be argued that the reflexivity that tinges the use of music in the incipit is also later on in the film to be associated to another use of music that associates it with an intermedial reference. This delayed occurrence of the intermedial dimension is nevertheless to be considered as the sign in the director’s strategy of a definite aim, which is to associate our perception of the metafictional discourse in the film with our reception of texts, music, images, within the ‘main’ work. Retrospective prolepsis is precisely focused in Joe Wright’s Atonement on this suggestion of a reflexive reception of the film determined by the multiple meanings the intermedial references assume.

Ethics and Reflexivity

14The general metafictional quality of Atonement can eventually be seen not only as a token of post-modernism in McEwan’s novel but also as serving a specific aim, which is not only to ‘bare’ the textual devices for the reader. This quality led critics to view the novel and the film as concerned with a global distrust for representation—whether words or images. This opens the question of the ethical value of the two works. About the film, one might also wonder if Joe Wright is criticizing our faith in images just as McEwan might be warning us against the power of fiction. It seems that the epigraph to the novel brings a ready answer to that question, as far as the text is concerned. The novel does not ‘blame’ Briony for her fascination with words and fiction but for her imprisonment in it and for the inbred quality of this fiction. This is what appears implicitly in Cyril Connolly’s critical review of a first version of her novel entitled Two Figures by a Fountain.

The crystalline present is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylized version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. Development is required. (312)

15What Briony’s manuscript lacks is a story, meaning an opening onto reality that would safeguard her against the spells cast by self-introspection. This danger of self-introspection is partly expressed and partly redeemed by reflexivity, since reflexivity is both what makes Briony’s manipulation possible (through the blurring of her real status as the author) and what denounces it, once we become aware of her manipulation through the final revelation of this reflexive status of her enunciation. But McEwan gives ample proof that Briony’s self-obsessed narrative has cut her from the others, and maybe from her own past. In the words of Laurent Mellet: ‘it is mainly through the exclusion of sameness and the idealization of alterity that an ethics of connection can emerge.’ (222). Similarly, Joe Wright’s film, despite its apparent happy ending, suggests an equally critical view of Briony’s confession through the final shot on the cottage that corresponds in every detail to the postcard the two lovers cherished as a token of their future together. By focusing representation on the exact correspondence between the cottage and its photographic reproduction, the film suggests a lack of distance, and the need for meeting reality outside preconceived representations, a meeting which fails to take place in this self-same repetition from one image to another. In this final sequence, then, the film ultimately voices an ethical content similar to what is conveyed in the novel, through an internal reference within the narrative. This reference—although the postcard cannot be considered as intertextual material—confirms that the reflexive slant in the film means to set us free from the fascination of images, whether they refer us to inter-iconicity or to the diegetic content of the film.

16The topic of ethics is also closely linked to the handling of narrative levels in the film, in so far as these narrative levels retrospectively indicate the older Briony’s involvement with her own guilt and the measure of her capacity for atonement. In the scene which stages Briony’s visit to her sister Cecilia living with Robbie Turner in Balham, Briony’s repeated, furtive glances at the couple’s shared life—a life which it seems is forbidden to her due to her past faults—are clues pointing to a final ‘meeting’ with otherness, with the (sexual) intimacy between Robbie and Cecilia which her slander has impeded for so long. It could be construed as a final anagnorisis through which Briony recognizes the full impact of her past actions; this is of course to be reinterpreted once we as spectators learn that Briony never visited her sister because the latter was already dead at the time. Beyond the mere performance of a narrative twist here, the ethical content of the scene (a recognition scene) is debunked due to the reinscription of the visit within another narrative level that is revealed when the older Briony confesses her manipulation. Ethics is then implicitly defined as reflexive—a straightforward form of atonement by Briony would involve not only her recognition of her faults but also the inscription of this confession in a straightforward narrative line. In other words, the un-ethical quality of Briony’s manipulation is revealed by her narrative untruthfulness, which is bound to appear reflexively. By contrast, the sequence shot that stages Robbie’s wandering on Dunkirk beach gives the spectator a formal token of the truthful meeting with otherness and with an ‘ethic-oriented’ presentation of Robbie’s sharing with his countrymen’s plight. The uninterrupted quality of the scene acts as a sign of the continuous adhesion to the character’s point of view, hence of the sincere conveyance of his feelings in the scene. This is again deconstructed by the later revelation that this episode was also reconstructed by Briony, but the filmic discourse takes care to show that Robbie’s death occurred only after this meeting with his despairing comrades on the beach, so that the scene can be construed as a potentially ‘real’ scene. By comparing these two scenes, it seems clear that the filmic discourse connects the ethical value of both scenes, one being fake, the other sincere, to a reflexive approach of the narrative, since only a careful return to this narrative can vouch for the true quality of Robbie’s surveying of the beach scene. The intertextual dimension may be considered lacking in this example, but it is implicit (as an ‘internal’ intertext) in the re-reading of the constructed sequence of Briony’s visit to Robbie and Cecilia, a visit whose images are repeated in the concluding sequences and whose value relies very much on the reflexive reaction it may trigger in the spectator, redefining its value as true atonement negatively. The ethical value of both scenes then depends on the reflexive approach of the intertext, within the frame of a twist narrative that retrospectively determines the revaluation of filmic discourse.

17The complex articulations between both notions of reflexivity and intertextuality, which have merely been sketched out here, refer the spectator or the reader to a frame of expectations where narrative contents are never to be taken for granted, whether these contents have to do with the main story line or with inserted intertextual or interfilmic quotes or allusions. This hermeneutic situation ties in with a postmodern loss of innocence in terms of our engagement with the narrative and that easily suggests aligning Ian McEwan’s and Joe Wright’s works within a general questioning of the very possibility of reaching the ‘truth’ of a story. But we should not forget that the novel—and the film adaptation in its wake—also problematizes this cultural determination of Atonement by criticizing our relation to texts and intertexts and questions the mistrust of the emotional engagement with the story line, noticeably in Connolly’s letter of rejection of Briony’s draft. The reflexive slant so obvious in the role intertexts and interfilmic references are given in the two works thus should not be understood as a radical critique of emotional engagement to the story but rather as a vindication of a renewed ethical reading of our relationship to fiction.

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Bastin, Giselle, ‘Precursor Texts in the Novel and Film of Atonement,The Shadow of the Precursor, eds. Diana Glenn, Md Rezaul Haque, Ben Kooyman and Nena Bierbaum, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2012, 188-201.

Bertetto, Paolo, Le miroir et le simulacre : Le cinéma dans le monde devenu fable, Rennes: PUR, 2015.

Bolton, Matthew, ‘The Rhetoric of Intermediality: Adapting Means, Ends, and Ethics in Atonement.’ Diegesis, 2.1 (2013): 23-53.

Griggs, Yvonne, ‘Writing for the Movies: Writing and Screening Atonement’, A Companion to literature: Film and Adaptation, ed. Deborah Cartmell, Oxford: Blackwell, 2012, 345-358.

Hesse, Beatrix, ‘Point of View in Atonement—Novel and Film’, Anglistik 21.2 (2010): 83-91

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, London: Routledge, New York: 1988.

Laffay, Albert, Logique du cinéma : Création et spectacle, Paris: Masson, 1964.

Ledoux, Aurélie, L’ombre d’un doute : Le cinéma américain contemporain et ses trompe-l’œil, Rennes: PUR, 2012.

McHALE Brian, Postmodernist Fiction, London: Methuen, 1987.

Mellet, Laurent, ‘The Political Ethics of Alterity in Ian McEwan’s Film Adaptations and Screenwriting’, Ethics of Alterity: Confrontation and Responsibility in the 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts, eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Christine Reynier, Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015, 221-232.

Metz, Christian, L’Enonciation impersonnelle ou le site du film, Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1991.

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, London: Routledge, 1984.

Wilson, Alexandra, ‘Unreliable Authors, Unreliable History: Opera in Joe Wright’s Adaptation of Atonement’, Cambridge Opera Journal 27.2 (July 2015): 155-174.

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1 For clarity’s sake the two terms will be considered as synonymous in this essay, although they are not always treated so by critics, as reflexivity is sometimes conceived of as a textual device including a mirror effect between two texts.

2 This conception of cinematic enunciation as ‘external,’ or relying on an outer, impersonal agency, has been developed by Christian Metz in the wake of Albert Laffay’s writings.

3 This scene corresponds to what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction, i.e. a fictional development reinterpreting a historical context. Brian McHale also commented on this device to emphasize the reaction it is likely to trigger in the reader: “There is an ontological scandal when a real-world figure is inserted in a fictional situation, where he interacts with purely fictional characters” (85).

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Christophe Gelly, « Intertextuality and Reflexivity in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 05 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Christophe Gelly

Christophe Gelly is Professor of British and American literature and film studies at Université Clermont Auvergne, France. He has worked mainly on film genre, film noir, adaptation and has published two book-length studies on Arthur Conan Doyle (Le Chien des Baskerville: Poétique du roman policier chez Conan Doyle, Lyon, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, collection Champ Anglophone, 2005) and Raymond Chandler (Raymond Chandler – Du roman noir au film noir, Paris, Michel Houdiard, 2009), and co-edited a book on reception theories in cinema and literature (Approaches to film and reception theories / Cinéma et théories de la réception —Etudes et panorama critique, Christophe Gelly et David Roche [eds.], Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012). He also edited the issue of the journal Écrans devoted to French literary realism and film adaptation (Écrans, n° 5, 2016 - 1, Le réalisme français du xixe siècle et sa transposition à l’écran) and co-authored a book-length study of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Atlande, 2015). He approached comic book and adaptation in a paper dealing with Alan Moore’s adaptation of Lovecraft in Neonomicon (in Lovecraft et l’Illustration, Christophe Gelly and Gilles Ménégaldo [eds.], Le Visage Vert, 2017). He currently orients his research on cinema theory at large.

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