Despite the recent multiplication of studies in found footage cinema, the fog surrounding the figure of Myriam Borsoutsky remains thick. This article elaborates the rare extant information about her work to retrace an important chapter in the history of found footage cinema in France, in which women have played a major role. In an attempt to delineate a specifically female genealogy in the history of French compilation film, Myriam's work is studied alongside that of Nicole Vedrès, and situated in the cultural context of a net of relationships that includes other women, for instance Denise Tual and Yannick Bellon, as well as such masters of French cinema as Pierre Braunberger, Sacha Guitry, Henri Langlois, Alain Resnais, André Bazin, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michel Leiris. A detailed analysis of two major works in this genealogy, Paris 1900 (dir. Nicole Vedrès, 1947) and Bullfight (dir. Myriam and Pierre Braunberger, 1951), draws upon Vedrès's own writings and André Bazin's critical notes on the films. The last section addresses the meaning of the neologism neomontage, coined by Bazin in his review of Bullfight to describe Myriam's “diabolical” editing abilities.
Myriam's name remains an enigma.1 Not even the recent proliferation of studies on found footage has helped clear the fog that surrounds Myriam Borsoutsky, certainly one of the most notable figures in the history of compilation film.2 This is all the more disconcerting when we realize that Myriam's “diabolical” abilities as an editor were acclaimed even by such a strenuous opponent of the editing technique as André Bazin, in his review of La Course de taureaux (Bullfight, dir. Myriam and Pierre Braunberger, 1951), the only title in which she is credited as codirector. Just like Pierre Braunberger—a sensitive and dynamic independent producer, whose biography subtly intertwines with the history of the best French cinema, from Jean Renoir to Jean-Luc Godard and beyond—Myriam remains in the shadow cast by the great directors of modernity with whom she collaborated over the course of her career, from Sacha Guitry and Roger Leenhardt to Alain Resnais and up to Godard.3 She is one of just two female directors mentioned by Bazin over the years: the other is Nicole Vedrès, with whom Myriam worked in the creation of another milestone in the history of compilation film, Paris 1900 (1947).
As is often the case in women's film history, most of what we know about Myriam is inferred through other people's works and biographies. Her career seems to have started in the early 1930s alongside Guitry, with whom she worked throughout the decade, editing all of his films of this period, including Le Roman d'un tricheur (Confessions of a Cheat, 1936). It was probably Braunberger who, at the end of World War II, introduced her to the new film milieu that anticipated the experience of the New Wave, signing her as editor on Paris 1900. This film—which offers a compelling portrait of the Belle Epoque through masterful editing of archival footage—is the result of the collaborative work of a team that, beyond Vedrès and Myriam, also included Resnais and Yannick Bellon, involved respectively as a documentalist and an assistant editor. Many years later, Resnais recognized his debt to Myriam, recalling how his decision to pursue studying at IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, the public film school just opened in Paris) had been taken upon her advice.4 Myriam's genius presided over Godard's debut as well. When the then-aspiring film director was hired by Braunberger (soon to become the producer of his early short films) to edit some documentary material for his company, Les Films de la Pléiade, it was Myriam who was chosen to teach him the fundamentals of the editing technique.5
Here is then the case of a talented editor—and ultimately a director—who took part in some of the most creative moments of cinema and yet is hardly recognized in film history. Was Myriam's habit of signing with her first name an indication of unpretentiousness by a woman who was accustomed to remaining in the shadows? Or should we suppose that her reputation in the film milieu was broad enough to allow her to be recognized by her first name alone? There is no doubt that she was a highly esteemed and respected professional, ever since the making of Confessions of a Cheat, which provides us with her only known portrait. In the film's meta-cinematographic opening—a long sequence that discloses for us the hidden machinery of cinema, the set and the technicians at work—at one point the camera stops on the figure of a woman who is examining a reel of film and Guitry's voice informs us that we are seeing Myriam, the head editor, next to her assistants (fig. 1).
The subjects of both Paris 1900 and Bullfight originated in Braunberger's particular interests in archival footage, documentary, and art films. His feeling for the expressive possibilities of compilation and montage readily brought him into contact with Vedrès, a writer, cinephile, and regular at Cinémathèque Française who shared with him a passion for the archives (fig. 2). When Vedrès undertook her work on Paris 1900, she was already the author of two illustrated anthologies, one on fashion history, the other on film history, both still notable today for the original relationships that they establish among visual materials, their use of archival sources, and the author's original written commentaries.6
The first of these books, Un siècle d'élégance française (A Century of French Elegance, 1943), is an homage to the proverbial French élégance.7 Vedrès composed the book by assembling and organizing hundreds of fashion images derived from diverse sources, including newspapers, magazines, drawings, prints, and photographs. Often grouped together by the type of clothing the pictured people are wearing, the images are laid out against a pink background that indicates the book's specific address to a female readership. In some cases, an ingenious application of analytical editing to the selection, via cropping or the combination of images (which we could even call a découpage), creates particular effects, such as in the two pages dedicated to the transformation of handmuffs through the years. These show eight pictures of as many—equally elegant—women whom Vedrès does not hesitate to decapitate (figuratively) to focus the reader's gaze on their hands, to surrealistic effect. The text that emerges from time to time out of the flux of images does not seem intended to explain or describe; it limits itself to flowing alongside the visual discourse, creating a sort of counterpoint that enriches the reading with unforeseen resonance—or with those “contrasts” that alone allow us to appreciate, in Vedrès's words, “the quality of an era.”8 Both this book and the following one, Images du cinéma français (Images of French Cinema, 1944), based on a similar concept, insert Vedrès into a historiographic genealogy that goes from Élie Faure to André Malraux to Godard, one that claims the image as a primary source for history and that privileges editing—verbal-visual no less than solely visual—as a method of knowledge.9
It was perhaps during her research for this book that Vedrès met Henri Langlois. In any case, her collaboration with the founder of the Cinémathèque Française was certainly intense during this period. Images of French Cinema was made from materials that had been selected by Langlois for an exhibition held in December 1944, the first of its kind, which according to the film scholar Laurent Mannoni contained the seeds for all the projection programs later to be organized by Langlois.10 Again, for this book Vedrès opted for a most difficult yet at the same time highly evocative editing method, by letting the images speak for themselves, limiting herself to organizing them around various themes and choosing their positions on each page (figs. 3, 4).11
It seems then unsurprising that Braunberger, soon after conceiving his project to produce a compilation film based on silent footage in Langlois's collection, turned to Vedrès to be the director. Although his original idea was to make a film about early French comedy, his interest in the newsreel sequences found in the collection convinced him to accept Vedrès's proposal to make a film about the period of the Belle Epoque.12
As already mentioned, those who worked most closely with Vedrès on the making of this film included, alongside Myriam, future directors Resnais and Bellon; for both it was their first experience in filmmaking. The former was assigned to assist Vedrès in doing archival research, the latter was to assist Myriam with the editing. It is in this context that one can place the conversation with Myriam that decisively marked Resnais's destiny, convincing him to enroll at IDEHC. As for Bellon, then in her early twenties, it is interesting to note that it was through her uncle, Jacques Brunius, that she came to work on Paris 1900. This is an important detail, for not only was Brunius a heretic surrealist, an associate of the Prévert brothers and Renoir, but he was also a highly original film critic and a pioneer in compilation film. Ten years earlier Brunius had completed Record 1937, an experimental work that offers a visual history of records by weaving together a vast range of documentary material about sports with a visionary commentary written by the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos.13 The result is a strange visual experiment revolving around the concept of records, where montage is used allegorically to suggest the multiple bonds that connect it with the entire cultural-economic system of modernity.
The “absent” name of Myriam, then, is the sign that allows us to start retracing an equally “absent,” secret genealogy of found footage cinema in France. Even more obscure than Brunius, Myriam helps us discover an entire group of equally “minor” filmmakers all involved in experiments with archival material, a network of artistic and professional relationships that would otherwise remain unknown. One need only think of the crucial role played by Braunberger in promoting the work of such masters of modern cinema as Renoir, Resnais, and Godard, or the multifarious activism of Brunius, moving from the set of L'age d'or (The Golden Age, dir. Luis Buñuel, 1930) to that of Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, dir. Jean Renoir, 1936), another of Braunberger's productions, and passing through the cutting room of La vie est à nous (Life Belongs to Us, 1936). Not to mention Langlois, who was to become an institution for all those in Paris who were interested in the promotion and preservation of film culture.
And Myriam? Unfortunately there is not much else to say about her, for there is nothing else that one can add about her formation, and little else of note that one can recall about her later career apart from what we already know, namely that she was responsible for the editing of Bullfight. After Paris 1900 Myriam is credited on the Internet Movie Database as an editor of only nine films, five of which were produced by Braunberger. Bullfight is the second to last, followed in 1952 by Avec André Gide (With André Gide), a documentary by Marc Allégret about the celebrated French writer. But she must have been active for a while afterward if she was still working for Braunberger in 1956–57, when, as has been recorded, Godard was hired to work under her guidance as an editor.
The mystery in Myriam's career is precisely the element that makes her name strategic methodologically speaking. It is thanks to Myriam's obscurity that the accumulation and interweaving of individual people's knowledge, creativity, and technical experience can produce the memory of a peculiar film poetics. So it is tempting to say that in historiographic terms “Myriam” can function as a collective name: while new research is needed to clear away the obscurity that has fallen over her, today rediscovering her name means above all to disclose the conditions that produced a particular moment of collective experimentation about the discursive potential of montage and, more generally, the film image as a specific form of memory. It is to retrace what Vedrès, speaking about Paris 1900, called “the spirit, or rather ‘the nerves’ of an era,” a shared idea of research that characterized a certain era of French cinema.14 So much so that Myriam's example could yield an axiom for feminist film history: “Look for a forgotten woman, and you will find a collective.”
In his review of Paris 1900 Bazin recognized the collective aspect of the film by praising not only Vedrès, but the whole “little team that I very well know would be unfair to separate her from,” for having created “something monstrously beautiful, whose appearance devastates the norms of cinematic aesthetics as profoundly as the work of Marcel Proust was able to devastate the novel.”15 Vedrès herself systematically employed the plural pronoun when describing her work: “For about fifteen months we just look at old newsreels [plus] some features,” she recalled in a 1953 note, written on the occasion of the screening of her film at the Toronto Film Society.16
The main innovation introduced by Paris 1900 in the history of compilation films was Vedrès's deliberate choice to mix fictional and documentary materials. Beginning with the work of Esfir Shub, the practice of assembling clips of newsreel to represent history by means of images had known several examples worldwide. Some cases include Germaine Dulac's Le cinéma au service de l'histoire (Cinema in the Service of History, 1935), achieved by collecting old pieces of newsreels from Eclair, Gaumont, and France Actualités, and the monumental propaganda series supervised by Frank Capra during World War II, Why We Fight (seven feature-length documentary films produced between 1943 and 1945).17 More titles are recorded by Jay Leyda in a book that sports a Vertovian title: Films Beget Films.18 As well as the above, Braunberger's original idea to put together footage from old silent comedies to create a feature film harkened back to previous examples. Cases in point are Terry Ramsaye's The March of the Movies (1927) and other films produced in the period of transition to sound, motivated by nostalgia for a cinema that was perceived as about to disappear.
The mixture of documentary and fictional sources in Paris 1900 is revealing of an entirely new concept of history, one no longer measurable chronologically or with reference to important diplomatic events.19 Instead, a new attention is paid to the most characteristic aspects of daily life. These include the transformations of Paris's urban landscape at the turn of the century (for example the subway, the Universal Exposition of 1900, and the construction of the Eiffel Tower), changes in mentality and clothing (both illustrated in particular in a long segment devoted to women's emancipation), and new social tastes and leisure habits (especially the cafés chantant and the cinema), all representative of the long period of peace and prosperity that was the Belle Epoque (figs. 5, 6). The film also offers flashes of the miserable conditions of the poorest part of the population living in the shanties at the edge of the city and documents harsh conditions of labor. A long sequence is devoted to the capture of the Bonnot Gang.
The use of mixed sources (“scenes shot by both amateurs and professionals, important events and inane ones, celebrities or anonymous people, actual news footage or short scenes performed by actors, performances based off of the Bible, or third episode of Bandits en auto …”) produces something like an effect of refraction between images, the impression that a certain “quality of the period,” shared by all the different images, has indeed been captured and exposed to the viewer, as Vedrès notes acutely in a passage from a 1952 article.20 She continues:
It is said that there exists a truth of things in themselves that cinema is able to capture and restore ad vitam aeternam, with absolute fidelity… . Therefore, at the moment of seeing and choosing documents of the period 1900–14 … , since we largely made use of fragments of newsreel, we should have found many perfect examples of this “objectivity” that records and testifies almost mechanically for or against a character, a piece of news, an era. Nothing of the sort. Whether a document was shot by a cameraperson of the Pathé-Journal, or a scene of the same year was filmed by an artier director, all the images resemble each other. They resemble each other to an extraordinary degree, to the point that one can assemble them together… . All of these documents appear to be marked by a similar effort of stylization, all of them could have been filmed on the same day by the same cameraperson, who instead of looking for objectivity, would have wanted to exalt a particular poetry of his time, to make the document “typically 1900.”21
It is not only that “in growing old every document reveals a certain tone, caused by the quality of the film reel, or any other technical particularity of the time… . There is more. Much more.”22 The fact is that, in looking for “the story” or “the truth,” one ends up instead finding “roads, bearded men, crowds, rivers, armies, cyclists, birds,” or in other words the infinite multiplicity of a world teeming with details that are all perfectly insignificant just to the extent that they are all perfectly unique, unrepeatable, and exclusive to a specific era.23
Yet this is not enough to guarantee the objectivity of the result, for “what have we really done, other than reconstituting an already dead time period, fixed in its own destiny, according to our vision?”24 Far from proposing a naive vision of found footage as an ideal means to portray the past just as “it really was,” Vedrès was well aware that the meaning of historical images depends on the way in which “posterity will react according to its own perception of history, or politics.”25 Therefore she had no interest in claiming the objectivity of the reconstruction; she was concerned rather with creating the conditions for the audience to have, in Walter Benjamin's terms, a true experience of the past.26
As Barthélémy Amengual notes, the method for achieving this result hinges on selecting precisely the less memorable films, the less innovative and “more naive … those which abandon themselves to the flow of time without trying to capture it, which obey the current fashions without attempting to set them … in brief, the most transparent ones.”27 The editing of Paris 1900 is not structured around “facts,” since the important events (for example the diplomatic encounters that preceded the outbreak of the war) are hardly mentioned in the voice-over commentary, while the images, assisted by music, construct their own lines of meaning (see, as an example, the collage that anticipates the mobilization for war on August 2, 1914: a montage of a few shots—a sunset on the Seine, a lantern in a high-angle shot, a landscape with dozens of boats anchored along the banks—works as an effective evocation of the grim presentiment that had fallen on the city of Paris). More than relying on events, the film proceeds by assembling fragments of daily life that reveal certain characteristic types of behavior, certain tastes and perceptive habits, whose function, in turn, is to bring to light the peculiar visualstyle that was immanent to the era—in other words, its unique photogénie. Vedrès continues:
One must not explain or describe. Quite the contrary. One must go, as it were, through the outer appearance of the selected shot to feel and, without insistence, make feel, that strange and unexpected “second meaning” that always hides behind the surface of the subject. This bearded gentleman—a politician—though very smiling and briskly walking, seems sinister. Or rather, he does not, but the picture does. Why? Maybe only because he walks from right to left. And this landscape—why does it seem agreeable, even quite soothing, although the trees have no leaves, and the road is completely empty? Maybe it is only the proportion of the visible sky, or the allure of the clouds. Why is this interior scene extremely elegant, though neither the lady sitting here, nor her dress, nor the furniture can be said to be beautiful—or even witty? Perhaps it is only by the way, on this old piece of celluloid, the black and whites have fallen into place! So you take two or three meters of the bearded gentleman … and place him just at the moment (1913) when rumors of war have been first indicated. And the soothing landscape can be used just as the word “hope” is spoken—and the intérieur raffiné—but only two meters of it—can just follow a hint of Marcel Proust.28
The reference to Proust, no less than the compositional method chosen for Paris 1900, obviously recalls Walter Benjamin's monumental work on the cultural history of Paris, as his innovative historiographical concept was equally based on a practice of editing/montage that critically confronted Proust's and Henri Bergson's theories of memory.29 Obviously none of the authors of Paris 1900 could have known the work of Benjamin, still unpublished at the time. But the core of Benjamin's critique of Bergson and Proust, which focused on their similar concepts of involuntary memory as an individual (as opposed to collective) experience, is fully captured by Bazin in a few phrases of the article he wrote about the film:
While Proust found the reward of Time Regained in the ineffable joy of losing himself in his own memory, here on the other hand memory is impersonal, nonobjective: the aesthetic joy is born of a wound, because these memories do not belong to us. They achieve the paradox of an objective past, of a memory exterior to our consciousness. The cinema is a machine that recovers time only to lose it better. Paris 1900 marks the birth of the specifically cinematographic Tragedy, the Tragedy of Time. It is not to be believed that the merit of the authors is diminished by all the cinematographic documents of the era that have been exclusively used in the film. On the contrary, their success is due to a subtle work of medium, in the intelligence behind their choice from an immense pool of material. To the tact and intelligence of the editing, to all the exquisite cunning in taste and in culture that had to go into the work in order to tame these ghosts.30
Among the ghosts evoked by Bazin are those visible in brief takes shot by Sacha Guitry in the 1910s, reproduced from his amateur film of 1915, Ceux de chez nous (Those of Our Land), depicting such charismatic personalities as Lucien Guitry, Octave Mirbeau, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Camille Saint-Saëns, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas (fig. 9). A longtime collaborator of Guitry, Myriam was no doubt the person who was best placed to obtain these images, which, like others that were used in the editing, did not belong to Langlois's collection. Vedrès speaks of “pieces of film, found out of order, without titles, without precise dates, without certificate of origin, in old storage spaces, rusty boxes from private collections or flea markets.”31 In the heroic years of film preservation, when Langlois was frantically striving to gather together the remains of silent cinema, Vedrès and her collaborators actively participated in this adventurous research by looking for forgotten film documents among abandoned material commonly held to be totally worthless—a fitting image for Benjamin's metaphor of the historian as a secondhand junk dealer: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”32
MEMORIES OF A FUTURE TIME
In 1998 Chris Marker declared, “I owe everything to Nicole Vedrès”:
To say that Nicole, in two films, taught me that cinema was not incompatible with intelligence could justly be said to sound incredibly pretentious. How should we take this statement? Was every other film idiotic? So let me clarify. It is not the intelligence of the filmmakers that is here in dispute, but the idea, quite uncommon at that time, that intelligence could serve as a basis, as the raw material on which to apply commentary and editing in order to extract from it an object called a film… . This all sounds banal today. Before Paris 1900 and La vie commence demain [Life Begins Tomorrow (1949)] it certainly was not.33
Even though the details of the meeting between Marker and Vedrès are not well known, it is easy to believe that the opportunity for their meeting was provided by Resnais, who at the time when Paris 1900 was in production participated with Marker in the meetings of the collective behind the magazine Travail et Culture. In any case it is evident that for Marker, Vedrès was both a mentor and a precious source of inspiration.34,Paris 1900 is one of the films he explicitly paid homage to in L'Héritage de la chouette (The Owl's Legacy, 1989), and the found footage technique was used again in Souvenir d'un avenir (Remembrance of Things to Come), the film he made with Yannick Bellon in 2001 using materials from Bellon's mother's archive.35 A photographer who was published in major French and international magazines between 1935 and 1955, Denise Bellon was able to capture in her pictures, the voice-over explains, “the unique moment when the postwar period suddenly transforms itself into the awaiting of a war. Each of her photographs shows the past, but deciphers the future.”
After Paris 1900 Yannick Bellon worked on another film directed by a woman that used a great deal of archival material, Ce siècle a cinquante ans (Days of Our Years, dir. Denise Tual, 1950), released in the wake of the great success of Paris 1900. As Jay Leyda recalls, Vedrès's film was the initiator of an international subgenre based on a similar concept. Some examples include the Italian film Cavalcata di mezzo secolo (Riding Through the Century, dir. Carlo Infascelli, Vinicio Marinucci, Renato May, and Riccardo Morbelli, 1951), the British Scrapbook for 1922 and The Peaceful Years (dir. Peter Baylis, 1947 and 1948), and the American Fifty Years Before Your Eyes (dir. Robert Youngson, 1950) and The Golden Twenties (dir. Richard de Rochemont, 1950).36
Denise Tual, like Myriam, had her first experiences as an editor with Braunberger (and Renoir). Her film Days of Our Years is divided into four sections, each introduced by short fictional scenes inspired by original stories by well-known authors (Maurice Achard, Jean Cocteau, André Roussin, and Françoise Giroud) invited to recall the days of their youth. The stock material includes shots of a number of well-known artists, writers, and political leaders such as Sarah Bernhardt, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Less original and yet more ambitious than Paris 1900 (it spans from the Belle Epoque to the end of World War II), Tual's film is nonetheless interesting in that it adds one more name, after those of Dulac, Vedrès, and Myriam, in a matrilineal genealogy of French compilation film. At the same time, to find Denise Tual (or rather Denise Piazza-Batcheff-Tual) in the course of this research means to find, as regularly happens in women's film history, one more figure of a woman filmmaker who has been forgotten despite the relevance of her work, another lost name who once more invites us to observe film history from a new angle.37
This small and yet decisive female tradition within the history of French compilation films received a new contribution by Vedrès in 1953 with Aux frontières de l'homme (aspects de la biologie française) (At the Frontiers of Man [Aspects of French Biology]) codirected with the biologist Jean Rostand. The last title in Vedrès's filmography, this short essay film uses scientific footage of cells as visual inspiration for a speculative discussion on the theme of immortality. Vedrès's full filmography—which also includes Life Begins Tomorrow and Amazone (1951)—gives this filmmaker a solid place among the pioneers of the essay film. Her films were among the first explorations of a form that was to assume an ever more crucial role in modern cinema, notably in the work of Marker and Godard. But none of the films Vedrès made after Paris 1900 repaid her for her efforts. Too far ahead of her time, she was forced to retire after directing only four films, all of them dazzling with originality.
MYRIAM AND “NEOMONTAGE”
And Myriam in the meantime?
While working on Paris 1900 she was also busy editing Les dernières vacances (The Last Vacation, dir. Roger Leenhardt, 1948). A screenwriter and a major film critic throughout the 1930s in the pages of Esprit and L'Écran français, Leenhardt (who was about to create with André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc the Objectif 49 film club) is today much less well known for his body of work as a director, which numbers more than thirty short documentaries and two features. In a long review of The Last Vacation, Bazin dwells on Leenhardt's (and Myriam's) editing choices, emphasizing their strategic function in building the film's unique style. According to Bazin, contrary to what is seen in the cinema by such mainstream directors as Christian-Jacque or Julien Duvivier, who content themselves with applying the rules of classical style with great virtuosity, in this case the editing technique is used to create unique solutions for every single transition. In particular, Bazin writes, Leenhardt's (and Myriam's) editing reveals “a wonderful feel for the concrete continuity of a scene.”38
The term “continuity” (used not as a synonym, but as an antonym of the classical editing style) returns in Bazin's review of Bullfight, the only title in which Myriam and Braunberger are equally credited as directors. Once again the film was the result of a difficult work of research, selection, and assemblage, based on careful study of the multiple possible connections among the elements—among images as well as between image and text. The project of retracing the cultural history of bullfighting from classical mythology to the role of the corrida in modern Spanish society was born of an idea that had been long cultivated by Braunberger. In writing the project, Braunberger personally worked with a major specialist in the subject, Auguste Lafront, who was then completing his Encyclopedie de la corrida (Encyclopedia of Bullfighting, 1950). The writing of the commentary was then entrusted to Michel Leiris, a former Surrealist (belonging to Georges Bataille's circle) who had started a career as an ethnologist and was the author of another fundamental text on the subject, Miroir de la tauromachie (Mirror of Bullfighting, 1938).
The material chosen for the editing was even more heterogeneous and composite than that used in Paris 1900, even if in this case Myriam had to deal only with documentary sources. These included reproductions of drawings, paintings, and photographs brought together to represent the ancient history of bullfighting, as well as fragments of old newsreels (including sequences shot in Spain by the Lumière camerapeople) and original takes commissioned by Braunberger, made during official corridas or training events (fig. 8). The film's opening section deals with the origins of bullfighting and is followed by a second section that transports the viewer to the places where the bulls are raised and trained. We are then shown the different phases of the technical instruction given to aspiring young bullfighters. The final section offers a masterful visual analysis of the peculiarities that characterize the different styles of some famous bullfighters.
Myriam's editing skillfully maintains the movement of the images in equilibrium with Leiris's commentary, which performs a fundamentally descriptive function. The sense of the tragic, which in Leiris's other writings about bullfighting is evoked with great emphasis, here is elicited less by the words than by the long silences that interrupt the commentary in the tensest moments, namely in the moment, obsessively repeated throughout the film, of the confrontation between bullfighter and animal. In Mirror of Bullfighting Leiris describes the combat between the human and the animal as a kind of erotic relation, in which the constant risk of being reciprocally put to death by the other implies a tragic feeling of the sacred. As Maria Watroba observes, this specific erotic conception of bullfighting is partly derived from Colette Peignot, the writer who was Bataille's partner, to whom Leiris's book is dedicated. Peignot wrote in a letter to Leiris, “The corrida implies the Sacred because there is the threat of death, and of real death, but experienced, felt by others, with others.”39
In his book Leiris describes the bull as a “beastly demigod” and the bullfighter who puts him to death as the “officiant” of a “sacrificial coitus” (fig. 9). This formulation is clearly indebted to Bataille's idea of coitus as a combat in which a strong and virile male subject leads a weak and defenseless female subject to a “little death.” But what is more important in Leiris's reading is the endless mirroring between the two poles of the masculine and the feminine that he sees unfolding, as a play of refraction en abîme, during this fatal encounter. The tauromachic situation seems in fact to overturn the traditional positions of the masculine and the feminine, as here it is the weak subject, the bullfighter, who must overpower the stronger subject, the bull, which Leiris describes as “an essentially phallic figure” that threatens his adversary's virility throughout the course of the confrontation. On these premises, not even the final, mortal thrust delivered by the man to the animal can be seen as a demonstration of a regained virility, insofar as this gesture is simply the completion of a complex process of “incorporation,” clearly marked as feminine, by which the bullfighter “absorbs” in himself the bull's virility.
Very little of all this complex reasoning survives in the commentary of Bullfight. And yet the insistence on the corrida as choreography, a kind of ballet that Myriam's skillful editing reveals in its minutest technical detail, can easily call to mind Leiris's description of the bullfighter as an androgynous dancer who attempts to enchant the animal with mischievous, seductive movements (fig. 10). Moreover, the long segment that analyzes, through an impressive sequence of mortal thrusts, the moment of the bull's sacrifice is accompanied by words that suggest an erotic subtext, as the matador's action is compared to a work of art “that presents itself as an organized succession of conjunctions and separations between the man and the animal, and is realized throughout … in the alternation of pauses and paroxysms.”
Therefore, Myriam and Braunberger's choice to begin their gallery of modern bullfighters with the figure of Conchita Cintrón, the “blonde goddess” who was a renowned rejoneadora (mounted bullfighter), can hardly seem accidental (fig. 11). Her fluid, secure movements in the arena are a most effective representation of Leiris's concept of the bullfighter as an androgynous being who opposes a bold weakness to the animal's overwhelming, and yet succumbing, strength. She appears twice in the film: first during a bullfight in which she exhibits herself in the saddle of a horse, then during a novillada in which she battles on foot. Even though the commentary does not dwell on the historical circumstances of this take, the image of Cintrón directly confronting the bull with her muleta is likely a reference to her most famous (and most scandalous) bullfighting performance. In 1949, in the ring of the city of Jaén, after she had performed mounted on a horse, Cintrón rode to the terrace where the president of the games was seated and asked his permission to dismount to inflict the final blow on the bull. The president refused. The reason was a Spanish law that did not allow women to confront the animals on foot, as in case of an accident their clothes might be torn and their bodies partially revealed. According to the rules, Cintrón should then have left the ring and allowed a male colleague to finish off the bull. Yet she had announced earlier that this was to be her last bullfight, and she did not want to leave the privilege of finishing her work to another. So she dismounted, drew her sword, and began to wave her cape in front of the animal. Just when she found herself in the most advantageous position to land the blow, however, the sword fell from her hand and the bull charged. Cintrón was able first to avoid contact with the bull, then to show her courage she threw herself again at the animal, touching with her hand the point where she should have stabbed it with her sword. The crowd erupted into roars of admiration, showering her with red roses. Immediately afterward Cintrón was arrested for breaking the law, yet only to be released thanks to the intervention of the regional governor. Orson Welles (a longtime fan of bullfighting and the author of the introduction to her memoirs) summarized the story by calling it “a single burst of glorious criminality. You can't keep a lady waiting forever, and there came an afternoon when she decided that she'd waited long enough.”40
The use of the term “afternoon,” both in Welles' phrase and in the second part of Bullfight, is clearly an homage to Ernest Hemingway's celebrated book about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon (1932), whose French version was published in 1938. The same allusion is found in the title of Bazin's famous article “Death Every Afternoon,” which contains an important tribute to the art of Myriam. In what is no doubt one of the most extraordinary homages ever paid to an editor in the history of film criticism, Bazin recognized that “when it is this good, the art of the editor goes well beyond its usual function—it is an essential element in the film's creation.”41
Expressed by the author of “Editing Prohibited,” this sentence might sound perplexing. Yet the contradiction is only a seeming one, for what Bazin intuited in his examination of Myriam's works is the seed of a new type of editing that he considered profoundly distinct from what he termed “classical decoupage”—a definitely modern style that represents “the adaptation of editing techique to the aesthetics of the camera pen” advanced by Alexandre Astruc. Bazin's praise of Myriam as an illusionist who “edited the footage with diabolical skill, and you have to pay careful attention to see that the bull that comes into view from the left is not always the one that left the screen on the right,” could at first seem confounding, in that it can make one think of an equivalence between her continuity technique and the classical editing style, but this is not the case. Certainly Bazin recognized that it is not easy to distinguish “between a single shot and a sequence created by patching together five or six different shots. Without us noticing the switch, a ‘veronica’ beginning with one matador and bull ends with a different man and a different animal.” Yet he also observed that Myriam's profoundly suggestive editing style was “something quite different than a return to the old primacy of montage over decoupage as taught by early Soviet cinema.” Moreover, his reference to Astruc's concept of the camera pen, or caméra-stylo, excludes any intention to reduce her technique to a sheer refinement of classical Hollywood editing styles.
To express the novelty of Myriam's style, Bazin coins the term “neomontage.” In his words, the function of this particular, unconventional editing style is neither to suggest “symbolic and abstract links between the images” (as in Soviet cinema) nor to construct a linear narrative (as in American cinema). It is instead a modern style of montage whose works are “aesthetically contemporary with the decoupage of such films as Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game, The Viper and Bicycle Thieves.” The aim of neomontage, Bazin writes, is to “fulfill both the physical verisimilitude of the decoupage and its logical malleability”:
Myriam aims above all at physical realism. The deception of the editing supports the verisimilitude of the découpage. The linkage of two bulls in a single movement does not symbolize the bulls' strength; it surreptitiously replaces the photo of the non-existent bull we believe we are seeing. The editor makes sense of her editing just as the director of his découpage, based solely on this kind of realism.42
This difficult passage can be understood only by bearing in mind that, far from being merely a synonym of “editing,” Bazin's concept of decoupage alludes to an operation that is fulfilled in the here and now of the shooting—the work of cutting, dividing, and shaping the space-time that constitutes the art of the mise-en-scène. Myriam's editing technique is then termed neomontage because it does not content itself with “sewing together” the shots to obtain a given effect of meaning, but treats the material so as to extract from it what Bazin calls the “spatial and temporal shape” of the bullfighting event. In other words, the novelty of neomontage lies in its ability to offer a kind of intellectual perception of the bullfighting spectacle in general, the “plastic essence,” so to speak, shared by all the ritual occurrences of its spatiotemporal form. Consequently, neomontage is better suited to grasp the bullfight's “essential quality, its metaphysical kernel: death.”43
The bullfighting-coitus similitude already proposed by Leiris resurfaces in the final section of Bazin's article, which reflects on the ontologic obscenity of the cinematographic reproduction of both death and orgasm. This obscenity is “ontological” insomuch as cinema alone has the “exorbitant privilege” of being able to reproduce ad libitum such events in their unique temporal quality, which is “the absolute negation of objective time, the qualitative instant in its purest form. Like death, love must be experienced and cannot be represented. We do not die twice.”44
Bazin's conclusion that in Bullfight “the toreador dies every afternoon,” however, can be countered by noticing that none of the shots used by Myriam actually show a human death.45 Even the take of Manolete's agony, with his body splayed out on a sickroom bed, is shot from a distance and at an obscure angle that hardly allows us to see anything, let alone to perceive the precise moment of his death. What we see continuously multiplied in Myriam's editing are instead the deaths of many a bull, the repeated fallings of their tormented and wounded bodies—so many touching documents of the unbearable obscenity of the spectacle performed in the bullring.
After Bullfight, at the present stage of research the last known work in Myriam's filmography, the traces left by her and her work disappear into obscurity. All we know is that she was still active in 1956 when Godard was hired by Braunberger to work as a documentary editor under her supervision.46 Even the date of her death remains unknown. How such a talented professional could become so invisible in her later years is one of those riddles that motivate (but not always reward) research in feminist film history.
Shadowed in the obscurity that covers at the same time the work of women and the work of those who are in less-visible roles than direction (and often the two conditions coincide), Myriam is a most prominent figure in a French matrilineal genealogy of compilation practices that can be traced in modern cinema from Germaine Dulac to Nicole Vedrès. Her case demonstrates the major creative role played by editors in the development of the found footage editing technique. Her work with archival footage should be held as a most original and innovative contribution to the history of French cinema.