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‘A Film by…?’ An Extended Idea of Auteurship in Vivre Sa Vie and Charulata

June 2, 2020 | By

The idea of ‘auteur’ emerges from the time of French New Wave through the discussions and debates inside the Cahiers group. Over a period of time there are quite a few existing thesis and antithesis on the concept of ‘auteur’. In this essay the author elaborated the space of argument where the idea of authorship not only anchored on the director himself but also has a widened periphery. The argument in this essay is centered on the films like Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie and Satyajit Ray’s Charulata where the directors and actors (Anna Karina, Madhavi Mukherjee) indulge themselves in the vision of joint auteurship. The intricate expressions, eye movements and body language which Anna Karina and Madhabi Mukherjee possess with themselves to internalize the idea of the characters of Nana and Charulata, become so personal and individual that they may sometimes have superseded the respective directors’ notion of the characters. The films, thereby, become that of both the actor and the director.

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray

What is an author or who is an author is a valid question of modernity. Early or medieval art didn’t have the idea of a particular author. There was oral tradition, people listened to oral narratives throughout the lineage and someday someone compiled it for reading purposes. Arabian Nights is a huge collection of folk stories without a name. Same with Thakumar Jhuli, where Dakhinaranjan Mitra Majumder brings together the various folklores and fairytales  of rural Bengal. Though the epics like Iliad and Odyssey are attributed to a single person Homer, the identity of Homer is very dubious. He may be one or different persons. Ramayana, the epic, is the tale and journey of Rama. In some versions, it is that of Ravana, narrated differently throughout India. There are 300 Ramayanas across the country which has been pointed out by A.K Ramanujan. So, we see the early and medieval artists were not concerned with the idea of a sacrosanct author. The very idea of authorship is a post Renaissance structure. Renaissance Humanism fixates the idea of the perception of the world and becomes very strict about the concept of author. The way medieval artists can efface their names from the artwork, Renaissance and post Renaissance artists were unable to do so. Everybody knows who painted ‘Mona Lisa’ or who created the sculpture of ‘David’, but nobody knows the creators of the medieval murals and numerous cave paintings. The medieval artists were not preoccupied with the idea of personal signature, they never wanted to claim an art work of their own, and rather they were happy to withdraw the name of the author from a work of art. It is easily understandable that the idea of author is a post Renaissance phenomenon which emerges later with the advent of modernity.

The history of cinema started after modernity. So cinema itself is a modern medium. We can’t expect the effacement of the authorial signature when we look into it. But cinema was never a single person’s brainchild. Primitive mode of representation (PMR), as coined by Noel Burch also involves more than one person to control the camera. And when it transfers into the Institutional mode of representation (IMR), there starts the idea of industry which started to propagate the cinema within their corpus. Classical Hollywood was an industrial structure where films were being produced as a product to entertain the mass. There were excellent films that were made within the studio system, but the system looked at them as a product to sell. Andre Bazin points out Classical Hollywood as ‘the genius of a system’. This system engages a lot of people, where the director was only a part of it. The big production houses control the industry where directors, actors, screenplay writers, editors and everyone were just employees. After the collapse of the studio system, cinema tends to become much more personal.

The concept of ‘auteur’ in cinema emerges from the Cahiers group of French New Wave, in 1950’s France. New Wave directors, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer coined this term to read a film text as a personal mode of expression of the directors. They pointed out the individual brilliance of the directors of the Classical Hollywood era who marked their authorial signature working inside the system. They mentioned Orson Welles, Hitchcock, John Ford and many more in this queue. Andre Bazin’s observation was a bit different from them. In his essays on cinema he opts for an artwork which is more humble in tone, and which has the spirit to efface the conceited idea of the author. He also critiqued the celebrated notion of ‘auteur’ in his essay ‘on the politique des auteurs’. He believed in the idea where a work can transcend its creator. He urged to judge a film by its merit, not to get biased with the name of its author. I am here quoting few lines from his essay ‘on the politique des auteurs’.

“And of course as soon as you state that the film maker and his films are one, there can be no minor films, as the worst of them will always be in the image of their creator” AND another citation I would like to bring, “It is its negative side that seems the most serious to me. It is unfortunate to praise a film that in no way deserves it, but the dangers are less far reaching than when a worthwhile film is rejected because its director has made nothing good up to that point.” Andre Bazin also points out the brilliance of Gregg Toland (the cinematographer) in Citizen Kane, and refuses to see Citizen Kane only as the inclusive prowess of the director Orson Welles. Here lies the question, who is an author? Can we call the director as the auteur of the cinema or this idea of auteurship should demand rethinking? Bazin has pointed out his contradiction with the notion of auteur communicated by Cahiers group. Later Pauline Kael has also argued with Andrew Sarris with the vision of ‘auteur’. Inside the debates and discussions centering on this concept I would like to draw my argument where the concept of auteur can be extended as mentioned by Bazin for Citizen Kane. For my further argument I will take two film texts and observe how the actors or performers of those films have left authorial signatures as well.

I would like to commence my discourse with a basic question, a director of a film can control the mise en scene, can decide the objects and their positions within a mise en scene, but can he or she ever treat a performer just as another object of the frame? The performer being a part of the director’s mise en scene, can he or she ever carry out the exact intention of the director? If a director wants a particular kind of curtain, he can buy or make that definite kind- but can a director ever get the exact performer with exact look, exact smile and exact posture which he has exactly pre supposed for his character? He may go close or closest of his idea of the character, but it’s next to impossible and certainly unnecessary to get the ditto. Thus acting in films is always meant to be collaborative which demands the physical as well as psychological involvement of both the director and the performer. Few performers exceptionally transcend the directorial control over the character. We can see the vulnerability within the frame where we have to stop before the performers and begin to think about his or her exceptional performance. I would like to take two films named Vivre Sa Vie and Charulata where the narrative revolves around the central actors and their presence on screen dares to question the autocratic directorial signature.

The opening shot of Vivre Sa Vie starts with the left profile of Anna Karina. The title track falls on her face, and the music continues. Her left profile follows her front shot and right profile respectively. She licks her lips, her throat trembles; she looks directly at the camera and the title track keeps on going. As if it is her film, she wants to convey something by looking at the camera during the movement of the title track. Melancholy surrounds her, as if Jean Luc Godard is trying to share his authorial space with Karina and thus Karina’s melancholic eyes are so enigmatic, as if she is entrapped within the gaze of the camera hence the gaze of the director.

vivre se vie title

3 Shots of the Vivre Sa Vie title sequence

Charulata was made only two years later, in 1964. The opening sequence of Charulata  follows the close shot of Charu’s hand where she is busy in knitting a handkerchief. The title track keeps on going along with the music and the camera observes Charu’s activity keenly. As the previous reference drawn from Vivre Sa Vie, here I also point out the similar observation where the filmmaker Satyajit Ray decides to look at the character intensely. From the very first shot he observes her work and makes the audience to look at her throughout.  As if both the directors are inaugurating the extended space for both the actors on screen.

Title sequence – Charulata

Both Madhabi Mukherjee and Anna Karina took the space intelligently which were offered by the directors. They used the space and molded it so extensively that the individual spaces became their very own and marked their individual authorship.

Let’s look at the group of shots (45:44 minutes – 47:43 minutes of the film Charulata) where the character of Charu started humming ‘thank you thank you’ at the garden outside the house. It starts with Charu’s hence Madhabi Mukherjee’s mid close up and then she started observing the surrounding with a binocular. The point of view shot moves from the bushes to the window where Charu sees a woman standing with a baby in her arms. Then we again see Charu’s face- changing expressions drastically, again she takes the binocular into her eyes and in point of view shot we see Amal. Then again we see Charu, emotion changing in her eyes. Camera keeps on looking at her minutely, her eyes begin to speak. Is it melancholy, is it love, or is it despair we never know. Her eyes, her expression create an enigma which is untranslatable. Satyajit Ray may instruct Madhabi Mukherjee to look at the windows, then to Amal and the details of it. But, can he or can anyone direct her mystical eye movements and tutor the thoughts which she imbibes to portray the scene? The scene itself becomes incomprehensible; the audience cannot read it or reduce it to a narrow meaning. The entire tension of this sequence follows Madhabi Mukherjee’s mystic eyes and the language in her eyes is quite inexplicable. Apart from the close ups, montage or sound, the onscreen presence of Madhabi demands some particular attention. She is no more in the hands of the director, but her extraordinary performance and the sense of enigma in her eyes cements the idea of shared auteurship. This is only one sequence I have described here, but the entire film consists of multiple such instances from where this idea of extended auteurship can be drawn.

In Vivre Sa Vie there is a shot where Nana went to a movie hall to see Passion of Joan of Arc. The soundtrack stops, in pin drop silence the camera watches Anna Karina with a tight close up, tears roll down her eyes. This shot is point of view shot of Falconetti as Falconetti’s face is the point of view shot of Karina. The camera looks at Karina for a certain time, which is repeated in Kiarostami’s Shirin where the camera looks at the multiple faces of women watching a film. As if this shot tributes Karina, stops the soundtrack and asks her to perform. She never cries in any other shot of this film, but this sheer melancholy prevails throughout.

vivre se vie shots

(L) Nana at cinema hall, watching Passion of Joan of Arc (R) Close shot of Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc

In the police station (21:27 minutes – 23:55 minutes of Vivre Sa Vie) when she speaks, camera looks at her for a long time. She looks straight, she looks down, she speaks, she remains silent- all we see is her appearance and her expressions drenched with a sense of somber but not intelligible. Anna Karina portrayed the character of Nana in an ambiguous way. We suppose we will understand her and make a communication- but everything falls apart.

Since writing is probably the most personal mode of expression of a person, in both these films the act of writing has been shown with special importance. In Charulata Charu started writing about his village, after going through a long thought process. The mind of Charulata has been portrayed by montage of images superimposing on Madhabi Mukherjee’s tight close up.

Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata)

Tight close up of Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata)

Now, a director can never own a cerebral contemplation of the actor, the act of remembrance of Charu becomes the very own scene of Madhabi Mukherjee where she herself involves in that process of reminiscence. After that we see her writing on the paper, the camera observes her writing, as the camera was closely observing her knitting previously. Vivre Sa Vie took much more time to observe Karina writing. She writes a letter on a paper and camera watches her handwriting with deep care and empathy. Alexandre Astruc in La Camera Stylo (1948) aspires cinema to be like a pen which envisioned a personal cinema with a definite language like a novel or an essay. The way these two films watch the act of writing, it can be read as a direct tribute to Astruc’s concept. The writing of Madhabi becomes the writing of Charu, as well as the handwriting of Karina becomes the handwriting of Nana. Observing that quietly broadens the space for the actors where they can indulge themselves into engaging more intensely and also it strengthens the idea of joint auteurship which both the director and the actors share.

charulata shots

(L) Nana is writing on the pad for job application in Vivre Sa Vie (R) Charu is writing about her village in Charulata

The central narrative of both films deal with two woman characters, but the directors are male. Being centered on a male gaze that is the gaze of a camera, both the female actors reclaim their space and transcend the obvious gaze on them. Though the gaze of Ray’s camera tries to capture the certain images and emotions of Madhabi, but Madhabi’s autonomous and enigmatic expression and performance goes beyond the calculative convention. Same with Anna Karina, whose gloominess interweaved with a certain kind of mystery, departs from Godard’s control over the onscreen space and the space becomes her own.

To look and judge a film text only by the name of a single person is a tyrannical practice to some extent as it involves the intelligence and physical labour of more than one person. Yes, it is the director who combines all the threads together but it may not be only him who does it every time. As Bazin points out Citizen Kane as the brilliance of Orson Welles as well as Gregg Toland, I would rather draw my conclusion with the point where the idea of joint auteurship lies. The exceptional artistry of a cinematographer or an actor can extend this idea of a single supreme auteur. So, I would like to argue that Charulata is a film by Satyajit Ray and Madhabi Mukherjee as well as Vivre Sa Vie is a film by Anna Karina and Jean Luc Godard.

Click here for exclusive features on understanding Satyajit Ray’s films coming up as part of Ray@100 Centenary Series.

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Labanya Dey is an ardent learner in the field of cinema and literature, currently doing her masters at the Dept of Film Studies, Jadavpur University. She writes on cinema in several online journals. Mountains and hill stations are her escape route from this boisterous city.
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