Cinema at the Shore

The Beach in French Film

by Fiona Handyside (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 244 Pages
Series: New Studies in European Cinema, Volume 14


From Brigitte Bardot in her bikini at the Cannes Film Festival, to François Ozon’s intimate portrayals of grief and loss, some of the most iconic and challenging moments in French cinema are associated with the beach. Cinema at the Shore argues that the Parisian cityscape is not the only significant definition of space in French cinema and instead explores the industrial, aesthetic and thematic relations of French cinema to the beach.
Examining a range of films from the 1950s to the present day – including popular comedies by Jacques Tati and Patrice Leconte, the lively and ruminative documentaries of Agnès Varda, the classicism of Eric Rohmer, and the provocations of Catherine Breillat – this book showcases the dynamism and importance of the beach as a site for the reconfiguration of French cinematic identity itself. The beach offers a unique crystallization of our attitudes towards nature, culture, the body, space and time. In its constant mobility, its close, yet distinctive, relationship with nature, and its paradoxical centrality in the French cultural imaginary as a site of relaxation and holidays, the beachscape, re-framed and re-imaged by the camera, offers new ways of conceiving of the spatial politics of French cinema.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: The Cinematic Beachscape
  • Introduction: The spaces of French cinema
  • The beach as liminal site
  • Theories of space and their use for Film Studies
  • Les Plages d’Agnès/The Beaches of Agnès: Some thoughts on beaches
  • Fearing the sea to aquaphilia: Histories of the beachscape
  • Painters of modern life: The developing aesthetics of the beach
  • The beach on film: Mobility and modernity beyond the city
  • Mapping beachscapes
  • Beaches on film: International perspectives
  • The beach in Italian cinema
  • The beach in British cinema
  • Chapter 2: The Girl in the Bikini: The Beach and French Cinema’s Cultural Economy
  • Introduction: The mythical Riviera
  • La Baie des Anges (Demy, 1963): Casinos trump beaches
  • The Cannes Film Festival, Brigitte Bardot, and the beach as sites of cinematic glamour
  • Chapter 3: Sex (and Gender) on the Beach: Modes of Masculinity and Fantasies of Femininity
  • Introduction: Feminist art and film and the question of place
  • Male comedy and maternal melodramas: Gender and genre
  • Sun, sex and sea as Western idyll
  • Les Vacances de M Hulot: Boredom on the beach
  • Les Bronzés: Sexual humiliation at the resort
  • Les Valseuses: Violence and tenderness at the beach
  • Becoming a woman: Navigating the shoreline
  • Chapter 4: Eric Rohmer à la plage: Musical Moments and Ethnographic Encounters
  • Introduction: Getting out from time to time
  • Escaping the city: The beach and summer
  • Love on the Rohmerian beach
  • Everyday life and the beach
  • Crafting beach soundscapes
  • Lighting the beach
  • Beach cultures: An ethnographic approach
  • Chapter 5: The Old Woman and the Sea: Agnès Varda’s Beachscapes
  • Introduction: People and places
  • Les Plages d’Agnès and the nomadic gaze
  • Les Plages d’Agnès as critical autobiography
  • Mourning and melancholia at the beach
  • The old woman and the sea
  • The disappearing fisherman
  • The hidden seeds of Les Plages: Du côté de la Côte (1958) and Ulysse (1982)
  • Chapter 6: The Possibilities of a Beach: Queerness and François Ozon’s Beaches
  • The beach as auteurist sign and as disruptive of discourses of authorship
  • Disrupting the future: The child as spectre
  • The South-West as queer zone
  • 5×2: Reverse chronology and the beach
  • Sous le sable: Ambiguous bodies on the beach
  • Ghostly presences: The haunted beach
  • Conclusion: Beyond the Beach
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Figures

Figure 1   Varda uses mirrors to reflect the sea and the shore in Les Plages d’Agnès

Figure 2   Jean-Claude and Léna on the beach at dawn, with tent and motorbike in La Baule-les Pins

Figure 3   Anaïs lets the sea wash over her body in A Ma Soeur

Figure 4   Margot and Gaspard strike up conversation on the beach in Conte d’été

Figure 5   The photograph investigated in Ulysse

Figure 6   Mousse meets a stranger on the beach who asks to touch her pregnant belly in Le Refuge ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

This book began as a tiny seed, sown long ago, while chatting with a then colleague at Queen’s University Belfast, Catriona Cunningham, in Café Renoir, Botanic Avenue, on a rainy day in Belfast in early 2004, while we both wished we were on a beach far away. The project has then had several different incarnations and ideas before taking its current shape, and I have many friends and colleagues to thank along the way. I would especially like to thank Lisa Downing, who has been a major support and fantastic source of inspiration for over a decade now. I truly treasure her input. I must also thank Bill Marshall for having provided much food for thought, and indeed for being the one to suggest that no study of beaches in French cinema would be complete without looking at Eric Rohmer! I think of Jill Forbes often as I write, and she is still very much missed. Jill Farquhar, Nigel Harkness, Des O’Rawe, Maeve McCusker, Lavinia Brydon, Michael Leonard, Helen Warner and Laura McFall offered variously inspiration, enthusiasm, references, and friendship while I was at Queen’s and after. At Exeter, Danielle Hipkins is an exemplary colleague, and has provided great advice and ideas, including suggesting I should read Natalie Fullwood’s excellent thesis – I thank the latter for giving permission for me to see this thesis prior to general release. Will Higbee kindly read a draft of the Varda chapter and offered useful feedback and comment. Clara Bradbury-Rance helped me refine ideas about queer temporality in our discussions, and Lara Cox kindly read a draft version of the Ozon chapter. Phil Wickham and his team at the Bill Douglas Centre in Exeter located the Cannes Film Festival programmes for me. Jen Barnes has been a star. Further afield Phil Powrie, Keith Reader, Nick Rees-Roberts, Emma Wilson, Marie-Claire Barnet and Sue Harris have all offered support for the project in various ways, providing references, suggesting films, and inviting me to give papers. Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang has provided quick and efficient editorial support through the process of manuscript submission. Clare Finburgh and ← ix | x → Stu Pollard provided a happy London base for six months’ research on the project in 2006–7. Lara Kemp offered her own unique perspective on Simon Cowell’s contribution to the French Riviera’s image. The Bootleg girls – Steph, Emily B, Emily R, Julia, Kim and Chris – provided much needed respite from intellectual endeavour. Family Markham is a constant joy. Unstinting love and support has been provided by my parents, especially in this last difficult month. Writing the final words in their sunny garden in Torbay, in sight of the beach of my childhood, was a healing balm of sorts. It is to them that this book is dedicated, with love.

Various sections of this book have appeared in significantly amended and shorter form, in the following journals, which I thank for permission to reproduce that material:

Parts of Chapter 3 in ‘The Feminist Beachscape: Agnès Varda, Catherine Breillat, Diane Kurys’, L’Esprit Créateur 51:1 (2011), 83–96.

Parts of Chapter 4 in ‘Rohmer à la plage: The Beach in Three Films by Eric Rohmer’, Studies in French Cinema 9:2 (2009), 147–160.

Parts of Chapter 6 in ‘The possibilities of a beach: Queerness and François Ozon’s beaches’, Screen 53:1 (2012), 54–71.

← x | 1 → CHAPTER 1

The Cinematic Beachscape

‘Si vous n’aimez pas la mer … allez vous faire foutre!’
[If you don’t like the sea, you can leave!]1

— MICHEL in A bout de souffle/Breathless

When subjected to analytical scrutiny, the beach seems to be one of the privileged places where society puts itself on display, with its rites and symbols, its festive customs and conventions, its desires and norms, its rules and their transgressions, its strategies for coexistence and codes for settling in, its organizational logic and, finally, its panoply of emotions. The beach is spectacular. It is a theatre in which society unveils itself, lays itself bare (literally and metaphorically), bringing to light ‘the affective and feeling dimension of social relationships’ in the framework of a scenography that ‘stylises existence and brings out its essential characteristic.’ The beach, with its rituals and games, offers purifications: it presents a hyperreal image of collective life that differentiates it from everything else.2


‘Si on ouvrait les gens, on trouverait les paysages. Moi si on m’ouvre on trouvera des plages.’
[If you open people up, you find landscapes. If you open me up, you find a beach.]3

— AGNÈS VARDA in Les Plages d’Agnès

← 1 | 2 → Introduction: The spaces of French cinema

Studies of French cinema have traditionally taken a temporal approach, demarcating its output into what emerges as three distinct periods: the classical Golden Era from the invention of the cinématographe by the Lumière Brothers to the Poetic Realist 1930s output of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert; the modern 1950s cinéma de qualité, succeeded by its rebellious, vital offspring the New Wave, and then its later 1970s incarnation as a counter-cinema; the postmodern 1980s and 1990s with a new emphasis on image in the cinéma du look and then, from 1995 onward a re-politicisation, now read in terms of ‘a return to the real’ and identity politics as much as reworking of form.4 However, in recent years, the humanities in general has seen a critical shift in interest from the temporal/historical to the spatial/geographical in areas as diverse as new historicism to gender studies: it is now some twenty-five years since Edward Soja asserted that ‘space and geography may be displacing time and history as the distinctively significant interpretative dimension of the contemporary period.’5 Accordingly, examination of space and place in the cinema has proved fertile ground, leading to a variety of publications, from veritable shelves of books on films and urban societies, to considerations of countryside, landscape, gardens and apartments.6 French cinema studies has been vital to development in ← 2 | 3 → the field, with many of the spatial theorists used, such as Henri Lefevbre, Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Noël Burch, writing within a French philosophical tradition, and close analysis of the specificity of French cinematic spatiality has begun to be undertaken. A special edition of Yale French Studies entitled ‘New Spaces for French and Francophone Cinema’ asserted that ‘an art of space and time, the cinema invites reflections on both, and this has been especially true in a French context that has produced the theoretical treatments of Gilles Deleuze, who redefined the history of the cinema from the (spatialised) movement-image to the time-image’ and that ‘given its prestige, financial importance and enormous cultural resonance in France, the cinema is well poised to engage in a spatial politics, to be an art of space producing its own space or spaces, and thus potentially redefining the space of France and the francophone world.’7 ‘French’ cinema is not one monolithic space, then, but one composed of a multiplicity of interdependent national, transnational, and post-colonial spaces, each of which are accorded meanings and compete for representational dominance, in both the political and aesthetic senses of that word.

French cinema is still overwhelmingly identified spatially with Paris, and most work on French cinematic spatiality still tends to concentrate on the urban, so that for example Ginette Vincendeau asserts that ‘Paris, the modern city par excellence has dominated French cinema. Elegant or picturesque apartment blocks, intimate courtyards and bustling cafés constitute its cinematic grammar.’8 Similarly, Jean Douchet argues that ‘la Nouvelle Vague ne pouvait se passer qu’à Paris, ne pouvait se passer de Paris. On peut même affirmer qu’elle mit en jeu une certaine idée de ← 3 | 4 → Paris’ [the New Wave could only happen in Paris, could not have happened without Paris. We could even say that it created a certain idea of Paris].9 Given the massive centralisation which pervades all aspects of French life, to the extent that for many France is still split between ‘Paris and the French desert’ as the planner Jean-François Gravier described it in 1947, this may not seem surprising.10 Yet close exploration of the shoreline reveals its importance to French cinematic life, both in allowing it to articulate the ambiguities of modernity, and in carving out a space which offers possibilities of transcendence, difference and fluidity. The beach is neither one nor the other, neither wet nor dry, with its own flora and fauna, and the gentle shore of soft, sandy beaches can suddenly give way to rocky cliffs, dangerous overhangs and treacherous currents – these spaces are constantly in flux, subject to perpetual change and shift. Neither the civilisation of the cityscape, nor the ‘managed nature’ of the countryside, nor the emptiness of the desert, but ‘in the margins of all that’, the beach offers a unique crystallisation of our attitudes towards nature, culture, the body, space and time.11 The beach is a particularly fluid representational field, both due to its intrinsic mobility (its parameters change with every breaking wave) and its complex place in ‘national’ life, simultaneously at the periphery both geographically and politically, yet central to France’s tourist economy, leisure activities and visual culture. However, despite the extensive French coastline, the popularity of beach holidays in France, seminal beach-set moments in both its popular and art-house classics (can you imagine M Hulot, Antoine Doinel, Brigitte Bardot, Les Bronzés, Eric Rohmer or Agnès Varda without a beach?) and its international film festival located in the beach resort of Cannes, there is to date no study of the beach in French cinema. Indeed, although there has been ← 4 | 5 → some work on the rural in the cinema and the peripheries and margins in European cinema, little work has been carried out on the specific (non)location of the cinematic beach in general, on this dry and wet landscape where key transformations and happenings take place, where transgressive and radical encounters take place between people who ‘find themselves’ at the water’s edge.

The beach as liminal site


X, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
cityscape dynamism cinematic identity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 244 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Fiona Handyside (Author)

Fiona Handyside is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Modern Languages, University of Exeter, UK. She is the editor of Eric Rohmer: Interviews (2013) and has published in several journals, including Screen and the European Journal of Cultural Studies.


Title: Cinema at the Shore