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Film Criticism as Cultural Fantasy

The Perpetual French Discovery of Australian Cinema


Andrew McGregor

This book presents an unprecedented analysis of the dynamics of cultural representation and interpretation in film criticism. It examines how French critical reception of Australian cinema since the revival period of the 1970s has evolved as a narrative of perpetual discovery, and how a clear parallel can be drawn between French critics’ reading of Australian film and their interpretation of an exotic Australian national identity. In French critical writing on Australian cinema, Australian identity is frequently defined in terms of extremes of cultural specificity and cultural anonymity. On the one hand, French critics construct a Euro-centric orientalist fantasy of Australia as not only a European Antipodes, but the antithesis of Europe. At the same time, French critics have tended to subordinate Australian cultural identity within the framework of a resented Anglo-American filmic and cultural hegemony. The book further explores this marginalisation by examining the influence of the French auteur paradigm, particularly in reference to the work of Jane Campion, as well as by discussing the increasingly problematic notion of national identity, and indeed national cinemas, within the universal framework of international film culture.


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4. Before the Revival 37


37 4. Before the Revival The French Critical Reception of Australian Cinema Pre-1971 Given the near-dormant state of the Australian feature film in- dustry during the three decades from 1945 to the mid 1970s, it is indeed remarkable that four Australian films were selected for screening in the Competition at the Cannes Film Festival during those thirty years. In the absence of a national ‘industry’, each of these productions represented a triumph of personal (and financial) endeavour in order to be made, let alone be selected for screening at the world’s most prestigious film festival. The first Australian film presented at Cannes was Charles Chauvel’s Jedda, in 1955, produced by Chauvel in collaboration with his wife, Elsa. The film is an early cinematic portrayal of the problems of cultural identity facing Australia’s indigenous population. A young Aboriginal girl adopted by a white woman on a Northern Territory cattle station is brought up as a ‘white’ child, only to discover later in her childhood that she feels a strong spiritual connection with her native people. This leads to a questioning of cultural identity that proves over- whelming for her, and ultimately ends in death. William Routt sees Jedda as ‘one of the most fully mythic and dreamlike of Australian films’1, and typical of Chauvel’s work, in which ‘in- tense emotion fuels moral stories about national identity, his- tory, gender and race’2. The attention given by the French film press to Australia’s first entrants in the Cannes Film Festival was scant. In...

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