Cléo's Masks: Regimes of Objectification in the French New Wave



Ezra E (2010) Cléo's Masks: Regimes of Objectification in the French New Wave. Yale French Studies, 118/119, pp. 177-190.

First paragraph: There is a moment early in Agnès Varda's 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7 when the film's eponymous heroine, a pop singer named Cléo, notices a display of tribal masks in a shop window while riding in a taxi through the streets of Paris. This is an iconic moment in the film, highlighting the importance of masquerade in Cléo's narcissistic world of appearances. But this scene also indicates the extent to which representations of alterity and discourses of cultural self-fashioning are rooted in narratives of historical progress. Masks are icons of "the primitive," and their presence in chic boutiques and bourgeois homes reinforces implicit cultural assumptions about how far "now" is from "then," and "we" are from "them." These assumptions, however, are seriously undermined by the forms of racialized violence that erupted in the twentieth century. Removed from one context and deposited in another, exotic masks perform a double displacement: they represent the cultures and places from whence they come (and a larger global system of expropriation and uneven exchange), and they also suggest a temporal décalage of instances of dehumanizing violence, invoking what Max Silverman has called "composite memories." As objects, masks in these films come alive with the episodes of human history they embody, but they also invoke the reverse process of objectification in which human beings are reduced to the status of objects in cultural and sexual commodification, a reduction that paved the way for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including systematic torture and genocide. At the same time, masks inhabit a metaphorical space of disguise, censorship, and displacement. In Cléo and other New Wave films, masks appear as overdetermined memorial palimpsests, signifying multiple layers of historical trauma as well as the repression of these traumas in a dialectic of exposure and concealment. This essay will examine this dialectic in a number of films, beginning with Cléo, and culminating in a discussion of Alain Resnais's Muriel ou le temps d'un retour (19

CULTURE; forthcoming; incomplete; memories; Memory; NUMBER; REGIME; REGIMES; WAVE

This issue of Yale French Studies is titled: Noeuds de mémoire: Multidirectional Memory in Postwar French and Francophone Culture (2010), ed. by Rothberg M, Sanyal D, Silverman M, ISBN: 9780300118858

Yale French Studies: Volume 118/119

Publication date31/12/2010
PublisherYale University Press
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Professor Elizabeth Ezra

Professor Elizabeth Ezra

Professor of Cinema and Culture, French