To France, with a Fulbright
Professor awarded research grant to study French film, ethnography in Paris
As Academy Award-winning actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn famously observed: “Paris is always a good idea.” Laure Astourian agrees — although in her case, she’s headed there because of a good idea.
A Fulbright Fellowship will take the assistant professor of French to the highly regarded École Normale Supérieure. Astourian will spend nearly five months in the City of Light, conducting archival research for her first book, which explores the role of ethnography in French films of the 1950s and 1960s.
“These films reflect a really fascinating time in the world,” says Astourian, who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as a French and Film Studies double major at UC Berkeley. “This is a particularly rich period in French history and culture.”
The cutting-edge films she studies unspooled in the decades following World War II, amid sweeping political, economic and social change. In the late 1950s, a small but influential group of film critics and filmmakers began to rebel against the conventional fare produced by French studios.
“They felt that these films were outdated and did not reflect the way people actually lived,” says Astourian. “So, inspired by sources including Hollywood cinema and Italian Neorealism, they decided to make their own films, on their own terms.” In the process, they made cinematic history.
These French filmmakers developed a groundbreaking new style. New Wave fiction films were followed by the cinéma vérité (“cinema truth”) documentary tradition. Both aimed to present a more intimate, authentic point of view, pioneering the use of handheld cameras, improvised dialogue, on-location shooting and non-linear “jump cuts” and flashbacks.
Astourian takes a unique approach to these films by exploring their ethnographic origins. A branch of anthropology, ethnography is the study of a specific culture in which the observer is also a participant. The standard structure of ethnographic writings and films until the 1960s involved the European colonizer “observing” and “studying” the colonized subject.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, French colonies in North and West Africa such as Algeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal gained independence. Whether peaceful or violent, the decolonization process affected more than geography.
“The dissolution of the French empire forced the French, urban elite to rethink their national identity,” explains Astourian.“Without its colonies, what role did France now occupy in the world?”
This introspection, she contends, is a prevailing theme in many New Wave and cinéma vérité offerings. Filmmakers focused a lens on metropolitan French cities, reflecting “an intensifying interest in urban France as an exotic, discoverable space.” They began to see their own society not as the center of the world, but as a singular province with its own unspoken rules and traditions. In other words, they began applying the “ethnographic gaze” to their own milieu.
In many cases, Paris itself gets as much screen time as the actors. Consider Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960), which follows a French car thief and his American girlfriend from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame to the Champs-Élysées as he eludes police. Making urban France and urban French society focal points in these films, Astourian explains, “can be read as a reaction to the reconfiguration of the empire” and an attempt to define a new, post-imperial identity.
She had planned to touch down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in September, until the COVID-19 pandemic put travel plans on hold. Although her itinerary is uncertain, one thing remains clear: “Emphasizing ethnography allows me to provide an original and meaningful re-framing of some of the most famous French films of this period,” Astourian says. “My time in France will inspire my work not only as a scholar, but also as a teacher. I’m excited to share the fruits of my Fulbright experience in the classroom.”