Author: Susan Hayword
Reviewer: Ciara Lianne O’Brien
The study of media and film is an area in which theories can swamp their master and swamp them until their original intent appears almost lost. As such, theorists are consistently trying to untangle themselves from the seaweed grip of other theories and narrow theories down as much as humanly possible. Even with this in mind, Susan Hayward’s newest book French Costume Drama of the 1950s: Fashioning Politics in Film seems oddly specific. That is until you separate theories of French film from all others, and realise that what Hayward has done here is entirely necessary.
French cinema as a whole is under-theorised, there have been only a couple of pockets of anomalies in film theory which have included, but rarely focused on French cinema itself, rather the focus has been on auteurs and the stars of French cinema. Upon opening the book, we realise that the 1950s was, without doubt, one of the most prolific period in French cinema, with a variety of genres that wasn’t seen anywhere else.
As we have all seen, any political unrest tends to be mirrored in cinema, as no film is created in a vacuum, and here we see that cinema became escapism from troubled times in France and Hayward points out that the most expository escapism came in the form of costume dramas during this period as there appeared to be an evident lament of a lost past and a denial of modernisation in film. These dramas are generally set in the age of Napoleon, which has become the most famous period of cultural paradox, a fact which Hayward continually exposes as she journeys through diverse generic territory.
It isn’t until we are mid-way through the book that something becomes clear to the reader that prior to this volume; there has been no theory on costume drama, a fact which seems almost unbelievable as we navigate through this in-depth exploration of the French model. Hayward has clearly seen a need to investigate this period thoroughly and the manner in which she does so is effortless and without wavering. The more I read, the more I discovered, and I’m slightly ashamed to say that I was eagerly awaiting a theory half-finished, or any manner of insecurity within the text. I’m happy to report that there was none.
My own highlight is a section entitled ‘Fairytales, Foxy Women and Swashbuckling Heroes’, which adds a splash of humour in what is undoubtedly a heavy volume of theory. In the age of film recycling we have found ourselves in, Hayward’s theories in this section are interesting as we can now apply them to our modern fairytales and our countless encounters with heroes, whether they are swashbuckling or fumbling. This section as a whole is indicative of the diversity of film which Hayward has chosen to explore. To a lesser theorist this would be a daunting task, but here it is effortless.
This book is a rarity in film theory and a must for the shelves of any self-respecting film buff, student or budding theorist. The narrow nature of Hayward’s subject has not come at the expense of any cultural exploration as she includes a wide variety of films from Vernay to Le Chanois, masterfully blending modern cultural theories with cultural fact of the period the film mirrors as well as that in which it was created. There is much to adore about this volume, but its true genius lies in the manner in which Hayward has created her own theories here. These theories are so solid and cemented in fact that Hayward has succeeded in bypassing the infancy period which film theories pass through and has created a theory on costume drama which almost seems to have always existed.
Paperback: 376 pages
Publishing Date:15th August 2010
Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 17.4 x 2.8 cm