The Experimental Ethos of Nicole Brenez and Cinema as a Visionary Critical Activity
This dissertation is the first substantial academic study of the film criticism of Nicole Brenez (b.1961). Brenez currently holds influential teaching positions in Paris and since 1996 has selected the experimental film program at the Cinémathèque Française. Two major collections of her film analyses have been published in French. Scattered English translations of her criticism have appeared since the late 1990s, chiefly thanks to Australian critic Adrian Martin. The goals of this study are to extend the relatively small English-language reception of Brenez’s writing to date and describe some of the critical territories it opens up. The dissertation does not attempt to construct a Brenezian theory of cinema, but to elaborate Brenezian strategies inside the discourses of film studies.
The theoretical point of departure for the thesis is the aesthetic concept of the ‘figure’ and its cognates the figurative, figuration, figural, etc. The field of figural thought is diverse and resistant to stable definition. This study approaches the figure as the irreducibility of the visible to language, the dynamic shaping of image plasticity, a movement of thought that highlights association, transformation and variation, and as an experimental laboratory for recreating the image of the body in radically new ways. For Brenez, the figure designates an experimental zone for thinking in images. Additionally, she elaborates a specifically political exigency to the field of the figure and argues, in the wake of the seminal work of Jean-François Lyotard, that figurality designates the critique of discursive codes of visuality and a reconfiguration of sense.
Brenez’s figural thought is expressed most concretely in her criticism. She builds on a tradition of film analysis she terms “immanent critique”, which is characterised by the fusion of poetic and exegetic activities. Her analytical methodology strategically disintegrates any apparent perception of the image as an integral unity and reconfigures the work of film as an economy of relations organised by different figurative logics. Yet one of Brenez’s primary strategies is to affirm the critical powers of cinema and its ability to study the image, to essay its essential features and comment on its historical expressions. Her focus in this regard is a radical practice she names ‘the visual study’ which I discuss with reference to Harun Farocki, Al Razutis, and Jean-Luc Godard. I offer a reading of Brenez’s book-length essay on the films of Abel Ferrara as similarly committed to the study of the image by means of the image itself.
In this early phase of the reception of Brenez, my goal in this research has been to consolidate a body of work that has circulated at the margins of academic film studies, analyse some of her critical strategies, and amplify her central thesis that cinema is a ‘visionary critical activity’. I argue Brenez offers scholars a model for an experimental ethos, a rigorous and poetic analysis of film practices that range from militant pamphlets to gallery installations to slyly subversive commercial narrative cinema. Brenez celebrates the cinema as an instrument of critical awareness devoted to observing the nature, role and workings of images in the individual psyche and collective imaginary.