“Are cinemas of Europe bonded by a common soul, which would define a truly European cinema?” This is the question posed by the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos in European Cinema and Cultural Identities (1). According to the author of The Suspended Step of the Stork, the answer is obviously affirmative. The main issue still is to know whether or not Europeans have already discovered –and identified- this shared soul. 

It is pretty easy indeed to deny European cinema of any unique distinction. Cinema being mainly made up of patterns and eccentricities, one single film could contradict the most elaborate attempt of definition of the European cinema’s uniqueness. Besides, some would say -like the famous French critic Serge Daney in Cahiers du Cinéma (2)- that looking for a European soul is irrelevant, simply because the issue of Europe does exist only among politicians and European institutions, and certainly not among filmmakers. Well, despite the critical scepticism, and despite, above all, the difficulties and limits caused by the restricted range of established truths, European cinema’s soul can be –if not identified- looked for.

In fact, attempts to define this soul are rarely convincing. One common mistake is to define European cinema by its minimalist aesthetic qualities, its social themes, and the absence of happy ending. Not only does this approach completely ignore the predominant genre of comedy in national cinemas of Europe, but it also takes little account of –let’s say- an entire section of Japanese cinema in the 50’s and 60’s or current Iranian cinema, which could be defined in such a way. 

Some film theorists also argued that European cinema keeps focusing on the theme of ‘the Other’, especially in films dealing with decolonization, obsessed thus to define its own culture. However interesting this ‘thematic theory’ may be, it conceals the fact that American cinema has been giving the question of otherness its attention at least as much as its European counterpart. What do Indians represent in Western, if not the figure of ‘the Other’? And nowadays, the threat of ‘the Other’ –whatever shape it can take- is a must of Hollywood’s stories.

Similarly, the problem with characterising European cinema by the way it is produced is that it only refers to the Hollywood model and disregards the American –or any- independent sector, which works more or less on the European model. It seems quite clear that criteria of aesthetics, economy or style are not relevant for defining any cinema because all are subject to so many reciprocal influences.

Philosophy of doubt

What  characterises European cinema then might be the philosophy underlying the stories it tells. This is a certain vision of the world which cannot be easily copied because it is not something that different civilizations share. The European keystone of this vision of the world is the notion of doubt, based on Descartes’ philosophical concept, but to be applied to other numerous fields of human activity. In other words, doubt as a way of thinking and as an attitude towards the world.

This particular way of seeing the world would lead to the development of a way, which is just as particular, of representing the world. Angus Finney (3), focusing on scripts, claims that American cinema explains the world to its audience, whereas European cinema comments on it. In some ways, European scripts are more considered (although this is not necessarily linked to intellectualism).

Darkness, scepticism, distance…

Bertrand Tavernier, a French director and specialist in American cinema, agrees with this idea and simplifies it by explaining that, “American cinema is based on assertion while European cinema is based on doubt. When you carefully study some European directors who went to work to Hollywood (Lubitsch, Wilder, Lang, Boorman and so on), you can see that the common thread in their movies is darkness, often scepticism (Preminger) and distance (Jacques Tourneur)…which is not found – or, if it is, it is in a radically different way – in Hawks’ and Walsh’s films, for example. That’s not by chance that Europeans in Hollywood directed excellent ‘films noirs’. (…) When you try to define the essence of European cinema – from Rossellini to Renoir, from Jean Vigo to Michael Powell, from Fellini to Bergman and so on, you discover that doubt plays an essential role. These film-makers’ movies wonder about the world and question it without necessarily providing an answer. American movies, even when they are critical, do provide an answer.” (4)

American cinema in general is thus behaviourist: acts, gestures, and words penetrate the conscience of the individual. In contrast, European cinema is rather introspective; emerging through individual self-analysis, as demonstrated by the large number of films where the actor appears to represent the thoughts of the director. This feature is not only very rare in American movies, but all over the world. Generally speaking, only European directors have been so extensively asking themselves open questions in their films. In Europe –at least in European cinema-, the world is less Manichean.

A malaise which can’t be explained by facts Similarly, European cinema is often interested in memory as if it had –and it does have!- an obsessive relationship with the past. Consequently, European filmmakers focus more on questioning (an impossible attitude when dealing with present events in cinema). Likewise, European cinema tends to blur borders between reality and imagination (the famous European ‘magical realism’); other cinemas tend to stand on either one side or the other.

As a result, the majority of American characters are positive, rooted in action to overcome a conflict, whereas their European counterparts often suffer from an insurmountable malaise and guilt: existentialist metaphysics, from Pascal to Kierkegaard, are the source of this malaise that cannot be explained by facts.

European cinema’s soul is therefore a permanent work in progress –not easily being defined- to the extent that its films are constantly trying to answer their own interrogation…

Sojcher Frédéric (dir.), Cinéma européen et identités culturelles, University of Brussels, 1996. (2) Toubiana Serge (dir.), Il était une fois en Europe, Cahiers du Cinéma (special edition), Paris, 1992. (3) Author of The State of European Cinema: A New Dose of Reality, Cassel, New York & London, 1996. (4) See (1).

Matthieu Darras

Paris based film criic. He is the member of the Editorial Board of POSITIF. He is the general manager of NISIMASA, an European Network of young cinema enthusiasts. Has worked on Larousse’s Dictionary of Cinema, in charge of Asian pages. He is programmer for Cannes International Critics Week. Based in Paris, France.