Joël Magny contrasting Qualité Française and the New Wave
This from an essay by Joël Magny La chute des valeurs ou la fin des années trente (p71) as it appears in D'un cinéma l'autre : notes sur le cinéma français des années cinquante / sous la direction de Jean-Loup Passek. It is my translation.
Magny compares French films of the 1950s prior to the burgeoning of the New Wave to Roland Barthes notion of "ornamental cookery". In an article in Journal of Social History (Spring, 1999), Jessamyn Neuhaus defined this idea as
"a cookery which is based on coatings and alibis, and is forever trying to extenuate and even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or the abruptness of sea-food."
"We see to what point this text can be applied to the cinematic tradition of quality. The image is effectively ornamental, made for the eye (sensation), not for the mind (knowledge through that sensation). A simple example: the famous scene in Yves Allégret's Les Orgueilleux (1953) where Michèle Morgan, alone in her room, suffers in the stifling heat. On her nightstand, a small fan. This object is directed such that it would not be capable of providing her any breeze, minimal though it might be, insufficient though it might be, which, nevertheless, is its primary function. But this positioning is justified as it permits the spectator to see the movement of the blades, which would not be possible were it directed at the heroine.
More generally, the comparison with the first films of the New Wave is significant. Belmondo's notorious request in Breathless ("Can I piss in the sink?") could be imagined in a Clouzot film (but not Marcel Carné, Christian-Jaque or René Clair). What gives it force in Godard's work (at least in its time) is that it is spoken in a room where Coutard's
photography scrupulously respects photographic realism: the light, even when reinforced by some artificial technical means, comes from the same sources as bathrooms and bedrooms. In a film of quality, it would have been filmed in a contrast expressionistic reinforcing the sordidness, multiplying the sources of unreal lighting, giving to this audacity an abstract and purely cinematic context. such a request could shock in life, but not in a studio where wildlife evolves whose dissolute morals knows well."