Book reviews Film reviews

André Bazin: Boyer’s US-American “Moral Atomism“

In 1954, director François Truffaut published his text “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français“ (“A certain tendency of French cinema“), which formed the theoretical basis of the Nouvelle Vague. The latter became a movement in French cinema that pointed out and went against bourgeois tendencies prevalent in French filmmaking in the first half of the 20th century. Proponents of the Nouvelle Vague criticized a diagnosed lack of originality in the writing of screenplays as well as the predictability of many of the films made at the time. Authors and directors of the movement also emphasized the need for film to become its own art form independent of literature, since many screenplay writers uncritically produced only novel adaptations.

André Bazin (1918-1958) was a highly influential French film critic after World War II and is considered a prominent figure of the Nouvelle Vague. He started writing about film in 1943 during the Occupation, then co-founded the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951. He also wrote extensively about and published critical essays on a large number of French films made at the time in renowned French newspapers and magazines, such as Esprit or Le Parisien Libéré.  

In 1952, he wrote a detailed and attentive critique of René Clément’s film Jeux interdits for Esprit, which is one of the most important sources when it comes to discussing the critical reception of Boyer’s and Clément’s material at the time. It is also one of the very few sources which offer critical insight into Boyer’s novel.

Bazin’s review of the novel is overall rather negative. Putting “novel” in parentheses, he suggests at the outset that, due to its shortness, the text should rather be considered a short story (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 151). Comparing it to Clément’s film, he also finds it lacking in quality. He asks whether “the novel is as good as the film“ and answers that he doesn’t think so. Though „Boyer’s novel has some strong features […] it also has some shortcomings“ (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 152), even if the English translation of the book was a success in the United States. 

Bazin explains that the latter was probably due to “the influence of the American novel on its [the novel’s] conception”, although he finds that Boyer “assimilated” this influence “in a rather naïve way”. He writes that “What’s good in Boyer’s book, beyond the technical aspect, has everything to do with the transmission of authentic personal experience. Its weakness lies in its obvious and systematic intention of putting this personal experience into the objectivist mold of an Erskine Caldwell” (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 152). What Bazin does not mention in this context, is the fact that Boyer’s novel was also heavily influenced by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937; cf. Le Pezennec/Perrichon 2000: 66). 

Erskine Caldwell was a Southern US-American author who wrote extensively about social problems and injustices such as extreme poverty during the Great Depression, racism and misogyny, and documented the lives and struggles of the working class in a decidedly non-romanticized way. He also wrote about sexual transgressions in the name of religion, which resulted in his books being among the most censured of the 1930ies. 

What Bazin means, however, when comparing Boyer to Caldwell, was not only Caldwell’s documentarist style or his negative and, in Caldwell’s own words, “grotesque” and “exaggerated” treatment of poor country folk (cf. Dean 2007, n.p.). Bazin criticizes Boyer’s “harsh treatment of the peasants”, but what seems to be more important to him is what he calls Boyer’s “excessive ‘Americanism‘, the tendency toward ‘behaviorism‘“: His “amoral tone with regard to events, this disposition toward exteriority“ (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 152f.).

Bazin observes that Boyer, having turned a film script consisting mainly of dialogue into a literary text, “reduces some scenes of his novel to long exchanges of dialogue that contain only rudimentary information about the characters’ behavior”. In his opinion, therefore “the reader violently resents the absence of any psychological analysis as the affirmation of a kind of moral atomism. For when a novelist reduces a scene solely to the report of the dialogue, he deprives us of his characters, of the characterization of his characters. Frustration creeps in” because “the writer denies us the soul of his characters” (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 152f.). He seems to feel that Boyer’s tendency towards “exteriority” takes away much of the effect of his attempt to transmit authentic personal experience via the characters. In Bazin’s words, the novel cannot do without this characterization in the same way that the film can because images still make it possible for the recipient to have “a total and unrestricted relationship with the very personages the author created” (Bazin in Cardullo 2015: 152). 

By moral atomism, Bazin probably meant Boyer’s reluctance to offer explicit moral judgment of the children’s behavior or the events described in the novel. He seems to interpret this reluctance as Boyer’s claim that all that takes place in the novel takes place in a moral void, i.e. has and should have no moral meaning. Or at least, this moral meaning cannot easily be determined.

I do not fully agree with Bazin’s criticism. Firstly, I think that Boyer offers quite a bit of description of characters and their actions, i.e. what Bazin calls “characterization”, both by the narrator and via the perspectives of characters looking at other characters. Secondly, it is true that the interpretation of these descriptions is mostly left to the reader, since the narrator frequently holds back on explicit commentary (although not always by any means – one need only look at the wording used to describe adults and their behavior towards children to understand whose side the narrator is on and who he wants readers to sympathize with). However, this is also a narrative technique that was developed with the modern novel, which is supposed to invite the reader to make up their own mind about the meaning of the text, without interference of a mediator. If Bazin criticized Boyer for this, he would also have to criticize many other modern and post-modern novels relying on similar narrative techniques. 

Thirdly, as I have argued before, especially a gender-theoretically informed look at the text does reveal characteristics of the narrator’s persona and points to his sociopolitical agenda, i.e. to the moral, ethical and political relevance Boyer assigns to the characters and events. The latter are presented in light of a quest for a possible model of post-war society that ensures ethical treatment of children as well as animals. Why else would Boyer suspend Paulette’s development at the end of the novel, having her symbolically return to the story’s beginnings? Why does he kill Michel? While he does not say this explicitly, he is nevertheless showing the reader thereby that these children can have no place in the chauvinistic, masculinism-dominated society that mistreats and disregards them; which delivers his message that new modes of intergenerational relating are needed if society does not want to imperil its own future by losing sight of the younger generation. Even if Boyer does not tell, he shows.

In my opinion, it is especially the subtle ways in which the narrator does formulate criticism and does direct the reader’s identification with certain characters in order to promote his agenda that deserve more critical analysis. Bazin, I think, does not pay enough attention to those. 


André Bazin, “Clément’s Jeux interdits”. In: Robert Cardullo (ed.), André Bazin on French Cinema, 1938-1958. Berlin: Logos, 2015.

Sidney Dean, “Erskine Caldwell”. Retrieved from nachschlage NET, [accessed May 9, 2023], online. 

Marie-Anne Le Pezennec and Annabelle Perrichon, “Eloge du soldat inconnu: Rencontre avec François Boyer”, in: La gazette des scénaristes (2000), 13, 64-73.

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