Colin Davis, ‘Traumatic Hermeneutics, Jean Renoir, and the Memory of War’

Podcastson February 17th, 2012No Comments

Date: Tuesday 6 March, 5.00 pm

Venue: Royal Holloway, room IN243

Speaker: Professor Colin Davis, Royal Holloway, University of London

Title: ‘Traumatic Hermeneutics, Jean Renoir, and the Memory of War’

Trauma poses one of the problems of interpretation in a particularly potent form: how can we tell that what we insist on finding is actually present in the interpreted work? As Thomas Elsaesser has put it, ‘If trauma is experienced through its forgetting, its repeated forgetting, then, paradoxically, one of the signs of the presence of trauma is the absence of all signs of it’. Trauma may be most devastatingly present when it is most vehemently denied. This paper sketches some of the methodological problems involved in interpreting trauma, and then looks more closely at some of the later films of the great French director Jean Renoir. After the critical and commercial failure of his masterpiece La Règle du jeu in 1939 and the invasion of France by Germany in 1940, Renoir moved to the US, where he lived for the rest of his life. The 13 films he made after 1940 have been largely neglected in comparison with his work of the 1930s. Some critics depict Renoir as having abandoned his earlier political interests, now preferring colourful, superficial spectacle to social commentary. The paper suggests that this is a misreading, and that the bright surfaces of Renoir’s later films screen – in the double sense of ‘mask’ and ‘put on display’ – traumatic experiences. Trauma inhabits these films even if it only indirectly disturbs their apparent cheerfulness.

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