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

Event Date 6 March 2012
IN 243

Royal Holloway University of London
Egham, Surrey
TW 20 0EX

 

TRAUMA, FICTION, HISTORY
seminar series

School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Professor Colin Davis (Royal Holloway, University of London):
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 never 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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