Mayer on Gural-Migdal (2012)


Gural-Migdal, Anna. L’Écrit-Écran des Rougon-Macquart: conceptions iconiques et filmiques du roman chez Zola. Villeneuve­ d’Ascq, France: Septentrion Presses Universitaires, 2012. Pp. 269. ISBN: 978-2-7574-0394-5

Carmen Mayer, The University of Alabama

In her second major contribution to the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Zola and film studies, Anna Gural-Migdal offers a compelling reading of what she calls Zola’s “poétique de l’image.” Focusing on the novels Le Ventre de Paris, Germinal, and Nana, Gural-Migdal’s book reveals a “kaleidoscopic” art that anticipates cinema through its image-focused weaving of the descriptive and symbolic. Filmic adaptations of these novels, Gural-Migdal argues, have subsequently and just as importantly dialogued with the novels to lay bare their art, appropriating their visual and iconic rhetoric in ways that are recognizably Zola-like.

Gural-Migdal’s introduction anchors the study in a philosophical framework, and the ensuing chapters draw on a variety of theories (by Rancière, Lavaud, Aumont, Pierce, Joly, Deleuze) to discuss the mimetic and representational functions of the novels. Alain Pagès points out in his preface to the book that if twenty-first-century readers continue to be compelled by the Rougon-Macquart novels, it is partly thanks to Zola’s pre-filmic use of imagery. Steeped as we are in a predominantly visual culture, we are particularly attentive to the contrastive play of powerful and unforgettable fictional scenes which not only lend themselves to cinema, but may also be read and decoded retrospectively using the tools of film analysis. This Gural-Migdal does ably, and for Zola scholars interested in filmic adaptation, L’Écrit-Écran will not disappoint. Focusing on films by Sergei Eisenstein (La Grève, 1925), Claude Berri (Germinal, 1993), and Dan Wolman (Nana, 1982), Gural-Migdal sketches esthetic and poetic connections between film art and Naturalist narrative (and vice versa). She ties together Zola’s visual imperative with the mimetic objective of Naturalist writing, what the novelist himself referred to as “l’écriture du corps et du silence,” and explores how these adaptations work to unveil tacit aspects of the visual, the interstitial “silence” in the fictional works that “says more” or “something else” than the novels originally set out to describe. She finds in both novels and films a descriptive excess (“grossissement”) resulting from Zola’s attention to minutiae (“microscopie”), and discovers porosity between the two that transcends photographic precision to arrive at an “au-delà,” a suggested or implicit representational overflow or screen beyond (or behind) the screen, so that film and novel are both characterized by a “débordement.” Zola himself calls this technique a “saut dans les étoiles sur le tremplin de l’observation exacte,” and Gural-Migdal shows that it is precisely in this “more than a photographic visual” that Zola’s art achieves its (silent) symbolic power.

Unlike Zola and Film (co-edited with Robert Singer, 2005), with its chapter-by-chapter focus on cinematic adaptations, L’Écrit-Écran narrows in first on the novels themselves to showcase a variety of compositional elements in Zola’s particular “optique”—from his use of metaphor, light, and rhythm, to the novels’ montage and décor—techniques that not only anticipate cinema, but just as importantly provide the technical and theoretical blueprints of the cinematic art. Cinema, Gural-Migdal argues, is indebted to Naturalism in general, and to Zola in particular: not, as we might suspect, for the treasure trove of stories Zola left behind, but rather for the visual rhetoric at the heart of the Rougon-Macquart. Parodical elements in the Naturalist fiction, for example when Nana criticizes “cette littérature immonde” which pretends to be able to show everything, further suggest that Naturalism’s ultimate goal is to show that which cannot be seen or said. The writing of body and silence privileges images and the visual, and through it, Zola enlists the reader/spectator as just one more “savant” capable of the same observation and experimentation associated with the novelist. Zola, himself an avid and adept photographer, talks about a photographic imperative in the experimental novel. While Gural-Migdal is careful to point out the limitations of this medium, which must make a selection and is never therefore capable of a totalizing “snapshot” of the natural world, she also advances the idea of “mise-en-scène,” a theatrical medium with movement and “le désir de l’image.” Both are apparent in those of Zola’s photographs that experiment (much in the same way the novels themselves do) with “l’épreuve du champ,” the blurring of lines between frame, space, and everything that lies beyond; they suggest a representational art keen to escape the limitations of frame and space to generate Naturalism’s “dispositif imaginaire.”