Une fille comme toi

Une fille comme toi
Jan Baetens

Une fille comme toi

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
March 2021

From 1955 to 1965 some of the films that were shown in mainstream cinemas were also published in a printed form close to women’s magazines featuring photo-novels which enabled them to be experienced in a way that has now been largely forgotten. Using novel arrangements of photographic stills or set of pictures they retold the film using major French and Italian but also American stars of the time. These included the likes of Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Kim Novak, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Pierre Belmondo, Bernard Blier, Jean Marais, Gérard Philipe, Lino Ventura, and Brigitte Bardot (who can also be found on the enticing cover of Une fille comme toi).

In Une fille comme toi, historian, film photo-novel specialist and poet Jan Baetens unravels a story in a number of voices and fragments that play with forms and cliches to explore this filmic genre in print in an original way. It quickly becomes clear in this oulipian (and thus so-called conceptual or “uncreative”) book, which remixes material of older film photo-novels, almost each panel being borrowed from a different movie, that the female protagonist of the common girl from the title, actually has many, if not all of the faces of the female actresses mentioned above. Baetens sets the scene for a surrealist whirlwind of a story that is, obviously, about finding love, which - and here I am not spoiling the end - is eventually found. He places it as a sort of mise en abime within a setting that’s a collage in itself and in which he also advertises for other “increative” publications or is being interviewed, only to be interrupted by a second film photo-novel. This retake of the film photo-novel not only comments on itself but also its sugar sweet romanticism directed toward the readers of women’s magazines in which women were not yet allowed to talk for themselves.

These ‘cheap’ publications are by no means lightweight, and Baetens’ remix reads them through, (among others) Rosalind Krauss’ and Stanley Cavell’s concept of the transfer of media to reveal the film photo-novel as an art form in itself in the adaptation of big hits such as Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicolas Ray, 1955), Notti de Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957), or Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Louis Malle, 1958). However, it is not simply a case of a transfer from one medium to another in which film images come to a standstill - isolated and accompanied by speech balloons, but it is also a transfer between languages. As Jean-Pierre Montier in his review of Baetens’ anthology The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations (University of Texas Press, 2019), included in Une fille comme toi points out, there’s something emotional about reading Grace Kelly and James Stewart exchanging in Italian before they embark on a long kiss (that in the medium of the photo-novel can last forever - or certainly more than the censor’s restriction of 2 seconds). In this way photo-novels could also be clear reinterpretations of the films that they retell as, for example, in the case of those of John Ford’s Stagecoach or Chris Marker’s La Jetée. From the interview with Baetens we also learn that from his collection of about 1500 photo-novels he selected 300 images for this book to build his own interpretations of the genre. With such a unique resource we can only hope that there are many more interpretations to follow. With the current closure of cinemas the photo-novel might well become a new craze.

Une fille comme toi is the fifth volume in a wonderful series “Uncreative Writings’ published by JBE Books (more info on the book and series can be found here: https://www.jbe-books.com/products/une-fille-comme-toi-jan-baetens). In many simultaneous ways it contributes to the project of developing new forms of writing based on fragments which lead to discovery and rediscovery.