- 1 On the preference for “biofilm” over “biopic”, see Robert A Rosenstone, History on Film / Fi (...)
1In the narrower sense, the biopic is a film that uses the forms of fiction to dramatize the life story of one or several persons that have really existed. In the larger sense, the biofilm1 can be understood to include biographical documentary films, where the actual personage is neither dramatized nor fictionalized, and the definition may be extended still further to the film “cameo” in all its variants – the more or less flitting apparition of an already famous celebrity in a film. The dividing line between the two styles is often blurred, as documentaries often make use of excerpts from fictionalized biopics, just as the latter sometimes include film archive sequences. In fact, whether in film or in print, every form of historiography, as Hayden White maintains, is bound to demonstrate some form of “fictionality”, be it only because it cannot avoid a degree of “emplotment”. White’s tropology may serve as one point of departure for this investigation of the place of biographical film in biography theory, which will proceed principally in three directions. Much more systematically and drastically than print biographies, biopics forgo the telling of life stories from the cradle to the grave, but concentrate on meaningful periods and episodes; moreover, they tamper more freely with the diegetic sequence of events, in dynamic forms of emplotments where characters, events, and the various elements of socio-historical context are often condensed, elided, and generally treated in graphic dramatic ways.
2If, on the one hand, the gap with “what really happened” is thus made more obvious, on the other hand, the biopic stresses the biographical “point of view” and proffers an implicit statement about the chosen topic. Whether this point of view is complimentary or derogatory, and even if it aims to some extent to be neutrally scientific, it necessarily elicits a discourse, determined in both form and content by the place and time in which the film was produced. For reasons that are partly technical, film yields itself more easily than print to translation and cultural transference. Thus, in the current globalization of culture, biopics exert an influence on biography practice and theory in several respects that demand to be assessed. Most remarkably, cinema tends to wrench biography free from national discourses, by turning to topics of worldwide relevance, although biographical films are by no means always about world-famous celebrities. In terms of narrative form, biopics favour “fragment biography”, by relating a limited period in the life of a chosen subject, who is often still alive, and to whose (after-) life-story each biographical production adds a chapter. Arguably, biographical film contributes to a current evolution of biography further away from hagiography, towards an ephemeral, “journalistic” reflection on the “living subject”, thus exerting an influence that foreshadows, and sometimes matches, the impact of digital humanities.
- 2 Hans Renders, Binne de Haan and Jonne Harmsma, The Biographical Turn: Lives in History(...)
3Whether in print, on film or in other media, biography has been the object of many attempts at theorization, none of which have been entirely convincing so far, the main impediment certainly residing in the difficulty of finding a satisfactory definition of biography to begin with. This, of course, is a task that cannot be undertaken here, for it most certainly entails a broader reflection on the nature and status of fiction in the history of narrative arts. Such an in-depth diachronic study is probably rendered indispensable today by the crisis that literature has been undergoing for already some decades, together with the apparent fact that both literature and cinema are both strongly impacted by a biographical tropism – “biographization”, one is tempted to say, with reference to Bakhtin’s “novelization” –, which is only one aspect of a broader “biographical turn” in the arts and the humanities at the beginning of the twenty-first century.2 For the scope of this article, it may be sufficient to recall that cinema produced biofilms from the very start; an often-quoted instance in this respect is Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927), and it should be added that Gance’s first film was Molière (1909). Much in the same way, in the realm of what institutionalized itself as Literature in the course of the nineteenth century, fiction can arguably be viewed as an epiphenomenon, an emergence rooted in non-fiction. At the same time, this is also an issue at the heart of recent debates in philosophy of history, in a movement that can be provisionally summed up by the crucial theses of Hayden White’s so-called “postmodernist” historiography in Metahistory and The Fiction of Narrative. The revolutionary intellectual weather change is that today the difference between history and literature, between fiction and non-fiction, can henceforth only be viewed as a difference of degree, and no longer as one of nature. Therefore, Rosenstone’s category of the “serious biofilm” can merely refer to a kind of film that is no less necessarily “fictional” than others, but does pay more attention to verisimilitude, probably because it is produced in a socio-cultural context for audiences with a different relationship to history and historical knowledge:
- 3 Robert A. Rosenstone, op. cit., 93.
Given the size and universality of the genre, and the difficulties of locating or viewing more than a tiny fraction of them, generalizations about the biofilm must be tentative. Yet years of tracking such works suggests to me that the form can be seen in terms of three (admittedly) baggy and arbitrary categories: the biopic of Hollywood’s studios era; the “serious” biofilm which has for a long time been made in Europe and other parts of the world, and has more recently come to Hollywood; and the innovative or experimental bio, which presents a life in the form of a fragmented or a chronological drama rather than a traditional linear story. (A fourth form, the documentary film biography, follows the formal properties I have mentioned in Chapter 4 and will not be dealt separately here.)3
- 4 Joshua Clover, “Based on Actual Events”, Film Quarterly 62.3, 2009, 8-9, 8.
- 5 George F. Custen, “The Mechanical Life in the Age of Human Reproduction: American Biopics, 1 (...)
4George Custen’s Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History implicitly contains the reason why the “biopic” – although arguably not the “biofilm” – has come to be branded as a non-serious genre. As Joshua Clover says: “It is a well-known fact among cinephiles and people of taste that the biopic is an abject sort of entertainment, ruled by clichés and following a narrative arc more rigid than Calvinism”.4 The use of the word “biopic” to refer to any biofilm introduces a deleterious conceptual misunderstanding that inhibits theorization, insofar as the “biopic” properly speaking is a Hollywood invention, steeped in American ideology, and in fact conceived as such. It is primarily the vehicle of the myth of the self-made man, uncritically positing individual accomplishment as a central tenet of its vision of the world, in a Hegelian view of history advancing necessarily “through the agency of individual intervention, through strong leaders”.5 In the American context, this is unavoidably inflected, in varying degrees and modalities, by the Horatio Alger, “rags-to-riches” myth of the individual imposing himself against all odds at the end of an unflinching fight against adversity, to finally make a significant contribution to the life and history of the national, and universal community, according to a model that owes everything to the Christian narrative of the ordeal and redemption.
- 6 Belén Vidal, “Introduction: The Biopic and its Critical Contexts”, in Tom Brown and Belén Vi (...)
5Belén Vidal perceptively writes that “this personalized mode of history-telling connects cinema to nineteenth-century models, relying on linearity and an accumulation of facts to provide a strong logical thread and sense of progress”.6 Yet this statement calls for two remarks. Firstly, the “personalized mode of story-telling” is not the exclusive characteristic of biofilm or biography: most films and most novels, the great majority of them in fact, do have a main character – commonly called “hero” or “heroine”, according to a cultural habit that indeed connects most works of fiction to the nineteenth-century, Carlylean ideology of hero-worship – and as a matter of fact most works of fiction do hinge upon a “personalized narrative”. Secondly, the same can be said of the so-called “nineteenth-century models, relying on linearity and an accumulation of facts to provide a strong logical thread and sense of progress”. Apart from a few modernist and postmodernist counter-examples, plus one or two oddities like Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, this is equally true of all fiction, drama, cinema, and narrative poetry in the modern era, and more or less in all times. In fact, the characteristics of the biofilm are hardly a matter of form, and it would most probably prove unproductive to attempt a distinctive poetics of the biofilm, or of biography.
- 7 Margarita Carretero Gonzalez and Maria Elena Rodriguez Martin, “Life Through a Lens: Writers (...)
Indeed, it is not always easy to establish the boundaries between the biopic and other genres, since a biographical film very often morphs into any other depending on the nature of the subject depicted. The boundaries, then, are necessarily “fluid”; the biopic can include “historical film, costume drama, musical melodrama, western, crime film, social problem film, documentary, and so on”.7
- 8 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History”, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1 Essays, First and (...)
- 9 Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History, Annie Russell Ma (...)
- 10 See for instance Denise J. Youngblood, “Mark Donskoi’s Gorky Trilogy and the Stalinist Biopi (...)
6However, Belén Vidal hits upon a promising intuition by saying that the biofilm “connects cinema to nineteenth-century models”, although it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of “discourses”, rather than of “models”, for it is a question of ideology, a question of doxa, before it is a matter of “mode of story-telling”. Insofar at it focuses on remarkable historical figures – although this is far from always being the case, especially in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries –, biofilm and biography look back to a vision of history centred on Great Men. Likewise, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of Representative Men, considered as more or less self-evident that “all history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly speaking no history, only biography”.8 For Thomas Carlyle, the author of On Heroes and Hero-Worship, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”.9 George Custen remarks that the end of the first golden age of the biopic in American cinema, roughly from the 1930s to the 1960s, coincides with the period of the Vietnam War, when Americans started having mixed feelings about heroism. However, on the international stage this was also the epoch of the philosophy of deconstruction and the so-called “death of the subject”. Whether, as some authors readily believe, this vision of history is typical of the capitalist ideology is far from being obvious, given the importance of the cult of personality and of popular role models in communist countries: for on the other side of the iron curtain, from the 1930s on, the Soviet biopic was also a cultural reality.10 In Western cinema, many films may be said to be capitalistic in the sense that they no doubt hoped to be commercially successful, but certainly not in their ideological discourses. To mention but a few obvious examples: the two-part biofilm of Ernesto Guevara, Che; A Revolutionary Life (Stephen Soderbergh, 2008); television biofilm Les Amants du Flore (Ilan Duran Cohen, 2006) depicting the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; film biography of the French socialist icon, Jaurès, naissance d’un géant (Daniel Verhaegue, 2006), or even in a negative sense Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995), which is at least a non-hagiographic, “warts-and-all”, if not a damning portrayal of the 37th President of the United States.
7It is not easy to assess such films in comparison with, for instance, the biopics of the Hollywood studio era, produced by Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner or William Dieterle, because if the latter may appear to us today as more naïve ideological vectors, one has to account for the place and time gap: there is quite a difference in the public doxa between the 1930s and today, not to speak of the geographical differences between America and other regions of the world, although the globalization of culture, and the hegemony that the American cinema industry exerts over it, tends to mask this crucial issue. In assessing a film, the formal criteria, fluctuating with the advancement of taste and technology, overlap with the ideological criteria that vary with time and space. It may be that the latter are even more important for the biofilm, whose socio-historical context very strongly determines firstly the choice of subjects, secondly the treatment, and thirdly the film’s reception. It thus clearly appears that, in order to accomplish further breakthroughs, the theory of biofilm, just as the theory of biography, will have to approach its objects with tools derived increasingly from reception theories, and most certainly via case studies. Theoretical literature on biofilm today is rife with brief studies of particular films, but it often tends to get stranded in categorization.
- 11 Robert A. Rosenstone, “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of (...)
- 12 Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review 93.5, (...)
- 13 Ibidem, 1193.
- 14 Ian C. Jarvie, “Seeing through Movies”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 8.4, Dec. 19 (...)
8A crucial debate on film as a medium for historical research, of which biofilm is an instance, occurred in 1988 in an issue of The American Historical Review, where Robert Rosenstone published an article entitled “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film”11 to which Hayden White responded in a paper called “Historiography and Historiophoty”.12 White coined the concept of “historiophoty”, defined as “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse”, in contradistinction with “historiography”, or “the representation of history in verbal images and written discourse”. He went on to present his article as a reflection on transmediality, saying: “Here the issue is whether it is possible to ‘translate’ a given written account of history into a visual-auditory equivalent without significant loss of content”,13 but the true interest of his text is that it soon goes further than a mere discussion of the adaptability of print to film, to propose a comparative study of print and film – “graphy” and “photy” – as two possible modes of expression for history, which, according to White, are on a par with one another. Both Rosenstone and White enter the debate in response to an article published ten years before and entitled “Seeing through Movies”, in which Ian Jarvie made a case for the inferiority of film to print as a medium for history.14 In all three articles, there is a certain amount of indecision as to whether their authors are speaking about film as archive documents, or film as comments on historical fact or dramatization of historical characters impersonated by actors. After some circumlocution, they have to agree with one another that any archival footage (newsreels, reportage, etc.) is always already an encryption of events, implying a degree of selection and partiality. Whether in film, photo, print, or manuscript, or even on audio recording, a historical document is never the actual stuff that history is made of, but always already a figuration of it: that is a truism. Jarvie nevertheless goes to some length to demonstrate this point:
Selection is only half the story; fakery is the other. From the earliest times movie-makers have faked and restaged events for their newsreels and documentaries. In 1902 Georges Méliès faked the coronation of Edward VII, prize-fights were faked, and so much World War I footage was faked we do not know for sure which is which. March of Time faked (‘restaged’) a lot, and the famous picture (and statuary) of the marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima seems to have been arranged for the camera. Patton (USA 1970) goes so far as to show several ‘takes’ of General Patton stepping ashore in Sicily to emphasize how calculated even newsreel shots were. The argument here is not over what is authentic, for if a piece of film is selected, as every piece is, it is not raw; and if the piece of film is not raw, it is not authentic even if the piece is not faked; therefore no piece of film can be regarded as simply a transparent window on a lost world.15
9Granted, but then nothing can be regarded simply as a transparent window on a lost world, whether it is written text, objects in museums, visited monuments or battlefields, etc. On the other hand, the accusation of fakery hardly holds water in the case of filmed political speeches, parliamentary sessions, or television allocutions, which for modern historians and biographers can be said to be superior to the written text, insofar as they convey a sense of the facial expressions, voice intonation, audience reactions, and other significant elements that concur to a greater precision of information. Be it as it may, the historian still has to do the work of interpretation. Yet, Jarvie makes a more interesting point when he comes to the question of impersonation of a historical character by an actor in biofilm, whether fiction or docudrama:
10The impersonation of Churchill, however, is secondary in the strong sense that is does not bear interpretation about Churchill; since it is someone else’s interpretation of Churchill, it is primary evidence only of its author or authors and their view of Churchill, rather than Churchill as such.16
11Granted again, but this still does not invalidate film, or prove its inferiority to written texts as secondary sources. Jarvie seems to have a better argument when he goes on to say that “We can control interpretation only by building up a restraining context from other sources like letters, diaries, public record, eyewitness accounts, and previous histories and biographies”. He concludes that “writing is vastly superior as a discursive medium. Complex alternatives can be stated and argued concisely and delicately. Film cannot do this”.17 Perhaps in 1978 it could not, but today it definitely can. In the same way, Jarvie’s argument falls through when he claims that the “discursive weakness” of film “means that it cannot participate in the debate about historical problems, which is what history is really about. […] A historian could embody his view in a film […], but how could he defend it, footnote it, rebut objections and criticize the opposition?”18
12The flaw in Jarvie’s argument resides in the lack of distinction between dramatized films and documentaries. Although, in the first case, highly dialogical films could very well stage a debate about a historical personage (in a biofilm), documentaries often use contrasted interviews of historians and witnesses, quotations from letters, diaries and other documents, and although it is not yet conventional to do so, they just as well footnote their discourse with a text banner. For reasons that may be entirely relative to the technological advancement of cinema since the late 1970s, Jarvie’s case does say something about the then current conventions of film, but fails to prove the inferiority of film as medium. The only point he makes that remains efficient concerns length, not because, as he says, “two minutes with a written document and two minutes with a film are totally different orders of load”,19 but because, for technical, financial and civilizational reasons, a film hardly ever lasts longer than two hours, whereas many biographies, like Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin in two volumes of some six hundred pages each, not counting the numerous illustrations and photographs, can hardly be read attentively in one day. However, one may ask, for instance, if any one of Edmund Gosse’s dozens of pages long Portraits and Sketches is less “serious” or less “historical” than his Life of Thomas Gray in four volumes, simply because it is shorter?
- 20 Robert A. Rosenstone, “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibil (...)
- 21 Ibidem, 1175.
13Ten years later, Rosenstone adopts a somewhat less radical position than Jarvie and resigns himself to the fact that we now “live in a world deluged with images”,20 wondering if one should see this “ever-growing power of the visual media” as a portent “that perhaps history is dead in the way God is dead”21:
No matter how serious or honest the filmmakers, and no matter how deeply committed they are to rendering the subject faithfully, the history that finally appears on the screen can never fully satisfy the historian as historian (although it may satisfy the historian as filmgoer).22
- 23 Marc Ferro is a specialist in twentieth-century Europe, Russia and the USSR and in the (...)
- 24 Marc Ferro, Le Cinéma: une vision de l’histoire, Paris: Édition du Chêne, 2003.
14This is the kind of discourse that would seem ridiculous to many French historians, including Marc Ferro who is best known to the wider public for having presented the historical television programme Histoire parallèle (Die Woche vor 50 Jahren in German) on the French and German channel Arte, from 1989 to 2001.23 The Histoire parallèle concept consisted in parallel presentations of the French, German, British, Soviet, Italian, American and Japanese “historiophoty” (as Hayden White would say), from the beginning of World War II to the 1950s. The title Histoire parallèle hinted at the comparativist approach, in the style of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, but also referred to the deliberate intention of “doing history” in a different way, in parallel. Contrasted newsreels commented on by Ferro and guest historians from various countries, explaining their contexts, deconstructing the propaganda, enabled TV-viewers to watch historical documents while listening to major historians debating them, in a fifty-minute programme every Saturday night over twelve years. Says Ferro in his 2003 graphic monograph (a sort of history book variant of the graphic novel) Le cinéma: une vision de l’histoire24:
- 25 Ibidem, 6. My translation.
History on film has become a force, like history in drama has been, with Shakespeare’s works, or else in the novel with Tolstoy and Dumas, before cinema existed. In these forms, it stood as a parallel companion of sorts, for, sitting on its throne beside her, a demanding discipline, grounded on sources, documents, which it quoted in reference. This discipline – the history of the historians – called itself scientific whereas in fact it was only erudite, savant. It demonstrated nothing, but told “what had happened”. […] The specificity of history on film, when it is a matter of fictions that do not aim at being reconstructions, is the figure of inventiveness. For us, the genius of filmmakers lies in this, that they have been able to find, in order to reconstitute its past authenticity, either an operative idea accounting for a situation that is above it, or a frame of action exerting the function of a revelatory microcosm.25
- 26 Richard J. Raack, “Historiography as Cinematography: A Prolegomenon to Film Work for H (...)
15It is troubling to reflect that Ferro’s Histoire parallèle began in May 1989, only months after Rosenstone published this article in which he hesitated to concur with Richard Raack in thinking that film is best suited to provide “an empathetic reconstitution to convey how historical people witnessed, understood, and lived their lives”26 in the Journal of Contemporary History of which Ferro is also co-editor. Still, there is a considerable difference between a television programme and a feature film, and one must do justice to Rosenstone by noting that he raises a crucial issue: that of the narrative framework, to which we shall return. Rosenstone, himself a historian who has had two of his books adapted for the screen, Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981) and The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (Noel Buckner and Mary Dore, 1984), concludes by viewing “historiophoty” in a favourable light, although he implicitly persists in thinking that it adumbrates the end of history:
- 27 Robert A. Rosenstone, “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of (...)
Film thus suggests new possibilities for representing the past, possibilities that could allow narrative history to recapture the power it once had when it was more deeply rooted in the literary imagination. […] Before Herodotus, there was myth, which was a perfectly adequate way of dealing with the past of a tribe, city, or people, adequate in terms of providing a meaningful world in which to live and relate to one’s past. In a post-literate world, it is possible that visual culture will once again change the nature of our relationship to the past. […] History does not exist until it is created. And we create it in terms of our underlying values. Our kind of rigorous, “scientific” history is in fact a product of history […].27
16Hayden White, whom some historians still brand as a radical “postmodernist” pretending to abolish altogether the borderline between history and fiction, applauds Rosenstone’s defence of cinema as a valid medium for history:
Rosenstone’s list of the effects of historians’ prejudices against “historiophoty” is sketchy but full enough. He indicates that many of the problems posed by the effort to “put history into film” stem from the notion that the principal task is to translate what is already a written discourse into an imagistic one. Resistance to the effort to put history into film centres for the most part on the question of what is lost in translation. Among the things supposedly lost are accuracy of detail, complexity of explanation, the auto-critical and inter-critical dimensions of historiological reflection, the absence or unreliability of documentary evidence. […] He seems unsure whether historiophoty might not “play down the analytical” aspects of historiography and favour appeals to the emotive side of the spectator’s engagement with images. But, at the same time, he insists that there is nothing inherently anti-analytical about film representations of history and certainly nothing that is inherently anti-historical about historiophoty. And, in his brief consideration of the film documentary, Rosenstone turns the force of the anti-historiophoty argument back on those who, in making this argument, appear to ignore the extent to which any kind of historiography shares the same limitations.28
- 29 Marc Ferro, Cinéma et Histoire, Paris: Gallimard, 1977, 66.
- 30 Ibidem, 73.
17On the one hand, the question whether film biography is equally valid as printed biography as a medium is related to “the contempt in which the ruling classes have long held film”29 and is nowadays hopefully passé. On the other hand, in his “historiophoty” article, White characteristically declines to make any distinctions between documentary and fiction film, thus sharing Ferro’s point of view: “I do not believe in the existence of frontiers between the different types of film, at least in the eyes of the historian for whom the imaginary is as much history as History”.30 However, if indeed a historian could choose to present his PhD thesis in film just as efficiently as in print, and today would probably get away with it in some modern universities, one has to admit that the result would be very different from a feature film. In the case of biofilm, or “biophoty”, one should approach it in the terms suggested by Michael Benton for biography:
- 31 Michael Benton, Literary Biography : An Introduction, Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2009, 201 (...)
It is, therefore, helpful to invoke the notion of the genre’s hybrid nature again, and to think of biographical writing as ranging along a continuum whose two poles might be labelled “documentary biography” and “aesthetic biography”. Some texts will reflect an emphasis upon documentary information about a life, others upon the narrative shape that gives coherence to a life. Beyond these poles, biography shades off into either history or fiction. Arguably, the most successful biographies are ones that exploit the mobility of the continuum, blending the verifiable information of research with a narrative imagination.31
- 32 Hayden White, Metahistory, op. cit., 5.
- 33 T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, in F. Kermode (ed.), London: Faber and Faber, 1975, (...)
18All historical sources are to a certain degree shaped by what White calls an “emplotment”,32 or at least by a narrative and one form or another of discourse. In fictional biophoty, as in what Benton calls “aesthetic” biography, narrative discourse is predominant, and analytical or interpretative discourse, although it is always necessarily there, is carried out allegorically, by means of what T. S. Eliot called an “objective correlative”: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”.33 T. S. Eliot was speaking of “emotions”, but the same applies to ideas more generally speaking, and in narrative or drama the plurality of objective correlatives enables a dialogism conveying debates, multifaceted interpretations, or evolutive discourses. The aesthetic representation of historical figures, events, or epochs are indeed, as Ferro says, “as much history as History”, in so far as they remain to be analysed as the forms in which these historical facts were perceived at a given time in a given place.
19The most striking specificities of biofilm, that is to say of biophoty as compared to biography, is that for historical and civilizational reasons film is a short form, and that the cinema industry imposes upon it a commercial formatting. Thus the Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft TV series Versailles, which can be viewed as a biophoty of Louis XIV, has been amply derided for its obvious imperative of having a sex scene every fifteen minutes, its gross implausibility, as well as its characters and situations obviously incompatible with mentalities in seventeenth-century France. Clearly the same reproaches are valid for the most gossipy, “penny dreadful” type of biographies, or other kinds of pulp fiction for that matter. Such judgements incriminate some productions, not the genre as such, and this is an issue for criticism to deal with, not theory.
20From a theoretical point of view, biophoty is most interesting for its very concision, and the effect of condensation imposed upon it. As a matter of fact, very few biofilms ever tell a life story “from the cradle to the grave”. On the contrary, most of them concentrate on a particularly meaningful period of the life, usually on an existential hapax when the individual is involved in a historically meaningful event. That was already the case of The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), which concentrated on the novelist’s commitment in favour of Capitaine Dreyfus, as well as J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919; speaking version in 1938), and TV series Émile Zola ou la conscience humaine (Stellio Lorenzi, 1978). In a different style, Le Promeneur du champ de Mars (Robert Guédiguian, 2005), based on Georges-Marc Benamou’s book Le Dernier Mitterand (1996), stages President Mitterand in the last days of his second mandate, when he was waging a losing battle against a fatal disease. The film, celebrated for actor René Bousquet’s impressive performance, is remarkable for its insightful characterization of François Mitterand, at the time when he was most tragically preoccupied with the trace he would leave in history. Another fascinating example is Camus (Laurent Jaoui, 2009), a biophoty that concentrates on the last ten years of the author of The Rebel (1961), The Fall (1956) and The First Man (published posthumously in 1995). The film portrays Albert Camus at the time he reached international fame during a period marked by his moral dilemma and commitment during the Algerian War, and the split between him and Sartre, before his untimely death in a car crash with editor Michel Gallimard in 1960, at the age of forty-six.
- 34 Henry James, The Tragic Muse, vol. 1, New York: Scribner, 1908, x.
- 35 Giles Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, London: Chatto and Windus, 1918, vii-viii.
21This characteristic aspect of biophoty exerts a most interesting influence on modern biography, liberating it from the largely self-imposed obligation of telling a life from the cradle to the grave, which has long fettered the genre to conventions inherited from Christian hagiography and the “large loose baggy monsters”34 style of biography steeped in Aristotelian entelechy, where the youth is to be a prefiguration of the stable essence of the individual. Unleashed from that imperative, the subject of a biography becomes, as in a work of fiction, a character in a historically meaningful story, told from a certain point of view, and from a given angle. For this style of biography, undoubtedly resulting from the impact of biophoty on the literary genre, Hans Renders has coined the phrase “partial biography”. This is a pertinent appellation, playing on the polysemy of “partial”: on the one hand it points to the fact that the life is only told in part, on the other hand, it foregrounds the unavoidable discursive partiality of the narrative, that is to say what Lytton Strachey termed a “subtler strategy”, based on the principle of selection and the necessity “to preserve, for instance, a becoming brevity”.35 Renders remarks:
- 36 Hans Renders, “The Art of the Partial Biography”, Panel presentation, Biographers Internatio (...)
Biographers in their narratives have always focused on an essential part in the life of the biographee, but in recent years a striking number of books have been published as “partial biography”, in which one period or even one event by which someone has become famous emphatically is presented as the torso of the biography. […] Partial biography serves not only to improve the understanding of this person’s life, but also to improve the understanding of the history beyond this life. In this case biography does not function merely as an illustration of a well-known history, but as a multiplier of interpretations of historical events and structures.36
22In fact, as a concise form biophoty inscribes itself in a time-honoured tradition of shorter biographical writings, looking back to Plutarch and Suetonius at the origin of the genre, and which in modern times runs from Izaak Walton’s and John Aubrey’s Lives, to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and Lytton Strachey’s Portraits in Miniature. In its documentary form especially, the biofilm seems to count among its ancestors these traditional shorter biographies, as well as the often abundant photograph sections that characterize the bulkier specimens of the species.