The Ideology of Realism: Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism

In my previous article about Andre Bazin I explored his claims that the ontology of the photograph and film – ontology being the essential essence – is its ability to represent life as it appears. According to Bazin, film is inclined to, and again best when, realist in aesthetic. In a series of articles I will examine Bazin’s position on film however I came across an excerpt of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (an online copy of which can be found here) which I felt was interesting as it came from the opposite position. In this article I will explore their claims that the aesthetic of realism is a reliance on the status quo and an aesthetic implicitly reliant on ideological cultural dominants.

In the examination of Comolli and Narboni’s paper it is important to note that they are Structuralist in outlook, in contrast to Bazin who was a staunch Humanist, and they therefore perceive the realist aesthetic differently. This is immediately evidenced when Comolli and Narboni explain that film is partly a ‘product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour [Money] to produce… a commodity, possessing exchange value… governed by the laws if the market’ as well as ‘an ideological product of the system, which in [the Western world] means capitalism’.(1.) Film is made to be sold. Film is an art that is also primarily a source of income and export: film is explicitly a commercial product. However film, according to Comolli and Narboni, is also implicitly the product of the ideology that dominates the field, or place, it was constructed in. A film-maker, according to Comolli and Narboni, cannot change the economic circumstance, or system they find themselves in [if they could would it be the film business anymore anyway?]. One may ‘deflect it, but not negate it or seriously upset its structure’.(2.) An example of this “deflection” may be found in the music industry where the Arctic Monkeys, and several other bands, initially gave away free CDs and allowed their music to be downloaded for free. They originally refracted the “rules” or logic of the music industry however they didn’t change the system itself as after a period of time, and a rise in popularity, they returned to the normal procedure of selling music. For Comolli and Narboni film ‘is determined by the ideology which produced it’.(3.)

As I explained in my article ‘Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image’ Bazin believed that film provides a reproduction of reality and although Comolli and Narboni may permit that film does reproduce reality when they say ‘this is what a camera and film stock are’ they hold a diametrically opposed view of what “reality” really is.(4.) Comolli and Narboni explain that ‘the tool and techniques of film-making are a part of [the] “reality” themselves… [Reality] is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology’.(5.) The realist aesthetic does not reproduce “the way things are”; it is in fact, at most an explicit and at least an implicit, a reproduction of the dominant way of seeing. Comolli and Narboni explain their position when they state ‘what the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant world’.(6.) To use a similar image that Bazin utilized, film does not blow-away the “dust” of regular perceptions and conceptions but rather relies upon and reproduces that “dust” which has settled upon our way of seeing things. The realist aesthetic reproduces the way we experience the world, and the way we experience the world is defined by cultural dominants: and one major cultural dominant, of which Comolli and Narboni are particularly concerned with, is ego-centred capitalism.(7.) In Comolli and Narboni’s words:

When we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the [dominant] ideology. (8.)

Realism is a reproduction, on the screen, of the ideological structures/world we encounter in “everyday” life. The realist aesthetic fails to comprehensively challenge or explore the structures of the dominant forces and world-view in society and art – which cannot challenge or explore sexist, racist or fascistic ideologies – is a blank critique and an utterly redundant social activity; art without the ability to challenge or explore social attitudes is not really art at all. According to Comolli and Narboni to stop film art from just becoming the “tool” of the dominant world-view ‘the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”‘ and, if they are able to achieve that; the film-maker may be able to ‘sever’ or ‘disrupt’ the ‘connection between the cinema and its ideological function’.(9.)

To Comolli and Narboni just simply reproducing reality ensures one relies on the assumptions found in “everyday” life. They argue for the utilization of techniques which upset the viewers ability to accept the supposedly unadulterated reality of the world depicted. The use of jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960) could be argued to facilitate this sort of alienating technique. There are many films that are naturalistic or realist in aesthetic that, at least appear, to transverse and critique society and this is a definite critique of Comolli and Narboni’s position. A lack of examples and instances in film of the realist aesthetic is also another critique I would level against their article – however It should be understood that the article is intended as theory rather than “practice”. Rather than quickly explore the counter-arguments a critic who favours the realist aesthetic would raise I will leave that duty to Bazin, whose position I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

 (1.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, in (Ed) J. Hollows, P. Hutchings, M. Jancovich, Film Studies Reader, London: Oxford Uni Press, (2000), pp. 197-200, p. 197.

(2.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(3.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(4.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(5.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(6.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(7.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(8.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(9.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.


Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.


Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.