Jean-Paul Sartre Reviews Orson Welles’ Masterwork (1945): “Citizen Kane Is Not Cinema”


You may recall our post­ing last year of Jorge Luis Borges’ review of Orson Welles’ Cit­i­zen Kane — sure­ly one of the most Open Cul­ture-wor­thy inter­sec­tions of 20th cen­tu­ry lumi­nar­ies ever to occur. Borges described Welles’ mas­ter­work as pos­sessed of one side that, “point­less­ly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits,” and anoth­er, a “kind of meta­phys­i­cal detec­tive sto­ry” whose “sub­ject (both psy­cho­log­i­cal and alle­gor­i­cal) is the inves­ti­ga­tion of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spo­ken, the many lives he has ruined.” On the whole, the author of Labyrinths called the pic­ture “not intel­li­gent, though it is the work of genius.”

Not long after our post, the Paris Review’s Dan Piepen­bring wrote one that also quot­ed anoth­er, lat­er review of Cit­i­zen Kane by none oth­er than Jean-Paul Sartre:

Kane might have been inter­est­ing for the Amer­i­cans, [but] it is com­plete­ly passé for us, because the whole film is based on a mis­con­cep­tion of what cin­e­ma is all about. The film is in the past tense, where­as we all know that cin­e­ma has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kiss­ing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indi­an who is being pur­sued, I am the man pur­su­ing the Indi­an.’ And film in the past tense is the antithe­sis of cin­e­ma. There­fore Cit­i­zen Kane is not cin­e­ma.

The 1945 review orig­i­nal­ly ran in high-mind­ed film jour­nal L’Écran français under the head­line “Quand Hol­ly­wood veut faire penser … Cit­i­zen Kane d’Orson Welles,” or, “When Hol­ly­wood Wants to Make Us Think … Orson Welles’ Cit­i­zen Kane.” Accord­ing to The Writ­ings of Jean-Paul Sartre: A Bib­li­o­graph­i­cal Life, “in re-read­ing this [review], which he did not remem­ber at all, Sartre hard­ly rec­og­nized his style and expressed some doubt about the authen­tic­i­ty of his sig­na­ture. On the oth­er hand, he did find in it the ideas Cit­i­zen Kane sug­gest­ed to him when he first saw it in the Unit­ed States. After he saw the film again in France, Sartre had a slight­ly more favor­able opin­ion of it, but he still thinks it is undoubt­ed­ly no mas­ter­piece.”

But at the time, writes Simon Leys, “the impact of this con­dem­na­tion was dev­as­tat­ing. The Mag­nif­i­cent Amber­sons was shown soon after­wards in Paris but failed mis­er­ably. The cul­ti­vat­ed pub­lic always fol­lows the direc­tives of a few pro­pa­gan­da com­mis­sars: there is much more con­for­mi­ty among intel­lec­tu­als than among plumbers or car mechan­ics.” Or at least the cul­ti­vat­ed pub­lic did so in 1940s Paris; the mechan­ics of cul­ture have changed some­what since then, but as far as Cit­i­zen Kane goes, high-pro­file opin­ions about it have grown only more pos­i­tive over time. Sure, Ver­ti­go recent­ly knocked it down a peg in the Sight and Sound poll, but that just makes me won­der what Sartre thought of Hitch­cock­’s mas­ter­work — a film that might have had a res­o­nance or two in the mind of an exis­ten­tial­ist.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges, Film Crit­ic, Reviews Cit­i­zen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1964: “It Was Mon­strous!”

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Down­load Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Mod­ern Thought (1960)

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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