Adapting Balzac in Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t touch the axe): violence and the heritage aesthetic

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Violence is no stranger to heritage cinema. In France, some of the most well-known heritage films produced since the 1980s have featured violence ranging from the graphic and disturbing to more innocent slapstick. In 1986, Claude Berri framed his adaptation of the Marcel Pagnol novel Jean de Florette between two violent deaths, the murder of the farmer Pique-Bouffigue, and the tragic demise of the eponymous hunchback, who dies as a result of his attempts to blast a well in the Provençal rock. More controversially, Patrice Chéreau’s 1994 film La Reine Margot, a reworking of the historical novel by Alexandre Dumas, sought deliberately to shock audiences with its extreme violence, including a gruesome recreation of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which prompted the Guardian newspaper to describe the film as ‘heritage gore’ (cited in Powrie 2006: 229). These eruptions of screen violence have helped to define the register of French heritage films, which are typically much darker in tone than their British counterparts. As Ginette Vincendeau observes, in arguing for a wider study of different national approaches to heritage filmmaking, French period productions ‘tend not to present a rosy view of the past and thus differ significantly from the turn-of-the-century domesticity of British films’ (2001: xix–xx). Such generalisations invite us to explore further the artistic specificities of French heritage films and the unique ways in which they have engaged with the pervasive theme of violence. Over the past 30 years, the violence that has so often fascinated the country’s heritage directors has taken multiple forms, most obviously physical and emotional, but also social, economic and political. It has been expressed in a variety of different ways on screen, through cinematography and mise-en-scène, and in the recurrence of specific images and metaphors. Moreover, some of the violence depicted in heritage films has sparked vigorous critical debates, especially in the case of La Reine Margot, which at the time of the film’s release Chéreau invited spectators to interpret as a commentary on twentieth-century conflicts including the Bosnian War. As well as being a prominent theme in French heritage cinema, violence underpins the ways in which key films in this style have been presented on screen, and the reactions they have provoked in spectators.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationScreening European Heritage
Subtitle of host publicationCreating and Consuming History on Film
EditorsPaul Cooke , Rob Stone
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781137522801
ISBN (Print)9781137522795
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2016

Publication series

NamePalgrave European Film and Media Studies


  • Source Text
  • Secret Society
  • Extreme Violence
  • Emotional Violence
  • Literary Adaptation


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