Cut to 18: HER MENTOR EDITED “BREATHLESS”

Cut to:
Her Mentor Edited Breathless

Edited from a memorial post written by Mary Stephen a month after the passing of Cécile Decugis in June 2017:

Rohmer suggested I become an assistant editor on La Femme de l’Aviateur (so I could earn a little dough and stay in France)…When I knew that Cécile had edited A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), which is such a mythical work for cinephiles all over the world, I told Éric I would have been happy to sweep the floors for Cécile.

Cécile always maintained great gentleness with me, despite Éric’s strong remonstrations: “She’s making the other crew all cry, aren’t you scared of her?”

Then followed years of friendship, much of it at a distance. She never made me cry; on the contrary she helped me get over youthful tears whenever there was a matter of heartbreak or slight at perceived injustices to me, as a young Chinese woman fresh from Canada.

When I went to visit her for the last time, the year before she died, she brought me into the house, she gave me a DVD of her film about the demolition of the Renault plant on the island of Seguin. Earlier she had asked me for my opinion about her new film about her father, a short but emotional piece. I was very moved by this film that she was going to such great pains to finish, with the editing formats, the sound mixing…It was incredible for me and my children to see this woman at 86 or 87 keeping the faith as a filmmaker, and being able to carry on with her work almost to the end. I would have liked to be able to say a last farewell.

Never postpone until tomorrow a telephone call you could make today….

DECUGIS, CÉCILE

Cécile Decugis

1934 – 2017

After making two short films, Cécile Decugis became the assistant editor to Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte on Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. She then edited Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (co-edited with Claudine Bouché), putting her in the same company as Agnès Guillemot, who also edited films for both directors. In 1960 she was arrested for renting an apartment to National Liberation Front militants* and spent two years in La Roquette prison. Decugis became the main editor for Éric Rohmer in 1969 and edited all his films until 1983, including My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee (co-edited by Christine Lecouvette), Chloe in the Afternoon and Pauline at the Beach. She mentored Mary Stephen, who edited later Rohmer films. Decugis has thirty editing credits. In 2011, at age 77, she reworked a 1957 documentary film about Algerian refugees in Tunisia and rereleased it as Bread Distribution.

*The NLF supported the Algerian war of independence from France.

“Truffaut rarely came into the cutting room because he did not like it very much, whereas you could not imagine a film of Godard’s being edited without him being present. Rohmer was there all the time because he did not like you to work a scene or even a shot without him being present…
When we went to the first screening [of Shoot the Piano Player], Truffaut was very happy. It did not change because there were not many ways to cut it. I hate the term “first cut” because you should always be cutting to make it work. I do not think you should be doing bad cutting. After this “first cut” of course you will make some modifications. In New Wave films the cutting style was not planned in advance. They had a concept of what the style would be and they worked from a script, but they did not know in advance exactly where the cuts would be made. They would have been against being so pre-planned. This is not to say that we were going into the cutting room to find and create something new. The concept of editing was part of the whole film like the style of the shoot and the acting. The editing does not exist in isolation. Sometimes in the cutting room you discover an innovation or you put right problems with the cut. However, in general what happens in the cutting room is a reflection of the film.”

Credit page for My Night at Maud’s

“They [Truffaut and Godard] were against conformity in French cinema. What we cut had to be as alive as possible, appearing spontaneous rather than worked out. Although often, that which appears most natural can require the most reflection. Truffaut was not so much interested in editing, rather he was interested in the idea of the film in general. He would return from a screening and say, “That particular scene is too long, you need to shorten it.” He was fantastic with the overview of the film, but he got bored working with the detail. Godard on the other hand was incredible with cutting. For him cinema defined itself by editing, for Godard cinema is editing.”
—Two excerpts from an interview with Decugis in “Editing and Post-Production Screencraft” by Declan McGrath. The full interview can be found in the Appendix.

ABOUT “EDITED BY”

About “Edited by”

I’ve been making films since 1978, so I know how critical editing is.
I’ve also known that women editors have played a significant role in the evolution of cinema, without knowing many details or having seen many photos like this one.

In January 2018, I came across a chapter about editing in a film history book in which every reference to a film mentioned the director’s name, not the editor’s. I looked up each film on IMDb and discovered an astonishing number of women editors, and set about doing the research which has resulted in this website. It isn’t meant be comprehensive or exhaustive, but rather to be the beginning of a survey that others will continue to expand upon.

The first part of the website presents the “main editors”—women who were, or are, editors by profession. There are ninety-two women represented with full pages, as well as eighteen more who have smaller mentions (in relation to their work on films directed by Jean Rouch, or those starring Danièle Delorme).

The second part of the website presents the ninety-six “Filmmakers Who (always or sometimes) Edit.”

The main editors are organized by date of birth. If someone’s birth date wasn’t in the public record, I made an estimation based on when she started working and grouped her within that decade.
On each editor’s page, you’ll find one or more photographs and the key facts about her work history, but no external links. However, the main Appendix has multiple links for each woman. These are either video interviews, articles that discuss the style in which she worked, or sometimes a text by the editor.
There are also several movie posters on each woman’s page, which serve as a visual reference to some of the films she edited. And at the back of the website is the Poster Gallery, where you can see all of them arrayed together.

While researching the main editors, I happened upon some interesting facts or ideas that went beyond the specific biography of an editor. Those became the “CUT TO” pages, which are interspersed throughout the site.

The question of “getting credit where credit is due” was a prime motivation for making the site, so there is a Screen Credits Gallery at the back of the website, as well as some samples of screen credits on a few of the editors’ pages.

For the launch party at Union Docs in Brooklyn, I created Edited by: The Companion Film, which has a one-minute clip from a film edited by each of the ninety-two main editors. There’s a link to it on the Table of Contents page. I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t include the other half of the editors on the site, the “Filmmakers Who (always or sometimes) Edit.” Their work has also been pivotal in developing editing techniques, and I hope that can be a project for a later date.

There are four Appendices.
A:  It’s where you’ll find further information about the individual editors.
B:  There have been some good articles written about the history of women editors. They often talk about several women, and often include some of the women singled out in our pages, but rather than mix them into the first Appendix, we created Appendix B: The History of Women Editors, with links to those articles.
C:  With the exception of the information on the “CUT TO” pages and the brief quotations from the editors on their individual pages, the site doesn’t analyze or discuss specific editing techniques, or the complex working relationship between directors and editors, or explain how editing plays such major role in the creation of a film. I assume that some of you are fairly knowledgeable about editing, but that others might want to start learning more. To that end, we created Appendix C: Editing 101, which has links to online articles and videos that explain many of the fundamental concepts, concerns, and technical aspects of editing.
D:  Everyone has their favorites, and it was utterly impossible to include everyone on the site, so we created Appendix D: The Collaborative Update, where names of editors will be added whenever we hear from a visitor about them.
I am grateful to Bes Arnaout, Lydia Cornett, Lili Dekker, Michael Jorgensen, Charlotte Maher Levy and Jane Pritchard for doing much of the end-stage research on the Appendices. They dug deep to find substantial, thorough information whenever possible in order to create a more focused way to learn about someone, rather than through a random google search.

There is also an index so that you can easily find any of the editors.

And finally, if you want to know who worked for a certain director or who edited a specific film, the search field lets you write in the name of a director–for example, Jean-Luc Godard–so that you can discover that nineteen of his films were edited either by Agnès Guillemot, Cécile Decugis, or Françoise Collin. (Amazing, eh?) Or you can write in a film title–like Breathless–and find out which one of those women shaped that masterpiece.

Su Friedrich