Dr Roland-François Lack (1960-2021)

In 2021, SELCS and the Department of French Studies have lost a much-loved colleague with the passing of Dr Roland-François Lack, a specialist of nineteenth-century French literature and French and Francophone Film Studies.

Photograph of Roland

Roland joined UCL in 1996 as a Lecturer (then Senior Lecturer), having done his BA and PhD in the French Department. He taught nineteenth-century French literature and Film Studies, and many former undergraduate and graduate students will remember his very popular modules on Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave and the Swiss New Wave.

Roland published on Lautréamont, Alfred Vigny, Arthur Rimbaud, Eric Rohmer, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, la Nouvelle Vague, Nicole Vedrès, and was preparing a book on early French filmmakers (Lumière, Méliès, Pathé & Gaumont) when he passed away on 19 February 2021. He was also the tireless Cine-Tourist, writing with his usual wit, passion and erudition about the films and places he loved – London, Paris, Geneva – and the many connections between both.

Roland was a wonderful colleague, funny, kind, and generous, and a dear friend to many of us. We miss him greatly.

Dr Thibaut Maus de Rolley
Director of French Studies

Roland's Publications

The Cine-Tourist

Roland’s wonderfully rich website about connections between maps and films, and about local cinema.

Also about early French and English cinema, and sometimes about photographs

And sometimes just about the Nouvelle Vague.

Visit website

Roland on Godard

Roland introducing Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) at a film festival organized by the Kino Klassica Foundation in London in March 2017.

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Neon Paris

The audio caption of ‘Neon Paris’, a paper presented by Roland at the Cities After Hours colloquium, 13 May 2015. 

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Dr Roland-François Lack Memorial Fund

Roland-François’s colleagues in the Department of French Studies have thought it appropriate to set up a Dr Roland-François Lack Memorial Fund to help students; in particular, it will fund an annual Essay Prize in his name for the best undergraduate essay in French Studies. Your generous contribution, as small or large as it be, will served to encourage and help students studying French at UCL, and to celebrate Roland-François’s important contribution to the Department of French Studies and SELCS for over twenty-five years.

Tributes to Roland 

Roland by Professor Andrew Leak

Roland’s office was the most seemingly chaotic jumble: overflowing bookshelves, every horizontal surface (including most of the floor) piled high with heteroclite objects. When his office, along with the rest of our offices, was cut in half, that chaos was naturally intensified: there remained just enough free space for a chair in front of the desk bearing his computer and groaning under the weight of French Nouvelle Vague DVD collections. But that chaos was, at least in part, illusory. In response to the question “Roland, you don't happen to have a copy of X, Y or Z, do you?” one was frequently amazed to see him emerge from his lair five minutes later brandishing a copy of said tome, retrieved from who knows what dark, hidden corner!

In many ways, Roland's office was the projection of his mind: a repository of some truly arcane, and no less heteroclite information: French literature and film, naturally, but also English literature of the early Twentieth Century, the routes of London buses, soul music of the Sixties and Seventies, architectural gems hidden behind Hatton Gardens, sights to look out for when riding on lines 3a and 3b of the Ile-de-France tramway, lesser known watering-holes in Clerkenwell... Many of us owe our ‘discovery’ of writers, film-makers or places to Roland's compendious memory.

The ‘life’ of a department depends to a large extent on the willingness of its staff to be active and (physically) present beyond the stipulations of their contract. This willingness is called ‘collegiality’, and Roland was the most collegial of colleagues: whether it was a slot to fill in a summer school, a talk at an open day, a body needed to make an exam board quorate, service on an appointments committee, an internal examiner for a PhD upgrade, or a viva... Roland invariably made himself available. Which leads – where else? – to Andorra... For many years, the ci-devant French Department held a Christmas party, and the centrepiece of that party was a French-themed pub quiz. Year on year, Roland would set the questions and act as quizmaster. One year, a colleague who should have known better failed to recognise ‘Andorra’ as the correct answer to one of the questions: every subsequent quiz contained a question, by way of gentle mockery, to which the answer was... Andorra.

Roland will leave a strange-shaped gap in our lives.

Andy Leak
Emeritus Professor of French, UCL

Roland by Professor Philippe Marlière

I met Roland-François in 1995. I was introduced to him by Annette Lavers, a former Head of French at UCL. He joined the French department in 1996, a couple of years after my own appointment and he was my colleague for 25 years. Roland was a good friend too. 
Roland was a great academic who had versatile interests in literature and cinema. He was an inspiring teacher too. His students loved him. For years, I would knock on his office door and we would talk about French films. His knowledge of interwar French cinema was fascinating, and so was his passion for French Nouvelle Vague.

He was a fan of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema, and through his family connection (his wife Vérène is Swiss), he spent time in Geneva. There, he unsuccessfully tried for years to interview the famous hermit. Roland’s anecdotes about how he tried and failed to meet Godard were hilarious, and I must have heard them dozens of times. (On this video, Roland introduces Godard’s ‘Weekend’ at a film festival in March 2017.)
Roland came across as quintessentially British to me although he was half French by birth. His mother was from Lille, and he remained sentimentally fond of France and northern France for that reason. He supported LOSC, Lille Ligue 1 football club (and Chelsea in the Premier League). The last email Roland sent to me was brief. He wanted to share with me his excitement about LOSC being the leaders of Ligue 1.

During the 1998 World Cup, we watched all the games of the French national team in a pub near UCL. After watching the first games together, we decided to keep watching each French game in the same pub as it might bring France good luck. Indeed, France won the world cup!

Roland was very dedicated to his wife Vérène and his two children Pierre and Ninon. It was clear that he deeply loved them and cared for them every time he mentioned them. He was funny, witty, and ironic. He would mock people (only silly and pompous people) but never in a nasty way. I liked his unassuming and gentle manners, his smile and his hand gesture when he spoke.

He left us elegantly and discretely exactly as he lived his life. I was struck by his courage in the last messages he sent me. He never complained and until the end he remained funny and witty. He said that he was fine, but that he felt sorry and sad for his family. 

Roland’s death is an immense loss for those who knew him, privately or professionally. 

Philippe Marlière
Professor of French and European Politics, UCL

Roland by Dr Benjamin Bâcle

I first met Roland-François in July 2012, when he was the Head of the French Department and offered me the position I still hold to this day. I remember being struck by his relaxed attitude and his warm but slightly enigmatic half-smile. There was something about him which was extremely refreshing when set in contrast with the stern academic world I was working in at the time. He was not just an academic, he was a man, and a funny and witty one at that. In a sense, it made him more in keeping with the age-old image of the eccentric academic, but even this canonical image he merrily transcended, through his multiple endearing idiosyncrasies. His office at the time, where we used to teach sometimes, was like a cave full of obscure, piled up treasures, of which he was the all-knowing librarian. He was an unmistakable presence, and hearing his voice resonate through the foyer as he talked or joked (the two were often inextricably linked) with a colleague was, I realise now more than ever, a very reassuring thing, a sign that all was well in the world. I remember his voice so distinctly.

It was always an event when Roland-François joined us for after-work drink at the Housman room; you knew there would be some good banter – as someone who absolutely cannot do banter, I appreciated and admired that very much, and was content with sitting there and listening to him exchange a few witticisms with Andy Leak or James Agar. I realise now that I never got the chance to spend time with him and know him as much as I would have liked to, but I remember one occasion when everyone left and he suggested we go for a drink, just the two of us, at the Rising Sun on Tottenham Court Road. It is a memory I treasure immensely. We talked about football, music, life, the universe and everything, and I was so chuffed to get to know more about his worldview and how his mind worked. I remember him telling me, upon me saying that I didn’t really see the point in supporting a football team whose composition constantly changed, that you had to see it like The Raft of the Medusa – the players might change, but the spirit of the team remains the same – to this day, this is the most convincing argument I have ever heard in this respect. We also bonded over the fact that some of his family was from Lille – Lambersart, if I remember correctly, just like mine is –, and I liked the thought of him walking, interacting with people and being very much himself in that environment which is so familiar to me. I like to think that the fact that the LOSC (Lille Olympique Sporting Club) won the French ‘Ligue 1’ championship this year is no coincidence – it has to be the gods of (northern French) football paying homage to one of the club’s most fervent supporters.

My more recent memories of Roland are of him heating up his pasta dish in the small kitchen we share as a department and making a few jokes along the way, or coming up with incredibly difficult questions for the Christmas quiz, among many other things. He had that ability to transfigure anything that could be seen as mundane and relate it to more sublime things, in his typically understated way. In many ways, for me, he embodied UCL, and especially SELCS. He had about him that aura of those who know so much more than they let on – about film, London, Switzerland, and a multiplicity of distinct universes connected by actors, places or maps. I cannot believe he is gone. I know it is the same for everyone. I choose to believe that, when we come back to Malet Place, I might still bump into him round a corridor, and that he might gratify me with some idiosyncratic remark or witticism, and that all might be well in the world again.

Benjamin Bâcle
Lecturer (Teaching) in French, UCL

Roland by Professor Lee Grieveson

Roland made me laugh every time I saw him. He was mischievous, and his not taking himself seriously was infectious. Roland would always help you out. If you asked him a favour, he would always do it; he had a big heart, and was kind. Roland was funny and kind, two of the best qualities. We both had twins, of a similar age, and talked together a lot about that. I saw that many of his students adored him. It was always nice to hear students describing the fun they had in Roland’s classes, and his infectious enthusiasm and passions. Frankly, Roland was never very organised, and even not always up-to-date with the latest administrative procedures, but he was loved by his colleagues for his generosity, fun, curiosity, for making us laugh, for always helping and being kind, for the passion he embodied and communicated. It is hard to write this in the past tense. I see him smiling, mischievously, or passing on a film he loved to a student to watch, or with an eyebrow raised in amusement at something or other. I feel his loss personally, and for our department, and institution. Roland was a colleague, and friend, and he was funny and kind. He left behind a lot of warmth, and fun, and touched the lives of many people. I shall miss him, but I shall always remember him with a smile. 

Lee Grieveson
Professor of Media History, UCL

Roland by Lola Szczotarska

It was after our first seminar that my peers and I realised we could address our professor as Roland rather than the somewhat stoic, sovereign-sounding Dr Roland-Francois Lack. We were first-year undergraduate students and this was French Film. Roland strode into the room in haste, keys jangling in his pockets, files tucked under his arm and already mid-sentence. We snapped open our laptops, fingertips at the ready. University had begun! 

Yet, while Roland's name did not entirely match his gregarious manner and humble appearance, it did point towards the riches and superiority of his intellect. From examining the aesthetic patterns of Cleo de 5 à 7 and self-aware narrativity in Beau Travail in first year, to debating the political engagement of Swiss filmmakers in final year, Roland exuded a passion that was earnest and inspiring. Not once did it appear that he was going through the motions of a syllabus or ticking boxes; he was fully committed to imparting knowledge and new ways of looking at the world, even if that meant an extra five minutes of class. He would explain a topic with ease and coherence, finding an accessible entry point and guiding the analysis beyond surface level to something interrogatory and juicy. If a student didn’t quite grasp a concept, Roland was patient. Discussion and critique were always welcome, regardless of whether that changed his own interpretation of the material. Learning was a living experience in his seminars. I would emerge energised and spilling with my own undulating comments, or sometimes reflective and silently replaying the frames of a niche cinematic universe - Roland’s approach to the material he taught always made me feel something.

I developed a knack for tangents myself. I would open my mouth to offer something (hopefully) insightful to the group discussion and then found that I was voicing my thoughts as organically as they unfolded in my mind. Roland deciphered these musings in a split-second and either contentedly urged them on, perched on a table, or synthesised them into a sentence that actually made sense to my peers, and indeed, to me. Roland operated at such an academically-comprehensive level: he could view from 30,000 feet, make great thematic leaps and links, while also inspect the minutiae of a camera shot with the revelry of a nineteenth century private detective. 

It is no surprise that I achieved my highest marks in Roland’s modules, and no doubt, the success of my degree is a product of his brilliant teaching. Roland has made a lasting impression on me. He tethered my love of film to a broad and great appreciation of Francophone filmmakers, to film theory and analysis, and helped develop my curiosity about the relationship between the things of the living world and their recorded counterparts. 

I am so glad and grateful to have been taught by Roland. I only wish that I could share my thanks to him in person.