I had not intended to review this most recent of Godard’s features, but then I had forgotten I’d put it on my rental list, and it just showed up the other week, so here we go. I could tell you that there’s a tripartite structure, like Notre musique (2004), and that there’s even a plot of sorts threading its way through the film (a young woman’s investigation into some gold which went missing during World War II). However, none of that would really capture Godard’s style, which is so elliptical and opaque as to make the film far closer to poetry than narrative. But if it’s poetry, it’s a densely allusive poetry that draws on influences that are largely unknown to me, meaning that like many of Godard’s late-period films, I find it difficult to connect with.
The bulk of the film is shot on board a cruise liner, intended by Godard to perhaps be the locus of late-Western capitalism in all its excesses (and a location which in real life, perhaps fittingly, came to its own rather controversial end a few years later, being the Costa Concordia). There are characters who flit in and out of the flow of scenes, but the chief way of describing the film is in the textures of its images — digitally shot, but alternately clear and cleanly framed, and degraded and pixellated, overlaid with white noise. There are certainly some beautiful shots, but by this point Godard’s cranky sense of “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has become a knotted tangle.
I don’t want to just write it off because it’s not to my taste. It’s just that there’s less a sense of characters and stories involved here, as ideas and themes. They are certainly grand themes at that, taking in the political history of the twentieth century (if not the whole sweep of Western civilisation) and all its traumas. Like Notre musique, Godard remains particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with Palestine, and Jewish and Arabic characters show up throughout. The film concludes with a brief section (“nos humanités”) taking in six sites of conflict from earliest times (Egypt and Greece) to the most recent (Barcelona in Spain, where the recent economic downturn has hit hardest).
The film moves from this wide focus, taking in the locations of world-changing events, to the minutiae of one family living in provincial France at a petrol station, but retains an interest in the grandest of themes (specifically those of the French Republic: liberté, egalité, fraternité) as the two children question their parents. However, by this point I must confess my attention had started to stray under the burden of the film’s unrelentingly discursive style. Perhaps it could be shown on loop in a gallery, but as a cohesive feature film, it is undeniably demanding, and for those with a taste for Godard’s allusiveness, it may well be a rewarding one. I fear I am not yet equal to it.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013
My Rating worth seeing
Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…
What with some family commitments and the London Film Festival taking place in October, what I had originally intended to be a ‘Godard Month’ has rather stretched on, and I still have a few films left to review, therefore I may yet be posting Godard Month entries in November…
By the time of Godard’s previous feature, Éloge de l’amour (2001), he was starting to place things in a rather more elegiac emotional register. That film grappled with his ageing, while this one focuses on similarly weighty existential issues — war, death, heaven and hell. Like most of his feature films, it remains concise in its running time while also seeming expansive thanks to his knack of densely layering image, text, music and voices. If at times it feels perplexing, then that’s all part and parcel of Godard’s way of presenting his films, especially in this late period.
I’ve mentioned the dense layering effects Godard likes, but though these are definitely present here, there’s a more uncluttered narrative than has often been the case in the past. The structure of the film is a fairly straightforward tripartite one, split into the “Kingdoms” of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The first section consists of 10 minutes of archival footage and film clips spliced together with some sombre music, which suggests a certain mediated view of the horrors of war and conflict. The last section of Heaven is similarly brief, a pastoral scene (albeit one policed by military guards), featuring a character who has just been reported as having died. But for the most part (Purgatory), the film is set in Sarajevo, at an academic conference where Godard himself is a participant, delivering a lecture about shot/reverse-shot construction, transposing images in front of students just as he’s been doing on film for the previous 15 years or more.
Within this narrative are a couple of female Jewish characters, Judith (Sarah Adler) and Olga (Nade Dieu), each pursuing through their respective means (journalist and documentary filmmaker) an understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. None of this is particularly straightforward and the points that Godard is trying to make are opaque as ever. However, the film is not about suggesting answers as about opening up arenas of discussion, such as the sites of wartime damage in Sarajevo, or the classroom where Godard lectures the students. At the close of this sequence, a question regarding the future of cinema is posed — about whether digital cameras will sustain cinema — and Godard, a shadowy presence in the half light, remains quite silent.
Like all of Godard’s films, especially the later ones, Notre musique remains a film of textures and ideas far more than of plot and characters, and the viewer has to keep that in mind. Still, it’s a film that poses questions about geopolitical security and humanity/cinema’s future, so it was never likely to have a clear conclusion, and the film struggles to outdo its brief but affecting opening sequence of Hell.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Jean-Christophe Beauvallet and Julien Hirsch | Starring Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Jean-Luc Godard | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2013
My Rating good
Next Up: I’m finishing the chronological journey with his most recent film, Film socialisme. The only other two films I wanted to deal with in my Godard director focus are Nouvelle vague (1990) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), which I shall try to do shortly, as this project is stretching on rather longer than I’d anticipated!
With a bit of a break for Hélas pour moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), for the majority of the 1990s, Godard was engaged on his densely-textured multi-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma. Given his devotion to that project (which I shall be reviewing later), it’s no surprise to find in this return to the narrative feature format, something of both that and his celluloid roots, both in terms of the textures as well as some of the themes. Éloge de l’amour is every bit as interesting and complex a work as his other late-period films and probably demands (certainly deserves) more attention than I was able to give it on my one sole viewing (so far), but it feels to me like a great film.
Those allusive textures I mentioned are most obviously in the last half-hour, shot on video and pushed towards an extreme colour balance, all thickly saturated blocky colours threatening to overwhelm the fragile human figures. But the first half too reminds us of Godard’s past, utilising starkly monochrome photography of Paris by night. If the style is not quite the same as back in those 1960s films with Raoul Coutard behind the camera — here it’s more contrasty, with deep inky blacks pressing in everywhere — it still feels redolent of that era. Filming in the street recalls his debut feature, while a scene by the river brings to mind a similar one in Bande à part. It’s a modern Paris but the filming renders it once more timeless.
That said, Godard the filmmaker is concerned above all with time, and as in many of his films, channels whatever are his current autobiographical obsessions. With Éloge, it’s his advancing age that is part of the backdrop. In fact, in many ways this film is more elegy than eulogy, its blend of textures and repeated classical music motifs drawing us back in time, with reminiscences of the French wartime resistance becoming part of the story (one commodified by Hollywood filmmaking — the ‘resistance’ here is as much Godard’s towards those methods of telling a story, as it is the wartime French). Love, which from the film’s title is ostensibly more important, is just one aspect of history and one that can so easily disappear into the shadows. Intertitles which flash up during the first part of the film are unclear as to what’s being eulogised: “DE L’AMOUR” or “DE QUELQUE CHOSE” (“of something” else). By the final video-shot part of the film, the intertitles are more interested in the passage of time — this section is set two years in the past, the “ARCHIVES”, “a long time ago”… “so long ago” — and the fact that the past utilises grainy colour video footage is even more a provocation.
The story itself is as opaque as ever in late-period Godard. There’s some sense that a writer (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to recall a love he shared, and is auditioning women to play parts in his story, but it’s all very obliquely presented. The ravishing black-and-white images show face-and-shoulders shots of the women speaking to camera with the writer’s voiceover questioning them, the writer in various settings of wealth and aspiration talking about the project, and night-time Paris with its tourist monuments in the background and its night-time workforce of cleaners and caretakers passing through. All these shots come in a flow of associative ideas, broken up by black leader suggesting images snatched from memory or from time itself.
I suspect audiences either go with Godard’s dense filmic poetry or actively resist his generalising and pretensions. He doesn’t make it particularly easy — for the American audiences, there are some challenging positions with regards to US hegemony and Hollywoodisation of history, which certainly come through as sore points when flicking through the critical commentary online — but his way with sound and images remains undimmed after all these years. He’s certainly grown crankier as a filmmaker, but the end result is a beautiful film that I believe stands up to repeat viewings and gives something of a sense of how it is to grow old within a medium that fetishises beauty and youth. It is something of a swansong.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Julien Hirsch and Christophe Pollock | Starring Bruno Putzulu | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 25 September 2013
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The most recent film of Godard’s I’ll be looking at is Notre musique (2004), which deals with violence and colonialism.
Following his great experimental Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard did this shorter, rather more atypical piece set in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it, he reunites with the star of Alphaville (1965), Eddie Constantine, again assuming his Lemmy Caution persona as he moves around Berlin, not unlike a time traveller, crossing past, present and future, and offering observations on the changes that have taken place.
I say it’s atypical, but that’s only because it goes on location, which the Godard of the 1980s onwards seemed less willing to do than the one who made, say, Le Mépris. However, it has most of the defining qualities of late-period Godard in its opacity and referentiality. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but takes in a lot more material, including interpolations of film clips and extensive quotes from literary and artistic sources, not to mention allusions and cryptic jokes. Therefore, it’s difficult for a viewer such as myself who is unfamiliar with a lot of the sources to make sense of this dense mélange, except in the broadest sensory terms.
Most notable perhaps is the presence of Constantine, who moves through the film’s largely depopulated spaces with a leathery old visage and basilisk stare. Echoing Germany’s own liminal state, it’s a film of uneasy spaces — border zones and shipyards and quarries — and Constantine seems appropriately out of place. He throws some flowers to the ground to join a battered street sign for Karl-Marx-Strasse that his car promptly drives over. The quarry in particular is accompanied by the most fantastic mining machine, a vast assemblage that could scarcely be contained in the mind of Terry Gilliam (it’s pictured in the poster included at the top of this review), and which threateningly towers over our narrator and guide.
It’s not just the weight of history and the bulk of machinery that seems to overwhelm the increasingly aged Constantine, for the film itself forcefully pursues its own formal strategies. Most striking is the soundtrack, which has its own dense sonic texture quite apart from (but at times working together with) the image track. Images and sounds weave into one another so densely that even the passing of a few days since I saw the film has made it difficult to recall any specifics. However, it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t really interested in just presenting a history of modern Germany in orthodox terms, but more as a assemblage of influences that reveal a state of mind, complete with some tendentious statements about the German national psyche as well as clips that pull in German poetry, painting, music, films and — of course — the politics that have defined its mid-20th century.
In the end it’s an experience that cannot easily be contained in a review. The Godard of this era — here and more so in the larger Histoire(s) du cinéma project — reasserts his role as a critic, marshalling evidence to support his sometimes rather too opaque claims. Just as the wall between East and West Berlin has fallen, and the borders between the two halves have opened, so the distinction between the two has become blurred — as our guide on this journey, Constantine is constantly seen asking those he meets “which way to the West?” to be met with at best confusion, but more usually totally blankness. At times, that’s the experience of the viewer too, but Godard’s richly layered filmmaking ensures that it’s never boring.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 | DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Nos solitudes: enquêtes sur un sentiment by Michel Hannoun) | Cinematographers Stépan Benda, Andréas Erben and Christophe Pollock | Starring Eddie Constantine | Length 61 minutes || Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Wednesday 11 September 2013
My Rating good
Next Up: Godard spent the rest of the decade focusing on his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma, but my next review will be of his 2001 return Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a densely poetic but ravishingly beautiful evocation of ageing that returns to some of the images and themes of his youth.
After the full stop that was Week End (1967) and the partial return of Tout va bien (1972), Godard sort of disappeared into a wilderness of televisual and video-based filmmaking. Upon his return to the cinema screen in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie), he may have been once again using recognisable star actors, but the narrative structures were certainly far from mainstream. This second film of his return is within a filmmaking framework familiar from Le Mépris (1963), which film incidentally also starred Michel Piccoli and was shot by Raoul Coutard. However, the Godard of 20 years later has a quite different method of putting together narrative, making Passion a rather more challenging viewing experience.
This is, however, the experience of this later period of Godard’s filmmaking, as the links between scenes — not to mention between image track and soundtrack — become increasingly tenuous. You could view this as a breathtakingly brazen disregard for conventional narrative structures (the beginning, middle and end “but not necessarily in that order” approach of one of Godard’s famous dictums), or as an increasingly cranky and self-indulgent way of befuddling the audience, but I choose to take it as both. I cannot deny that actually watching the film is perplexing, but this isn’t the emperor’s new clothes: there is a method here that definitely yields some interesting results.
As with Le Mépris, once again there’s a fairly self-critical portrait of the artist, who here is the bespectacled Polish filmmaker Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). Like Godard (living and working in Switzerland by this time), Jerzy is in some sort of self-imposed exile, stranded outside his country as the first political convulsions are taking place that by the end of the decade would lead to the overthrow of Communism. He is making a film called Passion which seems anything but passionate from what we see — beautifully-shot and lit tableaux of unmoving figures which seem to restage Renaissance paintings and give plenty of opportunity for the baring of female flesh, which Jerzy rather imperiously co-ordinates when he’s bothering to work on the film at all. Unsurprisingly there are problems with the budget, and it’s never quite clear what the plot is (indeed, the question is put to him directly at one point, to which he amusingly reacts with disgust, rather suggesting that plot is beside the point for Godard/Jerzy).
The rest of the cast are largely enacting a scenario involving factory owner Michel (Piccoli) and his wife Hanna (Schygulla), as well as Isabelle (Huppert) as a factory worker who comes into conflict with Michel. The ideas Godard seems to be playing with involve the demands of a working life (shades of Tout va bien) and those of the heart. There are communication issues too, particularly between the non-Francophone characters (Jerzy and Hanna). It’s difficult, though, to draw out more expressive ideas on just one viewing — Godard’s films get increasingly elliptical and densely-layered and require more time to unpick. His soundtrack work still likes to fade in and out repeated snatches of music (here it’s most prominently Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem), but there’s also images with different sounds matched to it (voices that don’t emanate from the characters we’re viewing, for example). And then there’s some typically playful Godardian self-referentiality, as when Isabelle tries to clear out her father from a room only to be told by another character that the elderly actor playing her father wants to get more attention when he delivers his single line (for which Godard immediately cuts away).
It’s far from a terrible film (whatever the limitations of my star-rating system), and in fact Passion may be, as I’ve implied (I hope), one of the most suggestive and rich of his 1980s output. It’s definitely films such as this one that demand repeat viewings to fully absorb some of the textures and ideas. It’s too easy to write this off as just an incoherent jumble, but for the first-time viewer that’s quite likely what it will come across as. However, that viewer can at least be thankful that like most of Godard’s films it hovers under the 90 minute length, and perhaps the mystery will incline that imagined viewer (who may or may not be myself) to return to it someday.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli | Length 86 minutes || Seen at university library, Wellington, March 1999 (and more recently at home on DVD, London, Monday 30 September 2013)
My Rating worth seeing
Next Up: Godard did a few other films during the 1980s including a typically ornery adaptation of King Lear (1987) which I haven’t yet seen. At the end of the decade, he made Nouvelle vague (1990) which in its name suggests a look back on his founding legacy. I do intend to watch and review this, but in the meantime I have his short German travelogue Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991).
After the apocalyptic ending of Week End, Godard’s filmmaking became more and more overtly political in content and confrontational in form. We’ve already seen in his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, One Plus One, a characteristic blend of documentary elements with characters reciting political theory in support of direct action, and this would be taken further in his other works of this period, often put out under the Dziga Vertov Group rubric. Vertov was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, and it was his formal innovations combined with frank political underpinning that must have attracted these French filmmakers. I’ve not seen a great deal of Godard’s work of this period, but if Un film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others, 1968) is anything to go by, they could be quite challenging — it consists of long-shot takes of students filmed from quite some distance sitting around talking about politics, split into two halves using the same images but a different soundtrack in each (at least, this is my recollection of it).
For the majority of the 1970s Godard was engaged in pseudo-agitprop films and collagist television experiments, so Tout va bien (which translates as “everything’s going well”) is almost accessible by contrast, and links in mostly clearly with his late-1960s work in style. Again we see that blend of political discussion within a narrative framework which in this case admits of two significant international actors (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand), playing reporters investigating a strike at a meat processing factory. Of course Godard and his co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin, who is now a film professor, were hardly likely to allow these famous actors the usual trappings of celebrity so afford them few close-ups and minimise their prominence in scenes where they do appear. For example, there’s a conversation between them filmed from behind Montand’s head, which itself hides Fonda’s face — a method of withholding identification that can be seen as early as Vivre sa vie (1962) and is fairly common in Godard’s films.
Alongside the bigger stars is a greater transparency about the practices and more particularly the economics of commercial filmmaking. Two voices at the start explain that a scene of the two stars being in love is necessary (presumably to secure funding), and this sits alongside a shot of cheques to the key personnel being signed; the voices return at the end to talk over the top of a climactic scene, preventing Fonda and Montand’s story being resolved. There’s also a notable long lateral tracking shot recalling the pile-up in Week End, this one filmed along the tills in a supermarket where everything is being sold — even the French Communist Party has a stall, though that may be as much to do with Godard’s sectarian antipathy towards the Communists.
Making plain the mechanics of the film’s production goes along nicely with the way the film seeks to expose all levels of the consumer society. Prior to the supermarket scene, the bulk of the film depicts staff discontentment at a factory where sausages are made — a place of contact between the rural agrarian world, the suburban working classes, and the urban bourgeois owners. Montand’s character, meanwhile, works in advertising, which sells products (such as those produced in the factory) to the consumer. This strategy is accompanied by formal distantiation techniques: the factory is filmed as a vast self-contained set, the rooms like a set of stacked boxes across which the camera pans (there’s even a banner hanging from this set). Moreover, various characters speak directly to the camera about their contrasting expectations (the Italian boss and the union leader for example).
Godard’s film is upfront about systems of production and consumption, but it avoids being boring. Quite aside from its saturated colours and frontal framing with shallow depth of focus (familiar from Godard’s other features), there’s also some fairly easily-digestible criticism of inequalities that exist within these systems. For example, female workers are given a voice to express their discontent at the male hierarchy within the factory, and the way women’s voices are suppressed is suggested in voiceover as we are shown Jane Fonda listening. There’s also that favourite of the post-1968 period of filmmaking, the class war (“lutte de classe”) expressed in fighting between students and police.
Tout va bien, of course, ends up being a bitterly ironic title. The playfulness of the earlier 1960s films is still somewhat in evidence, but there’s little hope left when all’s done. At the end, the mordant caption “FRANCE 1972” accompanies another lateral tracking shot, as it takes in a bleak industrial landscape and long stretches of barren brick wall, set to a cheerful pop song claiming “it’s sunny in France”. The voiceover implicates everyone in this outcome and you get the sense here more than ever that Godard is ready to give up on France.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin | Cinematographer Armand Marco | Starring Jane Fonda, Yves Montand | Length 95 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 May 2001 (and most recently at home on DVD, London, Monday 26 August 2013)
My Rating very good
Next Up: Godard didn’t return to ‘proper’ feature filmmaking until 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), and his early 80s films start to focus on a new interest in collage backed by strong soundtracks. The second of these 1980s works is Passion, reuniting him with actor Michel Piccoli and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, as well as returning him to self-critique within a filmmaking setting.
It doesn’t seem as if this film collaborating with iconic 1960s rock band The Rolling Stones was particularly planned (it came together rather spontaneously when Godard visited the UK for another, failed project), but the work Godard has created from it fits in rather well with his ongoing politicisation following his end-of-days/end-of-cinema screed Week End. It re-examines the very fundamentals of artistic creation while looking towards certain increasingly urgent political themes that were developing even as the film was in production.
The film was shot in London in June 1968 as the Stones were recording tracks for their Beggars Banquet album, and specifically the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. This track has as its narrator Lucifer and recounts his involvement with a history of political violence right up to the present day (Robert Kennedy was assassinated even as the song was being recorded, necessitating a change to the lyrics). At the same time, with les évènements of May 1968 in France fresh in his mind, Godard’s sloganeering and agitprop tendencies have never been more in evidence. The film is punctuated by brief shots of a mysterious young woman spray-painting slogans around London, on cars, pavements, buildings and even the windows of the Hilton hotel, stuff like “CINEMARXISM” and “FREUDEMOCRACY”.
More substantial are extended scenes — almost skits in their jokey sketch-like quality — which unfold in long, measured tracking shots of student radicals and political protest, which form part of the structure of the film alluded to in the title (the documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones creating their track vs the staged scenes of radicals destroying civil society). The most prominent of these skits feature the Black Panthers, holed up in a junkyard alongside the River Thames (just under the Battersea rail bridge). Members of the group declaim political theory, including liberationist texts about the necessity of freeing themselves from the power of the white man and his language, though the first we hear deals rather more directly with the soul of black music (a wry nod towards the appropriation of a black rhythm-and-blues idiom in popular music such as that exemplified by the Rolling Stones themselves). These scenes wrap the texts up into a discourse of violence — guns are thrown around, and some (white) women dressed in white shifts are held at gunpoint and seen spattered with brightly-coloured crimson blood.
The counterpoint to this is the interview of “Eve Democracy” (played by the director’s wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky), wafting around a forest glade being followed by a camera crew. She may seem to embody ideals of peace, reinforced by the rural, sylvan setting, but her responses to the interviewer’s elaborate questions are never other than “Yes” or “No”, and finally, as the revolutionary rhetoric becomes too forceful, she flees. The other scene featuring white protagonists is set in a bookshop, its walls lined with pulpy novels laden with sexual, racial and political themes, comics and pornographic magazines. The customers pay by giving a long-armed fascist salute to the proprietor (who also reads from a revolutionary text) then slapping two long-haired Maoist militants sitting in the corner of the room.
The film questions the very notion of authorship that had underpinned Godard’s career over the past decade. The studio scenes showing the Stones recording their track lay bare the repetition and boredom underlying artistic creation, as members of the band and their entourage try over and over again to establish the basic elements of the song (the drum beat, the lyrics, the guitar sound, the backing vocals, et al.). Stylistically, too, these scenes seem to lack a certain coherence, with the camera just panning around endlessly in lieu of a script to follow. Just as the process by which the text is authored is revealed here, so the interstitial sketches work hard to erase the idea of authorship — very little is said that is not quoted or read from a text, and interviewers and camera crews are a constant presence. The final scene, which is itself of a film crew creating a shot, ends with a woman’s dead body hoisted aloft on a camera crane, and so the film’s reflexivity has folded back in on itself.
The film was in the end retitled after the song it featured (and added a coda with the final studio version of the Stones song, much to Godard’s disgust), but either version has a lot of productive material that reflects the turbulent times in which it was made. The pose with regard to authorship, not to mention the rambling discursive methods used, makes it a difficult film to watch at times, but it certainly marks a forceful break with the rest of Godard’s 1960s work and looks forward to the continued formal experimentation of the 1970s.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (as “Tony Richmond”) | Starring The Rolling Stones, Anne Wiazemsky (as “Anne Wiazemski”) | Length 97 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 28 July 2004 (also on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently at home on DVD, London, Saturday 21 September 2013)
My Rating good
Next Up: Most of Godard’s 1970s was taken up with experimental televisual work and overt political films, with the exception of the bigger budget Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. You can see a common thread uniting his earlier works with this one, but it again has a radical structure and is co-directed by theorist and academic Jean-Pierre Gorin.
If Bande à part seemed to herald the end of the nouvelle vague, then this film of Godard’s, three years later, has a far more self-consciously terminal message, expressed as the final words on screen: “FIN DE CINEMA” (end of cinema). It’s an apocalyptic-themed sign-off to the pop art 60s, a grand gesture of defiance to those who would try to integrate his cinema into the mainstream, and — as ever — a heady fvck you to the United States and the forces of capitalism. It’s far from easy to stomach, but it certainly deserves a prominent place in his filmography, if only for the multiplicity of brightly-coloured messages it puts across in its relatively short running time.
As has become evident over the course of watching Godard’s 60s films, the way that the film opens is often a key to the message the film is pursuing (whether Karina’s face from various angles in Vivre sa vie or the self-reflexive tracking shot that opens Le Mépris). In this case, the title card itself holds that hint — the word “WEEK END” is broken up, repeated and reconfigured across several lines in red, white and blue colours, suggesting the fractured, disintegrated world the film is aiming to depict. At points, the film itself fragments, with repeated shots separated by black leader, and during one automotive conflagration, the film’s framing is even shifted so that the edges of the film show up (such that the tops of characters’ bodies poke from the bottom of the screen, while their legs are at the top). Returning to the film’s opening, although we begin in middle-class comfort among some executives in a meeting high up in a building, they soon spot a fight down at street level below. There’s an Olympian detachment to this scene that doesn’t last long, as the film quickly throws the middle-class couple at the centre of the film, Corinne and Roland (played by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), right into the heart of that conflict.
The couple’s story itself is fairly dispensible — in fact, when I watched the film most recently I didn’t even pick up on the plot point that they are travelling across country to kill her parents and then themselves. The key, really, is the journey, a twisted version of the classic American road movie presented as a series of largely self-contained blackly comic setpieces that cycle through murder, rape, arson, political theory and the wholesale dismantling of bourgeois Western civilisation. The fact that it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent plot may account for some of my difficulties in wholeheartedly liking it (and hence my rating), but then again that’s part of the film’s point. According to an early intertitle, it is a “film found on the junk-heap”, and it feels like that’s where Godard has returned the film by the end. During a lengthy scene of two revolutionaries reciting texts of radical liberationist theory, our protagonists can be found sitting on a literal junk-heap on the back of a truck.
Along the way there are many scenes pointedly skewering the hegemonic pervasiveness of consumerism and pop culture, as imported from the United States. “A scene of Parisian life” has our protagonists trying to back out of their driveway while being accosted by a child dressed in a native American costume, leading to them bumping into their neighbour’s car. The ensuing fight quickly escalates to gunplay and bloodshed — an absurdist overreaction to a minor automotive incident, but such is the way of the film, where affronts to one’s possessions frequently lead to bloody violence. In another scene, a horrific pile-up of cars and dead bodies, the only voice heard is Corinne screaming over the loss of her Hermès handbag. It’s the road movie trope that the movie keeps returning to, with its pervasive focus on car culture — generally in the form of twisted, burning wrecks. The film’s most famous scene is probably the long tracking shot along a traffic jam in the French countryside, the gridlock created by a fatal accident.
Those familiar with Godard’s cinematic development know that after this film he started concentrating on explicitly political films, with a Marxist-Leninist undertow, though this political consciousness was developing in his films throughout the 1960s. Therefore it’s no surprise to find a strong engagement with the class struggle (“lutte de classe” as per intertitles frequently flashing up on screen), sometimes framed by history, sometimes by literature or art. The poster-boy of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Léaud, wanders across the screen in Napoleonic costume declaiming a revolutionary text, while the character of Alice is set fire accompanied the words “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film!” (The reference here may be to Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character, though it might as well be to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, a psychedelic anthem for American youth released earlier in 1967.) Elsewhere we see a woman arguing with a farmer in front of her car propped against his tractor, the dead body of a man adorning it (she is of course arguing about the cost of her totalled car). Working-class bystanders look on implacably, framed by hypersaturated posters for various entertainments. At the end of the scene, all these characters pose together as if in a photo accompanied by the intertitle “FAUXTOGRAPHIE” — implying perhaps that photography (or filming for that matter) can create a false bond between the classes, who are ineluctably in war with one another. The disjunction is only enhanced by a later scene depicting an earnest grand piano recital at a farm, watchfully observed by the farm labourers.
The epithet most frequently applied to the film that I’ve seen is “carnivalesque” and it does indeed have that feeling of the ritualistic inversion of societal norms. At every level, bourgeois society and its underpinnings are satirised by Godard, abetted by the steady gaze and stately tracking shots of his cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Characters are all decked out in primary coloured costumes (not least the band of revolutionaries into whose orbit Corinne falls at the end of the film), and though the human blood effects have the same cartoonish quality, the film progresses to some rather disturbing live animal slaughter by its denouement. For this reason — as well as for its extended longueurs (scenes frequently unfold at a very measured pace) — it can be a difficult film to watch. Nevertheless, it’s self-consciously crafted as a grand statement on cinema and civil society in 1967, presaging the kind of upheavals that would happen in May 1968 (and to which French films even now still occasionally refer). As such, it’s possibly Godard’s most potent synthesis of his aesthetic and political concerns, and a fascinating document.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 18 September 2013)
My Rating very good
Next Up: An odd interlude in Godard’s career, and also his largest budget to date, was the collaboration with the Rolling Stones in London, One Plus One (also released as Sympathy for the Devil), but it furthers his political themes of the late-60s and looks towards a new collective cinematic creation.
Following the glorious widescreen colour films of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) and particularly Le Mépris (1963), Godard returned to the American B-movie inflected black-and-white of his debut with Bande à part. There’s a freewheeling energy to this film which is delightful, though there’s still plenty of recognisable Godard themes and obsessions.
If À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the nouvelle vague, then I am inclined to believe that this film marks one of the last. It makes a connection in its style to that first film, but also has traces of the changes that had already taken place in French cinema. There are references to other films from nouvelle vague filmmakers which had already taken their place in the mainstream, most prominently Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), whose title theme is heard twice. Then there’s the brief scene where our protagonists walk past a shop called Nouvelle Vague, the name now co-opted to commerce. Clearly within only five years, the New Wave was no longer particularly new.
The plot itself, like the monochromatic look, also harks back to Godard’s debut. It’s another crime-based story, lifted this time quite literally from an American pulp novel, featuring the kind of slightly incompetent would-be gangsters that are a mainstay of the genre. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are young and bored, living at the edges of Paris. They meet Odile (Anna Karina) at school and hatch a plan to steal money from her wealthy family. There’s a hint that the plan has been hijacked by Arthur’s own criminal family, but as ever Godard isn’t really interested in the specifics.
Bande à part is primarily about suburban kids and their experience of the big city. Aside from an all-too-brief scene in the Louvre, one of the few unambiguously happy moments in their lives, this is not tourist Paris. It’s a film of the outer limits, the unremarkable streets clogged with traffic and pollution, the down-at-heel cafes and the semi-rural backwaters on their doorstep. They sit in the woods by a river reading the papers, which promise a world of crime and murder that they aren’t a part of. US pop culture, as peddled by its movies, promises something different, so Odile will only accept Arthur’s Lucky Strike cigarettes over Franz’s local ones, before asking for a Coca-Cola. They play-act scenes from movies, too, like Arthur’s comically melodramatic turn pretending to be Billy the Kid, shot in the street, which is reprised later on, if less comedically.
Then there’s the dance sequence — ostensibly of another American import, the Madison — which they perform together in a cafe. It’s become one of the iconic scenes of the 1960s New Wave and is one of the most famous in Godard’s filmography, and for good reason. It’s a bracing, seemingly spontaneous expression of youthful joie de vivre, and yet encodes everything the film wants to express about individuality. The three protagonists dance it side-by-side, not looking at one another, each in their own space. Every so often the music cuts out and in voiceover Godard speaks of each one’s feelings, emphasising their outsider status, to one another as much as to the (fictional, movie-inflected) society they want so desperately to be part of.
If Karina’s presence recalls her earlier role in Vivre sa vie, she’s here playing a quite different character. The camera still loves her, but she’s not the wearily glamorous Nana but the cheerfully naïve Odile, not confident about either how to wear her hair or how to react to the bad ideas of those around her. By the time she turns to the camera on the Métro to deliver some existential doubts, it’s no longer clear that she wants to be part of this band that Arthur and Franz have created with her. It’s Brasseur who impresses most as Arthur, and its his charm that carries the plot forward.
The film’s set-up feels like a hundred more recent American indie movies, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s title was purloined by Quentin Tarantino for his production company. Yet Bande à part still retains a real vivacity and a charm that makes it one of Godard’s most accessible works. From here onwards, the films he made became progressively more opaque and difficult, with frank political messages and an ornery idiosyncrasy to their construction. In some ways that’s why this film feels like the close of a chapter, and a winding down of a certain mythology.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 14 September 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The final shot of Bande à part promises a Technicolor widescreen extravaganza set in the new world. Though Alphaville (1965), with its monochrome sci-fi modernism, didn’t exactly deliver that, yet Pierrot le Fou (1965) seems to possess some of that quality. I won’t be discussing either (primarily because I don’t own them, though they’re both fantastic in different ways, and well worth watching), so shall be moving on to Week End (1967), which seems to mark the apocalyptic denouement of an entire era and is maybe where the protagonists of Bande à part really ended up.
Following closely on from the formal experiments in Vivre sa vie (1962), Godard mounted his largest production to date, a French-Italian co-production filmed in Rome (some of it on the sets of the famous Cinecittà studio) with international stars and glorious widescreen colour cinematography. But this is still Godard, and in some ways the result is Godard’s most accomplished film. It’s certainly the film that seems to define a lot of what is most distinctive about his style during this early phase of his career, while wearing rather easily some of Godard’s formal, philosophical and political concerns. If it seems to move rather slowly at times, it nevertheless comes across as a measured classicism, the inexorable unravelling of fate, appropriate given its setting.
It’s a film about making films — a self-reflexive sub-genre that remains unsurprisingly popular amongst filmmakers. However, with Le Mépris, we should perhaps rather say it’s about not-quite-making films, just as Godard’s later Rolling Stones collaboration One Plus One (1968) was about not-quite-making a song. There’s a wealth of dissipated talent — Fritz Lang as the director and Michel Piccoli as Paul, the screenwriter — all arrayed around Jack Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch, a vulgar and satyr-like American producer. Naturally for Godard, he carries around a tiny book of aphorisms which he quotes alongside his own wisdom. “When someone says art, I reach for my chequebook” is just one of the philistinisms he comes up with to justify his behaviour. From his frank ogling of the swimming nymphs one gets the sense he thinks he’s making an exploitation film, but if so then Lang (and Godard) have other ideas. Godard’s own American producer for this film famously insisted on more nudity from female star Brigitte Bardot (playing Paul’s wife Camille) — hence an interpolation at the start of the film showing Bardot naked on a bed, shot through filters (first red, then white, then blue). Thus, one can only assume that Prokosch is the fictional alter ego of this real life figure.
Such a strategy is no surprise in this particular sub-genre, which naturally gravitates to the roman à clef, yet if the director figure is played by Fritz Lang — himself canonised as an auteur by such magazines as the one Godard wrote for — it’s clear that the Godard stand-in is in fact Paul, the screenwriter. His look and particularly his ever-present fedora hat are most strikingly like Godard (who cameos briefly at the end as an assistant director, dressed likewise), and if so it’s another characteristically excoriating self-portrait. After all, the film is called “Contempt”, and if at one level it’s a contempt felt by Godard/Paul towards his producer, then most of all it’s the contempt that Camille comes to feel towards Paul. Bardot’s lacerating gaze — far more than her bared bottom, however much the producer may have wished otherwise — is at the heart of the film.
That basilisk gaze is joined by many others, primarily mythological, for the film being made within Le Mépris is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Interspersed throughout are shots showing the disembodied busts of Greek gods, colourfully painted as they would have been when they were made. These heads turn in front of the camera, as if in judgement, perhaps of the characters in the film, perhaps of the audience. But there are other looks, which are also directed inwards in scrutiny. After the sequence of Bardot on a bed, the film proper starts with Raoul Coutard’s camera filming a scene at Cinecittà, tracking towards our point of view and reframing to look directly at us/itself, as Godard reads out the credits. It’s not until the very final shot that this gaze is directed away and out at something else.
In turning the film’s attention inwards to Godard’s own artistic process (via his alter ego Paul), the key sequence is the central one set in the Rome apartment of Paul and Camille. It is in an unfinished state — Paul comedically opens and closes a door, only to step back through it for it has no panelling — and this sparseness allows the camera to frame shots of the two in different spaces within the apartment, failing to connect with one another. There’s a long single take back-and-forth shot of them talking, never together in the same frame, as they switch the lamp between them on and off. Even when they are together, as when Paul takes a bath, he still wears his hat and enfolds himself in literary and pop cultural references (such as to Dean Martin in Some Came Running).
The decline in the relationship between Paul and Camille may well be autobiographical to Godard at some level (Godard cast his own wife Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie and it’s she who is recalled when Bardot puts on a black wig during the apartment scene), but in the film it has far more lasting consequences — for Paul as a screenwriter, for the film he’s working on, and most of all for Camille and Prokosch. All the time these events are tracked by Coutard’s widescreen camera, which delights in the richly-saturated colours of the Mediterranean, in the clean lines of the Rome apartment, and in the symmetrical construction of the rather stunning modernist home on the island of Capri where the final scenes take place. In many ways it’s a detached gaze, like that of the Olympian statues which show up throughout, and it attains a stateliness that can make the film slow-moving at times. Yet the resulting film is among Godard’s best works, which continues to open up further subtleties of interpretation each time it’s viewed, and which I can only hint at here.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and since then several times, most recently on DVD, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013)
My Rating a must-see
Next Up: After the widescreen of this film and Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Godard returned to something like his debut film with Bande à part (The Outsiders, 1964), another scruffy black-and-white B-movie about sort-of-gangsters, featuring Anna Karina again.