Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

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Criterion Sunday 275: Tout va bien (1972)

I’ve now seen this Godard/Gorin film a few times in my life (and have already written about it once on my blog), and it manages to be more accessible than much of Godard’s work in the 1970s, but also still very much concerned with theoretical ideas. It’s the film of a public intellectual, primarily, so when voice is given to revolutionary ideas, it feels less like the directors giving voice to those who have been rendered voiceless, and more a critique of mainstream media in occluding such voices, and in denying power to those exploited under capitalism. The film nimbly flits between these moments of confrontation — usually presented frontally, with bodies crowded into the frame — and satirical digs at management and media, such as our factory manager being subjected to his own factory’s rules leading to him breaking a window to take a leak. Voices at the start and end lead us through the expectations of the narrative for a commercial film, as cheques to all the actors and crew are being signed, and throughout there’s this tension between what Godard and Gorin want to say about power and representation, and what capitalist practices demand, yet it’s never quite as boring as that all sounds. There are sequences as visually arresting as anything in Godard’s filmography, there’s as much humour as anger, and there’s Jane Fonda.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is Godard and Gorin’s 52-minute follow-up Letter to Jane: An Investigation about a Still (1972). Following the release of the feature, the two regrouped to talk about that film but chose instead a photo of “Hanoi Jane” listening to the North Vietnamese as a way of talking about their film. It at once seems to sum up Godard’s idea of making films as a means of film criticism, of synthesising arguments about images and where the power lies, while also being rather excoriating about the actress in his own film, whose agency is removed from her by these two guys talking over the image and asking who it benefits and what it all means.
  • There’s a brief interview with Godard from the same year, clad in a bathrobe and unshaven, trying to put across what the two were trying to achieve with Tout va bien, which is a pretty thoroughgoing critique of capitalism and power.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
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 on DVD at home, London, on Monday 26 August 2013 and Sunday 10 November 2019).

Tout va bien (1972)

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.

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.

Tout va bien film posterCREDITS
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 on DVD at home, London, Monday 26 August 2013).