I’ve seen this film a bunch of times (and written about in on here before), and each successive time I watch it, I think I become a little less enamoured with it — not unlike the Tarantino films, whose production company is inspired by the title of this film. You remember the dance, the verve, Anna Karina’s face framed in class, almost solarised like a Man Ray print, with her big eyes. You remember Sami Frey’s nonchalance, you remember the beautiful monochrome photography, those Paris street scenes shot from a moving car, the run through the Louvre, the feeling of young lives, of being young. But there’s also this nasty little plot about them staging a heist, and they’re all really dull unlikable people at heart, and I just wonder if it’s a film about people or a film about people in films, and if it’s the latter why really should I care, at least on the third or fourth watch? Maybe some films work better when you see them once and then try to remember what you loved about them.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on 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 a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 October 2017)
I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades (and have written about it here before) and I feel both compelled and distanced from it, though that may be by design. It’s about filmmaking at a certain level, it’s about the clash of cultures, it’s about a relationship being torn apart (mirroring Godard and Anna Karina, one presumes, at least to a point) and it’s about a lot in between, but mainly it’s about contempt. Not least, one might extrapolate, that includes the director’s difficulty with women, suggesting a certain unknowability. It’s beautiful and hard, and contains a lot, and for all that I don’t necessarily enjoy its characters, I think the filmmaking is about as good as Godard managed.
Criterion Extras: There are plenty of extras on a 2 DVD set, including Encounter with Fritz Lang (1964), a short film in which the director speaks a little on the set of Contempt, but is mostly clips illustrating his architectural style in his early German work. There’s also two Jacques Rozier short films. Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard (1964) is a slight little piece about Godard filming Bardot, which takes a sort of philosophical path. However, the better is Paparazzi (1964). Brigitte Bardot, it turns out, was very famous in the 60s, and this film deals with obsessive photographers using a fairly recently-coined term. Those guys are still with us because they’ve become embedded into a system that reinforces and commodifies fame, and that is hinted at with the context of magazine sales, but this short film is mostly about how they were annoying when she was filming Contempt. It’s quite strikingly put together, and has a zingy energy to it. Other extras include an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, an audio commentary, and an hour-long discussion between Fritz Lang and Godard called The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll | Length 101 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and later on DVD at home in London on Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently at a friend’s home on Sunday 20 August 2017)
It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.
Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.
RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016
King Lear (1987) Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux | Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard | Length 90 minutes
Meetin’ WA (1986) Director Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli | Length 26 minutes
It feels like a difficult thing to come to this film, however much of Godard’s 1960s output you’ve seen (or even Tout va bien or his later work from the 1980s on), because it’s so much a part of a movement and a heavily-politicised time in both his life and that of cultural institutions in Western Europe. What we have here is Godard (with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin) working within the “Groupe Dziga-Vertov” collective (named for an important early Soviet filmmaker and theorist), making agit-prop pieces seeking to contextualise and free the worker from a bourgeois framework. Needless to say, too, it’s all very densely allusive and, as has long been Godard’s way, anchored very much by written and spoken texts (here, in Italian with another layer of French translation). The film is structured in three parts with Paola (Cristiana Tullio-Altan) seen first in various situations attempting to espouse a radical ideology, in the second part learning how her actions are framed by bourgeois ideology, and in the third reintegrating her actions with reference to the means of production. Or at least, this is what I think is going on, but it would probably require someone with a sustained understanding of the political struggles — and perhaps a few more viewings — to articulate it more meaningfully. In terms of this progress of thought, there’s a lot of to-do about the black leader which breaks up the various scenes of Paola at the start, later replaced by images of workers in factories, while the voiceover draws attention to the artifice of the film itself. Throughout, faces are largely eschewed in favour of showing actions, with the camera (this work presumably done by Godard and Gorin themselves) tending to frame body parts. It’s a provocation, of course, but it marks a stage on Godard’s filmic evolution.
Screening alongside this film are the Ciné-tracts made by Godard, from a series of 41 three-minute silent black-and-white short films intended to be distributed cheaply around the country and to prompt a dialogue about state power and control. Although unsigned, Godard’s shorts have been identified and take the form of slyly punning text written on a collage of still photographs showing dissent and activism. Standing apart from these is Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (credited to Godard and artist Gérard Fromanger), which simply but effectively films a painting of a French flag in which the band of red paint slowly leaks across the flag like blood, vividly coloured and graphically striking.
RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 February 2016
Lotte in Italia (1971) Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [as “Groupe Dziga-Vertov”] | Starring Cristiana Tullio-Altan | Length 62 minutes
A year or two back I spent a number of reviews focusing on the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and I think I did pretty well covering his career, but inevitably with such a prolific talent there were going to be gaps. Now the BFI has come along with a full retrospective so I’ve been trying to fill in some of those gaps, and from his most famous period of work (in the early- to mid-1960s), Une femme mariée was the most high profile film I’d not seen. That said, it’s still largely overlooked in favour of his films with Anna Karina, which is a pity because it exhibits a great amount of formal beauty, as well as giving a clear sense of Godard’s (rather less attractive) relationship to France and to women. In terms of the formal characteristics, we have the usual flattened frontal perspectives, starting with extreme close-ups on fragments of star Macha Méril’s unclothed body, as she is caressed from outside the frame by the hands of her lover, all rather startlingly and gorgeously composed by Raoul Coutard’s camera, as an extension perhaps of the anatomisation that began Le Mépris the year before. This technique is returned to throughout the film, as Méril’s character Charlotte bounces between the two men in her life, Robert and husband Pierre — though they sort of merge, at least in my mind, into something approaching an archetype of French manhood (just as Charlotte is, as originally conceived, The Married Woman of the title, albeit later changed to the indefinite article at the behest of the French censors). Even more persistent than the men is the influence of women’s magazines and advertising in her life, as she absurdly measures herself against their strictures, and it’s perhaps this body fascism which she is most wedded to, and which accounts for the formal strategies Godard adopts. It’s undoubtedly a fine work of modernist filmmaking, but it feels to me very much still like the work of a man looking at a woman (the problem I suppose I have with most of Godard’s output, especially during this era), but making this so central to the conception of the film as a whole is surely an achievement nonetheless. In any case, it certainly deserves a more prominent place in his filmography than is popularly accorded to it.
The short film La Paresse (1962), included as an episode of one of the many fashionable short film anthologies that were popular in the 1960s, is a droll take on the deadly sin of sloth. Niftily edited with Godard’s usual stylish flair, it has Eddie Constantine picking up a young starlet (Nicole Mirel) in his car and taking her back to his place. Constantine at that point was a man known from various popular action and adventure flicks, but here his character can barely even be bothered to tie his shoelaces, and opts out of sleeping with Mirel as he can’t be bothered to get dressed again after.
The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.
Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)
In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno | Starring Héloise Godet | Length 70 minutes || Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014
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.