Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.
As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016
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).
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.