Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.
Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.
RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015
I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
In the eyes of many people — not least those defiant eyes in the freeze-frame at the end — this film was what kicked off the French New Wave. Certainly its star Jean-Pierre Léaud came to be a poster boy for the movement, reappearing not only as the same character (Antoine Doinel) in subsequent Truffaut films, but as a leading man for a number of other directors who would get their start at the same time (notably Godard in some of his more experimental dissections of film form, for example 1967’s Week End). It tracks the aforementioned Antoine, a troubled youth who rebels against unfeeling teachers and a lumpen proletarian home life. Like many Nouvelle Vague films, there’s little in the plot that’s groundbreaking — it follows familiar coming-of-age paths (though not to the same extent that Godard’s break-out work À bout de souffle cleaved to well-worn generic conventions) — but what remains fresh is the vigour of its vision and its feeling towards its protagonist. It sides with Antoine against establishment forces just as the Nouvelle Vague took on the cinéma de papa of their conservative forebears. I personally prefer Godard’s bold formal provocations, but Truffaut has a warmth of feeling that is of a piece with the other early Criterion selections, many of which exhibit an unflashy generosity and kindness of spirit towards powerless protagonists set apart somewhat from their society. If Renoir is an earlier master of such feeling, then Truffaut is his spiritual heir.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 October 2014)
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.
“God knows where He leads us but we know not the path of our journey.”
— Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)
After he’d got his start in feature filmmaking with À bout de souffle at the age of around 30, Godard maintained a prodigious output, through all his many phases. This film, known variously in the English-language world as My Life to Live or It’s My Life, came just a couple of years after his debut but already he’d made two features and a short film, and his 1960s output would be sustained at two or even three features a year thereafter.
Formally — and, as flagged in its very title, it is very much concerned with form — Vivre sa vie is a provocation. The structure is 12 chapters (“douze tableaux”) which are each set out with an intertitle featuring, as in a screenplay, a description of the setting, but also a laconic précis of what will happen. If this strategy means to flag the film up as a constructed work of fiction, then the viewer is left in no doubt by the distancing tactics in the first scene proper, which presents a conversation between the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) and her husband Paul from the backs of their heads (first hers then, at length, his). It’s a bold aesthetic choice, which is carried through to the rest of the film (and shows up increasingly in Godard’s later films), though it happens we’ve already seen Karina’s face, first in profile, then head on, and then profile from the other direction, beneath the opening credits. It’s a hint that whatever else the film might deal with, it’s above all interested in Karina — yes, at some level with her character Nana, but also Karina as both an actress and as a wife.
Karina was Godard’s first wife and their marriage was quite recent when the film was being made. Indeed, with such a tireless work ethic, it’s no surprise perhaps that the feelings and issues Godard was dealing with in real life should have suffused the films he made. If certain aspects of his use of Karina do not reflect well on his opinion of her — she is one of the first of his central characters to play a prostitute, and far from the last — there’s still plenty of self-criticism too. The men in her life are ineffectual and treat her with barely-suppressed contempt: the final sequence is shocking as much for the off-handedness with which it unfolds as for its outcome. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard hold Karina at the heart of the film and if the narrative keeps the film at a studied distance from the audience, the camera certainly doesn’t do likewise for Nana. She rarely gets the chance to escape the camera’s gaze, in fact — the camera loves her, or at the very least is fascinated by her. In this, she is like Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Dreyer’s great silent film about Joan of Arc shot in disorienting close-up, which Nana goes to watch in a cinema. At the same time, she is in a sense trapped (as a character into prostitution, as an actor by the camera) — during the sixth ‘chapter’, shortly after falling into prostitution, Karina/Nana looks directly at the camera with a haunted look. Like Joan, Nana is a doomed icon, filmed in evanescent black-and-white.
Nana’s move into prostitution is never precisely explained — she asks several people early in the film if she can borrow 2000 francs, she is seen running from her landlords, and speaks of getting work as an actress — but ultimately the prostitution theme seems more a part of Godard’s interest in commodification. The quotations he uses and the narrative influences he takes (Brecht is only the most prominent in this film) just foreshadow his later decisive move into overtly political filmmaking (his late-60s and 70s work engages with a Marxist-Leninist dialectic). It’s all part of the society Godard is analysing, where Nana becomes a chattel traded amongst men just like the records she’s seen selling early on in the film. Her status as object is in some ways not just a thematic concern but is integrated into the very formal and visual strategies the film adopts, not just the Brechtian distancing of the chapter headings, but also Godard’s prominent frontal staging and lateral tracking shots as well as, most notably, his insistence on lighting scenes so as to minimise depth of field — all strategies that would be extended over the decade and can still be perceived, ever more distilled, in Tout va bien ten years later.
Quite aside from these formal and thematic concerns, I think the film stands as a wonderful piece of cinema, with Karina’s gaze having since become an iconic image of the French nouvelle vague. There’s still a freshness and enthusiasm to the performances that belies the very rigid ways in which the camera moves, though even here Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography has never been more beautiful. For me, in many ways, Vivre sa vie stands as the film in which the formal concerns that would come to dominate Godard’s later period are merged most easily with his pulp influences to produce a film that remains a wonderfully invigorating piece of cinema that stands up 50 years later.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina | Length 83 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013)
My Rating a must-see
Next Up: For me, Godard’s most formally ambitious film of his early phase is Le Mépris (1963), a reflection on the nature of filmmaking itself, featuring international stars and a spectacular use of widescreen colour compositions, but retaining an appropriately Olympian detachment that makes it difficult to love wholeheartedly.
This post was written for the Debuts Blogathon jointly organised and hosted by Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back (and can be read there with comments). Aside from presenting my thoughts on the film, in this case the debut of French director Jean-Luc Godard, it attempts to answer the questions they posed about “how your director of choice’s first feature has impacted on their work. How have their subsequent films fared against their debut? Have they improved or steadily declined over subsequent features?”
There were, in 1960, certain ways of making feature films wherever you were in the world, methods that had been built up over the preceding half-century of filmmaking and which continue to endure to this day in mainstream cinema. The key thing about this debut film from young French film critic Jean-Luc Godard is that few of these methods were followed, though such rulebreaking might have had less effect had the film not also been an enjoyable pulpy retrofitting of familiar American imagery. One of Godard’s famous aphorisms, which he attributes to D.W. Griffith, is that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and here indeed there’s a girl (Patricia, played by the American Jean Seberg) and a gun, generally wielded by gangster Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo). He’s on the run, she hooks up with him: that’s all you really need to know about the plot.
Referencing pulpy B-movies from the States was part of a deliberate strategy by a number of like-minded French critics making their first films all at the same time, loudly rebelling against the staid cinema of their fathers’ generation. This movement became acclaimed as the nouvelle vague (or ‘French New Wave’), and if François Truffaut gained a lot of early attention for his Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), it’s Godard who set out a lot of what made this New Wave memorable and which define its lasting legacy. In his films in particular you can see a youthful passion for cinema combined with formal innovations showing a blatant disregard for classical techniques, often informed by a self-consciously revolutionary politics. Even in this very first film of Godard’s can be seen a lot of what would later come to dominate his style.
First let’s talk politics. Not party politics (of which there’s plenty as Godard gets older), but la politique des auteurs. That phrase translates as “the policy of authors” in French, but the common translation of the term in the English language has been “the auteur theory”, thanks to Andrew Sarris’s writings from the 1960s onwards. It was a critical idea of Truffaut’s that helped to shape the way that the New Wave first developed, as a director-focused movement, but I think its value has been overstated. In many ways it’s a provocation like the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars von Trier (and others), a way of focusing attention and signalling a change in methods from the mainstream. It has also helped to focus critical attention on the French New Wave, though similar changes in filmmaking practice were taking hold in various parts of the world at the same time, whether the Italy of Antonioni and Pasolini, or the American films of John Cassavetes.
The “auteur theory” is alluring for Godard’s films in particular, which often seem like such personal expressions, but even in this very first film he liked to expose the mechanics of filmmaking. It starts here with Michel addressing the camera directly as if the audience is a passenger in the car he’s driving. There’s also a sequence later on when Michel and Pauline are walking and talking down the Paris streets, and all the passers-by can be clearly seen turning and staring at them and the camera. (This scene also neatly illustrates both the simple energy of just capturing a spontaneous and improvised scene directly — an energy that suffuses the film as a whole — but also the technical changes in filmmaking that had in part opened up the way for the nouvelle vague, as smaller and more portable cameras became available.) Only a few years later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would kick off the film by showing the cameraman Raoul Coutard backed up by his crew dollying down a track filming the actors while Godard read out the credits, and this kind of breaking of the fourth wall would become a regular feature of his films.
Not unrelated is Godard’s habit for improvising dialogue. The script here is credited to Truffaut — and there was creative input too from Claude Chabrol (another critic and nascent filmmaker) — but that script was only apparently the outline of the film. The scenes as they play in the film were as often scribbled out by Godard himself, shortly before filming took place, and this would often be his method in future. Yet this personal inspiration (that of the auteur) is one that draws heavily on other texts and influences. There’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t quote the American cinema he so loved — whether it’s Michel standing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), tracing his fingers around his lips as he imagines Bogart to do, or mimicking Debbie Reynolds’ melodramatic mugging in Singin’ in the Rain as he sits around Patricia’s apartment. These are just two examples, though. There are many more allusions to Hollywood movies, and it’s a habit that Godard would only extend, taking influences and presenting decontextualised quotations from film and literature like a magpie, until eventually entire films of his (such as Histoire(s) du cinéma) become playful interrogations of sources. Godard, more than most directors, has always remained a critic.
This first film also exposes some common techniques and themes that Godard liked to use. There are those long-takes of characters talking that do away with the classical shot-reverse shot construction, so here you have Patricia questioning Michel in the car while you hear his replies from off-screen. There are the sequence shots of couples in cramped domestic spaces bickering about meaningless topics, trying to escape one another (and the film’s frame), but never succeeding. There’s the fecklessness of male desire, and its betrayal by women — it’s interesting in this regard that Patricia was explicitly noted by Godard as an extension of Seberg’s character Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse, another young woman isolated in a world of unconstrained chauvinist desire (and she’s great in both films). Yet if there’s often in Godard’s films a self-important male figure (like Jean-Pierre Melville’s author at a press conference near the end) espousing generalisations about women, it’s also often accompanied and set in juxtaposition to lacerating self-critique (Godard himself plays an informer in the film). And I haven’t even mentioned the famous jump cuts.
But in 1960 none of this would mean very much if it was just another young director showing off his Brechtian or cineaste credentials, as so many like to do. The point is that around this time there weren’t any mainstream filmmakers doing this stuff. Sure, there were occasional isolated examples of these techniques beforehand, but for Godard (as for like-minded young directors of the era such as Cassavetes) it was just the way he made films. It shows most of all in the looseness and jazzy rhythms of this debut, more akin to documentary than to feature films of the period. Godard would extend his interests as his career progressed, becoming ever more esoteric as his meaning became more opaque, but he was never more accessible than in this first, exciting despatch from the front lines of a new wave.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director Jean-Luc Godard | Writer François Truffaut | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 1997 (and several times since, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: Moving forward a couple of years, I will look at Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (1962), an ever more Brechtian assemblage of beautiful women (Anna Karina) and the exploitative crassness of capitalism.