I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades 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)
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)
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).
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 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.