The first part of our massive, two-season Jean-Luc Godard retrospective — spanning the French New Wave master's "Golden Age" from his epochal debut Breathless to the apocalyptic nightmare of Weekend — comprises perhaps the most innovative, influential and revolutionary body of work in all of cinema.
"Practically no other director, with the exception of Bresson, can match Godard's record of making only films that are unmistakably and uncompromisingly their author's.... The qualities that make Godard, unlike Bresson, a culture hero (as well as, like Bresson, one of the major artists of the age), are precisely his prodigal energies, his evident risk-taking, the quirky individualism of his mastery of a corporate, drastically commercialized art." — Susan Sontag
"Cinema is not a reflection of reality, it's the reality of that reflection." — Jean-Luc Godard
Indisputably the most influential living filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard radically transformed cinema the way other masters of modernism — Joyce, Schoenberg, Picasso, and Brecht — altered the course of their respective arts. There is probably no more innovative or consequential body of work in cinema than the fifteen features presented in this first installment of our Godard retrospective: one can trace their effect in everything from the Brazilian Cinema Nôvo movement to the nocturnes of Leos Carax, the abstract romances of Hal Hartley, and the hip cinephilic fictions of Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-wai.
Godard's themes and formal innovations can be endlessly catalogued and analyzed, but as with Bresson and Mizoguchi (two masters he revered), his films are in the end ineffable, even primal in their beauty. (Is there anything more stirring and lovely than the palindromic pans in the barnyard Mozart sequence of Weekend?) Half a century later, the genius and sheer exhilaration of their form is undiminished: the riffy, discursive rhythms and stuttering montage; the free-form black and white and retina-ripping primary colours of Raoul Coutard's cinematography; the fragmented, polyphonic soundtracks, their uncued bursts of music and voice amplifying the visual pow of the ads, texts and intertitles, the cars, guns, and consumer goods that swarm the screen as in a Rosenquist mural. One senses that Godard was drawn to CinemaScope not just for its affinities with his beloved 1950s American cinema (see this season's sidebar of Hollywood Classics for evidence), but also because it allowed him to stuff more signs, slogans, faces and products, more things and thoughts into its elongated frame.
Godard's modernist eye found in traditional forms not transparency or inevitability, but encoded structures and hidden meanings which he was determined to uncover and analyze in his own work. (His characteristically brusque assertion that "between Chardin and Braque, there is not so much difference" picked up on Diderot and Proust's prescient hints in recognizing the proto-Cubism of Chardin's still lifes.) Drawing on Brecht's principles of alienation and distancing, his films of the sixties opened a gap between the work of art and its spectator. "The camera is not only a reproducing apparatus," he claimed. "The cinema is not an art that films life: the cinema is something between art and life." Where traditional cinema conceals that "betweenness" with seamless narratives, unobtrusive editing, narrative closure, and consistency of tone and point of view, Godard's cinema confronts the spectator with its status as a mediator and a construction — or, as Jean-Paul Belmondo states in the early short Charlotte et son Jules, "Le cinéma est un art illusoire." Even in his comparatively conventional first feature, Breathless, Godard draws the viewer's attention to the process of narration and the nature of filmic language with his now legendary "jump cuts" and self-aware manipulation of film genre.
Breathless' jokey tone, nonchalant violence, airy, seemingly improvised images and extempore dialogue dense with references — to Picasso, Baudelaire, Velázquez, Faulkner, and any number of films (by Preminger, Melville, Renoir et al.) — announced Godard's mode and mood: collagist and ironic, freewheeling and erudite, irreverently conflating high and low art through allusion, citation, and homage. (The film's very title, À bout de souffle, conjures its excitable style.) More than a smart-ass show of knowingness, Godard's cannonade of quotes reflected his love of literature (learned from his mother), his immersion in art history, and his cinephilia, nurtured at Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque française and at Cahiers du Cinéma, where Godard was a critic for many years. Ironically, even as his films drew from such "debased" sources as pulp fiction, advertising, B-movies and contemporary pop culture, Godard's juxtapositions worked to place cinema on the same level as the more exalted and traditional arts. More important, his allusions subsumed (or consumed) the world in cinema's omnivorous maw. Life existed only to be filmed, film existed to become (or replace) life. "All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun," Godard proclaimed, and that he first encountered his successive wives and leading ladies Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky as images — in an advertisement and a film, respectively — before he met, married, and cast them in his own films (along with the guns) further reinforces this transference between art and life.
Following the critical and commercial success of Breathless, Godard veered from the political (his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, was banned in France, and its soundtrack still carries signs of censorship) to Demyfied artifice (the musical spectacle of Une femme est une femme), from Brechtian analytics (the tableaux structure of Vivre sa vie) to Rossellinian pedagogy (the stinging, Rossellini-penned anti-war satire Les Carabiniers). In all these works, Godard's vision seemed to make no moral distinction between film and "reality," its only object being what he insistently called "truth" (which, tautologically, seemed to mean "cinema"). Godard has said he rejects "factual" cinema, based on historical events, as uninteresting (citing the "docu-fictions" of Costa-Gavras as an example), and calls "true history" that which takes into account the history of cinema. While his more recent critiques of Steven Spielberg and Christian Boltanski for their artistic uses of the Holocaust indicate a more orthodox (more mature?) moral sense, his determination to conflate the history of the twentieth century and the history of cinema — simultaneous in the word histoire, as in the title of his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinéma — still bespeaks his foundational belief that the two are inseparable.
As Godard's cinema thus increasingly dissolved divisions into dialectics — rupturing traditional distinctions between realism and abstraction, documentary and fiction, film criticism and filmmaking, essay and narrative, personal and political, sociology and aesthetics — his cinephilia sometimes settled uneasily with his ever more insistent references to topical politics. Given the charged subjects of Le Petit Soldat (the Algerian war and political assassination) and the film's excruciating scenes of torture (including waterboarding), Godard's cinephilic in-jokes — he named Karina's character "Veronica Dreyer" in honour of the Danish master (and the actress' own Danish heritage), and modelled the film's protagonist on Orson Welles' hero in The Lady from Shanghai — were regarded as misjudged, frivolous, or repugnant by some commentators. Stung by criticism of his anti-war burlesque Les Carabiniers, Godard declared that "Having treated as an improvised farce something for which so many men died, it seems to me that the film fulfills the basic requirements of decency." The offhand banter about the Tutsi massacre in Rwanda in Bande à part is, according to Godard, "a transformation of international politics into the stuff of myth" rather than a protest (as Roland-François Lack has claimed). When Karina and Belmondo attack/entertain a group of American tourists with a skit about the Vietnam War in Pierrot le fou — "Hollywood, YAH! New York, YAH!" bellows Belmondo as he impersonates a drunken, gun-toting US Marine, while Karina cowers from him in curiously geisha-looking "Vietnamese" costume — the broad mockery is as (more?) shocking now as it was then. And Made in USA, which features characters named after Mizoguchi, Richard Widmark, Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel, angered many progressive European critics with its movie-mad ideological insouciance and blithe politics. (Bernardo Bertolucci, reflecting this leftist Puritanism, attacked the film and his one-time idol in his famous essay "Versus Godard.")
Godard's sixties films, inclined to catalogues and compendia in their materialist strategies, tend to elicit comparable lists of themes and images that identify them: prostitution as a metaphor for consumer capitalism; woman as enigma and destroyer; the car as weapon; the differences between men and women, Europe and America, colour and black and white, sound and image; the circulation of images and the circulation of money. Lists of Godard's citations of and allusions to painting, music, film and literature could run to volumes, as would those of his cultural determinants, from Aragon and Brecht to Melville and Proust, Reverdy and Rossellini to Vigo and Zola. (Voluminous also are the echoes and connections between Godard's early films and his late cinema: e.g., the quoting and classicizing of Coutard's inimitable black-and-white cinematography in Éloge de l'amour; the ocean-and-sky endings of Contempt and Pierrot le fou, and similar images in his recent "transcendental" films; the invocations of ethnic massacres in Bande à part and those in The Origins of the 21st Century, For Ever Mozart, and Notre musique; the Cocteau references in Charlotte et son Jules and Alphaville and those in Mozart and King Lear; or the polyglot dialogue, theme of international capital, and rhyming endings in Contempt and Nouvelle Vague.) The enumerative approach is perhaps an artless way into Godard's exhausting and inexhaustible work, but its taxonomic clotheslines also embody the theme of filiation that quite literally "strings" his films together.
Language encompasses all such lists, and Godard's intensifying political sophistication and commitment during the sixties was simultaneous with his investigations into semiotics and linguistics. Paralleling the inquiries of Umberto Eco, Christian Metz, and Roland Barthes, Godard's cinema began to scrutinize the difference between what Metz called "the impression of reality and the perception of reality," entering the gap between the signifier and the signified, between what words and objects are and what they connote. "To see is to deceive," an enigmatic aphorism from one of Godard's later films, Detective, reveals this cardinal concern: our inability to see clearly or correctly because of our inability to comprehend the invisible social and economic structures that determine how and what we see. (When Godard says that we cannot improvise our lives, he does not only mean that spontaneity or naturalness are impossible: he also suggests that no act can be truly willed, nor can it be innocent, given these imperceptible determining forces. Self-mastery is an insidious myth.) So removed or inadherent is the word from the thing or feeling it names, meaning becomes chimerical — or, as Cahiers critic Jean Narboni says in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, "Ce n'est pas réel que nous pensons. C'est un fantôme du réel."
In 2 or 3 Things, a summa of Godard's first period whereas Weekend is its caesura, Marina Vlady's Juliette defines language for her young son: "Language is the home that man lives in." That "home" became increasingly inhospitable for Godard, his pessimistic sense that words are often false or ineffectual, and our power to apprehend therefore impaired or distorted, becoming his sovereign theme. Where he had once taken delight in revealing the lies and alternative meanings, the codes and canards embedded in everyday language, Godard began to reach an impasse, signalled in his whispered narration in 2 or 3 Things — the very muting of a voice indicating its indeterminacy. (But even as he entered a Maoist polemical period after Weekend, finding new surety in a clear and unequivocal language of slogans and harangues, he delighted in cinephilia and word play: in One Plus One, the word "L-O-V-E" is teased out of the title of All About Eve, and is used to name a sequence in which a television crew interviews Wiazemsky's "Eve Democracy.")
Godard's early films reflect the influence of Barthes (and of Situationist guru Guy Debord) not only in their textual play — Weekend finds jouissance even in the midst of atrocity — and vision of Paris as semiotic circus, but in their fascination with the omnipresent signifiers of popular culture: how the structures of everyday life, the language of art, and the formation of individual consciousness are all determined (and deformed) by consumer capitalism. If anything, these films seem more apposite half a century later, when the two corrupt mercenaries of Les Carabiniers would probably be running for election to the US Senate after a stint in Iraq, while our numb culture — malled, wired, and logoed to the max — is not so far from that of 2 or 3 Things, in which, Godard once said, "dead objects are always alive and live people are often already dead." The terminal phrase — fin du cinéma — that concluded Weekend turned out to be less a declaration of cessation or death than a decisive "farewell to all that." As we shall see in the final, immense component of this retrospective next fall, Godard almost immediately embarked on a new phase of filmmaking which led to some of the richest and most beautiful films in his career, increasingly aware of the encroachment of eternity. Godard Forever.
— James Quandt
Thanks to Eric DiBernardo, Rialto Pictures; Sarah Arcache, Consulat general de France à Toronto;
Frédérique Ros, Les Films du Jeudi; Jake Perlin, Film Desk; Laura Argento, Cineteca Nazionale;
Sarah Finklea & Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Florence Almozini, French Embassy – Cultural Services, New York;
Clémentine De Blieck, Cinémathèque royale; Gary Palmucci, Kino Lorber; Linda Duchin, New Yorker Films.