“Jean-Luc Godard: Sans Pareil” (2005)

May 19, 2009 at 6:57 pm (Cinema, French New Wave, Reviews & Articles)

This informative article examining Godard’s work duing his 60s heydey of filmmaking is dated May 1, 2005 and comes from the website A Girl and a Gun. I am not sure who the author of this piece is (I apologize) but I believe it is by the person who ran the site… 


In the early and middle 1960s, when I was young and starting to turn at once mildly hopeful and vaguely pessimistic about the world becoming a better place, there was one event which commanded my attention and that of many of my friends like no other: a new film by Jean-Luc Godard. Since I spent much of that time in Portland, OR, these releases came late, far too long after we’d read the admiration expressed by a handful of sympathetic big-city critics and the dismissals of mainstream jerks, but they were new to us and we leaped. I lost touch with Godard in the mid-1970s, after Tout va bien, when his work had trouble (for political but also commercial reasons) finding US distributors no matter where you were, even New York. But a few months ago, I caught up with the wonderful new one, Notre musique, and then the slightly earlier Eloge d’amour, and thought, he’s still got it, the old magician. I doubt that many young people, whatever their admiration for Godard of today or yesterday, have any sense of the electricity which each new release of roughly 1960-67 sent through his audiences. I didn’t doubt then that those years were the most creative, imaginative, innovative, stimulating, and original run that any director–any director, ever–has enjoyed, and a selective viewing of the releases from those years  has done nothing to change my mind.

It’s important to keep in mind a fact so well-known that it’s sometimes taken for granted: Godard, like several others in the New Wave, came out of a group around the periodical Cahiers du cinéma, and they were all committed to some degree–although few to the extent of Godard–to using film as a tool of cultural criticism with which to examine (and flay) contemporary views on art, politics, sex, social class, anything you cared to mention. Much of Godard’s work sets aside the customary narrative focus of films and devotes itself to this criticism. What keeps it from being off-putting, for the most part, is both the daunting intelligence and curiosity of the man and his always-at-work sense of humor.

His first feature, A bout de souffle (forever Breathless to English-speaking audiences, but more properly Out of Breath, which is what the hero becomes at the end), opened in Paris in March 1960 and achieved instant attention all over the film world not long thereafter. Godard had shot if for about a third of what ordinary French films then cost (perhaps $90,000 in 1960 dollars), he shot it with a skeleton crew, without synched dialogue (that was added in sound mixing), and saw no reason whatsoever to observe the conventional proprieties of editing and narrative presentation. It is the story of Michel, a petty thief who commits a couple of murders, and who runs into Patricia, a young American hanging out in Paris while waiting to start classes at the Sorbonne. Michel stays one step ahead of the cops while trying–successfully–to get Patricia into bed. But Godard is not interested in narrative flow; he wants to get at character and interrelationships, at people who are more interested in themselves than anything else in the world, including each other, and–especially in Michel’s case–who are constantly adjusting their poses and appearance in order to conform with some idealized self. This petty thug famously models himself on Bogart, a cinematic image more real to him than anything in life. Patricia is also trying to find an image that fits, but more distractedly, which leads her to resist and then sleep with Michel, to protect him and then to turn him into the police. 

Godard’s rough cut came in at 135 minutes; his producer insisted on a film at ninety. Out came the scissors, although instead of cutting whole scenes (although that did happen), Godard cut within scenes. Example: someone is walking across a room or down a street; conventionally, the camera follows the movement from one or perhaps two and even three points of view, but always seeking continuity; Godard would begin with the first few steps, then abruptly show a few frames from later on, then just as abruptly the arrival. Thus, from necessity, was born (actually reborn, from silent days) the fabled jump cut. The film made a huge star of Jean-Paul Belmondo, then twenty-six, and owed a little of its popularity to Jean Seberg, who came with pre-packaged pubilicity of her “discovery” by Otto Preminger for a role in Saint Joan and Bonjour, Tristesse. After 45 years, the film is still as fresh, invigorating, and exciting as when I first saw it, and it’s not hard to see how Godard got people to thinking lots of new and different ways about films.

Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier) was ready for release later the same year; but it dealt with the Algerian war for independence, and the resistance of French colonials and colonialists to them, subjects that devoured France at the time the way Vietnam came to dominate American politics from about 1967 until the mid-1970s. The Gaullist censors watched and said, resoundingly, Non! It did not appear on screens until 1963, by which time the Algerian war had achieved a negotiated peace. It tells of a hit man for the pro-colonial side who is operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, and who falls in love with a young woman, a situation which only complicates his professional life. There are cool, candid scenes of torture–perhaps the number one issue in the political debate over the war–long monologues, profuse quotations from various literary and philosophical sources, and like most of Godard’s films from these years, a death at the end. I have always liked Le petit soldat and found a viewing after nearly thirty-five years rewarding; the film has life and energy and stays just far enough outside the political thriller conventions to be interesting. It’s also his first film with Anna Karina, the Danish model with whom he fell in love, married, and helped into a brilliant but all too brief screen career. 

For someone so rigorously intellectual, politically serious, and high-minded about the functions of cinema, it’s amusing to watch Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman), which came out in 1961 and was Godard’s tip of the hat and poke in the ribs at romantic musical comedy. Karina is a young wife who wants a child, but whose husband, Jean-Claude Brialy, is reluctant. To get him off the dime, she starts cultivating the interest of Belmondo, and with a lot of delicate playing and teasing, it works. There is singing, dancing, and all manner of charming silliness, with no hint whatsoever at anything adjoining reality: these are actors performing in front of a camera, that and not the illusion is the truth. Although Godard had wanted to shoot in a real Parisian apartment (a rather plain and drab one, as appropriate to the couple’s circumstances), he was finally forced to build a set. But while sets meant control and the possibility of making the scenes “real,” Godard recorded the sounds of the crew moving about and left them in the finished film. A film impossible to dislike.

Then, of course (and by this time we should have seen it coming), a sharp turn in 1962: Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, although I think Living Her Life is a little closer). This is the harrowing story, “in twelve scenes,” of a young Parisian who has little economic choice but to go into prostitution. She is wretchedly unworldly, gullible when she should be skeptical, trusting when she should have her guard up, taking financially motivated favors for generosity, gradually losing her grip on anything like control of her life. The black-and-white photography is unlike anything I had seen to that point: with a clarity, power, and extraordinary compositions by Raoul Coutard, who had begun working with Godard in A bout de souffle and soon became nearly as famous. Karina has by this point gone from charming to a talented actress, and her portrait of deterioration–at which she never ceases to be astonished–is abundantly moving. 

Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen, 1963) lulls us into thinking we’re watching a spoof of war movies, and perhaps of waritself. Michelangelo and Ulysses are a couple of witless peasants who leave their girlfirends, Cleopatra and Venus, to join up in a war which a distinct Orwellian aroma–two undefined sides fighting over undefined issues and objectives. Off they go, and gradually we see, in large part from newsreel and other documentary footage, some of the reality of war. There is senseless carnage and endless destruction aplenty, but eventually the guys return home, not exactly victorious, but exuberant with their experience as it is encapsulated in a huge stack of picture postcards they sent home. This famous sequence is put on with enormous imagination and humor, as the men show their women all the famous sights they have seen or claim to have seen–the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, St. Peter’s Square, museums, natural wonders, and so forth. We realize that these prefabricated images which are so immediate to them are like so many images–lies of real experience–meaning that the documentary footage we saw earlier falls into the same category. Images cannot capture the vicious brutality of war; only experience, unmediated by art of an attempt to create enjoyment. Suddenly, Les Carabiniers becomes a new film.

Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) was Godard’s first comparatively big budget production. He was by now an international brand name of sorts, and Sam Levine put him to work. The story was about a screenwriter with political and aesthetic principles who compromises them to get work with a philistine American producer, and in the process earns the contempt of his wife. A fair chunk of the money went into the contract for Brigitte Bardot as the wife. It may be difficult for younger people to appreciate what a presence BB was in the early ’60s; nobody has dominated the media since to such an extent unless it was Princess Diana in the ’90s. It so happened that she was a neighbor of Godard and Karina in the chi-chi Paris 16th arrondissement and agreed to work with him. Bad idea. She immediately began playing star, late on the set, pissy about her lines, in short a royal pain in the ass. To make matters worse, that great, great American actor Jack Palance, who played the producer, decided that Godard had no idea how to make a film and refused to speak to him for most of the shooting, although Godard spoke near-perfect English. Le Mépris never works very well for very long, but there is a marvelous scene in the couple’s apartment where, for about twenty minutes, we get a complete rehearsal and visualization of how the marriage has unraveled, thread by thread. Fritz Lang plays the famous German director Fritz Lang who has been hired to direct the film, and who, having seen it all, acts as something of a Greek chorus on the insanities of movie-making and how–maybe–something like art can be salvaged from the process. When Levine saw the rough cut, he blew a gasket: there were no nude scenes of Bardot. Godard got her back together with the crew and filmed some, then pasted them onto the beginning and end, where they seemed to turn the most famous derrière on earth into a joke. Henceforth, Godard went back to low-rent but autonomous filmmaking.

He seems to have felt reinvigorated, for next came the masterpiece Bande à part (1964), a lovely little piece about two film-mad young men who are always looking for the easy franc. They are casing the suburban house where they think riches dangle ripe for the mere plucking, and they enlist the reluctant support of the lovely but insecure and even rather gawky girl who works there. She finds herself drawn to them–literally: in one remarkable scene she runs through the entire suburban neighborhood to be with them, and we understand how much she thinks she needs them to complete her, for all her misgivings about their project. It’s not really a caper film, but a film about “outsiders” and how they got that way, how they are with each other, how they bumble forward but also backward. There is lots of conversation, many monologues, but we pick up their internal dynamics through one stunning moment when they dance to a cafe jukebox. The dance is called “The Madison,” Godard dubiously claimed to have invented it, and it is one of the most charming and subtly revealing passages in his work. Predictably, one of the characters comes to a tragic end, although there are flickers of a possibility of romantic escape as well.

I have always found Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), a day-in-the-life film, and Alphaville (1965), sci-fi/noir mélange, to be rather labored and a little abstract. They have moments of sharp images and telling, funny comments, but moments only, at least for me. I think Godard may have been marking time, throwing stuff up on the wall to see if anything stuck, trying to find his way out of a dead end. This sense is, again for me, reaffirmed by Pierrot le fou (1965), which seems to have been intended as a sort of summing up of where he’d been in the last five years, and which indeed Godard himself described as: “A little soldier who discovers with contempt that one must live one’s life, that a woman is a woman and that in a new world one must live as an outsider in order not to find oneself breathless.” The earlier themes are here–freedom, death, the centrality of film–along with the quotations and speeches and the inescapability of suffocating from imposed events beyond one’s control. Here, Vietnam has finally replaced Algeria and there is an air of pessimism which extends beyond the fact of death at the end. Narrative has become even less important: Belmondo plays a married man bored senseless at a party of advertising people who runs away to Karina, a former girlfriend,  who may–I say may–have killed a man (someone is reponsible for that dead body in her apartment). They steal a car and set off for the south of France, pursued by bad guys of uncertain provenance, but this is no thriller or melodrama. Godard is building atmosphere, charging the environment with darkness and hopelessness, creating moods which cannot be shaken by story line, and he’s immensely talented at it. I remember people coming out of the theater forty years ago saying, What the hell was that all about?” I could only answer, inadequately, it was about itself, it was about what you saw taken all together. Can’t do much better now. 

If Pierrot le fou was about where he’d come from, Masculin féminin (1966) pointed out some new directions. It is in fifteen scenes populated by young people roughly ten years Godard’s juniors (he was now thirty-six), and deals with their preoccupations with pop culture but also politics, sex but also how to live life decently. There’s no narrative here, just interviews and conversations and monologues designed to bring forth all sorts of information from which we can draw our conclusions (“make of it what you will” in the words of another intertitle). Roger Ebert (who as a young man “saw” Godard more clearly than most big-city newspaper critics)  has pointed out that while the film’s most famous intertitle is, “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” he thinks much of its sense lies in another line, “We went seeking greatness in movies, and were most often disappointed. We waited for a movie like the one we wanted to make, and secretly wanted to live.” I think that’s this movie, and I think its a masterwork.

I didn’t bother watching Made in U.S.A. (1966) or 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her,1967), both of which left me cool at the time and which re-viewings ten years later did nothing to improve. Similarly with La Chinoise (1967). Most of the film is conversation amongst a group of French students, and the conversation is fascinating, earnest, thoughtful, but its connection to real-world possibilities hard to find. There is more than a whiff of agitprop to this film, although Godard remained just independent enough to annoy French Maoist intellectuals of the period (not actually a difficult feat). Incidentally, the marriage to Karina, which was all but unsalvageable in 1965, had by now ended, although she worked with him up through Made in U.S.A. Godard’s gargantuan tempers, his epic jealousy, and his moodiness had become impossible, divorce unavoidable. La Chinoise starred his latest romantic interest, Anne Wiazemsky, not yet twenty, whom he married after the film’s release. 

Later the same year, Godard brought out Weekend, a film with its own burden of agitprop, but which I also regard as one of his greatest works. The long tracking shot near the opening of a gigantic traffic jam composed of numerous wrecks is as pungent a statement as I have seen of how the end of urban capitalist society might be imagined. But that society has actually been coming apart from the very opening shots and it continues to degnerate into banditry, terrorism, and even cannibalism at the very end. It’s a grim, but still wildly funny–madcap, screwball funny, perhaps the only kind of funny that one could stand in such a world–view of the end of civilization as we know it, and there’s little evidence that Godard regrets its demise.

After Sympathy for the Devil in 1968, the politics more or less took over the films instead of being one of the areas he was exploring. Producers shied off, and even when they were lured out of the bushes by stars like Yves Montand and Jane Fonda inTout Va Bien (1973), audiences kept their distance. It was on to the really low-budget productions, digital filmmaking, and any number of other experiments. He hasn’t stopped, and I think we’re the better for it. Still, there’s been nothing like those early years, that burst of creativity and energy and joy–even with all the deaths, even with all the gloom–he gave us. I haven’t seen and don’t expect to see anything like it again in my lifetime, and you probably shouldn’t either. There have been many great directors, but early Godard was the one indispensable one. 

P.S.  Invaluable resource: Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artis at Seventy (2003).  MacCabe knows Godard, although there as been some separation recently, but worked with him on a number of films in the digital period, and provides a huge amount of information and insight, both personal and artistic.


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