[Originally published in The Weekly, March 11, 1981]
A conversation early in the new film by Jean-Luc Godard:
“Is it a novel, this project you’re working on?”
“No, but maybe it could be.”
“Maybe it should be a new type of serial—how things really are.”
“It wouldn’t work around here.”
The thing about Godard movies is, he’s always talking to us. Talking to us about himself, talking to us about us, talking to us about talking to us. We don’t think about this all the time because movies are seductive, even movies that work to be analytical and disjunctive and Brechtian, and we get drawn along by the beauty of the images and the movement of things via 24 still pictures per second. But every once in a while we snap into recognition that we’re on the other end of a cinematic conversation.
Like that moment in Band of Outsiders (1964), a wacky, funny-sad romantic comedy about three young Parisians who like gangster movies and musicals, and decide they’re going to rob an isolated mansion where one of them, the girl, works. Except of course the movie dithers around a lot while they take English lessons and do a solemn softshoe in a juke bar and break the world’s speed record for touring the Louvre — and suddenly they’re on this train. The girl starts to sing a love song that turns into a ballad of loneliness. The screen fills with luminous nocturnal images of the city, streets, windows, pedestrians, the long glowworm of the train sliding toward the suburbs. Then the girl is onscreen again and she looks right into the camera and sings the last line of the song, something like “My heart goes out to all of you,” and suddenly you feel as big as the night sky and as vulnerable as a newborn child. Part of it is that the whole movie has been building on this theme without getting explicit about it. Part of it is that the girl is beautiful and fragile and brave, and also Anna Karina, the director’s wife, who’s essentially looking at him the same time she’s looking at us. And part of it is that Karina is speaking for Godard, who could never make this declaration of love and caring in person, but makes it and means it, through her and through his glorious film.
Godard’s whole career has been about the search to speak truly and, cinematically, to be be truly. This led him, as the most prolific and idiosyncratic of the so-called French New Wave filmmakers, to virtually reinvent the art of the cinema while employing it as a form of intellectual autobiography. It would also lead him away from movies and the concept of personal authorship when his political theorizing convinced him that such things were hopelessly bourgeois and retrograde: at the conclusion of the apocalyptic Week-end (1967) he literally wrote “FIN DU CINEMA,” and gave himself over to a series of hectoring documents he himself termed “cine-tracts.” He is one of our great originals and he could not entirely eradicate his identity (these works were co-realized with Jean-Pierre Gorin and credited to “the Dziga-Vertov group”): his eye and ear remained acute, hungry for color, texture, concrete sound amid the verbal rant, and the inquiries into form and its ideological implications were often penetrating and instructive. But there were to be no more radiant moments like Anna on the train, or even Jean-Pierre Léaud as a radical activist in La Chinoise (1967) saying into the flat affect of the new Mme. Godard, Anne Wiazemsky, “I speak to you in feelings and you answer me with words.” The revolution was above such hurtful ambiguities.
The revolution maybe, but not Godard, not indefinitely. No other filmmaker, save perhaps Roberto Rossellini, has ever had such an omnivorous appetite for art and reality. The hero of Pierrot le fou (1965) speaks of a work of art into which one could somehow cram absolutely everything: “Joyce had a go at it, but it should be possible to do more.” Pierrot le fou is Godard’s doing-more: gangster movie, doomed love story, primary-color comic strip, Laurel & Hardy knockabout, and running disquisition on the arts — as in its opening sequence, when Jean-Paul Belmondo is heard reading (in the bathtub to his little daughter, as it turns out) an appreciation of Velázquez’s use of space and color, while Antoine Duhamel’s music and Godard’s images of Paris rapturously translate the theories of one medium into the reality of another — film. And that, among other things, is why, in the new Godard film, a character who works in video is willing to liken her project to a novel that may be a journalistic serial, and why Godard’s own credit on the movie reads: “A film composed by Jean-Luc Godard.”
So OK, what’s it about? Well, gee, the way we live now. Isolated gestures and absurd accidents. Seeing things fragmentarily because we’re part of the whole. The flow of motion that is really a series of stationary stops. Stationary stops that can’t tell us the truth because they’re part of a flow. Watching scenes through the gaps as a train roars by. Hearing music where there’s only noise, except there’s music, too. Taking part in a process of coincidence and convergence that we insist on seeing as an unfolding story though maybe it’s just a bunch of things that are going on. Knowing you’re not dying because, although you’ve been knocked down in the street in a preposterous accident, your life isn’t flashing in front of your eyes and you’ve been assured — it’s narrative, after all — that that’s a necessary condition of dying.
Very well, pretend it’s a story. This fellow named Godard — Paul Godard, that is (played by Jacques Dutronc) — is involved in video. (J-LG’s last previous “film,” Numéro deux, was made in video in 1975; it has never been distributed in this country.) He’s also been involved for the past two years with a colleague named Denise (Nathalie Baye), who is calling a halt to their affair. Standing in line outside a cinema, where a guy is walking around screaming, “They’ve turned off the sound!” he is picked up by a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who will later answer the ad to take over his and Denise’s apartment. Paul and Denise do various video things and have encounters, together and separately, with the world of modern Switzerland in which they live. (Godard — Jean-Luc — was reared in Switzerland and has chosen to cast the second beginning of his film career there.) Isabelle has some brushes with pimps, tricks for a couple of businessmen with hilariously programmatic sexual scenarios, helps a new girl get started in the life. Every once in a while, somebody asks, “What is that music I hear?” and long after we’ve assumed we aren’t going to find out, we do.
Now that I’ve told you that, do you know more than you did before you asked? Well, don’t worry. “When you don’t know something, you can get more interested in it, even become passionate about it.” Or, as Marguerite Duras put it, “The spoken word creates the silence which surrounds the text.” Or, as Paul and Jean-Luc Godard have it, “I make movies because I lack the strength to do nothing.”
This is a very provocative film. It doesn’t soothe, doesn’t beguile, doesn’t provide answers but instead makes you ask, or listen to, questions you’d never have thought of if this film didn’t exist. All right. I’ll give you one more “about”: it’s about changing the rhythms of life. And that means it’s about a change in the rhythms of Jean-Luc Godard’s life. He’s back, he’s 50 years old now, he almost died in a road accident and he almost died by political and aesthetic self-immolation. He’s still very very good, and no one else can do what he does, and he still wants to talk to us. Our lives are richer for it.
Copyright © 1981 by Richard T. Jameson