"For The Love of Godard," a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, plays April 16-27 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
“Un film en train de se faire,” proclaims the opening text of Jean-Luc Godard’s fourteenth film, La Chinoise, in his now-famous, primary-colored font. A film in the making. Or a film being made? Any way one translates this, it is meant to convey itself as a film of the moment. This is clear in a social context, dealing as it does with college-age characters forming a small Maoist revolution (a band of outsiders, if you will) and plotting an assassination. These were very current topics in 1967, so much so that many see in it a prophecy for the May ‘68 student protests that temporarily shut down the French government.
But it is also a film of Godard’s moment. His films - more than almost any other filmmaker of his stature - reflect his interests, concerns, and desires right at the moment of their making. Not a few months before, let alone a few years. There are no “passion projects” that he lobbies for years or decades to complete. He sees what is before him, on the day, and shoots that. Famously, his working method often involves scripting scenes the morning they are to be shot. This began with his frantic desperation during Breathless, his first film, and he never found cause to change. Then he edits to what he wants in the moment of editing.
Because of this method, you can track the evolution - or at least waves - within his filmography. In Breathless, politics are almost entirely absent; if anything, his robber-with-a-heart-of-gold is a bit fascist. It’s a film about film, about making your first film, about making your first film in Paris. It’s about excitement. The first cut ran at least two-and-a-half hours; he cut everything that didn’t excite him. So he lost some story along the way, who cares? It’s still one of the most electric films ever made.
Along with waves, you can also track contradictions, and Godard certainly does not shy away from them. Despite his frequent depictions of political speeches, the films are unsettled, forever at odds with themselves. Late in La Chinoise, Véronique (Godard’s then-wife Anne Wiazemsky) shares a train ride with Francis Jeanson (who was actually Wiazemsky’s philosophy professor just before the film was made). The actress is wearing an earpiece, through which Godard feeds her arguments in favor of armed revolt. In the late 1950s, Jeanson aided the Algerians in their quest for independence from France, and consequently doesn’t see Véronique’s (Godard’s?) quest leading anywhere. To most viewers, especially modern ones, it is obvious Jeanson has the better, more well-rounded, moral argument. Godard allegedly thought he won at the time. But the fact of its presentation overwhelms Godard’s intent.
Contradiction is inherent to Godard’s work. In Band of Outsiders (screening with Breathless on April 21), two men try to enact the gangster movies they watch by robbing their rich female friend’s house. This violent impulse leads to more violence, until they’ve tied up their mutual love interest and are ready to kill. They’ve treated her horribly throughout the film, and Godard’s misogyny is fully on display throughout. But especially towards the end of the film, it is evident how miserable that misogyny makes everybody. Yet it ends romantically, with promise of a CinemaScope/Technicolor tropic-set sequel that never got made. This contradicts the misery we had seen, but does it erase it? I don’t know. Perhaps Godard doesn’t either. Perhaps it’s up to you. Perhaps the question doesn’t exist. “Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?” one of the men asks, minutes before its conclusion. A film never really does either.
One year later, Godard made Pierrot le fou, a CinemaScope/color tropic-set film about a man and woman who run away together and make each other miserable to the point of explosive suicide. Maybe that sequel did get made after all (if you haven’t seen the film, you may be compelled by its presence on this year’s Cannes Film Festival poster). At the moment of Band of Outsiders, his marriage to Anna Karina, the film’s female star, was falling apart, yet perhaps he hoped for reconciliation. By the time of Pierrot le fou, they were divorced.
That was only a year. It might be a shock for viewers to see all that can change in three years. The six films Godard made between Band of Outsiders and La Chinoise chart a pretty telling narrative, in which he gradually leaves behind the cinema as both a subject and a traditional form. His growing political awareness seemed to push him further from movies, though the tension between the two was never stronger than during this period and shortly thereafter.
Today, it is April of 2018. Our country remains in rather poor shape on so many fronts. Sometimes, the escape of the movies can feel like a retreat, a place to hide when we should be fighting. Godard faced a similar reality working in 1967, and was self-conscious around more committed activists, some of whom viewed him as a tool of the bourgeoisie, concerned only with aesthetics and not with the real social and political concerns of the day. He did not hide this tension in his films - he ran at it, confronting the potential contradictions in his two lives, perhaps hopeful he could reconcile the two.
In Made in U.S.A (1966), Anna Karina is living out a gangster narrative that keeps getting interrupted by political figures - or perhaps she’s uncovering a corruption scandal and gets getting interrupted by gangsters. In La Chinoise (1967), one character’s defection from the rebellion is in part initiated by his defense of Johnny Guitar, a film Jean-Luc Godard deeply loved that pops up repeatedly in his films of the period (it’s a reason to miss a shift in Pierrot le fou). In Weekend (1968; screening April 27 with Vivre sa vie), film titles like Battleship Potemkin and The Searchers are used as radio signals - cinema is either the last hope of connection, or an annoying intrusion. In Le Gai savoir (1969), Emile (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is introduced with a story of how a copy of Cahiers du cinema literally saved his life by absorbing a bullet he took at a protest. It’s an intensely political film, but perhaps film is the final lifesaver in a political life.
A film in the making. Or a film being made? Do the two translations mean the same thing? If not, which was Godard trying to emphasize? For English speakers approaching his work, this adds an added layer of complication to a filmmaker obsessed with the difficulty language presents. In Goodbye to Language (already its title indicates the hopelessness of communication), sound recordings spike and pens scratch noisily against paper. Josette (Héloïse Godet) suggests we’ll all need translators if we’re to ever understand each other. Not for any language barrier, but simply to communicate what we’re trying to say.
This echoes a conversation Anna Karina has with the philosopher Brice Parain in Vivre sa vie. She expresses frustration - almost contempt - for the fact she has to speak at all, noting that the words she chooses never seem to add up the way she wants them to. He acknowledges that difficulty, but points out that words are required not just for speech - which is required in life for those who are able to give it - but also for thought. He then suggests that one only really learns how to speak after one renounces life for awhile. “So to speak is fatal?” she asks (recalling, for contemporary viewers, the question in Call Me By Your Name - “Is it better to speak or to die?”). He simply notes that to live speaking is different than to live without speaking, and one must see both ways - not just go through periods of silence, as we all must, but to go through periods without thought, as thought is only rendered in words, which is no different from speaking. In many ways, our thinking life is just organizing words for when we’ll next speak.
Around the time of La Chinoise (the precise time depicted in the new Michel Hazanavicius film Godard mon amour), Godard was unsure that cinema, like words, could ever communicate what needed to be said. Interviews with him suggest he was at odds with his chosen form - having made fourteen films in eight years, perhaps he was simply exhausted by it. Speaking at a university, he said, “But now since everybody agrees that a director is an author...we have to go further. And in my opinion, a movie today is no longer a piece of art. We have to look at it a different way.” When asked what that different way is, he says, “Well, I don’t know, because I have not found it.” Later, he tries to pin it on the issue of drama, that if he can get away from that without abandoning narrative, he’ll really have found something.
What does it mean, then, that Weekend is intensely focused on drama? Well, he admitted the possibility, saying, “It is clear that a film like La Chinoise is just a moment in my existence. In three years, I won’t be making the same film.” Not only are people at physical and emotional odds with one another in nearly every scene, it has a very clear dramatic throughline - a bourgeois couple eager to see her father die and collect the inheritance - and a few scenes of straight melodrama (most notably, an intense therapy session in which the woman recounts an erotic encounter). Well, another contradiction I suppose. “Okay,” says Godard in the aforementioned interview. “There is a contradiction, and what of it?” La Chinoise introduces itself as “A film in the making.” Weekend begins as “A film adrift in the cosmos.” The only place to go is with the title card that famously ends Weekend - “FIN DE CINEMA.” Sure enough, Le Gai savoir concludes similarly - “This film is not the film that needs to be made. But how, if we have a film to make, we necessarily have to go through the well-known paths of films.”
Is Goodbye to Language the film that needed to be made? It came out just after the peak of the 3D movement, premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival a few months after Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki won Oscars for directing and shooting the 3D wonder Gravity. Yet for many viewers, myself included, Goodbye to Language is the more beautiful, exciting, and certainly adventurous work, truly embracing the separate fields of vision that are projected before us. It’s a film that shows Godard - then 84 years old - still hungry, still curious to make that film that needs to be made, yet still operating by instinct, perhaps on whims. It’s a ravishing experience and pretty near a masterpiece, but Godard’s very working method denies the possibility of ever fully realizing one’s vision. His is too unsettled and nebulous. He talked in the 1960s of constantly trying to make gangster films like the Hollywood ones he loved, but invariably making more and more movies about the difficulty of romance and love and communication and everything else. In many ways, he’s still falling short of his goals, but still fulfilling our dreams. He may never make the film that needs to be made, but he’s made so many we needed for ourselves. The Aero’s upcoming series highlights that extremely well.
Godard mon amour screens free for members on Monday, April 16, with director Michel Hazanavicius in person, ahead of its release on April 20. La Chinoise screens on Wednesday, April 18. Breathless and Band of Outsiders screen Saturday, April 21. Goodbye to Language screens in digital 3D on April 26. Finally, Weekend and Vivre sa vie screen on April 27.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.