Historical narratives can sometimes be extraordinarily cruel. Consider, for example, the narrative that is frequently attached to the life of Jean-Luc Godard: An ambitious young film critic stepped behind the camera and began producing works of cinematic art that changed the way that people thought about film. Then, after several years of sustained brilliance, he delved too deeply and all of that brilliant extroversion changed into painfully self-absorbed introversion. Having recently watched and written about a number of Godard’s early films, I have some sympathy with this narrative and would certainly flag him as an artist who became so aware of the tools of artistic expression that he seemed to start finding it increasingly difficult to express himself with both honesty and spontaneity. Pretence, pretence… all is pretence.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino and buy into the idea that Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s, that narrative has followed the director for most of his career. Godard is not the only artist to become stuck in a particular historical moment but he has been more unlucky than most in that every film he produces winds up being seen as a painfully introspective work of cinematic deconstruction while every Woody Allen film is inevitably viewed as a heroic return to form.
Godard’s contemporary Alain Renais suffers from a different but not unrelated problem in that people tend to approach his work in terms of a narrative linking his first two features back to his early documentaries via the theme of memory. In fact, those are exactly the terms in which I wrote about both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. The weird thing about Resnais’ narrative is that it simply peters out after Marienbad. Godard is said to have disappeared up himself around the time of Pierrot le Fou but Resnais simply stopped being relevant.
One explanation for these narratives assuming the shape they did is that the New Wave ran its course and the critical consensus moved on. By the late 1960s, the collapse of the American studio system had allowed a generation of young filmmakers to seize the means of production and begin expressing themselves artistically and so people started writing about the American New Wave while the authors of the French New Wave were allowed to dip into semi-obscurity. While this back-of-a-fag-packet theory may or may not stand up to close scrutiny, it does raise an interesting question about why people lost interest in Godard when they did and why they seemed to lose interest in Resnais even sooner.
One explanation is that Resnais delved too far and too fast: Whereas most works of classical cinema contrive to offer their audiences a curated cultural experience in which the filmmakers introduce audiences to worlds and characters before telling them how to think and what to feel, art house directors like Resnais abandoned their curatorial role and encouraged audiences to articulate their own responses to the ideas and images placed on screen. Resnais took this deconstructive process a step further than most by stressing not only the artificiality of his characters and the pretence of plot but also the psychologically mediated nature of his settings. In effect, Resnais pushed the deconstructive process so far that he wound up offering his audiences a work of art that was just as unfathomable and unforgiving as the world itself, which can be viewed as a failure of the social contract linking audience to author.
This is an essay about Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour but it is also an essay about the relationship between artist and consumer.
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Earlier this year, Studiocanal began re-releasing the early films of the iconic art house director Jean-Luc Godard. Freshly restored and re-mastered, these re-releases not only kicked off a major restrospective of Godard’s work at London’s BFI but also began what would appear to be a rolling programme of high-definition home releases. FilmJuice have my extended review of the box set that began this programme of home releases, a beautifully-formed gem entitled Godard: The Essential Collection and includes:
- Breathless (A Bout de Souffle)
- A Woman is A Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme)
- Contempt (Le Mepris)
- Pierrot le Fou
While I would question the description of these five films as “essential” (there’s no Bande a Part for starters), this box set does provide an excellent starting point for anyone who would like to get to grips with Godard’s early work. If I had to provide you with something to bear in mind when watching Godard or reading my review it would be this observation:
Godard’s films speak of politics, modernity and the creation of cinematic art but they mostly speak of women and Godard’s failure to understand them.
On A Bout de Souffle…
While much has been made of the jump-cuts, non-sequiturs, and fourth-wall breaches that comprise the film’s style, none of these flourishes are anything less than organic. Just as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion would later chronicle the squalid living conditions faced by a generation of young women who had chosen to live and work outside of the parental home, Godard’s Breathless tries to capture what it felt like to be young and unsupported in 1950s Paris. It’s not just that Michel is forever failing to track down his friends or that people seem to drift in and out of bed without having a clear idea as to how they feel about each other, it’s that time expands and contracts around working days that never seem to disentangle themselves from coffee and flirting. O Lord the flirting.
On Une Femme est Une Femme…
Godard’s playful sound design continues once Angela arrives at work. We see her talking to colleagues, getting into costume and wandering around backstage at the strip club but the music and scoring never seem to line up with the images we see on screen. We see an old man playing an organ but we only hear the music when the shot cuts away and we’re trying to make out what the characters are saying to each other. After a few minutes of this trickery, Angela takes to the stage but the music drops out the minute she starts to sing. This results in an uncomfortable few minutes of poor singing as the camera swoops majestically around a sleazy strip joint full of men in dirty overcoats while beautiful Angela sings about being a woman. Angela’s song is entirely appropriate to a strip club as she sings neither of love nor of yearning but her own beauty and how she always says “Yes” because it doesn’t pay to be impolite with boys. This song combined with the absent score and the rough singing creates a tension between fantasy and reality: Angela’s work demands that she objectify herself but the fantasy is too imperfect to hold our attention… we cannot help but look beyond the beautiful woman to the cleverness of the sound editing or the movement of the camera.
On Le Mepris…
In Contempt, art is not something that exists separately from the private lives of people who create it. Artists breathe in reality, mix with their innermost thoughts, and exhale creations new. Left to his own devices, Michel might have been able to work out the sources of Camille’s anger but his need to manage this problem whilst dealing with the Lang/Prokosch impasse distorts and obscures his vision, he cannot see beyond the limits of his art and this has served to disconnect him from reality in much the same way as the characters in Breathless and A Woman is a Woman seeks refuge in old films when they know full well that reality is more complex. During their arguments, Camille urges Michel to ignore her complaints and take the job but Michel doesn’t know if he wants to be an ambitious, money-driven person and so he blames his own lack of decisiveness on his wife. There is literally nothing that Camille could have said to make Michel happy and therein lies the rub. The film concludes with some jaw-dropping footage of the isle of Capri where Michel tries to resign from the job and make a stand for artistic freedom but his words are hollow and insincere. He can’t even convince himself.
Alphaville may be a commentary on Godard’s Paris and the way that making your way in any big city requires you to adapt your expectations to that which the city is willing to provide, but it is also a far broader metaphorical representation of the ways in which political systems break, remake, and exclude those of us who fail to fit in. Living within Alphaville means accepting the logic of Alpha 60’s plans and accepting this logic means lowering your expectations to the point where they are already met, thereby ensuring that the residents of Alphaville can live as seductresses and gun-thugs without ever feeling a moment’s sadness or regret. Caution’s mission is to destroy Alpha 60 and so save those who are still capable of crying.
On Pierrot le Fou…
Despite its sun-drenched setting and musical interludes, Pierrot le Fou is easily the darkest film contained in this box set. Apparently, when Godard’s sister was shown the film, she became agitated as she saw in Ferdinand’s suicidal blockage an echo of Godard’s own problems understanding both his art and the women in his life. This reading of the film is compelling as Ferdinand’s decision to abandon a bourgeois existence and live on the margins of society in the hopes of writing a great novel recall not only Godard’s frustrations with artistic expression but also his decision to strike out and create a new cinematic vocabulary with this very film. Like his creator, Ferdinand moves from energetic set-piece to energetic set-piece only to realise that originality and energy are no guarantee of truth. The film ends with Ferdinand strapping a load of dynamite to his own head and blowing himself up and it is difficult to think of a more apt response to a film that spends nearly two hours producing more light than heat. Pierrot le Fou is tedious and hollow but the film’s self-awareness transforms tedium into tragedy.