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Godard: The Essential Collection

 
 
Film Information
 

Plot: A newly-restored collection of films by the French director Jean-Luc Godard. Includes Breathless, A Woman is A Woman, Le Mepris, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou.
Release Date: Out Now
Format: DVD
Director(s): Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Eddie Considine.
BBFC Certificate: 15
Running Time: 504 mins
Country Of Origin: France
Review By: Jonathan McCalmont
Genre:
 
Film Rating
 
 
 
 
 
4/ 5


 

Bottom Line


It's hard to think of a more beautiful and appropriate an introduction to the work of one of European cinema’s great errant souls.


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Posted February 5, 2016 by

 
Film Review
 
 

Freshly re-mastered to a 2k standard and released to coincide with a major retrospective screening at the British Film Institute in London, Godard: The Essential Collection offers an excellent opportunity to discover (or revisit) the work of one of France’s most perversely singular filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard famously began his cinematic career as a film critic writing for the legendary French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema. After ten years’ worth of reviews and five experimental short films, he was ready to make his own contribution to an art form that had held him spellbound since his early days living between France and French-speaking Switzerland. Connections made in Parisian cine-clubs got him a job writing about film as well as a foot in the door of the film industry. Like many of the critics who stepped out of the shadows and into the blinding light of a cinematic golden age, Godard is someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Godard’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist of 1960s Paris has encouraged many commentators to view his work in quite procrustean terms. Rather than approaching his films on their own terms and identifying recurring themes and images, people rush to view Godard’s work in terms of big theoretical concepts like Marxism, Postmodernism and Modernity. Those critics who don’t fall into the trap of theory are quick to conclude that the one-time critic made films that were primarily about the stuff of cinema. In fairness, Godard provided these critics with more than enough rope to hang themselves… How could he not when the skin of 1960s Paris seemed to ripple with the flexing of revolutionary muscles?

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.

***

Breathless (1960)

4/5

Godard’s first act as a director of feature-length films is to lure us into a series of traps.

The first trap is baited with a couple: He is standing in the street looking at a flyer for a topless cabaret and chastising himself while she keeps a lookout for something that winds up being a luxury car. The driver of the car parks and wanders off, prompting the onlooker to spring to life, pop the hood, hot-wire the car, and leap behind the steering wheel. Breathless, she asks to go with him but he asks her the time and drives off. Evidently, she was not destined to be the protagonist in this particular film.

The second trap is somewhat more literary: We are positioned behind the eyes of the car thief as he drives along one of those long, straight, French, tree-lined roads. He is an impatient driver and we are party to the stream of songs, gibberish, musings and curses that comprise his train of thought. Suddenly, he looks straight into the camera and tells us to get stuffed if we don’t like France’s coast, mountains, cities and forests. It’s an arresting – even iconic — moment but it’s also a distraction as while Godard has given us access to his character’s innermost thoughts and encouraged us to sympathise with him as we do the protagonists of all first-person narratives,  we never really learn very much about the character… he is kept forever at arm’s length.

The uncertainty surrounding Breathless’ male lead is compounded when he overtakes the wrong car, gets chased by the police, and winds up killing a motorcycle cop with a gun that happened to be in the glovebox. While convention has it that the title of this film is translated as ‘breathless’, a more correct translation of the film’s French title A Bout de Souffle would be ‘All Out of Breath’ as this is a film about things reaching their natural ending, about desperation and exhaustion. Regardless of what he might have been before he stole the car and killed the policeman, our thief is now a wanted man who is desperate to get away. Desperation changes a man, and so do endings.

He comes more clearly into focus once he arrives in Paris. Having abandoned the car and all of his personal belongings, he arrives in Paris in nothing but his shirt sleeves until some petty larceny in an ex-girlfriend’s bedroom allows him to don a jacket, a hat, and a pair of dark glasses. In another iconic scene, he gazes at a Humphrey Bogart poster and imitates Bogey’s tendency to rub his lips with the back of his thumb. The gesture is decidedly awkward but it contains real desire… He wishes he could be just like Bogart but he is nothing but a lying, thieving, misogynistic killer.

Forced to wait for the money that will allow him to flee the country, he seeks out yet another ex-girlfriend. This one is called Patricia (Jean Seberg) and we first encounter her wandering down the boulevard trying to sell American newspapers. She knows him as Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) but he also goes by the name of Laszlo Kovacs when it suits him. Within minutes, he has called her a tramp to her face but she is American, her French comes mostly from books, and she fails to catch the ugliness of his desperation. He begs her for another chance, another night together but she has a meeting and will catch up with him later.

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.

Michel wants Patricia the way he wants beautiful cars and the contents of an ex-girlfriend’s purse. He desires her, resents her indifference, and soon his frustration combines with his desperation to produce an onslaught of threats and insults that somehow fail to drive her away: “Patricia… come here!” he barks before departing on yet another fevered rant about the cowardice of women in general and Patricia in particular. Partially protected by her poor French, Patricia interprets orders as questions and insults as invitations to converse on music, art, and the relative beauty of women from different international cities. Whenever she moves closer to the bed, Michel tries to undress her. Whenever she drifts away, he insults and provokes her. At one point, he puts his hands around her throat and threatens to strangle her is she refuses to smile. The question posed by the film, is why she smiles and why she suddenly stops.

Breathless is a film that is full of tiny prophecies. We see the gun before the shooting, we see a dead body in the street before the film’s ending, we see Michel talk about a couple on the run and, most importantly, we see a character who turns out not to be the film’s actual protagonist. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s performance in this film is understandably famous and his character’s obsession with American film invites us to view him as a self-insert for the film’s director. However, while a combination of Belmondo’s charm and the assumption that all films are made from a male point-of-view may encourage us to view Breathless as Michel’s film, another way of looking at it is to assume that Patricia is the real protagonist.

Patricia is pregnant. She went to the doctor’s office after meeting up with Michel and is pretty certain that our murderous thief is the father. What drove her into Michel’s arms in the first place will never be known but what keeps her in the room when he breaks into her home and pretends to throttle her is hope that a handsome one-night stand might somehow magically transform into a husband and father. Patricia keeps asking Michel to say something nice about her before sadly admitting that she’s struggling to find anything nice to say about him in return. She knows that he’s no good for her… she’s just not quite ready to see it yet.

Impassive and seemingly innocent, she keeps Michel at arm’s length until laziness and stupidity cause his lies to unravel and his truth to be exposed. The fact that his face winds up in a newspaper linked to the murder of a policeman exposes another little prophecy… why did he arrive in Paris without a jacket? Was he stupid enough to leave his wallet at the scene of the crime? Desperate to believe that the father of her child is anything other than a misogynistic imbecile, Patricia plays along until the police show up at her work. At first, she lies but then she admits to knowing him… turns out that lies are tiring. Then she attends a press conference on behalf of her newspaper where another charming rogue drips smarm and misogyny all over her feet. Finally, she follows Michel into the underworld where he and his friends ignore and insult her. After one last roll in the sack she is done: It’s time to call the cops.

The film ends with a series of iconic moments: Shot in the back, Michel stumbles along a Paris street before finally collapsing on the floor. With his dying breath, he grabs for intimacy and so revisits some faces he had pulled at Patricia earlier in the film. Patricia looks on impassively as the father of her child dies, she looks to the camera and repeats Bogey’s lip-stroking gesture but on her it looks good… Patricia was always the hero of this film.

Breathless is such an iconic and influential film that it is difficult to pass judgement upon it without seeming to pass judgement on the films that surrounded and followed on from it. Edgy, conflicted and filled with one brilliant cinematic moment after another, it is a film that rewards repeat viewings as much as it does cursory glances. This is a more subtle and incomplete film than decades’ worth of praise might suggest but look beyond the fedoras and the jump-cuts and you will find real humanity and a fundamental need for human understanding. If Michel cannot be redeemed by Patricia’s good will, what hope for a director with an eye for pretty girls and a head full of Bogey?

This freshly restored version of the film comes with a veritable deluge of extras including interviews and critical pieces culled from French TV. Sadly, there are no interviews with Godard himself (his interviews were so famously discursive, they often rival his cinematic output as a mode of expression) but the collection of weird takes and odd factoids nonetheless comprise a fitting tribute to one of the most iconic works of 20th Century cinema.

***

A Woman is A Woman (1961)

4/5

It is often said that Jean-Luc Godard’s early cinematic projects were undertaken with a desire to try out different cinematic genres. For example, while Breathless featured elements of the noir thriller and The Little Soldier took inspiration from spy films, Godard’s third film is often read as paying homage to the golden age of Hollywood musicals. A Woman is a Woman certainly engages with tropes, images, and techniques common in Hollywood musicals but focusing upon the film’s postmodern cleverness risks overshadowing how these little moments of cleverness were used to tell a story about a young woman trying to start a family amidst demeaning jobs, terrible housing, feckless friends, and recalcitrant men.

Moving from the vivid black and white of Breathless to the luxuriant Cinemascope colour of A Woman is A Woman is nothing less than disorienting. The streets are the same as are many of the faces but the vivid reds and deep blues of the later film gives the streets of Paris a fantastical make-over: As in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, Godard’s shift from black and white to colour signals our arrival in another world.

Angela (Anna Karina) is a Danish woman married to a Frenchman named Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy). The couple live in a working-class area where he holds down a job as a news agent and she works as an exotic dancer. The film begins with aerial shots of Angela walking to work and our eyes are naturally drawn to her bright red boots. Despite the poverty of the area and the exploitative nature of Angela’s profession, she walks with a smile on her face and a step that seems forever poised on the brink of dance. The camera soars, the music swells and… Godard switches to deafening road noises and sounds of people talking.

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.

Much has been made of Godard’s willingness to feature misogynistic characters and some have even gone so far as to accuse Godard himself of hating women. Regardless of what Godard’s intent might have been, it is hard not to view these opening scenes as empowering in their depiction of a woman’s attempts to get through the day by imagining herself as a Hollywood star. Every time the music swells, you can feel Angela’s need to be somewhere else. Every time the music drops out or road noises drown out her speech, you can sense the real world reasserting itself.

Her working day complete, Angela returns to the small garret apartment she shares with her husband Emile. Despite not being a particularly great singer, Karina has bags of screen presence and Godard (who featured the actress in a number of different films and wound up marrying her) allows her charisma to wash over the audience as she wanders around the flat being charming. When Emile finally comes home, they bicker in a half-serious way until Angela announces her desire to start a family. ‘We’ve got plenty of time!’ Emile responds, much to Angela’s chagrin.

A Woman is A Woman is defined by an attentional tug-of-war between two competing stories: On one end of the rope there is the story of a working-class woman who is desperate to start a family despite being acutely conscious of the sacrifices she is already being forced to make. On the other end, is a light-hearted postmodern farce full of slamming doors, smiling faces, film references and clever camera tricks. The men surrounding Angela seem intent upon living in a world of light-hearted silliness and she obviously wishes she could join them but some things are important… some things need to be dealt with seriously. Thus the push-and-pull on the audience’s attention reflects the push-and-pull of the real world and Angela’s reluctance to grow-up, face reality and pursue her dreams of motherhood.

In another nod to golden age Hollywood musicals, the couple’s marital difficulties are expanded into a love triangle by the presence of Emile’s best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). When Alfred first appears, he is handing out political leaflets and trying to avoid paying a huge hotel bill. He then meets up with Angela and the pair indulge in some charming cinematic posturing that establishes not only a sense of kinship between the characters, but also a suggestion that Alfred is not exactly a grown-up. Indeed, when Alfred hears of his best friend’s marital difficulties, his first response is to tell Angela that he loves her. As throughout this film, Godard allows the romanticism of the moment to wash over the audience only to then whip back the curtain and reveal the truth: Alfred is getting Angela drunk in a café while angst-ridden Emile seeks solace with prostitutes.

As in all musicals, this love triangle is ultimately resolved but only by a deliberate retreat into fantasy: Angela sleeps with Alfred and then immediately sleeps with Emile. That way, the couple could trick themselves into believing that any resulting child would be Emile’s rather than Alfred’s. Real-world problems resolved, the couple wink at the screen signalling not only their return to escapist fantasy but also our own, because this type of thing never happens in real life *wink wink*.

Often dismissed as a lesser or more accessible work due to its bright colours, silliness, and charm, A Woman is A Woman is a heart-rending story about self-deception, escapism and the difficulties inherent in moving between the harshness of the real world and the primary-coloured fantasy worlds in which we choose to spend most of our days. We all simplify the real world in order to make it more palatable but there will always be things that force us back into reality.

Beautifully restored and brilliantly colourful, A Woman is A Woman comes with a short (but insightful) introduction by Colin McCabe and an interview with Anna Karina who shows just as much charisma as she ever did, despite being 75 years-old.

***

Contempt (1963)

5/5

If Breathless and A Woman is A Woman were imperfect and tentative attempts to articulate Jean-Luc Godard’s efforts to make sense of both the cinematic medium and women then Contempt is the film where all the gears clicked into place and the full power of Godard’s genius was finally brought to bear on a single project. Contempt is not just a beautiful and well-made film, it is a film that burns with such intense honesty and insight that it occasionally makes for quite uncomfortable viewing. No wonder then that some critics have sought comfort in mediation and insisted upon viewing it as a film about Godard’s relationship with cinema.

This flawlessly remastered edition of the film comes with a fascinating introduction by the film critic Colin MacCabe. MacCabe explains how the project began when Godard happened to make friends with Brigitte Bardot. In those days, Bardot was not merely the biggest star in French cinema but a global celebrity whose face was regularly selling millions of gossip magazines. Happy to help out a friend, Bardot agreed to appear in one of Godard’s films but the sheer scope of her celebrity demanded a bigger budget and this bigger budget necessitated the presence of an American producer who (perhaps not unreasonably given Bardot’s track record) believed that he was about to own part of a film in which Brigitte Bardot took her kit off. When Godard’s first cut of the film featured no nudity at all, the American producer demanded reshoots and, after much argument, Godard shot a beautiful and incredibly self-aware opening vignette in which Bardot lays naked on a bed talking about her insecurities while various coloured filters are slid into place over the camera lens. MacCabe sees in this vignette an echo of the film’s plot in which a producer and a director battle for control of a film but another way of reading it is to view it as a beautifully tender moment despoiled by the mediating presence of film. Indeed, Contempt is all about the difficulties of using art to connect with genuine human emotions.

Introduction complete, the film transports us to the decaying and sun-bleached ruins of Rome’s famous Cinecitta studio complex. Striding about these ruins like the leader of a defeated army is a square-shouldered and piggy-eyed American film producer named Prokosch (Jack Palance). Translated by his mistress/secretary, Prokosch explains to a French screen-writer named Michel (Paul Javal) that he is having problems with his director, the legendary Fritz Lang (who plays himself).

Lang was hired to work on an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey but while the footage he has already shot is undoubtedly extraordinary, the producer is not convinced about the director’s approach to the story: Lang is committed to telling the story in the way that Homer intended but Prokosch is insisting upon a sexy, psychological re-working of the story in which Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War as a result of growing bored with his wife Penelope. Dragged into the middle of a battle that could just as easily be between art and commerce as between the rationality and irrationality of the human heart, Michel is forced to decide whether or not he can actually produce the type of script that Prokosch requires and whether he wants to abandon an existing personal project in order to accept some well-paid hack work.

Readings of the film that concentrate upon Godard’s relationship with the film industry generally focus upon these dilemmas. Assuming that Michel is a stand-in for Godard, these reading suggest that Contempt is all about Godard’s growing frustration with the film industry and the need to balance personal vision with the practicalities of scrounging together enough money to produce a film. Under this view, Lang is the authorial Id warring against the producer’s commercial Superego but Godard’s meditations on art go deeper than filthy commerce as much of the film seems to be confronting the question of whether art might actually be a hindrance to self-expression and understanding.

Accompanying Michel is his beautiful wife Camille (Bardot). Michel drags Camille along to Cinecitta for reasons entirely unknown and winds up leaving her in the clutches of Prokosch while Michel decides to walk to the producer’s villa. Upon arriving at Prokosch’s home, Camille’s anger is obvious. Michel asks her what is wrong but the answer is not forthcoming and so he allows himself to be distracted by the producer’s comely mistress/assistant/translator. At one point, Michel pats the woman on the bum just as Camille walks into the house and while she did not necessarily see her husband grope another woman, Michel betrays a guilty conscience and so winds up feeding Camille’s irritation.

When the couple leave the producer’s home, they return to their freshly-purchased apartment in a fashionable corner of Rome. Slightly beyond their budget and still unfinished, the flat is invoked as justification for Michel taking the job. Hopeful of building closer ties with the producer, he accepts an invitation to his house on the isle of Capri but Camille is furious. In a section comprising nearly half the film, the couple argue back and forth as Michel tries to work out the source of Camille’s irritation and what he should do with this anger. Every time he argues her into a corner with insistences that he will either take or not take the job, Camille softens only to grow progressively more irritated in the ensuing détente. Infuriated by his wife’s refusal to either explain her anger or provide an honest answer to the question of whether or not she still loves him, Michel resorts to anger, violence and nihilism as Camille moves between half-hearted professions of love and deciding that she now will be sleeping on the sofa.

As with Breathless and A Woman is A Woman, Godard is asking us to understand his female characters and despite Camille’s refusal to explain herself, her reasons for falling out of love with Michel are evident and manifold: Michel is a hack who will write whatever he is told. Even worse, his greed and insecurity are such that he assumes that his wife will leave him the second he ceases to provide her with a lavish lifestyle. Furthermore, it is not just that he gropes other women; it is that his contempt for women is such that he stops just short of pimping out his wife for the sake of landing a job. At the end of the day, Michel is not the man that Camille married and her contempt for him is born not only of his character but also of her own inability to see him clearly from the get-go.

Godard’s frustration with the cinematic process intersects with his problems understanding women in scenes where Michel seems to argue for Prokosch’s vision simply because it reflects his own growing irritation with his wife. If he can get bored with his wife, why can’t Odysseus? Michel presents his case to Lang in an effort to get the old master onside but Lang cannily looks to Camille and asks whether this nonsense comes from her husband or from his boss. Michel’s application of psychology to the Odyssey is as futile as his attempt to make sense of his own marriage… he spins theory after theory but never comes close to the truth and when he fails to connect with anything real or beautiful he blames the artistic process as though the collapse of his marriage were a result of a few bad career decisions.

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.

This beautifully rendered release comes with nothing less than a swarm of extras totalling nearly three hours in total, an entirely proper accompaniment to one of the great artistic successes of the French New Wave.

***

Alphaville (1965)

5/5

While humanity has always bought into some form of future, the ways in which we conceptualise this future change from place to place and era to era. For example, the sacred histories of Christian myth serve to tell the faithful about the past from which they came but their grand narratives of redemption also extend to the existence of a reckoning somewhere out there in the mists of tomorrow. Science fiction is a child with many mothers and fathers but the father of American science fiction was a man who thought that stories about futuristic technology were a great way to get people excited about popular science and amateur radio.

Hugo Gernsback may well have been a crook who kept forgetting to pay his writers but he was also a product of 20th Century American capitalism and he saw the future not as a spiritual battleground but as a place filled with cool gadgets. Even the most charitable of cultural historians would struggle to see much of a connection between the golden age of science fiction and contemporary Hollywood but Gernsback’s influence remains evident in the way that every American science fiction film uses technology as a way of situating the audience in a world other than their own. For example, if a film wishes to invoke a future more advanced than our own, it will generally reach for a new form of weaponry, a new kind of mass-transit system, or a radically different kind of computer interface. Similarly, if a film wishes to invoke a future in which our civilisation has collapsed, they will generally reach for some technology we would now consider outdated. When Hollywood wants to signal the audience’s arrival in an alternate universe, it will generally go in both directions at the same time and feature an airship floating past a skyscraper.

While this stuff-based approach to representing the future may keep America’s concept artists and production designers in work, it is not the only way to depict tomorrow. Rarely able to compete with American cinema when it comes to budgets and special effects, European film has long been fond of using images of the present to depict the future. Thus, Chris Marker’s La Jetee created a future by taking an old back and white camera into the galleries beneath Paris’ Trocadero just as Stalker compelled Andrei Tarkovsky to sit his camera crew beside a poisoned river leading to an abandoned Estonian hydro power plant. More digital but no less striking, both Gareth Edward’s Monsters and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later assembled futures by extracting all the people from contemporary landscapes. This idea of creating a future comprising nothing but images of the present must also have inspired Jean-Luc Godard as his ninth film Alphaville explores the idea of a future that dwells solely in our words and thoughts.

The film begins with a grizzled, square-jawed man arriving at a fancy Parisian hotel. He (Eddie Considine) claims to be a journalist named Ivan Johnson but he is actually a secret agent named Lemmy Caution. Despite the hotel looking exactly as one would expect a mid-20th Century Parisian hotel to look, the limited dialogue serves to position us in a time and place that is not our own: The agent is not welcomed to Paris but to Alphaville, he does not write for Le Figaro but for Figaro-Pravda, and he does not come from abroad or from another town but from a place dismissively referred to as ‘the outside countries’.

The reality of this dehumanised city begins to assert itself when Caution is showed to his room by a young woman who turns down his bed and proceeds to get undressed. He asks her what her game is and she passively replies that she is a level-3 seductress but Caution’s lack of interest in her services seems not to bother her in the slightest. In fact, it doesn’t seem to bother her all that much when an armed man bursts into Caution’s room prompting the secret agent to throw him through a door and fill him full of lead. Alphaville may be cold and ruthless, but everything and everyone has a place.

Caution is then approached by a woman named Natacha Von Braun (Anna Karina) who claims to be the daughter of the computer genius who invented Alpha 60, the vast computer system that runs every aspect of life in Alphaville. Those incapable of fitting into Alpha 60’s logical schemes are forced to the margins of society where they wind up either killing each other or committing suicide in grubby bed-sits kept running precisely for this type of eventuality. Those who refuse to either adapt or commit suicide are arrested, machine-gunned and dumped into municipal swimming pools from which they are daintily retrieved by teams of synchronised swimmers.

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.

The plight of those who have accepted the logic of Alpha 60’s plans is explored through the character of Natacha Von Braun. Another great Godardian female character, Von Braun is played by Anna Karina who also took the lead in 1961’s A Woman is A Woman. However, while this earlier film may have suggested that Karina was little more than a charismatic pretty face, Alphaville shows her to be an actress who has grown in both subtlety and craft. Indeed, when we first encounter Von Braun, she is little more than a sophisticated version of the seductresses who prowl the hotel corridors; better dressed, better looking but just as emotionally dead. However, the more time Von Braun spends with Caution, the more her programming begins to come apart and so real emotions begin the leak from behind the thick make-up and rictus smiles. The film ends in a style that is arguably more conventional and sentimental than the ending of any other Godard film but Von Braun’s halting admission that she loves Caution works because Karina’s performance builds towards that one phrase with hundreds of facial expressions and awkward pauses. The fact that she chooses to express her love using the polite form (‘Je vous aime’ rather than the more informal ‘Je t’aime’) is nothing short of genius.

The brilliance of this gesture becomes apparent once you realise the similarities between the characters of Von Braun and Caution.

Considine’s performance may be that of a freshly-exhumed corpse but his mere presence in the film signals Godard’s desire to comment upon that nature of stories. Considine was an American actor who followed a friend to France when the work in Hollywood started to dry up. His French career took off when he was cast as Lemmy Caution in a series of films based upon the detective novels of Peter Cheyney. Largely forgotten and produced at a time when French cinema was producing literally hundreds of hard-boiled crime thrillers, Bernard Borderie’s Caution films were a big hit with the Cahiers du Cinema critics at the time when Godard was still writing for them. As Colin MacCabe points out in the excellent introduction included on this disc, the Cahiers crowd would often obsess over actors like Considine because their presence in French films represented a link to an American cinematic tradition they believed could do no wrong. What MacCabe does not mention is that Considine is not merely playing another square-jawed action hero but the exact same square-jawed action hero that he had already been playing for a number of years. In other words, Considine was a famously limited actor playing an established character in a film inspired by a very specific set of texts, which were themselves constrained by the demands of the hardboiled crime thriller genre. Aside from positioning Alphaville as a glorified work of fan-fiction, these layers of constraint also serve to make a mockery of Considine’s growled profession that he is a free man.

Considine’s caution rolls his eyes and grinds his teeth at Von Braun’s reluctance to abandon the system that raised her but he is just as much of a puppet as she is. It is with the examination of these themes that the concerns of Alphaville intersect with those of Godard’s other works. Strip away the avant-garde story structures and the playfully deployed genre conceits and you have another film about the challenges of understanding women and the author’s ambivalent relationship with art. The film even goes so far as to provide this eloquence with a voice in the form of Alpha 60’s cancerous growl. Godard’s protagonist may rage against the computer’s logical systems and the horrible voice encourages us to share the protagonist’s sympathies but pay attention to what the computer says and you will find a perfect articulation of the author’s paralysing lament: Believe in my truth, even though I cannot.

***

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

4/5

One of the most vexing questions posed by cinematic golden ages such as the French and American New Waves is why they come to an end. Like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, the films of the French New Wave started out as fresh, vibrant and instantly accessible to anyone who was young and yearning for change. A decade later and America’s young were lining up to see Star Wars while comedians all over Europe began taking pot-shots at an artistic movement that had come to be seen as stale, remote, and only of interest to chain-smoking intellectuals. Studies of the American New Wave have blamed its rise and fall on a culture of institutionalised terror that saw film producers hand sacks full of money over to fame-addled egotists who came to resent the need to produce work that spoke to anyone other than themselves. European cinema has always been a more diverse and complex creature than the American film industry but it is hard not to see parallels between the collapse of American New Wave and the diminishing relevance of European art house film.

The origins of the cataclysm that would eventually become Jean-Luc Godard’s tenth film Pierrot le Fou were manifest in Breathless and almost overwhelming in Contempt. Never the most peaceful of thinkers, Godard approached his first film by appropriating a set of genre conventions and using them as a structure from which he might depart at his leisure. For example, Breathless is full of film noir images and clichés but the clichés are used to explore the mind of a female character adrift in a world created by unpleasant men. The same modus operandi is evident in A Woman is A Woman where comedy and musical numbers are used to explore our relationship with fantasy and how departing from fantasy can be necessary in the pursuit of the good life. Godard’s obsession with film, women, and the mediating power of art may have come together beautifully in Contempt and Alphaville but they also transported Godard to a place where he felt compelled to break new ground and make a film that did not rely upon any of the genre images and storytelling techniques that he had internalised during his years spent watching American films. Indeed, one way of approaching Pierrot le Fou is to view it as an unsuccessful attempt to create a new cinematic language.

The film begins with jaded former TV executive Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) being dragged to a cocktail party by his ambitiously middle-class wife (Graziella Galvani). Upon arriving at the party, Ferdinand realises that all of his so-called friends speak entirely in advertising slogans and so he returns home and decides to run away with his baby-sitter and former girlfriend Marianne (Anna Karina).

Godard was famously reluctant to work with a pre-written script. When producers would ask him for a script, he would tell them to wait until the film was finished at which point they would receive a transcription of the film’s dialogue. Godard did not originally intend to cast his (by now) ex-wife in the part of Marianne but the role seemed to fit a woman who had grown both in confidence and aloofness since her days as an innocent starlet in A Woman is A Woman. Despite initially appearing in a school uniform, Marianne turns out to be a strong, decisive and completely incomprehensible force of nature with ties to a variety of political and criminal groups. When Ferdinand decides to leave his wife, he wakes up in Marianne’s apartment to find machine-guns propped against the wall and a dead body on the floor. Marianne’s insouciant edginess proves inspirational to the older married man and so he decides to follow her when some money goes missing and some gangsters come looking for it.

Pierrot le Fou is a wildly and deliberately uneven piece of filmmaking. As the film progresses, it moves between lifeless interludes in which characters and narratives are addressed in a purely mechanistic fashion, and kinetic set-pieces where free reign is given to Godard’s cinematic imagination. The set pieces are more frequently self-indulgent than memorable or meaningful and they seldom speak directly to either the plot or the characters. However, they do – when taken with the mechanistic treatment of plot and character – create an extraordinarily vivid sense of emotional and artistic chaos.

About halfway through the film, there is a scene in which Ferdinand and Marianne are hiding out on a beach in the south of France. Ferdinand is sitting on some rocks trying to write a novel while Marianne wanders aimlessly up and down the beach moaning about being bored. Despite the beautiful setting, Ferdinand is a picture of misery as he can no more complete his novel than he can understand his lover or resist her desire to move forward and place herself in danger. It is hard not to read this scene as autobiographical: The ambitious and frustrated Godard struggles to express himself with the linguistic tools at his disposal while the woman who once inspired him prepares to move on. All of Godard’s films speak of the difficulties inherent in trying to express one-self honestly just as all of Godard’s films seem to contain strong and beautiful women who are offered to the audience as a sort of existential puzzle box.

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.

This beautifully-restored edition of the film comes with an avalanche of extras including further footage from the Anna Karina interview that also features on the other discs, an hour-long examination of Godard’s films and some other pieces.

***

Quentin Tarantino once famously argued that Jean-Luc Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s. While this judgement is perhaps a little harsh (and lacking in self-awareness given the nature of Tarantino’s output since Jackie Brown) it is clear that Pierrot Le Fou is a film that was only ever going to make sense to the people who were already invested in Godard as a creator. Work your way through this excellent box set and you will not only see the same themes popping up over and over again but also sense how those tensions and ideas were always going to result in a film that was as aggressively self-involved as Pierrot le Fou.

This box set may not include some of the most famous works from the early stages of Godard’s career but the films it does include serve to paint a picture of the artist as a man who is both desperate to understand the things he loves and intensely alienated from the means through which this understanding might have been achieved. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and appropriate an introduction to the work of one of European cinema’s great errant souls.


Jonathan McCalmont

 


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