THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Posts tagged ‘Jean Luc Godard’

[Note: this is the sixth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

When Jean-Luc Godard decided to make his feature-length debut Breathless in 1960, he famously turned to two of his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues for help. François Truffaut had already made one successful film – The 400 Blows – a year earlier, and would write the outline of a story for Godard that was based on a real life murder: in November 1952 Michel Portail, a Parisian dating an American journalist named Beverly Lynette, stole a car so he could visit his sick mother in Le Havre and shot a motorcycle cop named Grimberg. Claude Chabrol – who had three films of his own under his belt by the end of 1959 – was brought on as an ‘artistic supervisor’. These were two men with their own clearly-defined ideas about cinema, and storytelling, but this film is unmistakably Godard’s, from the way that it embraces a hip, French take on American pulp imagery to the film’s most obvious structural quirks, including the large number of jump cuts that were made when trimming down a five hour rough-cut to the released version of 87 minutes (90 unrated). This skittish, stuttering style would go on to become something of a calling card for Godard in the 1960s, but it’s not only utilised as a means of reducing the running time. It gives a sense of busy, young lives in perpetual (caffeine- and nicotine-fuelled) motion, while it also serves to highlight – through the lack of an expected smoothness – the awkwardness (or indeed the fractious nature) of the relationship between Jean Seberg’s American in Paris Patricia and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel, a man on the lam who seems to care more about adopting the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart than he does about the net that’s closing in on him.

The chemistry between the two is, of course, key to the film’s success. Seberg’s fee accounted for a hefty portion of the film’s budget and she is as cool as they come, her style in this film – short, cropped hair, striped Breton top, skirt, overcoat – as influential today as it has ever been. Belmondo’s shady crook is a walking chimney, perennially lighting up cigarettes, stubbing them out, flicking matches away with no concern about potential fires and generally not giving much of a fuck about anything other than Bogey. He calls her a louse repeatedly during the film (or ‘a scumbag’, depending on the version you watch), and most famously of all he says it to her during the final scene, when all that smoking catches up with Michel and he finally runs out of breath. Does he mean it as an insult? Is it a playful in-joke that acknowledges that her French isn’t perfect? Or is it just a defence mechanism? I’m inclined to go with the latter suggestion; he really does love her but is afraid of rejection, and anyway…it simply isn’t cool to show commitment. How many times do you ever see Bogart do that, after all? As for Patricia…does she love him? Maybe. Was she really going to go to Italy with him? Maybe. Does she believe he would be a good father? Maybe…weirdly. Both actors deliver very enigmatic performances, and both characters are hard to figure out as a result, as playful and flirtatious with each other as they are distant. Seberg and Belmondo improvised a lot with dialogue that Godard often came up with on the day.

Godard’s adoption of the fledgling cinéma vérité style for Breathless helped to popularise it among cinephiles, despite it being a term more readily associated with documentary filmmaking. Raoul Coutard’s hand-held camera moves freely and loosely around the characters as we experience the minutae of their quotidien life, be it buying newspapers, selling newspapers, lounging around indoors talking about their bodies, eating in cafes and more. Coutard was the choice of producer Georges de Beauregard, and he would become an important collaborator with Godard during the rest of the decade, as well as being an important figure in the careers of Truffaut and others. You can’t underestimate his contribution to the mood of this film, or indeed that of pianist Martial Solal’s insistent jazz soundtrack, which lingers in the memory long after the film has finished. Their importance has often been stated, though one could argue that the two women Godard edited with, Cécile Decugis and Lila Herman, have been overlooked. Both will have been key contributors to the rhythm of Breathless, and that – along with the look and the feel of the film – is everything; by contrast the plot is really so slight as to be almost – almost! – irrelevant. It’s not a surprise that this jittery black-and-white portrait of Paris – and Godard’s infatuated take on the city’s young, chain-smoking inhabitants – caused such a stir in the early ’60s; the director flings the door open here to usher in the new decade. Breathless is an experimental, era-defining masterpiece and it hasn’t lost any of its hipness during the ensuing years.

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard. Based on an initial treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited).
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard.
Editing: Cécile Decugis, Lila Herman.
Music:
Martial Solal.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
86 minutes.
Year:
1960.

8 Comments

goodbyetolanguage‘Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality’ declares a title card, somewhat ominously, at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language. This hyperactive arthouse film was met with critical praise upon release but will certainly cause many who see it to throw their hands in the air through sheer exasperation and return to their imagination-free diet of straightforward, conventional, easily-digestible films, presuming that’s what Godard is suggesting. If his latest is a challenge to cinema audiences – even those familiar with the ups-and-downs and abrupt about-turns of his career – then it is one that I took on enthusiastically, but ultimately its skittish, wilfully-difficult, abstract and experimental nature left me feeling weary, exhausted, irritated and resoundingly defeated. I must indeed be lacking.

At the end of 2014, somewhat predictably, angry accusations of pretentiousness poured in from one side while, on the other, a number of respected film critics queued up to laud Godard with dubious over-bubbly praise; Goodbye To Language topped (or came near the top of) many end-of-year polls in 2014, though the idea of lobbing this work into a chart rundown for comparison with other cinema releases seems somewhat pointless, as well as being rather amusing. Anyway: my own adverse reaction to the film means that I’m left scratching my head and wondering what exactly I’ve missed. Certainly I have little-to-no idea what Godard is trying to say by including the many clips nestled around the threadbare story, most of which were unfamiliar to me beforehand, while sadly most of the references to art and literature – whether oblique or direct – went right over my head. Trying to appreciate Goodbye To Language at home, on a normal TV set, also puts me at a disadvantage: many of the film’s fans vociferously cited its ability to make them think differently about the medium of 3D, whereas I merely struggled to make sense of the jumble of overlapping images, text and saturated footage.

At the heart of the film there are two similar stories covering the relationships of two couples, both of which are affairs (or perhaps it’s the same story … with the same characters … but played by two different actors … and shot from different angles). One is named “1 Nature” while the other is “2 Metaphor” and, amusingly, an epilogue is given the untypically rule-following number “3”. The stories are told in a non-linear fashion and I struggled to follow them with anything approaching success, though I suspect I’m not the first and won’t be the last. The couples are often naked and there’s a dog in there, too; Godard’s own, Roxy.

Meanwhile there are regular digressions: shots of water (waterfalls, rain forming puddles), sudden cuts to black with white dots in the middle of the screen, freeze-frames, brief orchestral interludes, a few lines of Byron, a spot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, archive footage of Hitler and Chairman Mao, all of which leaves me scratching my head and wondering why the exact same mélange gives other such pleasure (and that remains the case despite the fact I have read well-written, illuminating articles about the film such as this one).

My inability to get to grips with even the most basic content of this film means that I cannot offer anything approaching meaningful insight. I simply do not get it, although without wishing to sound patronising I have flickers of admiration for anyone able to make a film this challenging and different 50 or 60 years into their career. So despite my own apparent ignorance I don’t quite feel the same hatred toward Goodbye To Language as some but, equally, I don’t particularly feel the need to overly-celebrate Godard’s famed idiosyncratic, mischievous nature either. I’m more inclined to cling to the words of one respected filmmaker who often sails against the prevailing critical wind: Werner Herzog’s assertion that ‘someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film’ never seemed truer. I’m also left thinking about a cartoon I saw in a newspaper years ago, in which a serious-looking middle-aged white man wearing headphones sports an exasperated look. “Shhhh!” he exclaims to someone outside the frame, “I’m trying to appreciate Dizzee Rascal.”

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoé Bruneau.
Cinematography: Fabrice Aragno.
Editing: Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 69 minutes.
Year: 2014.

13 Comments

Primarily associated with a movement that began in the late 1950s and which became hugely influential following its 1960s peak, Jean-Luc Godard has directed over 100 films and is still very active today: he currently has two films in post-production at the time of writing, one of which is a short, the other a 3D comedy called Adieu au Language about a couple that struggle to communicate with each other and enlist the help of their pet dog as interpreter. No-one could accuse him of taking it easy as an octogenerian.

That playful spirit – not to mention Godard’s admirable work ethic – stretches back for more than half a century. After making À Bout De Souffle (Breathless), Bande à Part was one of the mid-60s films that cemented Godard’s name as a pioneer of the French New Wave movement, and its influence still resonates today. The voiceover in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie is a direct tribute to Godard’s voiceover in Bande à Part and Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both pay homage in different ways. More on that later. But the influence of Godard’s films can also be seen in the works of directors as diverse as Leos Carax, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrara, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, John Woo and Martin Scorsese.

In the 1950s Godard was writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and, along with several other prominent contributors, he became increasingly frustrated with the moribund output of the French film industry throughout that decade, which many felt had become too pre-occupied with literary period pieces. Although the New Wave movement was never actually organised, its roots are clearly found in that influential journal, and many of its writers went on to direct films notable for their fresh, youthful spirit that embraced experimentation, addressed current social and political issues and often fearlessly challenged the audience by incorporating ambiguity and fragmented editing. In addition to Godard, other directors that wrote for Cahiers that were linked to the New Wave movement include Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.

In terms of its plot, Bande à Part is a simple crime caper, set in Paris. Odile (Anna Karina) is a young, naive girl who meets Franz (Sami Frey) in an English language class, and she informs him about a stash of money in the riverside villa where she lives with her aunt Mme Victoria and a man named Stoltz. None of this is actually shown on screen, so the film effectively starts with the plot under way, as though a couple of scenes are missing. It’s like a slap to the face, provocatively suggesting you are late to the party and must catch up straight away. We join the action when Franz is telling his friend Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about the money, and the two hatch a plan to steal it.

Arthur and Franz (named after Rimbaud and Kafka) are wannabe gangsters, the former seduced by the romance of Hollywood’s western gunfights and the latter by the trilby-and-mac style of moody film noir stars. Both are more pre-occupied with winning Odile’s affections than the crime at hand, which they deal with matter-of-factly. Though he met her first, Franz is quickly usurped by Arthur, who spends the night with Odile. Franz doesn’t seem too put off, though, and this being Paris in the 1960s he remains insouciantly cool throughout, hat and cigarette both at just the right angle.

When Arthur’s aggressive uncle finds out about the plot to steal the money he wants a cut, so the trio change their plans and bring the robbery forward by a day. Meanwhile, Stoltz becomes suspicious and hides the cash. I’ll refrain from divulging anything further about the plot, but suffice to say things come to a head in the way they always seem to do in crime capers. As Godard once said ‘All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’.

Of the leading trio, Anna Karina’s performance is particularly impressive. Her Odile is an innocent, insouciantly enlisting the help of two young amateurs with little thought as to what might actually happen as a result of their heist. Only in the aftermath does this seem to occur to her, though there is no willingness to address her own fault in the proceedings: “I am disgusted with life,” she enigmatically moans. Karina plays the role with conviction, despite the fact that at the time of filming she was 24, married to Godard, had suffered a miscarriage, had endured a nervous breakdown and had made several attempts to take her own life. None of those scars can be seen on screen.

Bande à Part‘s plot is unoriginal, even if crime was a novel subject for the French New Wave directors railing against the previously tired output of their country’s film industry. However the eccentric moments that fall in-between the scenes that deal with the criminal storyline are fresh and original by today’s standards, so one can only begin to wonder about the impact they had in 1964. The most famous of these are direct and playful challenges by the director to the cinematic conventions that had infuriated him a decade earlier. An early scene in the staid English class is Godard’s most overt disapproval of the traditions of French cinema in the 50s; while the teacher discusses Shakespeare, Odile trades glances and notes with her suitors, bored and in search of more visceral thrills than those gained by heavy literary criticism and intellectual debate.

As they pass from cafe to cafe to a background of jukebox soul and Michel Legrand’s jazzy soundtrack, at one point Franz discusses the possibility of the trio holding a minute’s silence. After some discussion among the characters, they decide to go ahead with it, and Godard wittily cuts the sound completely (including the background music and cafe chatter). It is amazing how disorienting and odd this move seems even today, and it is excruciatingly awkward to sit through, even though the silence only lasts for 36 seconds.

A short while later the trio get up and dance for several minutes in formation. This is such fun, and so damn cool, it’s easy to see why Tarantino paid homage to the idea in Pulp Fiction. (In terms of Reservoir Dogs, the widely-held belief is that the kind of bullshitting going on around the table at the start of the film is a scene that owes its existence to the pioneering work of Godard, who realised that gangsters would be just as likely to be found discussing pop culture as they would be discussing matters of gangstering. The subject matter may appear to be irrelevant, but it is actually far from it, and it illuminates the characters.) It’s like a scene from another movie that just got dropped in by accident and once again it is completely disorienting. Though his actors look carefree when they are dancing, Godard explains in his voiceover what each of the characters is thinking, in turn. This is another jolting move that shakes you out of your reverie just as you are getting lost in the scene’s repetitive dance moves. The director lulls you into a semi-trance before powerfully shaking you out of it, reminding you that this isn’t real and you’re just watching characters in a film. Godard’s will to break the spell, to remind you constantly that this is the unreal cinema, is too strong to resist.

At another point the trio decide to run through The Louvre in order to beat the record set by an American (who, it is explained, bombed past the artworks in 9 minutes and 43 seconds flat). Perhaps Godard is once again referring to the New Wave here, and its desire to break from past traditions; The Louvre represents old France, with its incredible works of art that demand the time, attention and concentration of visitors. But the trio, with their more modern concerns of pop culture and Coca-Cola and guns and money, are like a breath of fresh air, a wind sweeping through the quiet corridors and flying past the shocked security guards. They don’t care about their surroundings – all that matters for them is the moment.

Godard employs plenty of long-takes, but also jittery hand-held camerawork and stuttering editing, two techniques that propel the film along at breakneck speed. It’s DIY, low-budget filmmaking, but it never looks or feels cheap. There is a sense throughout Bande à Part that anything can happen, such is its freewheeling improvisational feel. Some of the ideas may be too self-consciously kooky for some, but its playful experimentation and willingness to defy the conventional filmmaking of its time mark it out as a truly interesting work.

The Basics:
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Certificate: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Year: 1964
Rating: 7.2

5 Comments