Self-Illuminated

Gilberto Perez

  • Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 by Colin MacCabe
    Bloomsbury, 432 pp, £25.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6318 7

‘I have no use for a writer who directs my attention to himself and to his wit instead of the people he is interpreting,’ Jean-Luc Godard said in one of his early articles for Cahiers du cinéma. From the beginning Godard liked to be contrary. In a magazine that championed a cinema of personal expression and was to proclaim la politique des auteurs, he was declaring in favour of the self-effacing author. And he was himself to become the least self-effacing of film-makers. In a medium that makes things visible but keeps the director invisible behind the camera – auteur criticism was invented to bring the authorial director out into the light – Godard has insistently directed our attention to himself and to his way of putting together images and sounds.

Without being exactly autobiographical, Godard’s films with Anna Karina have about them the personal, spontaneous quality of a home movie. Following A bout de souffle (1960), his first film and one whose success with the public he has never repeated, Godard cast Karina as the female lead in Le Petit Soldat (1960; banned by the French government for its political content and not released until after the Algerian war was over). Their love affair began during the filming – not an unusual thing to happen, but no other film makes a director’s falling in love with an actress so evident on the screen. ‘Photography is truth,’ the film’s garrulous hero muses while taking photos of the beautiful Karina. ‘And the cinema is the truth, 24 times a second.’ An objectionable character and unreliable narrator, yet in a way a figure identified with the director, he is photographing beauty and talking about truth. However unconventionally, Godard has been for most of his career pledged to beauty, and in their films together Karina personified it.

In Colin MacCabe’s critical biography each of the three long chapters devoted to Godard’s film-making career has a woman’s name in its title. Each woman has not only shared a part of Godard’s life but also played an important part in his work: Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky and Anne-Marie Miéville. MacCabe is reticent about the life. ‘Of the woe that is in marriage it is impossible to speak truly,’ he says of Godard and Karina. ‘All sexual relationships are ultimately private affairs, and any public representation is both inaccurate and impolite.’ But we learn enough about the couple’s life together to see how it was reflected in their films together. Une femme est une femme (1961) is a musical of sorts, which MacCabe calls ‘the most joyful of Godard’s films, indeed perhaps his only joyful film’. As much as the character she plays in it, Karina wanted a baby, but late in her pregnancy she had a miscarriage which left her infertile. That misfortune, according to MacCabe, lay behind the ‘sorrow and death’ of the fallen-woman melodrama Vivre sa vie (1962). And the break-up of Godard and Karina’s stormy marriage found expression in the fugitive-couple melodrama of the intermittently musical and finally suicidal Pierrot le fou (1965).

Godard’s films of this time – his nouvelle vague period – freely made use of popular movie genres. By 1968 the nouvelle vague had petered out and Godard had entered another phase of his career. MacCabe sees him as having ‘travelled from a position of pure classicism (using established genres and an accepted language to address an established audience) to one of pure Modernism (deconstructing established genres and grammars to address an ideal audience)’. But Godard was a Modernist from the start. As planned and shot, MacCabe tells us, A bout de souffle adhered to the rules of classical construction, découpage classique, and only after the first cut turned out to be too long did the director employ the innovative jump cuts the film is famous for – which is interesting but doesn’t change the fact that in the finished work, as MacCabe says, ‘Godard broke all the rules.’ Even while using established genres Godard takes liberties with them. None of his movies allows the audience to settle into a genre. None has the confidence in convention that is the mark of classicism.

His 1964 film Bande à part, for example, though based on a crime novel, turns it into a movie we can’t easily label, ‘like a reverie of a gangster movie as students in an espresso bar might remember it or plan it’, Pauline Kael wrote in her review, which describes the film well:

The two heroes . . . begin by play-acting crime and violence movies, then really act them out in their lives. Their girl, wanting to be accepted, tells them there is money in the villa where she lives. And we watch, apprehensive and puzzled, as the three of them act out the robbery they’re committing as if it were something going on in a movie – or a fairytale. The crime does not fit the daydreamers or their milieu: we half expect to be told it’s all a joke.

But it’s neither a joke nor a simple case of Brechtian distance and disbelief. ‘The distancing of Godard’s imagination,’ Kael observed, ‘induces feelings of tenderness and despair which bring us closer to the movie-inspired heroes and to the wide-eyed ingénue’ – played by Karina and given the name of Godard’s mother, Odile Monod – ‘than to the more naturalistic characters of ordinary movies.’ If Godard is to be called Brechtian, it must be understood that, in his work as in Brecht’s, we’re pulled back but we’re also drawn in: we’re brought into a give and take between distance and involvement, belief and disbelief.

The crime does not fit the milieu. The crime is manifestly a fiction, a movie-inspired fantasy; the milieu, a rather bleak terrain on the outskirts of Paris, is evoked with documentary veracity. Movies commonly enact fantasies in ‘real’ settings, but Godard brings on a discrepancy, a conflict, between the fantasy and the reality. MacCabe stresses the influence on Godard of André Bazin, founder and, until his death in 1958, editor of Cahiers du cinéma, a great critic and theorist of the photographic image and its distinctive documentary rendering of reality – ‘the truth, 24 times a second’, though Bazin would never have put it that way. Italian neo-realist cinema, which Bazin admired, took the camera out into reality and told stories accordingly, stories that, rather than treating the world as a backdrop in the Hollywood manner, were grounded in the concrete particulars of a time and place. While cultivating the documentary quality of the image, Godard tells stories discordantly, so that they seem out of place in reality, fictions declaring their artifice. It may be said – he has said as much himself – that Godard just isn’t very good at telling stories, and borrows them from here and there without really believing in them. But out of that deficiency he has made an aesthetic, a Modernist aesthetic in which the adequacy of fiction to reality is continually being called into question.

In the 1970s MacCabe was part of the group at Screen, the journal that did the most to further, in English-speaking film studies, the blend of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Althusserian Marxism and other French imports which for a while gained such ascendancy that it came to be called simply ‘theory’. This wasn’t so much a theory of film as a theory of what was wrong with film. What was thought to be wrong was, in a word, illusion. And, narrative being central to the illusion of film, this was a theory against narrative. It didn’t just object to certain kinds of story, but to narrative in general as a promoter of illusion. In his nouvelle vague period Godard had toyed and tinkered with narrative – and won most acclaim for the two films, A bout de souffle and Le Mépris (1963), with the least digressive and most cohesive narratives – but by 1968 he was thoroughly dismantling it. The group at Screen wholly approved, and in 1980 MacCabe published a book on Godard that focused on the films since 1968 and looked on the earlier ones as more or less apprentice pieces.

This dismantling of narrative was considered not only artistically but politically subversive. Screen theory recognised no difference between illusion in art and in life. Positing cinema as one of Althusser’s ‘ideological state apparatuses’, it equated cinematic illusion with the dominant ideology, and offered a sweeping critique of cinematic forms it held accountable for that ideology because conducive to that illusion. Aiming to politicise art, such theory assumed that its anti-aesthetic posture was the same thing as a political position, and so, in its negative way, it wound up aestheticising politics. Its proponents invoked Brecht as a model for political Modernism, but neither his theory nor his practice accorded with their notions. Brecht never thought that Modernist distancing or deconstruction would be enough to make art political, and his ‘epic’ theatre was very much a storytelling theatre. Politics entails action, and the representation of action in art calls for narrative of some kind.

Even if Brecht did not, Godard did for a few years agree with his theorising admirers. His second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, whom he married in 1967, gave him entry into the milieu of student revolt; she noted his ‘great need to kowtow to the young’. He became a Maoist and went on to make – no longer as an individual artist but as a member of the Dziga Vertov group, named after the pioneering Soviet documentarist who was then being rediscovered – several films forswearing the aesthetic in favour of the political, if that’s the word for their deliberately off-putting rhetoric, their all but total alienation effect. While maintaining that ‘considered as experiments in sound and image they contain lessons even more relevant today than when they were made,’ MacCabe admits that these films ‘are in some simple sense unwatchable’.

The Dziga Vertov group ended up with just two members – Godard and a young man ‘better than me in thinking and philosophy’, Jean-Pierre Gorin – and broke up in 1973. Godard’s relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville began during his convalescence from a 1971 motorcycle accident in which he was badly injured, and their collaboration has been the longest lasting of his career. They put together Ici et ailleurs (1976) out of pieces from Jusqu’à la victoire, a militant film about the Palestinian situation left unfinished in 1970 by the Dziga Vertov group. In that film, Ici et ailleurs acknowledges, the sound had been too loud; Godard and Miéville softly retreat from the strident didacticism of Godard and Gorin. Ici et ailleurs heightens the conjunction et, the ‘and’ linking ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’, and makes the point that we should attend to the situation here – we see a French family in front of their television set – when watching images from elsewhere. It is ‘a classic feminist work’, MacCabe says. ‘It argues that any politics must start from the domestic space of the family.’ Yes, but once we start from here, how do we get to the situation there? What is our connection with the Palestinians on the screen? Ici et ailleurs fails to deal concretely with that connection, which remains as abstract as the grammatical conjunction. It seems to suggest that a concern with the problems of people elsewhere is merely a displacement of our problems at home. As a political film it lacks narrative – it scarcely goes into the story of the Palestinians as they prepare to fight until victory, or tells us what they were about and what led to their crushing defeat. But it conveys on Godard’s part an unearned sense of being let down by them; like his revolutionism, his disillusionment with revolution has something brattish about it. When MacCabe later ‘asked him what he thought of politics’, Godard ‘mimed injecting a huge syringe into his arm’ and replied: ‘Some people take drugs, some people take politics.’ Ici et ailleurs isn’t so much a political film as a withdrawal from politics.

Godard and Miéville moved back to Switzerland, where they both grew up, and she encouraged him to return to feature films. In this new phase of his career, which began in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie) and continued with Passion (1982), Prénom Carmen (1983) and Je vous salue, Marie (1985), Godard also returned to beauty. On Passion and Prénom Carmen he worked again with Raoul Coutard, the great cinematographer who shot most of his nouvelle vague films. Coutard is a master at filming with available light, which means not only taking the camera out into the world but using only the world’s light: the light of day, the city lights of night, the actual light of an actual place, uncorrected by the concealed lamps and reflectors normally used to light a scene for the camera. Available light strikingly combines naturalness and artificiality; it is a documentary light, a light that visibly comes from reality, yet at the same time yields an image prone to being overexposed (when the daylight is too bright) or underexposed (when the light indoors or in the streets at night is too dim), so that it calls attention to the fact that it is an image and not the way things would look in reality. The look of available light, which Godard developed in his films with Coutard and has consistently pursued with other cinematographers, is central to his films’ mixture of palpable actuality and manifest artifice. Whatever it is – it’s obviously not just a matter of leaving the camera open to the light of things in the world – no one else does with available light what Godard does, which brings about a singular beauty. ‘Everything beautiful’, Novalis said, is ‘self-illuminated’. Godard’s images have that quality.

The protagonists of Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Passion are both film directors. The one in Sauve qui peut is given the name of Godard’s father, Paul Godard, and portrayed mainly as an estranged father, husband and lover. Both directors are colourless, disagreeable characters, which may be how Godard sees himself, though he’s not colourless when he appears in his films himself, as in Prénom Carmen or his eccentric 1987 version of King Lear. Through these two unengaging director figures he no doubt intends an auto-critique, but the callow hero of Le Petit Soldat managed that in a much livelier way. The director in Passion has embarked on an insane project to reconstruct paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Ingres and El Greco as tableaux vivants in a movie studio. ‘Why must there always be a story?’ he asks. He is overridingly preoccupied with light, and the analogy with Godard, the laying open to scrutiny of his own preoccupations, is clear. What isn’t so clear is what the light in these paintings, and especially in the laborious and inevitably unsuccessful studio reconstruction of them, has to do with the light in Godard’s own images. The director in Passion keeps talking about love and work and wanting to equate the two – thereby giving short shrift to both, as Godard may or may not be aware – but we never see him much involved in either (all he seems to do on set is find fault with the lighting), and we are never much involved with him. Whereas most films put their images at the service of a story, Passion not only sets up a contradiction between image and story but, with a certain effrontery, leaves the contradiction unresolved. Its images are often stirring in their beauty, but it doesn’t tell very successfully the story of a film-maker who doesn’t want to tell a story.

The film I like best from these years is Détective (1985), which nobody else seems to like particularly, not even the director, who took it on as a commercial assignment while devoting more serious attention to his Virgin Mary in modern dress – or undress, since she is naked much of the time in Je vous salue, Marie (the film has a spiritual, reverential dimension, but one can see why there was Catholic discontent). Détective is Bande à part two decades later. It is also a crime story that Godard treats insouciantly and doesn’t bother to make believable, but that provides him with the occasion for moments of beauty and moments of truth. Its central situation, represented by a lovely metaphor of three balls on a billiard table, is again a triangle of a woman (Nathalie Baye, described by a Mafia don in the movie as looking like a faux Botticelli) and two men, one of whom is played by Claude Brasseur, who was one of the two young heroes in Bande à part. The barren yet open suburban horizon of Bande à part gives way to the enclosed space of a Parisian grand hotel. Though still taking the form of movie crime, what were dreams of escape are now dreams of holding on: Détective is a movie about getting old. As well as Brasseur, it has Jean-Pierre Léaud, ageing icon of the nouvelle vague, Truffaut’s alter ego in several movies and the hero of Godard’s Masculin féminin (1966), in a comic part as the ineffectual hotel detective. The contradiction between image and story, a continuing preoccupation with Godard – the image that brings the story to a halt, the story that robs the image of its autonomy – is resolved in Détective, as in a number of his nouvelle vague films, by a fractured generic story that nonetheless gives rise to memorable images.

In Détective Godard was looking back. His real new beginning, and for me his best work since Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967), was the film he entitled Nouvelle Vague (1990). Nouvelle Vague is what Kenneth Burke would call a scenic work, because its setting, its where and when, gives rise to its story and theme. Its setting is a Swiss lakeside country estate, a site of both pastoral beauty and propertied privilege, and out of the conflict between that beauty, which it lyrically exalts, and that privilege, which it incisively exposes, the film generates its movement. It disallows the complacency both of those who would simply enjoy beauty without looking into the conditions that make for it, and of those who would simply dismiss it as the plaything of a privileged few without recognising its capacity to transcend and even subvert their claim to ownership.

The setting – the scene in Burke’s sense – has always been vivid and important in Godard’s films. The elle in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle refers not only to the protagonist, a housewife and part-time prostitute, but also to the part of Paris where she lives, the scene of massive modernisation in line with the development of consumer society: so as to acquire commodities she turns herself into one. That Godard is more of an essayist than a storyteller has often been said; something of the kind could be said about Modernism in general. But it was towards the end of his nouvelle vague period, with films such as Masculin féminin and Deux ou trois choses, that Godard, leaving behind the generic stories discordantly enacted in real settings, came closer to making cinematic essays – essays on a setting, inquiries into a situation, reflections on a scene. MacCabe thinks Godard peaked as a film-maker in the early 1980s (he praises Passion as ‘one of the great works of European Modernism’ but doesn’t make much of a case for it) and slights Nouvelle Vague and the films that followed, which include such remarkable ones as Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (1991) and the self-portrait JLG/JLG (1995). In these films Godard comes into his own as a scenic essayist reflecting on the conditions of pastoral, on the landscape of Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union, and on his own scene, his circumstance, which, rather than himself, is the subject of his self-portrait.

Godard’s major work of the 1990s is, for MacCabe, not on film but on video: Histoire(s) du cinéma, a video history of film in eight parts, made over several years and so admired by MacCabe that he compares it to the Divine Comedy and Finnegans Wake. Never before had Godard – who once described himself as a journalist investigating the present rather than a novelist recounting the past – undertaken such a sustained engagement with history. Having always approached the world through film, through the forms of its translation into film, here he comes to the history of the 20th century through the history and the stories of film. Critics and academics are prone to overrate a work as critical and academic as the Histoire(s) du cinéma, which plays an intricate game of intellectual montage with incessant references and cross-references. It is at all events thought-provoking, though often more interesting in the provocation than in the thought. And its historical orientation prepared the way for the extraordinary Eloge de l’amour (2001).

‘It’s strange,’ Edgar, the protagonist, says near the end of Eloge de l’amour, ‘how things take on meaning when the story ends.’ He’s talking to Berthe, the woman he fails to love as he pursues a project – he’s not sure whether it should be a film, play, novel or opera – in praise of love. ‘It’s because then history begins,’ Berthe replies. Yet her grandmother, a veteran of the French Resistance whose story Hollywood wants to buy, has just said that the most important thing about history is that we don’t know how it will end. And the end of Eloge de l’amour, a film divided into two parts set in reverse order (the second part two years earlier than the first), takes place before the beginning. In an exchange with Georges Franju in the 1960s, after granting that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, Godard famously added: ‘but not necessarily in that order’. Eloge de l’amour is his most resonant justification of that pronouncement.

The present, the first part of Eloge de l’amour, is in black and white, which belongs to the past; the setting is the streets of Paris, that of the nouvelle vague. This is a present fraught with the past. The second part, the past, is in colour and video: the style of the present. The second part often repeats or recalls the first, as if the present were the original and the past the repetition, as if the past were recalling the present, the present resounding in the past. The effect is both poetic and true to the sense of history. Having the past follow the present is not the order in which things happen, but it is the order in which we get to know their history. First in the present, by the Seine, in front of an abandoned Renault factory with a history, and again, with slight changes, in the past in which they met and became acquainted, Edgar offers Berthe this reflection (Godard’s characters frequently speak in quotations, and this sounds like one):

You can only think about something if you think of something else. For example, you see a landscape new to you. But it’s new to you because you compare it in your mind with another landscape, an older one, which you knew.

In Eloge de l’amour the something else we need to think of when we think about something is its history.

Edgar’s project is not a mere love story: that, he says, would be Hollywood. Instead, he wants to tell ‘something of the story of three couples: young, adult and old’ – this way he hopes to go beyond stories into history. He proposes to represent youth with a couple named Eglantine and Perceval in a story of updated courtly love. Berthe and Edgar should have been the adult couple, but he holds back, loses touch with her, and then, at the end of the first part, learns that she has committed suicide. The old couple might be the grandmother and grandfather, who fought together in the Resistance, but they have sold the rights to their story to a movie company called Spielberg Associates and Incorporated, which is preparing a big production named after the couple’s Resistance network, ‘Tristan and Isolde’. ‘The Resistance had its youth, and it had its old age,’ the grandfather tells Edgar, ‘but it never went through adulthood.’ Edgar sees adulthood as a problem: unlike the young and the old, who can be identified at a glance, adults ‘have to have a story’, as he explains to the old man backing his project. This old man, an art dealer called Rosenthal whose father ran a gallery with Edgar’s grandfather, has been recovering art stolen by the Nazis and is supporting Edgar’s project out of love: when he was a boy he was in love with Edgar’s mother, who preferred another, and now it looks as if his love has transferred to her son. Here is a story of love both at the moment of youth and at the moment of old age, a love story bound up with history, but Edgar seems to know nothing about it. He gets nowhere with his project, but around him Godard has put together one of his best obscurely told stories.

Berthe doesn’t like the Americans, and Edgar shares her view: ‘Americans have no real past . . . They have no memory of their own. Their machines do, but they have none personally. So they buy the past of others.’ Eloge de l’amour was made before but released in the US after 11 September 2001, when such anti-Americanism met with sore objection. MacCabe concurs with the objection: ‘Anti-Americanism,’ he says, ‘is the radicalism of idiots.’ But he knows that Godard’s anti-Americanism goes back to the mid-1960s, when all his films would include some statement against the war in Vietnam (the sketch in Pierrot le fou, for example, with Belmondo as the Ugly American and Karina as the Vietcong). And he must also be aware that statements in Godard are seldom to be taken simply – if nothing else, their sheer effrontery will throw them into question. As Al Alvarez once characterised it, Godard’s is a ‘delinquent aesthetic’, unreliable, disconcerting, tricky. Although MacCabe accepts this provocative delinquency in other films, he draws the line at Eloge de l’amour and charges it with ‘the crudest kind of chauvinism, which opposes the honest French to the perfidious Anglo-Saxons’. But while the Americans, the Hollywood emissaries, are satirised in broad strokes, Edgar is a let-down and Berthe a suicide – surely not a very positive picture of the French. In a Parisian bookstore, as an expatriate American journalist speaks in English, we hear this exchange in French:

‘You wanted America, you got it.’

‘Not me, I didn’t ask for anything.’

‘And your parents, in 1944? And your grandparents, in 1918?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Nothing. It’s history.’

The past in Eloge de l’amour is set on the coast of Brittany, by the sea that leads to Britain, the ocean that leads to America: this part of the film is a complexly historical, scenic essay on the relations between the French and the Anglo-Saxons across the expanses of water that join and separate them.

Even by Godard’s standards, Eloge de l’amour is a work of surpassing beauty. Much of the first part takes place at night, in a black and white symphony of moving radiant points and rich shades of darkness. In the second part, the play of saturated video colours – often layered in superimpositions, manipulated but never cluttered or fussed over – is amazing. ‘Godard’s use of video in this film . . . is, as always, technologically innovative,’ MacCabe writes, ‘but it is the innovation of the artisan rather than the production engineer.’ He explains that Godard, with the cinematographer Julien Hirsch, ‘experimented with filming the video off the monitor’. Filming the video image gives it a different look and makes its manipulation more difficult, not just a matter of turning a knob and changing the colour. Keeping video at a distance, subjecting its technology to the mediation of film, enabled Godard to invest digital imagery with a handcrafted quality and an unusual cleanness and freshness.

It is fitting for praise of love to be spoken in the language of beauty. As anger, an emotion aroused by perceived injustice, speaks to our sense of justice, so beauty speaks to our sense of love. It has been said that in Schubert’s music the melody stands for life and the harmony for death. It might be said that in Eloge de l’amour the beauty of the images stands for love, with its affirmations, and the narrative for history and its negations. As an artist, Godard had a wonderful, exciting moment of youth in the days of the nouvelle vague. Then he had a problematic artistic adulthood. But since Nouvelle Vague, which he made in his 60th year, he has been having a moment of old age that can stand beside the works of his youth.