When the beam of light has gone

Peter Wollen

I was living in Paris in 1959, the year of both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and I went to see both of these films the week they were released. In fact, I went back to see them a number of times. I couldn’t help noticing that Godard quoted from another Boetticher movie in the course of Breathless, in the scene where the small-time gangster Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, dives into a cinema on the Champs Elysées in order to shake off a wearisome tail. The film which is up on the screen turns out to be Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, one of the Randolph Scott cycle, although the voice that we hear on the soundtrack is mysteriously speaking some lines of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire. In a way, this aberrant moment summed up Godard’s appeal for me – the perverse mixture of Modernism with B-movies, as if an Apollinaire poem somehow fitted quite naturally with a low-budget picture, a minor Warner Brothers production; as if you could love them both at the same time. Samuel Fuller’s extraordinary Crimson Kimono also came out in 1959 and, sure enough, Sam Fuller shows up in Godard’s films six years later, in Pierrot le Fou, where le grand Sam appears as a party guest to define film as ‘like a battleground. Yes ... Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word ... Emotion.’ Fuller, we have been told, is in Paris to make a movie of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal.

At the time, Godard already seemed a film-maker sui generis, a founding figure of the Nouvelle Vague, it went without saying, but also a director with his own very personal and even idiosyncratic agenda. Right from the start, he seemed unlikely to develop into a respected master of the art film, a pillar of the new French cinema, as Chabrol, Resnais, Rohmer and Truffaut were all to become. If anything, he seemed more likely to become a new Cocteau, never quite integrated into the industry, always the poet rather than the practitioner, a filmmaker with a fatal soft spot for the film maudit. Yet, although Godard was in revolt against conventional ideas of cinema, against le cinéma de papa, he was also an unashamed fan of minor Hollywood pictures. Breathless, as Godard readily admitted, was inspired by Richard Quine’s Pushover and could be seen as the direct sequel to Otto Preminger’s Bonjour tristesse. The central character of the film, the petty criminal played by Belmondo, modelled his self-image on that of Humphrey Bogart in Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall. These films were not even ‘classics’ – they were little-regarded films dating from the mid-Fifties, movies which Andrew Sarris, a leading historian of Hollywood, later characterised as ‘widely reviled’ and ‘seldom, if ever, revived’. But there was method in Godard’s madness. The dedication of Breathless to Monogram Pictures, the loving tributes to movies that never even made it to cult status, were part and parcel of a coherent and considered re-evaluation of classic American cinema.

Godard recognised Hitchcock and Lang and Griffith as great masters – alongside Rossellini, Renoir and Eisenstein – but he also recognised the strengths of marginal and eccentric Hollywood productions, the odd films out of the studio system. Talking about his second film, Le Petit Soldat, he invoked Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai, which David Thomson has seen as ‘deconstructing’ film noir. Une femme est une femme reminded him of Lubitsch’s supposed ‘failure’, Design For Living, and Richard Quine’s decidedly minor My Sister Eileen. Godard treated Hollywood as a kind of conceptual property store from which he could loot ideas for scenes and shots and moods. On the set, he improvised, halting the filming while he disappeared to figure out what should happen next, cueing new lines to actors while the camera was rolling. He never worked with a script writer and he never gave traditional acting directions, preferring to let the performers be themselves to the point that his films began to turn into documentaries about their actors. In the editing, he confessed, he just used the shots he liked best, without worrying too much about continuity or coherence. His tightest film, Vivre sa vie, used a series of sequence shots laid end to end, each one a first take, so that ‘there was no editing. All I had to do was put the shots end to end. What the crew saw at the rushes is more or less what the public sees.’ ‘What is it ultimately that makes one run a shot on or change to another?’ he asks himself. And replies with a scathing reference to the Oscar-winning director of Marty: ‘A director like Delbert Mann probably doesn’t think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot – the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers.’

Whatever he did, Godard avoided following a pattern, whether in the story construction or the editing or the choice of genre or the development of a theme. Writing about Godard for Artforum in 1968, Manny Farber guessed that ‘at the end of this director’s career, there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage.’ At the time Farber wrote this, Godard had just finished his 23rd film, La Chinoise, plus two episodes for omnibus films. By the time Wheeler Winston Dixon completed his compendious and acute new book on Godard, the unstoppable director was already up to his 76th (including major works on video, which first appeared as a favoured medium in the mid-Seventies). Moreover, just as Farber predicted, each film seems to be quite unlike any of his previous work, the same only in being so unpredictably, inconsistently different. Yet Godard’s films have an underlying logic in their obsession with freedom and their immersion in the present at the same time as cannibalising the past, although the logic has mutated from time to time, as he changed his place of residence, his circle of intimates and his mode of production. Looking back over his career, we can certainly see significant changes but there is also a clear sense of continuity. In the most useful sketch of Godard’s development to date, published in 1991, Colin MacCabe divided his life into seven schematic episodes, which could be summarised and rephrased as follows.

1. Childhood. Godard was born in Switzerland in 1930. His father was a successful doctor who ran a private clinic in Nyon, his mother a member of a rich banking family, the founders of the Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. Godard remembers his childhood as an idyllic time, especially the days spent at his mother’s family estate on the banks of Lake Geneva. According to MacCabe, ‘the impression one gets is of a rather dreamy child, charming and spoiled, the apple of his mother’s eye, but from early on in considerable conflict with his father.’

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