PRINT October 1968

The Films of Jean-Luc Godard

EACH GODARD FILM IS of itself widely varied in persona as well as quality. Printed on the blackboard of one of his Formica-like later films, hardly to be noticed, is a list of African animals: a giraffe, lion, hippo. 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. His stubborn, insistent, agile, encyclopedic, glib and arch personality floods the films, but, chameleonlike, it is brown, green or mudlark grey, as in Carabiniers, depending on the film’s content. Already he has a zoo that includes a pink parakeet (A Woman Is a Woman), diamond-back snake (Contempt), whooping crane (Band of Outsiders), jackrabbit (Carabiniers), and a mock Monogram turtle (Breathless).

Unlike Cézanne, who used a three-eighths inch square stroke and a nervously exacting line around every apple he painted, the form and manner of execution changes totally with each film. Braining it out before the project starts, most of the invention, the basic intellectual puzzle, is pretty well set in his mind before the omnipresent Coutard gets the camera in position. He is the new species creator, related directly to Robert Morris in sculpture, in that there is an abhorrence of lethargy and being pinned down in a work, alongside a strong devotion to Medium. Travel light, start clean, and don’t look back, is the code de corps.

Each of his pictures presents a puzzle of parts, a unique combination of elements to prove a preconceived theory. Some of his truculently formulated beasts are:

Woman Is a Woman (“I wanted to make a neorealistic musical, which is already a contradiction.”) is a monotonously scratching, capering version of a hack Arthur Fried musical, perhaps the most soporific, conceited, sluggish movie of all time. The crazy thing about this movie is the unrehearsed cinema verité feeding on littleness, love of the Real slamming against the Reel, the kind of studio-made pizazz that went into My Sister Eileen. The elements include deliberately artificial Times Square color, humorless visual puns, each scene pulled out like taffy, the action told so slowly it paralyzes you, awful mugging that is always fondling itself while the bodies are dormant.

My Life to Live. The fall, brief rise, and death of a Joan of Sartre, a prostitute determined to be her own woman. The format is a condensed Dreiserian novel: twelve near-uniform segments with chapter headings, the visual matter used to illustrate the captions and narrator’s comments. This is an extreme documentary, the most biting of his films, with sharp and drastic breaks in the continuity, grim but highly sensitive newsreel photography, a soundtrack taped in real bars and hotels as the film was being shot and then left untouched. The unobtrusive acting inches along in little, scuttling steps, always in one direction, achieving a parched memory-ridden beauty. A film of extraordinary purity.

Les Carabiniers. A rambling picaresque-piquant war film, seen through the exalted, close-to-earth vision of a Dovchenko. As a bitter against-war tract, the film is a gruesome contradiction, played as deadpan slapstick with two murderously stupid rustics for its heroes. Since war is a grand mistake that sweeps across borders, the movie leans heavily on mistakes, vulgarity, around-the-globe and around-the-calendar hikes.

Each new movie is primarily an essay about form in relation to an idea: a very deliberate choice of certain formal elements to expostulate a critique on young French Maoists; a documentary report on prostitution, poetic style; or a grey, somber, sophisticatro portrait of an existential hero of confused commitments. La Chinoise, for instance, is incredibly formalized, a doctrinaire syntax, to go with a doctrinaire group of modular kids. The movie’s not only in one classroom-like room, but the actors are in an up-tight acting arena in the manner of fervid teachers in front of a blackboard, and the camera and the actors never move except in a straight left-right motion.

However, there is a huge gap between the purported intention of the films and their actuality. And it’s the undeveloped space between intent and end product that gives them their nutty, Dr. Kronkite character. In front, the movie is the most ponderous undertaking: in Le Petit Soldat, an assessment of the political climate after the Algerian war is the theme, but the actual film time is taken up with a dull day in Geneva: One driver ineptly trying to get in front of another, a photographer shooting rolls of film, a mock torture scene. Certainly Karina and her usual inept, little-girl exhibitionism is a Grand Canyon away from the point of My Life to Live, which is to document the short career of a spunky, self-educating Heart of Gold able to go through a phase of prostitution without losing decency or chipping her soul. There is so little sex in the movie that she could be pure High School, 1950 version, acting cute with her lollypop Louise Brooks hair, if the narrator didn’t tell us she was a risk-all prostitute. There is something so far-fetched about Anne Wiazemski, La Chinoise, solid lassitude inside a girl’s fastidiousness and politely controlled snobbery, living communally, murdering coldly, plotting a bombing of the Louvre.

The overlapping constants of his cerebral, slapdash movie can be summarized in the following seven points:

(1) Talkiness. His scripts are padded coruscated with Chatter in all its forms, from lecture hall to after-dinner talk. His actors become passive billboards for a mammoth supply of ideas, literary references, favorite stories. That he is a man of verbal concepts should never be forgotten: his visual image is an illustration of an intellectual idea and ohen his lists, categories, rules, statistics, quotes from famous authors come across with pictorial impact.

(2) Boredom. This facetious poet of anything goes is the first director to reverse conventional film language in order to surround the spectator with long stretches of aggressive, complicated nothingness. There is a contrary insistence on outrageous lengths, lassitude-ridden material, psyche-less acting, the most banal decor, a gesture that is from left field.

(3) Ping-Pong motion. The heartbeat of his vocabulary is the pace and positioning of a slow Ping-Pong match. Marital couples compose themselves and their wrangling into a symmetrical ding-dong. One of his pet systems has a couple seated opposite one another, between them a dead lamp, ornate teapot or a train window opening on a travelogue French countryside. Why should the most intellectual director employ such a primary one-two, one-two rhythm? His is basically an art of equal emphasis: it’s against crescendos and climaxes. Violence becomes a boring, casual, quickly-forgotten occasion. La Chinoise, his most controlled film, is also his most equalized, and behind all of its scenic ploys is the regular slicing motion of a pendulum in a narrow area.

(4) The Holden Caulfield hero. Inside every character is a little boy precocious who resembles a Salinger’s articulate, narcissistic dropout.

(5) Mock. Rather than being a mocker, a real satirist, Thackeray or Anthony Trollope, he makes mock versions of war, a Maoist cell, a husbandwife fight, strip acts. He even makes mock profound conversation, and, in those Greek statue shots in Contempt, he is doing a mock-up of beautiful photography. Mockery suggests an attitude of being against; invariably this director is in a middle position, finding it a more flexible, workable situation not to take sides. The role of pseudospecialist allows his movies to go where they will go, with no feeling of dampers on the material.

(6) Moralizing. An urban Thomas Hardy, he sees the world as a spiky place, the terrible danger of brassiere ads, the fierce menaces of Coca Cola and Richard Widmark, the corruption implicit in praising a Ferrari when in the, character’s heart-of-hearts it’s Maserati all the way. Just as Tess, the once-laid milkmaid, is a landscape-consumed figure, the idiot children in Band of Outsiders—wafer-like, incubated snits—are beset by, and get their meaning from, the darkling air around them. The moralizing is always a tone that sneaks in despite the ambivalence that keeps his surface brittle and facetious.

(7) Dissociation. Or magnification of the molehill as against the mountain, or vice versa. He’s a thing director, though he doesn’t imbue articles with soul in Polanski’s manner. Mostly he goes in the opposite direction, free-wheeling across the scene. He dissociates talk from character (a tough secret agent in a freak-boring-weird discussion of conscience), actor from character (Bardot is often flattened, made into a poster figure rather than the spunky-shrewd wife in Contempt), action from situation (two primitives in a Dogpatch kitchen holding life-size underwear ads against their bodies) and photography from scene (a mile-long bed scene, the cheapest record-cover color on a Petty-posed, baby’s-flesh nude.)

It is easy to underestimate his passion for monotony, symmetry, and a one-and-one-equals-two simplicity. Probably his most influential scene was hardly noticed when Breathless appeared in 1959. While audiences were attracted to a likeable, agile hood, American bitch, and the hippityhop pace of a ’30s gangster film, the key scene was a flat, uninflected interview at Orly airport with a just-arrived celebrity author. The whole movie seemed to sit down and This Thing took place: a duck-like amateur, fiercely inadequate to the big questions, slowly and methodically trades questions and answers with the guest expert. His new movies, ten years later, rest almost totally on this one-to-one simplicity.

This flat scene, appearing at points where other films blast out in plot-solving action, has been subtly cooling off, abstracting itself, with the words becoming like little trolley-car pictures passing back and forth across a flattened, neuterized scene. This monotony idea, which is repeated in so many crucial areas, in sculpture (Bollinger), painting (Noland), dance (Rainer) or underground film (Warhol), has practically washed his film away from all of its eclectic old movie moorings.

At the Breathless station, fourteen features and ten shorts ago, he had not yet perfected his idea of the actor as a mere improvising face which pops in and out of a carnival curtain while the director throws verbal baseballs at it. This is a strange elaboration of the Ping-Pong effect, which had the ball bouncing erratically back and forth, first one face talking, then the other, while the top of the screen appeared to curl over in the sagging atmosphere. During the next years he perfected this abstractionism into a shooting gallery effect, first one face moving into range, then another, while the bodies diminish into strings and their owners recede behind the words.

But this Ping-Pong technique has impelled a minimalizing that gives a pungent tactility to his worst (Made in U.S.A.) and best film (My Life to Live). When Anne Wiazemski, La Chinoise, is talking about serious things (and a lot of the audience to sleep), plucking at her lip, showing her two middle teeth, the image is pure, spare, reduced, and rather wondrous.

Boredom and its adjuncts—lack of inflection, torpor, mistake-embracing permissiveness—get his movie to its real home: pure abstraction. When he is just right, his boredom creates kinds of character and image that reverberate with a clanking effect in one’s mind and gets across that morbid nullity which is so much at the heart of his work. In the last analysis, it is just the amount of deadness that gives the film a glistening humor: Veronique and her partner, seated in cardboard Victorian elegance at opposite ends of the table, a fancy tea service between them. The whole scene picks up the loveable gimmick of children’s books, the stand-up illustration that goes into three dimensions as you open the page, and then dissolves into flatness as you close it again. Looking blankly across the table, she says “etcetera” and Guillaume repeats the word with the same deadpan inflection, so that each syllable carries a little, sticking, Elmer’s Glue sound.

Behind the good (Band of Outsiders), bad (Woman Is a Woman) and beautiful-bad (Carabiniers is visually ravishing at any moment, but nearly splits your skull) is the spectre of an ersatz, lopsidedly inflated adolescent, always opposed to the existing order, primitivistic either in his thinking or in terms of conscience and feelings. In all the films’ expressions is the feeling of a little boy drifter, a very poetic and talented self-indulgent Tom Sawyer, who can be a brainy snot throwing doctrinaire slogans or coyly handling books so that the hip spectator can just barely make out the title. Every one of his actors, with the exception of Michel Piccoli in Contempt, has been shifting his performance around this Salinger adolescent as a grown-up: Few of these people—Seberg (tinny, schoolmarmish), Belmondo (outlandishly coy and unfinished; squiggly little grimaces with his mouth), Bardot (coarse, spunky shrewdness), Brialy (old-fashioned egotism, stolidly sissified), Jack Palance (fiercely elegant, better silent), Sarni Frey (whip-like), Macha Méril (fairly human pug-nose), Jean Pee Loud (vigorous rodent), Brasseur (chunky, mock methodical), Semeniako (nicely unpushy; high school clarinetist type), fritz Lang (business-like self-effacement and warmth)—seem less than obnoxious or escape the flattening technique of a director always present as a shadow over each actor. Actually his actors are halves, and it is only our awareness of the director’s dramatic presence behind the camera that gives the character a bogus completion.

Ordinarily the character is queer, sawed-off, two-dimensional, running the gamut from brain less brutish in Carabiniers to the shallow, disgustingly cute Belmondo-Brialy-Karina triangle that worries about getting a stripper pregnant in Woman Is a Woman. There’s one last variant of this type, the politically sensitive boys in Masculin-Féminin; also the narrowly smug clique in La Chinoise, who are loaded with sophistication and act as self-contained units (or eunuchs). Obviously these new, stark, cool characters have a closer kinship with the director than Nana, a prostitute who is hung up on personal freedom. Secret, Ban and Fresh, his new product, come off the screen strong-willed, determined, passionately committed, and they give his movie a new decision and affirmation that can make a spectator feel flabby and drifting by comparison. With its shallow space, shadowlessly antiseptic surfaces, and photography that shoots from the waist up as though the camera were resting on the counter, La Chinoise is like a modern diner employing a summer waitress (Wiazemski), busboy (Leaud), a skulled scullery maid (Berto) and a toast boy (Semeniako, who dispenses intelligence despite a sitting-still position and a scene that sinks him up to his blue eyeballs in words).

Had he done nothing else, Godard should be remembered for having invented an army of graceful, clumsy, feeble oddballs. With footloose acting in the most sketchily-written roles, these figures come across like Chin Chillar in Dick Tracy or Andy Capp, defined to their teeth, exposed in space from the awkward feet to their crazy heads (which are always punched up with some caricaturing element: mostly hats and wigs, occasionally an obscenely large eyeball).

One of these, Arthur (Band of Outsiders), memorable for his woolen stocking cap pulled down over most of his malignant Jim Thorpe face to his nose, is an Argyle-sweatered sweetheart to forget. As the chosen beau in a triangle, he implacably keeps his eyes, like a hungry Airedale, glued to the curb, while Claude Brasseur acts him with the unyielding sneakiness of a furtive fireplug.

Another, as poetic in a different but equally crazy way, is a bunchy, layered concoction of vamp makeup and Thrift Shop clothes acted as a latter day Gish sister by Catherine Ribero in Les Carabiniers. Cleopatra is a primping, prancing, real primitive, the mistress of a dinky one-room house that shifts around a dirt plot and a mailbox that spits letters the way old movie calendars once dripped leaves.

Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine, in Alphaville), known as Richard Johnson to his enemies, a bullfrog whose face has been corrugated by a defective waffle iron, has the flexibility of an undistinguished low-income “project” building. His role consists of walking through hallways, rooms, and up and down staircases, either pinching his non-existent lips or blinking against the torrential onslaught of lights.

Compared to the soft-shoe nonchalance of a Hawks war hero as played by Cary Grant, the moronic warriors, Michel-Ange and Ulysse in Carabiniers, are heavy, stillborn bricks falling off a building. Why does a celebrated artist devote so much time to inane time-wasting cockiness, the show-boating of a character so limited he’s close to a wisp? Karina’s little fawn, eyes blinking and hair shaking, limbs used like stilts, hasn’t anything of reality or good acting but she has a robust, complacent ego that presumes her one-note acting is tireless. A collegiate little girl, a partisan captured in the forest in Carabiniers, has this same unchallenged chutzpah. There’s an inner sureness that he’s going to score, no matter what he does, that is repellent in Juross’s dumpling Michel-Ange. The director is like a street vendor who has a suitcase of wind-up dolls which he sends out to do their little, cranked up turns.

One of his personal gambits is the cocky fun that he gets into these scuttling figures: his fake Bogarts and Mary Pickfords shoot, slide, and trot in a bizarre carbonated fashion on a semi-abstract screen constructed like a pinball machine. It’s a trademark of his landscape work that he cuts against the newsreel image by formalizing the shot: a diagrammatic line of action, a syncopated stop-go sound track, someone yapping tick-o-tick, tick-o-tick. A funny, waistless chick in cute cotton pants embraces her nude breasts in a defiant X formation and marches outdoors and indoors like a football referee stepping off the yards, a car chase shot backwards in rigid, linear patterns, Bardot pacing diagonals on a roof, using her arms like the guy who signals an airplane down to a carrier (did he do this because the villa roof is the size and shape of a ship’s landing field?). Cleopatra waltzing out into a dusty yard, does a couple of big-footed pirouettes, and with a melodramatic shove sends an aging lover packing in a Sennett Essex.

He gets the most singular acting response, probably with a magical dishwater command like “That’s OK for now.” The response he gets is supreme slackness, seemingly without worry or pre-thought about the role, and a sublime confidence in the director’s unerring genius. The result is a mindless drifting in which reactions come mystifyingly late. Brasseur’s desultory, undistinguished dance style in Band of Outsiders is peculiar in that it is so self-absorbed, out of sync with his two partners; occasionally something beautifully sinuous suggests itself amongst his mock absorptions.

Since the role is almost invariably a reference to an image or actor out of film history, the clothes, basically unpretentious and everyday, are supplemented with misaligned outré items: an unnecessarily heavy overcoat and prol cap from Potemkin, a trench coat and Sam Spade hd from Dashiell Hammett. The gestures also seem tacked on. A blob-faced actor (Juross in Carabiniers) dressed in dirty swaddling clothes fatuously and hammily pats his hair into place. Kovacs and Veronique at pensive moments, one every two minutes, pass a thumb in slow motion across their lips, a gesture that is a flagrant pun on mouth tricks, from Bogart through Steve McQueen. Instead of being unobtrusive, these tics are applied like thudding punctuation.

He just doesn’t care whether any of these actions carry conviction. There is no anti-war scene more strained and irritating than a kid soldier methodically terrorizing a female hostage by raising and lowering her skirt, delicately, with the tip of his machete. Meant as a real raking under of the military, it’s a slow, crude, visual metaphor for rape, ending in a house being burned. The oddness about the scene is that the havoc is played so deadpan: a lot of emphasis on the dopey way he orders her to “unbutton,” the Rembrandt self-portrait on the wall underlined. Instead of the atmosphere of outrage, the sentiment is reversed and the scene played as though the next door neighbor had come in and demanded a cup of sugar. This severe dissociation of tone from content spreads the scene with grotesquerie, a fantastic comic strip feeling coming off the screen, discordant bits of ungodliness like Juross’s glazed leer, the fact that the skirt is raised at a point dead-center on her person. He is a master of the brusque and angular. He’ll play along with Juross’s booby incompetence because it brings him an anti-heroic oafish bayonet-pointing line of action. This kind of jabbing, off-balance virulence is at the very heart of his brilliantly diseased message.

Godard’s legacy to film history already includes a school of estranged clown fish, intellectual ineffectuals, a vivid communication of mucking about, a good eye for damp villas in the suburbs, an ability to turn any actress into a doll, part of the decor, some great still shots that have an irascible energy, an endless supply of lists. I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing, or be an audience to film writing which gets to the heart of an obvious idea and hangs in there, or be so edified by the sound and sight of decent, noble words spoken with utter piety. In short, no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.

Manny Farber