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Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema of coming attractions

Jean-Luc Godard, À bout de souffle (Breathless) (detail), 1960. Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg).

“GUIDING . . . THE SPECTATOR into a desired direction (or a desired mood)” was, for the young Sergei Eisenstein, “the main task of every functional theater.” Or, as Variety declared in a 1994 article on the efficacy of the little movie ads known as coming attractions: “TRUTH ABOUT TRAILERS: THEY WORK.”

Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, Tom Gunning’s cinema of attractions, Jean-Luc Godard’s coming attractions: The attraction, Eisenstein wrote in 1923, shortly before he would make his first feature film, Strike, is “every element that can be verified and mathematically calculated to produce certain emotional shocks in a proper order within the totality.” Godard proved the point in his 1960 masterpiece—not Breathless but the Breathless trailer.

While Alfred Hitchcock supervised and appeared in several trailers, notably the hilarious coming attractions for Psycho, Godard would seem to be the only major filmmaker who regularly assumed responsibility for cutting (and occasionally shooting) his advertisements for himself—developing a form that was aesthetically more advanced than the features they publicized.

Predicated on a rhythm as relentless as that of Tony Conrad’s Flicker, Godard’s Breathless trailer is a barrage of three-second shots with voice-over captions: “the pretty girl,” “the bad boy,” “the revolver,” “the police.” That the voice is female is characteristic of Godard’s trailers (and one of many things that distinguish his from Hollywood’s). The montage of attractions is intermittently interrupted by a title card and the voice of Godard bestowing credit on friends François Truffaut (for the screenplay) and Claude Chabrol (as technical adviser), as well as identifying himself and the movie’s stars.

Trailer for Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960)

Even more than Breathless, its trailer is a kind of manifesto. Narrative parameters established, its subsequent attractions include both the specific (“Humphrey Bogart,” “Picasso,” Jean Seberg’s “nice buns”) and the abstract (“tenderness,” “adventure,” “love,” the last accompanied by the image of a book of photographed nudes), and it ends with the filmmaker’s ringing declaration that Breathless is the “best film out now!”

Godard’s follow-up trailer for A Woman Is a Woman (1961) was in the Hitchcockian mode of personal appearance: The screen flashes ATTENTION . . . ATTENTION as the artist announces, “I, Jean-Luc Godard, arrive on the set,” and he begins explaining his artistic method while Anna Karina repeatedly interjects the movie’s title. But the Breathless trailer provided a template for 1963’s Contempt (“the new traditional movie by Jean-Luc Godard”) and 1965’s Pierrot le fou (“a wonderful love story in a tragic setting”), both facilitated by looped bits of theme music. (Whoever cut the American trailer for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1967 employed a similar strategy.)

All Godard trailers riff on generic conventions. Somewhat misguidedly, the one for My Life to Live (1962) uses brassy faux jazz, complete with Swingle Singers–type scatting, to hype its austere narrative. The coming attractions for Band of Outsiders (1964) and Alphaville (1965) also eschew voice-over, but to greater effect. The former sets episodes of antic fun violence to rinky-tink ragtime, creating a two-minute precursor to Bonnie and Clyde; the latter uses cheesy menace music to “normalize” its Lemmy Caution adventure as cheap sci-fi.

By the time of Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), Godard’s use of narrative montage had caught up to and surpassed that of his trailers, and he began promoting his movies by remaking them. (For its 1967 French release, Made in USA was turned into a silent movie (THERE’S TOO MUCH NOISE, one intertitle remarks) that concludes, “Coming soon (with sound and music).” Numéro deux (1975) includes a trailer for itself: “Coming soon on this screen . . . this screen is on a wall . . . a wall between what and what?” The coming attractions for Every Man for Himself (1980) is a montage of alternate takes; the one for Keep Your Right Up (1987), Godard’s homage to Jerry Lewis, is a chaotic cut-up with a quasi-punk score. Most recently, the trailer for Film Socialisme (2010) is simply the movie scanned at x25, its 101-minute running time compressed into four frantic minutes. (There is a one-minute version as well.)

The purest, most critical—and in that sense the greatest—of Godard’s trailers is the one he made for Robert Bresson’s Mouchette in 1967, which pulverizes the movie into shards of privileged moments accompanied by a chorus of voices calling the protagonist’s name or by Mouchette herself sadly singing. Periodically, the action is interrupted by screen-filling titles: A MASS IN COLOR . . . BLACK AND WHITE COLORS . . . AND SUNG BY GEORGES . . . GEORGES BERNANOS AND ROBERT BRESSON . . . ABOUT THE RAPE OF . . . A YOUNG GIRL, IN SHORT . . . IN SHORT, A FILM THAT IS CHRISTIAN AND SADISTIC. Or, as Jean-Pierre Gorin remarked when Godard showed him the trailer, “pure Godard and pure Bresson.”

Given the absence of transitions and the separation of sound and image, it’s also pure montage of attractions, as well as an act of film criticism inspiring the desire to see the movie as Godard did. Perhaps everyone should make trailers of the films they most love—but then again, maybe only if they’re Jean-Luc Godard.

A screening of 35-mm prints of a dozen Godard trailers, organized by Jacob Perlin, was one of the highlights of the 2013 New York Film Festival’s retrospective “Jean-Luc Godard: The Spirit of the Forms.” Most of these trailers, in various forms, have been posted to YouTube.

J. Hoberman’s Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? is newly out in paperback from Verso.